Charlotte's Ghost Trees Putting South On The Map In The World Of 'Free Jazz'

Jun 8, 2016

If you're a jazz fan, you may like Coltrane or Miles. Or maybe the Dave Brubeck Quartet. There's a sub-genre called free jazz. And it's out there, man. It often has no chord changes and sometimes no apparent structure to the music at all.  It's called 'free jazz' because players are free to play what they want.  And for Charlotte's Brent Bagwell and Seth Nanaa, it's a passion. In between day jobs and raising families, they make up the duo Ghost Trees. They release their own records and tour the country and Europe. And they're putting the South on the map in the free jazz world.

It's a Tuesday night in the musty single-car garage behind saxophonist Brent Bagwell's house in Charlotte's Commonwealth Park neighborhood. This space, nicknamed "The Lab," is where Bagwell and drummer Seth Nanaa rehearse. Tonight, they run through a song from "Goodyear," the latest Ghost Trees release.   

The two spar – yet come together – as their instruments weave into a cacophony of sound that fills the room. It's a bond the two have forged over 16 years. Bagwell and Nanaa met in New York, not long after shedding their non-jazz backgrounds. Bagwell, who grew up in upstate South Carolina, played guitar and bass in rock bands. Something clicked for him though after hearing jazz legend Charles Mingus.

"And then I sold all my CDs at the time and then just listened exclusively to stuff like that for a long time," Bagwell says. "So, I got a tenor like on a lark and then loved it and went all in."

And it was Nanaa who convinced him to try his hand at playing free jazz. Nanaa had been a bass player in punk rock band from California. They didn't know what free jazz was.

"But we had these five songs or six songs that we'd write," Nanaa says. "We'd play them real short. They'd be different every night. And in between songs we wouldn't stop playing. We would just improvise."

Playing on the spur of the moment stuck with Nanaa, who soon moved over to the drums. He and Bagwell found inspiration in the openness and catharsis of free jazz's anything-goes mode of expression. They soon joined forces with a bassist and called themselves the Eastern Seaboard.

"We did that for a long time, put out records and toured crazy hard – sometimes playing twice a day like big bands in the past," Bagwell says. "It was fun."

Bagwell and Nanaa eventually moved to Charlotte, lured by friends and spouses and started playing as Ghost Trees in 2012 when the bass player in the Eastern Seaboard quit. Three to four times a year, the two pack their bags and hit the road to play their music in clubs, bars, and basements. And Europe. Last year, they toured Germnay, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

"When we play elsewhere, people know us as this free jazz band from the Southeast in a weird way, " Bagwell says. "And I like that a little bit. Like we're in Europe and they're like, 'you live in North Carolina?' It's a cool thing I think, a little bit."

The free jazz world is based in places like New York and Chicago. It's hard enough getting by playing traditional jazz. Between playing live and releasing records, Bagwell and Nanaa say they make enough money to break even. It is a little easier only having two people in the band.

"It's true, it's true," Bagwell says. "I do think there is something about that. We can split the bass player's bread."

Both are married and  each has a child. So both also have day jobs. Bagwell works at a comic book store.  He admits to being a comics nerd. Nanaa is a registered nurse. Sure, it would be easier to focus the time and energy they put into Ghost Trees on their jobs. But that's just not Bagwell and Nanaa's bag.

"If Seth dropped dead and I lived in the desert, I'd develop elaborate solo sets I guess," Bagwell says.  "It's just going to happen. I would just do this no matter what until I can't. It's a compulsion really. "

For Nanaa, it's also about connecting with an audience when playing live.

"The most gratifying thing is that at the end of every show, one or two people that you would never suspect would come to you and be like 'hey, that was pretty cool,'" Nanaa says.

"It makes me think we're on the right path sometime,” Bagwell says.

Ghost Trees will play Friday night in uptown.  Bagwell and Nanaa will be joined by other musicians as the Ghost Trees Big Band.  They also release their new record “Goodyear” on Friday.