For some recording artists, their songs or the theme of their album can be abstract conceptually, while for others like Florida-based composer, pianist, and multi-instrumentalist Terry Lee Nichols, it can be extremely personal. Terry’s debut release on the up and coming Heart Dance Records label, run by award-winning flutist Sherry Finzer, is described as: “an album of 17 moving and contemplative suites, all designed to tell the artist’s story in a non-linear recollection of experiences had, vignettes of moments captured, and a lifetime of challenges bested.” Terry’s love of music for film adds a cinematic dimension to his sound, and as he shared: “I tried to create a soundscape/film score backdrop that reflected specific events throughout my life.”
Music has been a thread woven through the tapestry of Terry’s life from an early age. In an excerpt from our interview he spoke about this in detail: “I have always been immersed in the world of sound. It is how I see the world. By age 4, I started playing popular tunes on my grandmother’s piano. I soon learned that I enjoyed analyzing musical structures, arranging, composing, and conducting as well as performing. During high school, I often arranged popular tunes for his school marching band as well as composing and arranging music for school stage shows.” In addition to piano, Terry also played guitar, banjo, trombone, and saxophone. He went on to say: “Throughout my high school years, I was Involved in rock bands, high school bands including jazz, symphonic, and orchestra. I majored in music composition at Florida State University, California Institute of the Arts and Brandeis University.” While attending college in Los Angeles, Terry continued to perform in a variety of venues and also composed music for a number of national commercials while serving as an apprentice to Randy Van Horne and Nathan Scott scoring documentary films, television shows and movies.
Interestingly, while Terry got to a Ph.D. level in his music education and amassed a great deal of experience, he ultimately decided not to pursue music as his vocation and followed a lucrative path in the software field. However, his intensive study in music theory, orchestration and taking large compositions, and reducing them down to their most fundamental parts actually helped him in this field. In his words: “My skill in reducing harmonic and melodic components to their most basic elements proved instrumental in developing my ability to grasp large, complex systems with thousands of lines of computer code.”
Although he has worked in other fields, Terry’s passion for music has never wavered, and now with the release of his debut album, that creative urge has finally come to fruition in this blend of cinematic, new age, and minimalist classical music. While it is customary to begin at the beginning, on this album, Terry begins at the end, as he explains: “The title piece, which opens the album, actually reflects the end point of my journey when I reached a place in life where I wanted to express my thoughts through music again.” As can be expected from the title, the song has a serene and nostalgic ambiance that invites the listener into Terry’s musical and personal world. The graceful piano melody is augmented by rich strings and orchestration that Terry played on the keyboard with virtual instruments, making for a wonderful beginning to the album.
On most of the songs, Terry is creating all the sounds. However track 2, “Only You,” as well as two other songs were recorded live in LA with a number of A-list musicians. Although these accompanists and their credits are too extensive to mention them all here, collectively they have played with the likes of Yanni, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, James Taylor, Madonna, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, and a long list of major artists. In addition to Terry’s piano, the piece also features bass, drums, percussion, and a live string orchestra. There’s an easy rolling feel to the song with hints of pop and smooth jazz influences along with Terry’s trademark cinematic sound.
A heartfelt piece called “Follow Me” was, according to Terry, written to underscore a YouTube video about a relative’s struggle with a debilitating childhood medical condition. It ends with a father and daughter walking on the beach while holding hands. Terry’s music draws inspiration from a wide range of experiences, and a richly orchestrated song with classical overtones called “Appassionato,” was composed in his head while driving through the Austrian Alps on his way to the Salzburg Music Festival. One of my favorite songs on the album, “Timekeeper,” has a more cosmic perspective: “This is a theory of a universe following an eternal series of oscillations, each beginning with a big bang and ending with a big crunch.” The song has a dynamic repeating arpeggio that provides a sense of forward movement with lush layers of strings providing an expansive ambiance.
The interestingly titled,” On My Way To See The Dancing Sisters Figg,” taps into a different side of Terry’s musical spectrum with a wee bit of a Celtic flair. In his words: “I really enjoy the music of (the group) Secret Garden. I heard them play several similar pieces in a concert on YouTube. It sounded like fun. With some Irish heritage, it seemed appropriate for me to write. The structure of the piece tries to depict the joy of trying to find your way to an event, seeing things along the way, then finally arriving at your destination.” It’s a lively upbeat tune complete with pennywhistle sound that may inspire you to dance a little jig, if only in your mind.
“Sailing” was one of the three tunes that was recorded with the studio musicians in LA, as mentioned above, and was also one of my favorites on the album. It has a breezy, wind in the face feel that carries you along on its jazzy positive energy. This is followed by “Crossroads” that alternates between a sentimental feel and epic crescendos with strings, horns, tympani drums, and tubular bell sounds, all of which illustrate Terry’s considerable talent as an arranger. “Last Train Home,” is the final of the three live studio tunes, and again reflects the smooth jazz/contemporary instrumental side of Terry’s playing. It’s a fantastic song and I particularly liked the unexpected slide guitar lead, and the rhythm section that evoked the feel of being on a train.
Undoubtedly, Terry has saved the most powerful, dramatic, and moving piece for last, which goes beyond being a song to being more of a musical documentary. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anything like it. Entitled “Requiescat,” it deals with the madness in the US around the issue of gun violence. According to Terry: “This piece was inspired/ignited by the story of a mother who was fatally shot by her two year old son in an Idaho WalMart. Sadly, this is but one of countless tragedies that occur because we refuse to enforce the safety of guns just like any other product. Massacre after massacre, accident after accident… it seemingly has no end.” In this composition, the music underscores a mix of TV newscast clips about various gun related tragedies, an iconic recording of a statement by Charlton Heston, then President of the NRA, speaking at a convention after Columbine, 911 emergency calls from parents, the sound of gunshots and recordings of Columine shooters Dylan Kelbold and Eric Harris, and more. I think that no matter what one’s views on this topic are, it is hard to listen to this and not be chilled to the bone, and perhaps moved to tears. In Terry’s words: “We need to wake up and act like a responsible civilization,” and this intensely compelling track certainly issues a wake up call.
While I have focused a lot on this last song because of its unique and timely message, the 16preceding songs reflect an overall peaceful ambiance and provide a most pleasant and enjoyable listening experience. I am greatly impressed by Terry’s skill, not only as a superb pianist, but also as a talented composer and arranger. Terry’s love of film soundtracks is very much in evidence here, and many of his compositions would make outstanding movie scores. Although this is his debut album, it definitely feels like the work of a mature and seasoned recording artist. With an auspicious start like this, I’ll be looking forward to many more cinematic soundscapes from Terry Lee Nichols.