Get Nate Najar talking about music, and he rarely runs out of things to say. Nate Najar is all about music.
The St. Petersburg native is an internationally-known guitarist with more than a dozen albums in his discography, and his style is singular: He plays jazz, finger-picked, on a classical (gut-string) guitar.
Historically, only the great Charlie Byrd (who happens to be Nate Najar’s all-time hero and one of his biggest musical influences) played gut-string jazz without a pick.
Classical guitar isn’t easy to amplify, of course, and it doesn’t gel with every other instrument (there’s never a piano in Najar’s band, for example, because they simply don’t play well together).
Najar has been in love with the instrument since his freshman year at St. Pete High.
“It’s an orchestra in a box that I can carry on my back,” he enthuses. “There’s so much you can do with it. You can be a complete ensemble on your own. And there’s a poetry to the instrument that you don’t get with an electric guitar, and a fullness and a sweetness. It does all the right things in music.”
Although he performs (and has recorded in) numerous musical genres, the 37-year-old Najar is particularly good at bossa nova, the intoxicating, elegantly-moving Brazilian jazz form made famous by guitarist Joao Gilberto in the 1960s (check out his 2014 outing Aquarela Do Brasil).
Najar plans to inject some bossa nova into his 13th annual Christmastime concert, Nate Najar’s Jazz Holiday, Thursday, Dec. 13 at the Palladium Theater. Gilberto’s “The Christmas Present” is on the program, with vocals by South American singer and guitarist Daniela Soledade.
She’ll join a half-dozen other guest musicians sitting with several of Najar’s longtime St. Pete stagemates (bassist John Lamb, drummer Mark Feinman and trumpeter James Suggs).
Other scheduled guests for the holiday ensemble are Adrian Cunningham (from Australia) on sax, flute and clarinet, and Dmitry Baevsky (from St. Petersburg, Russia) on sax.
“I want to put on a special program,” Najar says. “Rather than me just going up there and playing some holiday tunes. It’s not all holiday music; we play a lot of regular jazz.
“I don’t think anybody wants to hear two hours of holiday music! But we’re in the festive mood. It’s all about swingin,’ and having a good time.”
Guitar great Wes Montgomery facilitated Najar’s metamorphosis from Hendrix-worshipping guitar rocker to dedicated jazz-head. Specifically, it was a 1964 Montgomery album called Smokin’ at the Half-Note.
“It wasn’t the notes,” Najar recalls. “It didn’t have anything to do with the melody. It was the feeling of it. This particular record is so exciting, from the first note. There’s a feeling about it when it’s played a certain way. The feeling is what got me. It was just exciting.”
Although Montgomery was primarily an electric guitarist, Najar’s first jazz instructor insisted the young Floridian practice and play on a classical guitar – it was portable, and didn’t require any bulky electronic gear. Besides, “It was more about the content of the music than the execution,” Najar says. “That’s what I got out of it.”
The methodology stuck, particularly after Najar discovered Gilberto, and Django Reinhart, and Charlie Christian … and Charlie Byrd.
He is an accomplished composer, arranger and record producer, but the way he plays jazz – finger-style on classical guitar – is what makes him stand out, he knows.
“I can’t think of another instrument – maybe a harp – that is so dependent on how you physically manipulate the instrument,” Najar says. “With the classical guitar, it’s where on the finger you make contact with the string, the type of pressure, the direction you pull, the angle you pull … there are so many micro-things that have a massive effect on the sound that comes out of the box.”
On his most recent album, Under Paris Skies, Najar and his Trio tackled a program of music by French composers, an eclectic and dynamic cross-section of pop, jazz and classical songs re-imagined for guitar, bass, drums and vibes. Allaboutjazz.com called it “Truly one of the most beautiful light jazz albums recorded perfectly primed for the lover in all of us.”
He’s about to begin recording yet another set of tunes, although he’s not entirely sure, thematically, what direction it will take.
In the meantime, there are live shows – concerts, festivals and club dates – to play. Including, of course, the Jazz Holiday gig.
“The whole point of this is communication,” Najar believes. “My intent is one thing, and whether it’s good or bad or whatever, or how hard or not hard it is, none of that matters. What matters is, what does the listener hear? And what do they feel from it? What’s the communication that’s happening?
“As musicians, our communication with each other is extremely important. To me, without the audience there’s no point in doing it. Because we’re not just communicating with each other, we’re communicating with you. And we’re getting back from you as well.
“For the length of the piece, we’re all in the ephemeral bubble, sharing communication. And then when it’s over, poof, it goes away.”