Since graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory and moving back to the East Bay in the summer of 2018 alto saxophonist Nora Stanley has taken her time finding her way on the local jazz scene. A standout soloist in the Berkeley High Jazz Band who also earned a coveted spot in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars playing baritone sax, she’s performed several concerts under her own name and collaborated with heavyweight improvisers like clarinetist Ben Goldberg, saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, and multi-instrumentalist Noel Jewkes over the past year. But with a half-dozen gigs around the region in the coming weeks Stanley is stepping forward as one of the Bay Area’s most exciting young players, combining a lush and muscular sound with an abiding interest in unusual melodic shapes.
She kicks off her Bay Area run with guitarist Luis Salcedo’s group at the Make Out Room on Jan. 27 as part of the Mission District club’s long-running Monday new music series. And on Tuesday, Jan. 28 she presents her quartet playing original music at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of the school’s ongoing Way Out West series. The performance feels particularly freighted with significance as Stanley studied at the CJC in high school and started coaching middle and high school combos there after moving back to the East Bay.
“Playing the CJC definitely feels like I’m coming back home,” says Stanley, who’s on the cusp of her 24th birthday. “Almost all of the music we’re playing was written in the last year or so. Reading an interview with Björk about harvesting ideas I realized I’ve tied into this concept, writing music reflecting on this moment after graduation and figuring out how to exist in the world as a musician. It’s a period of growth. It’s about not rushing to harvest creativity, having patience and recognizing this is an ongoing process rather than an end result.”
She’s actually doing double duty on Tuesday, rushing over to Oakland’s Starline Social Club after her CJC gig to join tenor saxophonist Eli Maliwan’s quintet. On Feb. 6 she’s with Berkeley pianist Nathan Bickart at Curio Bar in the Mission (a twice-monthly residency), and on Feb. 7 Stanley brings her quintet to San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett with her CJC band (pianist/keyboardist Omree Gal-Oz, bassist Owen Clapp, and drummer Matthew Buckner) plus guitarist Luis Salcedo. She’s back at the CJC on Feb. 15 with Omree Gal-Oz’s Village project, and closes the month with another homecoming, playing two shows with her quintet Feb. 22 in SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab as part of the organization’s Artists On the Rise series.
Her band is built on a highly sympathetic rhythm section featuring three peers who are also good friends. She met bassist Owen Clapp, “a fabulous composer himself,” she says, about four years ago on summer break back in the Bay Area. Drummer Matt Buckner is a more recent connection, but they’ve been playing regularly since Stanley moved back to the East Bay.
A graduate of the University of Miami’s esteemed Frost School of Music, “he’s really interested in a lot of different kinds of music,” she says. “He’s also a great straight-ahead player. It’s really helpful to have a drummer who understands my ideas without me having to playing them myself. Some of my stuff is more long form, through composed, but sometimes I’ll bring in a rough sketch and we’ll develop it as a group. They’re such great musical collaborators and improvisers.”
Born in San Francisco, Stanley grew up in a Berkeley household filled with a mind-expanding variety of music. “We’d listen to Albert Ayler one day and Balinese gamelan the next,” she says. He father, an amateur guitarist, often listened to the jazz station KCSM in the car, which led to a saxophone epiphany. Usually irked by his radio choice because she wanted to listen to a Top 40 station, Stanley was smitten by Lucky Thompson’s soprano saxophone rendition of the standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (from the 1965 Prestige album Lucky Thompson Plays Happy Days Are Here Again). “This song came on and it just grabbed me,” she says. “We drove straight to Amoeba and bought the album.”
She started piano lessons in 5th grade and switched to flute in 6th. By the 7th grade in King Middle School she took up the alto saxophone with the goal of getting in the Berkeley High Jazz Band. Along the way she studied with some of the region’s most accomplished players, including Sheldon Brown and Phillip Greenlief. Taking BART after school she joined the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco, a program run by flutist/percussionist John Calloway that has nurtured several generations of young musicians. It was where she met pianist Omree Gal-Oz and drummer Marcelo Pérez, a fellow Berkeley High graduate who featured her on his SFJAZZ Center Artists On the Rise gig a few weeks ago.
“What I love is her tone on the instrument,” he says. “It’s just really beautiful and her note choices are so melodic. The notes cut through the sound of the band and I hear them so clearly. Her time is great too. As a drummer it’s really fun to play with someone with great time. She’s really dedicated to her craft, and developing as a musician.”
Like Pérez, Stanley was on the Berkeley High Jazz Band’s first trip to Cuba in 2012, an experience that left a deep and lasting impression. She became fascinated with the Caribbean and double majored at Oberlin in Latin American Studies. For her senior project, she wrote an extended piece inspired by the verse of Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik “using music as a form of translation,” she says.
For her primary alto saxophone influences, she cites Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, players who radically expanded jazz’s rhythmic and harmonic idioms in the late 1950s and 60s. In recent years she’s also spent a lot of time listening to Benny Carter, a supremely accomplished player, arranger and composer whose career spanned jazz’s first century. A recent lesson with veteran alto saxophonist David Binney in Los Angeles provided a fresh jolt of inspiration. She brings all of these experiences and influences to bear in her working teaching at the CJC, an education in itself.
“I’m learning so much as I go,” she says. “I don’t have a ton of experience, but I think I have good inclinations. I know how I’d want to be coached.”