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Absorbing New Sounds and Writing Nonstop, Jazz Bandleader Nathan-Paul Davis Evolves Into Prolific Lo-Fi Composer

Nathan-Paul Davis
Brandon Baker
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Musician Nathan-Paul Davis plays alto saxophone in Wesley Bright and The Honeytones and Nathan-Paul and The Admirables. He released his new solo album "Aquarius Lofi DEEZY" this year.

Nathan-Paul Davis is recognized in the Northeast Ohio music scene as the animated alto-sax player in soul group Wesley Bright and The Honeytones, as well as the bandleader of experimental funk-soul band The Admirables.

The musician, also a flutist and composer, released a 16-song solo album, “Aquarius Lofi DEEZY” Jan. 25. The songs on the album feature beats by Holbrook Riles III (HR3) and piano from Joey Skoch.

Davis is a prolific songwriter, creating dozens of songs each month. Last year, he released two albums and is sitting on a large catalog of unreleased work.

The new album is a departure from the traditional jazz and retro Motown-influenced groups he notably has performed with over the years.

“Aquarius Lofi DEEZY” showcases the artist’s current foray into lo-fi hip-hop production. Davis is sitting on a vast library of more new music he plans to release throughout 2021.

Using past and present sounds to inspire new music

Davis said listening to music is often a research-based experience for him. Releasing a solo record of lo-fi beats was a culmination of absorbing new sounds and writing nonstop.

“So I’m researching pop music now,” he said. “I put out a little beat tape. I put out like a little fusion jazz thing ... I’ve put out some hip-hop type beats. So now I’m just like, I want to learn how to do pop music.”

Davis grew up in the church as the son of a pastor. His father got him a saxophone, and he began playing the instrument at a young age.

He started playing music to make his father proud, and often they would play gospel music together.

“We would stay up all night listening to music,” Davis said. “If I wanted to learn a music part, he’d sit there and watch me try and learn it, then he’d pause and say, ‘Try that again.’”

Davis’ early years listening to music included contemporary Christian music artists like Michael W. Smith. Gospel singers from the 1990s and early 2000s have had an impact on him musically.

Davis said he also grew up listening to Motown. Later, he got into jazz.

“Once I got the saxophone, that was where it was like a journey for [my father] and I,” he said.

Finding his style in soul bands

Davis is from Cleveland Heights and studied jazz at The University of Akron. As he became immersed in the local scene, the opportunity to play saxophone as part of soul singer Wesley Bright’s backing band came knocking.

He said playing with Wesley Bright and The Honeytones allowed him to become polished and play more commercial music.

Still, his desire to freely write and play more experimental jazz was unrelenting.

“Before that, I was just trying to play crazy and free and just expressive and all artsy and weird,” Davis said.

Bright voiced a desire for Davis to start his own soul band. The vocalist said he wanted to be in the audience for a soul concert for once instead of always being the one performing.

wesleybright.jpg
Judie Vegh
Nathan-Paul Davis (left) performs with vocalist Wesley Bright (right) in the Akron-based soul band Wesley Bright and The Honeytones.

Davis formed Nathan-Paul and The Admirables, and the band’s first show was at a birthday party for Bright.

“I guess we decided to keep it going, and it just went through a lot of different transformations,” Davis said. “When The Admirables started, I was a little more trained on how to not be a complete weirdo.”

The Admirables started as a more traditional, instrumental soul band, but they’ve evolved.

The group has incorporated elements of trap and funk in its sound, which reflect Davis’ vast range of influences and musical creativity.

“What I figured out, it’s almost like the magic spell,” Davis said. “If you go to an Admirables show, [at] the end of it, I’ll be making chaos crazy noises. Sounds like a baby seal dying. And people will just be dancing like it’s a funky good time.”

Becoming a prolific songwriter

Davis is constantly writing new music, both for The Admirables and for his own personal enjoyment.

He said The Admirables have enough material to put an album out this year, and he plans to release more lo-fi music as Nathan-Paul.

“I’ve always written my own music, and as far as Admirables go, the group has been collaborative in many, many different ways,” Davis said. “But in the grand scheme of things, overall, that group, that’s mostly been my music in that band as well.”

He said he’s not always intentional when he writes; he just sits down and lets the music flow out of him.

“It’s birthed more out of the desire. So, like, I’m probably going to write a song today, simply because I want to,” Davis said.

admirables.jpg
Brittany Nader
Nathan-Paul and The Admirables perform at Cleveland venue Beachland Ballroom & Tavern in 2015.

He’s building a library for himself. Davis said his songs are healing, and he can write a full song in the span of a few hours. He can write up to 10 songs in two days.

He said, early this year, he’d written approximately a dozen songs in two weeks and sent five of them out to other artists to collaborate on.

“There’s a good chance HR3 and I might put out another beat tape out this summer. I mean, the list goes on. I move quick … There’s no way to put out that much music without writing all the time,” Davis said.

For Davis, the songwriting process has become like a ritual, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many performing artists to stay home and off the stage.

He’ll sit down at his computer and find a high-hat drum sound he likes. He’ll create a pattern from this sound and build upon it with more rhythmic instrumentation.

Once he’s created a layered beat sound he’s happy with, he’ll move on to the melody.

“Then three hours have gone by, and I’ve got a song,” Davis said.

He said he’ll go outside and listen to it, walk around, pace and think about it. Then he’ll repeat the process.

“The way I go about writing, I’m like extreme Southern hospitality. They always have something for you. They won’t let you leave until you take something with you,” he said.

"I’m probably going to write a song today, simply because I want to."
Nathan-Paul Davis

Embracing the lo-fi musical aesthetic

Davis signed with national record label Ropeadope in 2020 and released a self-titled, three-track solo EP in February of that year.

He said his deal with the label is nonexclusive, so he can continue to release his own solo material, on his own, as often as he likes.

Aquarius Lofi DEEZY” includes scratch beats, flute, sax, samples and easy vibes, which Davis attributes to never writing music when he’s in a bad mood.

Davis worked on five songs with Skoch and considered releasing them as their own EP. He decided to send the songs to HR3 to add beats, and a full, cohesive album was created from Davis’ original material.

Right now, a lot of the original music he’s working on is lo-fi and mellow.

“It’s pretty much laid-back, medium-tempo beats with some instrumental but mainly simple or vibe heavy,” he said. “There’s not no crazy solos.”

Davis said lo-fi music, in general, can be synonymous with being laid-back. The downtempo beats are often associated with home recordings, and lo-fi hip-hop, in particular, has gained popularity on music streaming services in the last decade.

“Lo-fi, I feel, fits me well,” Davis said.

aquariuslofideezy.jpg
Nathan-Paul Davis
'Aquarious Lofi DEEZY' is Nathan-Paul Davis' first solo release of 2021. The saxophonist and songwriter collaborated with local beatmaker HR3 and pianist Joey Skoch on the 16-track album.

While jazz is heavy on improv, Davis said he wants to keep his sound as a solo artist more in line with the rest of the more chilled-out work he’s released on his own and through Ropeadope.

He said his musical influences, some of which include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, get the wheels turning but don’t limit his own writing style to strictly jazz.

“James Brown is my hero, the inventor of funk, and hip-hop wouldn’t really be possible without him,” Davis said. “I love Stevie Wonder. But I’m not a singer.”

He said lo-fi is the best of both worlds for him as an artist.

“I can put jazz stuff on top of it. I can have hip-hop, funk beats under it. There’s R&B elements. It just kind of covers a lot of ground, and there’s still an audience for it,” he said.

His solo sound is more diverse, experimental and less polished than his work with The Admirables.

“At this point, I don’t think people expect anything specifically from me as a solo artist. I think people are kind of open to seeing what I’mma do,” Davis said.

Describing his music as ‘sound medicine’

Davis said he’s been trying to fill the space left by the lack of performing in 2020 and early 2021 by writing new songs as much as he can.

“I’m just gonna be doing music a lot this year,” Davis said. “I’m sitting on a lot of music.”

He said music is healing, and writing and recording new material has been cathartic.

Hearing The Admirables’ sound is an immersive experience arguably best performed live, while listening to Davis’ lo-fi beats can be a solitary, healing journey.

“‘Sound medicine’ is what I call all my music,” Davis said.

His biological mother died of ovarian cancer when he was a child. Davis said playing saxophone at a young age served as a way for him to try and heal people from cancer.

“[I would] envision where the tumor would be and imagine my sound going in and erasing the disease,” he said.

Davis said he’s not at that same place in his life anymore, but when he looks at the essence of it all, music is a form of medicine or “spiritual food.”

“That was a time in my life when I was most literal with it. I do believe that music actually does literally, physically heal,” he said.

“‘Sound medicine’ is what I call all my music."
Nathan-Paul Davis

Releasing more material in 2021

Davis curated a playlist of his original music, spanning the years and released by his various bands and projects, for Shuffle listeners. Stream it now on Spotify.

The pandemic put a halt on his live, full-band performances with The Admirables and Wesley Bright and the Honeytones in 2020, but Davis has dozens of new, original songs ready to be mixed.

He said he’s improved his production skills and has been collaborating with other producers and artists to polish some of his tracks and prepare them for release.

Every year, Davis puts out his “Bootleg Music” project, which is modeled after live performance.

He hopes to release his fourth “Bootleg” EP before the end of this year with the possibility of in-person concerts returning in 2021.

Davis is working with Ethan Farris (E-Swerve), a Los Angeles-based producer, and plans to release a new soulful, lo-fi tape with him this spring.

He’s also virtually collaborating with Frank Walton, a Cleveland trumpet player.

“I’m not that planned,” Davis said. “All I know is I’m gonna release some music, and I just kind of work with it as I go. Sometimes I write the track, and it’ll all happen in three days.”

Davis said each year, he either writes a song or does something “significant” with music on his birthday.

He said he’ll continue making lo-fi beats, as opposed to traditional jazz, for the time being.

He’s been listening to trap music, which he said is “like pop with the 808 kick drum and production,” and contemporary artists like Flo Milli.

Davis has been trying to expand his horizons and listen to more underground music for inspiration.

He said he wants to “see how much he can get away with” before people start saying “that’s not lo-fi.”

Nathan-Paul and The Admirables announced this week that they will perform a live show streamed from BOP STOP at the Music Settlement April 9. Follow @nathanpaulmusic on Instagram for updates.

Updated: March 11, 2021 at 4:01 PM EST
This story has been updated.
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Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. Her days begin before the sun comes up as the local anchor for NPR’s Morning Edition, which airs on WKSU each weekday from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.
Brittany Nader joins Morning Edition host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene. As Shuffle Producer, she provides planning, scheduling, strategy and writing support for WKSU's weekly spin through local music.