"Nortonk just has a way of making anything and everything fit together"

New York City Jazz Record

The young players of the New York quartet Nortonk take inspiration from that great lineage of iconic, free-minded jazz bands without a harmony-establishing chordal instrument and stake their own claim with Nortonk, the group’s absorbing debut album.

Nortonk’s name is an homage to one of its biggest mentors in college, the drummer-composer and teacher Kevin Norton (the band having drolly referred to him among themselves as “Nortonk” from how his name would appear in his e-mail address). “We liked the sound of the word, plus it had the bonus of subtly recognizing Kevin’s importance to us,” Crammer explains. Nortonk recorded the album just before the pandemic started. The group and its engineers endeavored to capture in the studio the intimate, visceral feel of the band’s live music-making, as the quartet recorded together on the studio floor without the typical separation.

Trumpet Thomas Killackey was born in Maryland in 1997. His key inspirations include Booker Little “because of the inspiring way he created melodies,” he says. “Booker’s linear playing sounds extraterrestrial in some contexts but completely familiar in others.” Woody Shaw is another, for his “complex harmonic knowledge,” he explains, and Ambrose Akinmusire, whose philosophy of “creating music for music’s sake, rather than fitting into any one genre, has really resonated with me.” About Killackey’s own playing, bandmate Gideon Forbes says: “Tom plays with such a natural, seemingly effortless musical instinct, always quick to listen and react to the band around him.”

Gideon Forbes was born in 1992, growing up in Vermont and Maine. The saxophonist’s influences range from the classic profundity of John Coltrane and searching lyricism of Lee Konitz to the contemporary voices of Chris Cheek and Jeremy Udden. “Chris Cheek has one of the most soulful ways of playing I’ve ever heard,” Forbes says. “He’s a virtuoso who takes the time to live in the sounds he creates. And Jeremy Udden inspires me to go deeper on my instrument, to find a sound that feels as personal as his.” Killackey says about Forbes: “As an alto player, Gideon’s melodic concept is singular, which keeps the audience – and the band – engaged, absorbed. He’s also a creative composer, bringing personal material to all our sessions.”

Born in 1996, Stephen Pale grew up in the Philippines and then New Jersey. “Paul Chambers has been near and dear since I first started learning the bass,” he says. “His playing conveyed fun and lightheartedness, as well as sophistication. Ron Carter is another one – the ideal creative musician: so imaginative and full of surprises.” Among younger players, it’s Petter Eldh, a Swede whose “rhythmic acuity and powerful sound have been a big influence on my writing and approach to my instrument.” About Pale, Steven Crammer says: “As a bassist, Stephen really grounds the band. He has huge ears, as well as a beautiful sound that lifts everything around him.”

Drummer Steven Crammer was born in 1994 and raised just outside Allentown, Pennsylvania. His inspirations include “the vast imagination and instrumental virtuosity of Tony Williams, who was a real musical explorer, playing everything with a killer instinct.” Then there’s Ed Blackwell, for “capturing both the rhythmic and the melodic beauty of the drums,” Crammer says. He also admires his mentor Dan Weiss for “setting such a high standard on his instrument, with nothing off limits musically or technically” and Gerald Cleaver for “a sound that is so rich and full of life.” Pale says about his rhythm-section partner: “Steven has a carefully crafted musicality on the drums, always able to adapt to the players around him while maintaining his very personal sound.”

Here's what the critics say:

"[Nortonk's] self-titled debut is very much a maximal experience, thanks to a surplus of energy, passion and adventurism."

- Jazziz Magazine

"Nortonk have a freshness and sense of discovery that one sometimes gets with a younger group, putting them on a path to match the legacies of the artists who inspired them."

- Matt Collar, AllMusic

"The collective voice of Nortonk is where it's at...both their compositional and improvisational voices have developed group swagger. The performances have an organic quality, with the group dynamic sounding authentic and earned--the way that each voice pushes and pulls the others, and the way that each band member's writing is clearly built for the dynamics of this band in particular."

- Will Layman, popmatters.com

"Forbes's scene-setting 'Chutes and Ladders' reveals elasticity to be one of the group's defining qualities in the way the members support the soloist. In a performance that achieves a cozy balance between polished and raw, the freedom the absence a choral instrument affords is felt throughout."

- Ron Schepper, textura.org

"[Nortonk]...is characterised by its angular pungent harmonic unisons...and while comparisons with the Coleman-Cherry Piano-less ensembles are inescapable, Nortonk go their way."

- Jazzwise Magazine

"Rising out of Thomas Killackey's and Gideon Forbes's contemplative trumpet and saxophone harmonies, 'Spiders' lingers beautifully...'Herzog' blossoms into a richly melodic rumination, the soft-grained horns taking on a gritty intensity in the chorus."

- The Wire