Nick Culp's "The Culprit's Blues" Goes Back to The Future

You’ve probably seen or at least heard about Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land”, about a musician (Ryan Gosling) whose less than fully expressed mission was to “save jazz”. He brings his turntable and retro-record collection to Los Angeles where he lives in a crummy apartment and makes ends meet by playing in a piano bar.

He meets aspiring actress Emma Stone and thus the story spins. That much you probably know, but perhaps you are unaware of the furious backlash against “La La Land” by some jazz “purists” who were upset that the lead character was white since the language of jazz was developed by African-Americans.

Others were upset that the jazz Gosling’s character advocated was more an exercise in nostalgia than in music that might move the genre forward—or at least that’s how I remember the movie. I better remember the “sell-out” music Gosling plays in a successful band fronted by John Legend’s slick character.

Of course “La La Land” is only a popular entertainment movie and not a political or cultural statement and in real life, unlike as in the movie, people don’t spontaneously break into singing and dancing on the street, not to mention start flying, as Gosling and Stone do in “La La Land”.

Jazz has moved forward and branched out and flowered over the past few decades to places some listeners find difficult to follow and possibly, as a result, its popularity is probably at an all-time low. Whether or not its methodology is accurate, according to Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report, both jazz and classical represent just 1.4% of total American music consumption. Classical album sales were actually greater, which put jazz at the bottom.

Why this is, is sometimes laid at the feet of the musicians pushing the envelope who produce non-melodic “head” music that doesn’t engage tapping toes but the real problem is the music can’t go back to its roots. It must move forward. At least that’s how the jazz “purists” generally feel about it. If they’ve heard it before they don’t want to hear it again reimagined by newcomers.

Yet there are people who do want to hear it again, which helps explain the enduring popularity of the old Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside (etc.) catalogs—not to mention the Kind of Blue phenomenon—an album that has remained in the top 200 album charts for decades.

Vinyl reissue labels like Music Matters and Analogue Productions have released a steady stream of well-received reissues from these catalogs. Blue Note the label has done likewise with a vinyl series at a lower price point, mostly sourced from digital files. When Music Matters recently announced it had released all of the Blue Notes it intended to reissue, a petition demanding more soon posted online.

Among those who do want to continue to hear the old music are the advocates of moving jazz forward. They luxuriate in bop and post bop and are happy to explore the rich history on record, which remains fresh (with much of it still too “out there” for the general population). They just find uninteresting newcomer retreads.

Into this semi-hostile jazz environment steps pianist Nick Culp, his quintet and his new album The Culprit’s Blues (Gutbucket GB-1001). He started the not-for-profit label to record what he calls a “uniform sound” of local talent.

As a youngster, L.A. born Culp studied with Don Ellis Orchestra alumni the late John Magruder, who was the former music department chairman at University High School in West Los Angeles. Despite jazz’s lack of popularity among the general population, it remains popular in high school music programs.

Culp also studied with the late Larry Karush, who collaborated with John Abercrombie, Bennie Wallace and Jane Ira Bloom, among others as well as forming with the Glens Moore and Velez the group Mokave.

He obtained a degree at Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and studied harmony and composition with the jazz pianist Bernard Maury, founder of the Bill Evans Piano Academy.

Now living and playing in the San Francisco jazz scene, Culp isn’t on a mission to “save jazz” but clearly part of his recorded mission is to bring back the sound and atmospherics of the “golden age” of jazz recordings. In that pursuit he’s recorded this album live to 2 track, 1/2 inch analog tape.

The “classic” analog sound here will thrill every Blue Note devotee, not because it slavishly tries to copy Rudy Van Gelder’s recording technique, but because it carries it forward with greater transparency and especially timbral accuracy capturing Culp’s piano.

You will love this record’s sound (please listen to the 96/24 file below giving it plenty of time to load before hitting “play”), which is big, open, transparent, spacious and full-bodied. The drum thwacks that open side two will startle you in a good way.

Culp is joined in a set of his original compositions by fellow members of San Francisco’s local Club Deluxe scene: tenor saxophonist Danny Brown, trumpeter Jay Sanders, bassist Robert Overbury and drummer Rob Mills.

I particularly liked the tender closer “Blossom” and the slinky, noir-ish opener “Division St” but all of the tracks offer musical and sonic pleasures.

The annotation, written by JazzTimes/Philadelphia Inquirer writer Shaun Brady asserts that Culp’s debut “evokes the glory days of post-bop” that ”sometimes gets lost in a headlong race toward innovation” and that it’s a “celebration of the best aspects of a classic style with all of the vitality and immediacy of the present moment.”

That’s a tall order that Culp’s quartet delivers. While it may or may not please the modernists and/or jazz academics, everyone else who digs straight ahead classic jazz will surely enjoy The Culprit’s Blues. Plus, the sound is show demo quality, cut from the analog master tape and pressed, I believe, at Rainbo. The record is available for pre-order here.

Listen to "Division St."

eFlatBlues's picture

I followed the link to order the album but email to nick at is bounced back with a message saying the account is disabled. Any other way to contact them?

gorney's picture

Hi please email Nick at Thanks!

fetuso's picture

Thanks, I had the same problem

AxiomAcoustics's picture

I almost skipped this post when running through the AP ('P' for Planet not Productions) newsletter prioritizing what to read and when I saw "La La Land" I quickly moved on, despite (or is that because of?) being a huge Jazz fan. Glad I gave a second look because this is an exciting and welcome endeavor. Jazz aficionados need to support this type of thing and hopefully there will be more efforts toward this model. I may just order two copies: one for myself and one to hip someone to the joys of the music and the AAA aesthetic. Finally, with the continued decline in Jazz 'consumption' I've become part of the 1%!

Thanks so much Michael for continuing to advocate for this music both in reissue form and with new releases! You've given it the MF seal of approval for sonics, do you have any idea who "Lucky" might be?

fetuso's picture

Received my vinyl copy yesterday. Sounds fabulous, you can really tell it was a live to tape recording. The music is great, too. Classic jazz, very accessible.

Smudgebucket's picture

Thanks for the tip about this fine recording. Sound quality is excellent and the music is very good.