Tracing the voluptuous contours of the Pacific Ocean and winding through the famed California municipalities of San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Francisco, Pacific Coast Highway is perhaps the most mythic stretch of road in all the Golden State. Offering breathtaking vistas of beaches, coves, parks, Spanish settlements and other treasures, “PCH” boasts such a tremendous concentration of historic and natural riches, a traveler would have to wander several other US byways to witness a similar collection of splendors.
The guitarist, composer and producer Nils knows this highway well. Since moving to Los Angeles from his native Germany in the 1980s, Nils has traveled PCH on numerous occasions. So when it came time for this acclaimed contemporary jazz artist to name the breezy title track of his current album, he looked no further than his virtual backyard. In the same tradition as Nat King Cole’s “Route 66” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Pacific Coast Highway is a roadside celebration of America, this time from the musical viewpoint of a bedazzled and grateful immigrant. Featuring nine exquisite original compositions, the disc includes the hit title track and stellar interpretations of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” and the 1980 Toto classic, “Georgy Porgy.” Dreamy, romantic and delectably sexy, Pacific Coast Highway comes off like the jazz-funk soundtrack to some Great American road movie.
“If you put the record on, you get a feeling that corresponds to that certain stretch between Malibu going up towards Ventura County,” Nils says, referencing two prestigious locales on the PCH route. “It’s a great vibe that I really believe this album captures.”
Nils’ musical agenda is clearly outlined in song titles like “Cruisin’,” “Keep Rollin’,” “Coming Home,” and “Baja, California.” Indeed, Pacific Coast Highway is an album that moves, its 12 tracks evoking the bustling, ambitious spirit of the American west. Accompanying Nils on his musical journey is a contemporary Who’s-Who of jazz and pop, including drummer Steve Ferrone (George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Average White Band), bassist Abe Laboriel (Herbie Hancock, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles), percussionist Alex Acuna (Wayne Shorter, Rickie Lee Jones, Tracy Chapman), guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna), saxophonist Gerald Albright (Anita Baker, Whitney Houston), and singer Siedah Garrett (Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones).
These formidable contributors notwithstanding, Pacific Coast Highway is, first and foremost, Nils’ show. His solos on the album’s title track echo the post-bop soulfulness of Wes Montgomery, while his vamps and improvisations on tunes like “Sneakin’” and “Summer Nights” combine the jazziness of George Benson with the fat-bottomed funkiness of Earth, Wind & Fire’s Andy McKay. Even on ballads like “Comin’ Home,” “Kona Girl” and “You’ve Got A Friend,” Nils exhibits a slavish devotion to dynamics that is the hallmark of every great improviser.
“There are a couple things that are important to me as an artist,” Nils states matter-of-factly. “First, I want a fresh sound that is different from the mainstream. Secondly, it’s got to be funky. I always have to have that groove.”
“That groove” is evident in spades on Pacific Coast Highway. The album follows on the distant heels of Nils’ 1998 debut album “Blue Planet” and its concurrent tour. Featuring prominent contemporary jazz masters including keyboardists Patrice Rushen and Bobby Lyle, saxophonist Everett Harp and vocalists Carl Anderson and Phil Perry, the “Blue Planet / West Coast All Stars” tour heralded Nils’ arrival in no uncertain terms.
In the years following his auspicious emergence, Nils recorded with a number pop and jazz icons, including the Temptations, Rick Braun, Gabriella Anders and George Benson (the Nils composition “Keep Rollin’” is featured on Benson’s 1998 CD, “Standing Together”). As a composer for TV and film, Nils provided original music and re-mixes for the 2004 and 2005 Independent Spirit Awards.
At the same time he was cementing his reputation as a skilled and reliable session musician and composer, Nils was writing, arranging and recording solo tracks in his home studio. “It allowed me the luxury of tweaking what I wanted to tweak,” the guitarist says of the home recording experience. I put a bunch of amps in a room and experimented with killer sounds. Then the next day I would cut solos without the worry of dealing with technical issues. I wasn’t being pressured for studio time. It was a great experience.”
Nils found a home for his new album at Baja TSR Records. Now, the Man from Munich officially resurfaces with his musical instincts stronger than ever. Like the legendary road it is named for, Pacific Coast Highway is a bona fide treasure … a symbol of the American Dream in all its boundless and freewheeling glory.
“With this record, I really feel that I have discovered something more personal,” Nils says. “Not just with the guitar, but also with the way that I write and produce. I have definitely found my own identity … my own voice.