Musical DNA — Nick Frenay and the College of Musical Knowledge

by M.C. Antil on May 28, 2015

The following is the third in a series of profiles of sons and daughters of friends who have decided, at least for the time being, to follow their hearts and try to play music professionally — a decision that, I’d like to think, had at least a little to do with their parents’ (and my generation’s) inherent love of music and the eclectic styles that made up the soundtrack of our lives. 

Name: Nick Frenay
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Currently Based: Boston, MA
Name of Band: Nick + Noah
Instruments: Electric Bass, Vocals, Trumpet, Piano

Nick Playing BassBackground
Years ago I set out to write a book I titled, “The Baseball/Rock ‘n Roll Encyclopedia.” The strange sounding project was intended to be a conversation companion for kids of a certain type of father and a certain age; a gone-to-seed but young-at-heart Baby Boomer who remains as obsessed about batting averages, strong-armed rookies and September pennant races as he is about the Beatles, the Kinks or, I don’t know, Quicksilver Messenger Service.

It never went anywhere, of course, but my point was there remains a type of baseball/music geek who still, to this day, moves among us undetected. I know. I’m one of them. And so is Gary Frenay, who over the past thirty years has become something like a twin brother from a different mother.

Frenay FamilyGary, a very talented Syracuse, New York-based singer/songwriter, and I first met at a company clambake some 30 years ago. He was (and is still) married to a wonderful woman named Jackie Lewis, who I was working with at the time. At that time as well, I had been dating an equally wonderful woman named Dodie Murphy, who remains to this day good friends with Jackie.

Anyway, at that outing, amid gorging myself on steamed clams, salt potatoes (another Syracuse original) and plastic cups full of otherwise non-descript draft beer, Gary and I sat there and discovered a mutual passion (OK, fanaticism) for the two above-mentioned objects of knuckle-dragging/Y chromosome maleness. And in the years since we’ve maintained a deep and abiding friendship built on a number of things, but rooted in our mutual love of not only America’s pastime but a brand of music originally presented on small vinyl discs and spoon fed to us by a seemingly endless run of disc jockeys, Top 40 stations, prime time TV shows and performance venues, big and small.

Later, when Jackie and Gary started having kids, among the things the three of us continued to share was the fact that once a year on Christmas Eve, posing as Santa and under the auspices of making my list and checking it twice, I would place nighttime phone calls to a wide-eyed and occasionally awestruck Rob and Nick Frenay. Rob, the older of Gary and Jackie’s sons, would eventually grow up with a love of film, and in time would move to L.A., where he remains to this day fiercely committed to carving out a life telling stories on the screen.

Nick with Toy HornNick, on the other hand, ventured off into an equally artistic but different direction. Like his father, who has never held a job in his life except that of a musician, Nick is currently enrolled in the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he intends to (like his dad) support himself and feed whatever family he may be blessed with by writing, making and playing music.

The difference is, where Gary was largely self-taught rocker and garage band member, and he first learned the ropes of the music biz playing bass in a terrific, attitude-laden and hook-fueled power pop unit calling itself the Flashcubes, Nick has taken an entirely different route in his career.

Nick is a jazzman. Or should I say Nick was a jazzman. Only, not some garden-variety one. He was the absolute, stone-cold, dyed-in-the-wool, genuine article. Nick Frenay was the real deal. In fact, despite his young age Nick’s bona fides as a jazzman continue to boggle my mind. Consider:

  • He was accepted into the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific (founded by jazz titan and alum, Dave Brubeck) and in 2010 and ’11 played trumpet in the institute’s storied BIJQ (Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet).
  • He has toured the world, playing such prestigious events as the Monterey Jazz Festival, Vail Jazz Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.
  • Nick and Noah 2004He was asked three times to be in the scholastic all star band for, of all things, the Grammy Awards.
  • He has been written up in the veritable Bible of jazz lovers, Downbeat
  • In 2011, he earned admission to Berklee by winning one of the school’s five prestigious (and, as you might expect, highly coveted) Presidential Scholarships.
  • He has performed in music venues as diverse as Washington’s Kennedy Center, Georgetown’s Blues Alley and Dizzy Gillespie’s Club Coca Cola in Manhattan.
  • He has recorded four albums and laid down dozens of tracks in such legendary studios as Capital Records in Hollywood and Fantasy Records in San Francisco.
  • He has shared the stage with the likes of jazz giants Cassandra Wilson, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Turner, Phil Woods, Maceo Parker and Wynton Marsailis.
  • And, oh yes, he just turned 24 last month.

But, as of this writing, Nick Frenay has left jazz in his rear view mirror – at least on a personal level, at least to some degree, and at least for the time being. But more on that in a moment.

Nick Frenay Q&A
What brought you to the music you play?
I’ve always loved music, for as long as I can remember. But I guess what brought me to the specific style/world/era of music that I play now would have Nick & Noah meet Hillary Clinton, 2004to be a combination of my years of listening material combined (and often clashing with) the years of performance experience I’ve had. My trajectory went something like: loved music; learned (barely) drums; played along with pop/rock records; learned trumpet; started listening to and learning jazz music; met other musicians who happened to be in the jazz vein; participated in competitions and conglomerate bands in the national jazz community; started to get a little disconnected from the competitive and athletic attitudes in the modern jazz world; spent more time listening to records I loved as a kid and reconnecting with the things I really loved about music; starting learning bass and singing as kind of a secret pet project; slowly started to assimilate the elements/instruments in music that I related to the most, distancing myself from the trumpet a bit and playing more and more bass; writing songs, and that pretty much brings me to where I am now.

What music that your parents listened to had the greatest impact on you?
It’s a toss-up between the Beatles and Beach Boys. The Beatles are so far back there, back in the sitting-around-in-pajamas/playing-with-Legos memory bank, so I think they probably had the most fundamental impact, but when I was a bit older and much more aware when my dad first introduced me to the Beach Boys and I think what I learned from them was not only this element of total unabashed fun but also this sense that you could play music with a sense of levity and silliness and still be completely taken seriously, and that really stuck with me.

Nick lakesideDo you buy music?  And if so, how?
To be completely honest, most music in my (ever-growing) digital collection has been acquired through friends, libraries, file-sharing websites and other morally questionable avenues. I always buy records of people I know or independent artists who I feel really need the support (especially now that I am one), and have also recently gotten really into buying vinyl records, so when I do spend money, I go physical copies all the way. I don’t think anybody feels that satisfied by purchasing a file, which is probably a big part of why record sales are as horrendous as they are across the board.

Explain briefly the process by which you conceive and create your music.
It’s almost always music first; which for me means a chord progression, some sense of structure or structures which give me a clue about the form, and usually melodic ideas. For me the melody and the harmony are very much things that come in a package, very much married things, like the way they were in the days of the Great American Songbook. I have huge respect for people who do the whole vocal melody-on-top-of-a-track thing (called “toplining,” in the current Top 40 parlance), but that’s never how it’s been for me.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters, present or past?
My big three are Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, and Stephen Sondheim. Other huge favorites would have to be Stevie Wonder, Paddy McAloon, Jimmy Webb, Alan Menken, Gregg Alexander, James Taylor, Paul McCartney and waaayy too many more. I often worry I’m cripplingly loyal to my heroes.

Nick and his HornDefine musical success for someone at your stage in life.
To be able to create or participate in music that I consider worth making, music that is both creatively stimulating and responsible (socially, culturally, artistically) and not starve doing it. That’s really it.

Vinyl or digital?
If I’m listening, and time’s not a consideration, it’s vinyl all the way. But when it comes to releasing my own music? Gotta be digital; best way to reach the most people, even if they aren’t spending money on it. At least they have a better chance of hearing it.

If you could have seen any artist in history at any point in their career and in any venue anywhere, who, when and where would you like to have seen?
This is pretty clichéd but probably The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, either there in the studio audience or even just at home in front of the TV. I’ve often heard my dad (and others) describe how incredibly momentous that experience was, even to non-musicians; just this huge cultural/historical event that was clearly so important and defining to what pop music would be over the next decade.

Nick Frenay Cassandra WilsonWhat are your current musical plans, and how do you see your career playing out over the next, say, five years?
The current plan is to continue moving forward with my best friend and musical partner Noah Kellman in our duo project. I feel like we really have a special thing going with this group and between the two of us, I truly feel like the sky is the limit for what we could accomplish together musically. We’ll release two EPs and a handful of singles over the next 14 months and then hopefully a small tour within the next two years, and, I suppose if I’m optimistic, I could see us getting signed to (some variety of) record label within five years.

Who do you feel is an almost criminally underrated musical artist, either living or dead?
This is a tricky question, and it probably changes from time to time, obviously depending on who I feel is being “rated” fairly enough or not during certain trends. To be honest, and this might come as a shock, but I’ve been really interested in and inspired by the R&B artist R. Kelly lately. Keep in mind I’m a writer and artist and not a PR manager, so this answer is purely based off of musical merit. But for people inclined towards soulful pop or black American music, I think R. Kelly is an extremely underrated and unfairly dismissed artist. His career has actually had a crazy amount of longevity and staying power (even despite all of the crazy personal/legal stuff). And he’s kinda been able to re-brand himself several times without losing his identity. He’s a crazy good singer obviously, but also a really adept writer and producer, who arranges, sequences and records most of his own records. The two I’m most into right now are Love Letter and Write Me Back, an unofficial duo that throwback to the great black soul/pop artists of the past 60 years, with crazy good tributes to MJ, Marvin, Sam Cooke, Stevie; people like that. Really, really great stuff that I hope more people will check out at some point!

Gary and NickHow has your generation’s relationship to music – consuming it, buying it, making it, sharing it, etc. – changed from your mom and dad’s generation?
I think it’s just the whole ADD listening thing. It’s happened to every aspect of life pretty much and music’s no exception. Everything’s been enhanced and aided by technology to the point of where we’re just trying to make everything quicker and smaller, but that kind of need for immediacy and instant gratification is negatively affecting the way we take in media too, which is a major drag, and I’m not sure how to fix it.

If you could change one thing about the music industry or being a working musician today, what would it be?
I guess I honestly would just want to try to re-introduce some class into the current pop aesthetic. It’s not like it’s an immoral wasteland, but it’s certainly got enough reprehensible examples to be problematic, especially for young people, and especially for young women – which is super harmful because young people are pretty much the demographic for Top 40 music, in terms of record sales at least, and a lot of ticket sales. I think there have been a lot of really great role models, people like John Mayer, Lily Allen, and even Katy Perry, who have gone out of their way to empower and inspire young people. I think a lot more could be done with that, artists being more responsible spokespeople and inspirations to future generations.

Herbie HancockAt the risk of tooting your own horn, what has been the musical highlight of your life to this point?
Writing/recording my first official record, Nick + Noah’s Summer EP with Noah, and finding out a month or so ago that it was nominated for the Sammy (Syracuse Area Music) Award for Pop Record of the Year – which is not only really surprising but incredibly gratifying.

My Take
In Chicago, we old timers have watched any number of things that once made our city unique slowly fade to history – deliciously Chicago things most outsiders would not even begin to understand, like dibs parking, 16” softball, and small neighborhood taverns across the city identified by little more than a backlit Old Style sign. And as much as it hurts to say it, when it comes to music, the traditional jazz my generation grew up with is, likewise, becoming a relic from another era.

Nick and Noah age 11Take Nick Frenay, for whom traditional jazz may be in his blood, and for whom the genre remains top-of-mind as he pursues his degree from Berklee, but for whom it is now less a default music-of-choice than a cultural imperative; a music that seems to exist more to be analyzed, explored and discussed as an academic endeavor than actually played for public consumption.

Kinda, I suppose, not unlike baseball. Sorry all you old school Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays fans; all you graying baseball card nuts and day-game purists. Long for the past all you want. Wax nostalgic ‘til the sun rises, the rooster crows, and the morning paper hits the door. But these days, when a kid from the projects picks up a ball, there’s a real good chance it’s not a baseball.

So while Nick Frenay has played his horn on dozens of jazz tracks by any number of other artists, when he pieced together his first two EPs under his very own name (along with lifelong school mate and musical partner, Noah Kellman) was it jazz the two wrote and recorded?

Nope. It was pop.

Nick + Noah band campOnly the pop Nick (and Noah) wrote and recorded wasn’t your father’s pop, much less your grandfather’s. It was a thoroughly modern pop; a light and breezy, wonderfully melodic, but at the same time refreshingly sophisticated pop; a pop with influences that ran the gamut from the Beatles to Bacharach and Basie, and a pop that reflected little traces of just about every style the two heard growing up in homes teeming with music, much of which was certainly played for hours on end, and a small amount of which was no doubt played, at least now and then, at extremely high decibels.

Nick + Noah are currently halfway through an ambitious four EP sojourn on which they plan to write and produce one disc for each of the four seasons of the year. To date, they’ve finished two of those – summer and winter; the two that, frankly, have always represented the lowest hanging fruit for mood- and tableau-creating songwriters.

(And I say “ambitious” because, let’s be honest, it’s those two transitional seasons that have always represented a deeper, more expansive, and far more complex range of human emotions; one that often runs the gamut from hope to despair, with countless side trips to places like melancholy. What’s more, Spring and Fall have always lacked many of the pop culture touchstones and iconic human activity associated with Summer and Winter and, therefore, have always offered far greater challenges to lyricists.)

Nick + Noah seatedBut back to the two EPs Nick + Noah have completed, the first of which being Summer (which, given Nick’s – and, frankly, his dad’s – deep and abiding affinity for all things Brian Wilson, should hardly come as a surprise). On that EP, which just won a Syracuse Area Music Award (a Sammy), the duo travel down (albeit smartly and tastefully) a few well-worn paths.

In fact, if this were years ago and the two were working with a major record label, the A&R people would take one listen to this collection, embrace the hook-filled, feel-good quality of the opening cut, There’s Always Summer, and immediately declare it the single.

Nick Sammy AwardBut Nick + Noah’s first EP goes on to offer some unexpected detours on the path to all those sun drenched days and summer romances, highlighted by a spirited, joyous and ever-so-slightly irreverent cover of Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen’s deeply somber and darn-near sanctified ode to personal rapture. Summer’s most non-traditional moments are truly where this EP and the songwriting really, um, shine.

But while Summer may be well-conceived and extremely well-executed, Nick + Noah’s second release, Winter takes their previous work’s musicianship, production quality and sense of the season and ups the ante considerably.

Winter captures the essence of those three chilly, sun-deprived months in a way that transcends its predecessor’s well-intentioned but ultimately knee-deep musical tip of the cap. Winter is as shimmering as it is personal; and is as reliant on those close to us for warmth as the season it celebrates. What’s more, the EP crackles. It thaws. And it inspires. And it can make you sad and elevate your spirits – and much like its titular season, do both at the very same time.

But just as important, Nick + Noah’s Winter also gently reminds us it is still possible for men (and women) to praise and revel in the spirit of the season without necessarily being religious or Christian. Because in the hands of Nick + Noah (one raised agnostic, the other Jewish), Winter (as both a season and object of studio experimentation) can be both a place that exists deep within your and a spiritual-to-the-point-of-magical time in our planet’s journey around the sun. And it is a time during which, even without specific mentions of Christ or Christianity, the air crackles with the humanity the man lived for and carries a palpable sense of the human kindness and love he died trying to teach us. Winter in the hands of these two gifted young artists is, indeed, the most spiritual and holiest time of the year.

Nick + Noah Winter TooNick +Noah’s second release is as ambitious as it is a stunning musical achievement – and it comes from two artists with the training wheels off; young men who (as evidenced by the “Making of…” video they produced, embedded below) seem every bit as capable of orchestrating the behind-the-scenes work behind promoting the popular song, as they are actually conceiving, composing and bringing it to life.

And while one of Winter’s “songs” is less a collection of notes, meter and melody than it is a fairy tale, special mention must be made of The Painter. The EP’s cut is narrated by Tom Kenny, a fellow Syracusan who back in the day did standup (with partner Bobcat Goldthwait) to warm up audiences for Nick’s dad’s Tom Kennyband, the Flashcubes. Kenny, who remains good friends with the Frenays, has gone on to unqualified platinum-level pop immortality as the original and longtime voice of that stoner icon, Spongebob Squarepants. But Kenny’s presence notwithstanding, The Painter is a wonderful and delicious exercise in good old-fashioned Christmas yarn-spinning. And, for that reason alone, it merits at least one good ear and a couple of good soup-to-nuts listens.

If the difference between Summer and Winter is a just a taste of not only how many remarkable gifts Nick + Noah possess as pop musicians and studio craftsmen, but how much growth still lies within the two, I for one cannot wait to see what Spring and (especially) Fall hold in store.

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