Bebop by Way of Analog

Jazz pianist Nick Culp takes a throwback approach and makes a record.


One thing Culp finds exciting about the Bay Area is an abundance of young players.

Courtesy of Dennis Hearne

Anybody can record music and immediately stream it on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, or other online services. But, as jazz pianist Nick Culp found out on the way to issuing his debut album, it’s not so easy to make a “record,” as in an old-fashioned vinyl LP, especially if you have exacting standards about audio. Culp and his quintet had the tracks for The Culprit’s Blues “in the can two years ago,” he said, in a phone conversation from his home in Oakland. But the album is only just now available on Culp’s Gutbucket label, with a release party scheduled for Record Store Day, Saturday April 22, at Noise Records in San Francisco.

“It’s a much more arduous process these days to make a record the way we wanted to,” Culp explained. “We wanted that analog warmth of vinyl. We wanted it to sound like the records we listen to.” Asked what those might be, he quickly rattled off titles of four LPs within arm’s reach, three by pianists—This Here Is Bobby Timmons, Red Garland’s Blues in the Night, and Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’—plus trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s Trompeta Toccata. All those classics of acoustic hard-bop jazz were recorded in the early 1960s, up to 20 years before the 37-year-old Culp was born.

But to make The Culprit’s Blues sound like something that might have been recorded for the Blue Note or Prestige labels in their glory years, beyond his quintet’s straight-ahead lineup of trumpet (Jay Sanders), tenor sax (Danny Brown), bass (Robert Overbury), and drums (Rob Mills), Culp had to jump through a series of audio hoops. After the band laid down five original tunes to two-inch tape through a two-track analog recorder with engineer Scott Bergstrom at 25st Street Recording in Oakland, Culp was all set to order the master discs, from which the vinyl LP would be pressed. At the last minute, he learned that, instead of “lacquer mastering,” the manufacturer was going to use a process called “direct to metal mastering,” which introduces a digital step into what Culp intended to be an entirely analog process. He found someone who could do a lacquer master, but then, “He tells me there’s a six-month waiting list for pressing, because the small vinyl pressing plants are all overwhelmed by orders from the major labels who are doing special vinyl reissues of musicians like David Bowie.”

Photo courtesy of Dennis Hearne

Nick Culp's latest, "The Culprit's Blues," is a throwback to analog days.

In the end, Culp finally got what he wanted, an entirely analog-produced artifact, with the deep, rich, ambient sound that serious listeners prefer to the pristine, clipped, sharp-edged cleanliness of digital recordings.

Culp’s sonic purism parallels his passion for a throwback style of jazz. The Los Angeles native took up piano at age 4. As an adolescent, he came across a discounted box set of Nat King Cole radio broadcast CDs at a Tower Records outlet store, and soon thereafter told his parents he wanted to take jazz piano lessons. His teacher, Michael Rocke, turned Culp on to such giants of bebop as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and after that, and a stay in France, where he studied with Bernard Maury at the Bill Evans Piano Academy and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique, bop was permanently in the young pianist’s blood.

Choosing the Bay Area for its supportive scene of like-minded young players, Culp has committed himself to cultivating an audience for both his music and good audio. “I’ve always loved records, and I’ve always noticed the difference in sound between CDs and LPs,” he said. “When it comes to jazz from certain periods, it just starts to make sense that you have to listen to it on vinyl.” But that doesn’t stop with the music of Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, and Clifford Brown. All the profits from The Culprit’s Blues, Culp said, will be ploughed back into Gutbucket Records to produce new vinyl LPs by musicians from within his circle and, eventually, beyond.

Nick Culp performs in weekly jam sessions with various musicians every Saturday night at Small Wonder, 37 Grand Ave. Oakland. The Nick Culp Quintet plays a record release set for The Culprit’s Blues 5-6 p.m. on Record Store Day, April 22, at Noise, 427 Balboa St., San Francisco,  415-702-6006,


Published online on April 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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