Nancy Wright Blows the Blues Away

Classically trained on bassoon, she is one of the Bay Area’s busiest blues saxophonists and an increasingly confident vocalist who delivers blues and New Orleans R&B with style and assurance.


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Nancy Wright is a double threat.

Photo by Joseph A. Rosen

For some players, a musical identity emerges from an electrifying epiphany, a thunderclap of inspiration that fuels a lifetime of exploration. But the blues didn’t sweep Oakland tenor saxophonist Nancy Wright off her feet. Rather, the music seeped into her bones, a seduction all the deeper for its gradual pace.

An early high school graduate who started college at 16, Wright had spent years studying classical bassoon before she found the sax. As an undergrad at Wisconsin’s Beloit College, she attended a blues festival on campus and heard Chess Records stalwarts Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon. It was her first exposure to unadulterated blues; she was underwhelmed. “Why do people like that?” she recalls thinking. “Within a year I wanted to sing like Koko Taylor.”

More than three decades later, Wright is one of the Bay Area’s busiest blues saxophonists and an increasingly confident vocalist who delivers blues and New Orleans R&B with style and assurance. Mentored by blues/rock guitar great Lonnie Mack, she moved to the Bay Area in 1984 via a gig with Delta blues legend John Lee Hooker. Working as a waitress at a blues joint in her hometown, Dayton, Ohio, Wright often played with the evening’s headliners.

“The club owner would let me sit in on the third set,” Wright says. “I wasn’t a good waitress, and I got better tips as a player. So one night I sat in with John Lee Hooker, and he asked me join the band. We played Carnegie Hall, which was something else.”

Bay Area blues bassist Steve Erhmann was in Hooker’s band, and he dropped Wright’s name to Steve Griffith, the drummer in the hard working Hot Links, a combo devoted to bayou R&B. When she got the call for an audition, the time seemed right to make a move. “Stevie Ray Vaughan had gotten Lonnie to move to Austin,” Wright says. “I was getting to be a big fish in a little pond. I thought about moving to Chicago, but somehow didn’t feel ready for that. I was about 22, and when I got the Hot Links gig, I moved to San Francisco.”

She’s been landing gigs ever since, from the fall’s Blues Cruise to performances throughout Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

Part of what makes Wright such a compelling player is that she continues to add to her creative arsenal. After developing a feel for jazz while working with Oakland Hammond B3 great Jackie Ivory, who turned her on to the history of soulful organ/tenor sax collaborations, Wright made her own contribution to the soul jazz tradition with her 2010 debut album Moanin’ (Chicken Coop Records) featuring organ master Tony Monaco.

For most of her career, Wright has expressed herself through her horn, coaxed by pianist Macy Blackman, a jazz-steeped player with an abiding passion for New Orleans music, and she has become a double threat. In 2015 she released her second album Putting Down Roots (Direct Hit Records), which showcases her singing as well as her smart and engaging songwriting. She was nominated for blues album of the year by the venerable jazz magazine Down Beat.

While Wright didn’t immediately cotton to the blues on her first exposure, she’s been making converts for years. Blackman hadn’t heard her play before he hired her as a sub, but his response was visceral.

“Oh, my, God, where you been all my life?!” he said. “That was March 2007, and it’s been five of us in the Mighty Fines ever since. Then I heard Nancy sing at her first CD release. I said let me give you some lessons. And then I pushed her out there. She got ready in a big hurry. Now she’s a great singer.”

 

Nancy Wright is busy this month in the East Bay: 7 p.m. April 1 with David Sturdevandt and the Medicine Ball Band at The Terrace Room, Oakland; 9 p.m. April 9 with the Stan Erhart Band at Main Street Brewery, Pleasanton; 8 p.m. April 12 with Terrie Odabi at Yoshi’s, Oakland; 11:45 a.m. April 13 with the Rhythm and Roots Combo at The Cheese Board, Berkeley; and 7 p.m. April 14 with David Sturdevandt and the Medicine Ball Band at The Terrace Room, Oakland.

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