Preserving the warm buzz of early bebop while bravely exploring the jazz fusion of her contemporaries, Portland-based alto saxophonist and educator Nicole McCabe is reaching beyond traditional jazz to blend a broad range of styles, making her one of the most compelling young composers and players in today’s West Coast jazz scene.
A quartet leader, a music educator, a regular collaborator in George Colligan’s Theoretical Planets, and a member of many groups, Nicole quickly established herself as a freelance saxophonists in Portland while studying at Portland State University’s Jazz Studies program. She’s on the verge of releasing her debut solo album of original compositions, to be released this summer. Nicole’s uninhibited dynamism and ear-turning musical prowess have already earned her the attentive audience she deserves throughout the Portland music community and beyond.
Nicole began integrating herself into live performance and Portland’s lively jazz community well before she graduated. She regularly attended the Ron Steen Jam Session at The 1905, where she began building a jazz community outside of the classroom. Since then she has shared stages and festival bills with the likes of Nicole Glover, Carmen Lundy, Steve Wilson, Randy Porter, Chuck Israels, George Colligan, and Kandace Springs. Nicole began leading her own quartet in 2018, eventually leading one at the Portland Jazz Festival, which she’s been doing every year since.
“The most effective way to learn is to play with people who are better than you, which is why mentorship is such an important tradition in jazz,” Nicole explains. Both her mentors, the acclaimed multi-instrumentalist George Colligan and renowned drummer Alan Jones, supplied her with opportunities to perform alongside and record with them, pushing Nicole to both embrace the rich lineage of bebop while simultaneously testing the limits of contemporary standards. “I feel like I’m always on the cusp of preserving something historic and growing something new,” shares Nicole. “In creating my own voice as a player, I’ve had to accept that I like all kinds of music. You have to listen to the tradition and bend to the contemporaries. I think it adds a lot to my own sound and my own approach to writing.”
Although Nicole’s influences can be dated back to bebop mainstays including Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, or post bop John Coltrane and Gary Bartz, she says she tries to “emulate a fusion of every kind of music she loves, put into a jazz canon, digestible for jazz musicians.” Compositionally she doesn’t draw from jazz alone, but instead from pop musicians like Roberta Flack, or from one of the many bands she’s in, which range from funk to synth pop to free jazz.
Nicole’s forthcoming debut album will showcase her impressive repertoire, with musical appearances and collaborations with Portland heavy hitters Alan Jones, George Colligan, Charlie Porter and Jon Lakey. Post-album release, Nicole has been accepted into USC’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, where she will pursue her Master’s in Music this fall.