Pino and No Net Nonet perform last Tuesday of every month at Smalls Jazz Club in NYC. There's an age-old debate in jazz that pits heart versus head, contrasting emotion and feeling against technical virtuosity and compositional complexity. On That's a Computer, the third release from saxophonist/composer Lucas Pino and his No Net Nonet, the argument is put to rest with a resounding "BOTH." The hairpin twists of the album's seven compositions, contributed by Pino, his bandmates, and an unsung, anonymous video game composer, draw ferociously swinging, pulse-racing performances from the gifted nine-piece ensemble that are as moving for the soul as they are daunting for the brain.
That's a Computer, due out October 19, 2018 via Outside In Music, takes its title from a comment made by one of Pino's professors at the Juilliard School. The teacher, himself a respected instrumentalist and revered jazz veteran, dismissed the work of one of Pino's idols with those three sneering words. At least it put the young saxophonist in good company - the same professor had derided Pino's own playing in similar terms, despite never sharing his wisdom with Pino directly.
"It's like they say, you never want to meet your heroes," Pino says. "I never even met this professor, but he would apparently hear me play at school concerts and always infer that I had a lot of brains but not a lot of heart. He never addressed me, never introduced himself, apparently had no interest in trying to help me with whatever deficiencies he thought I had, which has been a piece of sand in my clamshell for years. So I wanted to turn it around and make it a self-affirmation."
One listen to Alex LoRe's jubilant, soaring "Antiquity" or the tender, romantic "Film at 11" and there's no mistaking the music of That's a Computer for the work of some unfeeling automaton. The title thus becomes a winking challenge, a musical Turing test that dares listeners to stay unmoved by the impassioned playing even as the music veers into greater complexity. That even applies to the one piece that does trace its origins to a box of circuits, "Baseball Simulator 1000," the theme song for a vintage Nintendo game that wormed its way into Pino's ears during countless hours playing America's virtual pastime with a few of his roommates. It makes for a surprisingly spirited finale.
Almost a decade into its existence, the aptly-named, tightrope-walking No Net Nonet has become a rich and versatile vehicle for Pino's open-eared approach. With the exception of drummer Jimmy Macbride, who came aboard for 2017's The Answer Is No, the line-up remains intact from the Nonet's self-titled 2015 debut: alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, trumpeter Mat Jodrell, trombonist Nick Finzer, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas, guitarist Rafal Sarnecki, pianist Glenn Zaleski, and bassist Desmond White. Chilean-born singer-songwriter Camila Meza guests on two tracks, providing gorgeous wordless vocals to Pino's tense "Frustrations" and a scintillating interpretation of the words of poet Pablo Neruda on Sarnecki's "Sueno de Gatos."
The close ties that the band's members have forged since initially coming together in 2009 were honed by a continuous five-year monthly residency at Smalls Jazz Club and are exemplified by Pino's playful "Horse of a Different Color." Named for the shade-shifting Technicolor beast of burden from The Wizard of Oz, the piece is a portrait of the composer's bandmates in collage. Setting out to write a blues to showcase their talents, he contacted each of the soloists and asked their favorite keys to solo over. The end result cycles through their choices, shining the spotlight on each member in turn.
The heart-wrenching "Film at 11" suggests a tragedy played for ratings on the nightly news but in fact traces the progress of a date, delicately capturing the nervousness, anticipation and thrill of newfound romance. "Look Into My Eyes" is a love letter to the Arizona native's fellow New Yorkers, a plea for eye contact and human connection in a city better known for impersonal brusqueness and unflagging pace. "You can feel completely alone on a subway car packed with people," Pino says, "and there's something wrong with that. Looking somebody else in the eyes can be an invitation to interact, and New Yorkers often don't have the time or patience for that. That can create a caustic environment, and I think that every once in a while if we just acknowledged each other's humanity it would make living in the city a little bit easier."
Ultimately, if albums like That's a Computer are the result of a negative experience with a musical hero, perhaps the bad blood is worth it. Pino laughs at the experience now and admits to enjoying the drama, though he has learned a personal as well as a musical lesson from the ordeal.
"When you grow up listening to somebody and really appreciate their artistry it's disappointing to encounter them and have the experience to turn out nasty," Pino says. "I think being dismissive is probably harming the dismisser more than the dismissed. I never want to be callous or indifferent to new ideas, new people or new ways of playing. It's like improv comedy: the first rule is to always say 'Yes' and build from there. Don't be afraid; no fear." And no net.
New York City-based tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino has led the inventive No Net Nonet for the better part of a decade, maintaining a monthly residency at Smalls Jazz Club in NYC since March 2013. At the same time he's performed as a sideman for artists including Lea DeLaria, Gideon van Gelder, Takuya Kuroda, Richard Boukas, David Lopato, Lauren Desberg, Rafal Sarnecki, Nick Finzer, Jeremy Siskind, Dave Baron, Alex Wintz, Jorn Swart, Marike van Dijk, and Florian Hoefner. He also plays frequently with Bryan Carter & The Young Swangers, and the Steven Feifke Big Band. Pino has shared the stage with such legendary artists as Dave Brubeck, Curtis Fuller, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Christian McBride, Carl Allen, Benny Green and David Sanborn. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Pino grew up singing hymns in church and in the choir at school. The first music he ever listened to was jazz, and he started playing saxophone at age 10. As a high school junior, he won the DownBeat Student Music Award for Best Instrumental Soloist in 2004, and went on to attend the Brubeck Institute, finishing his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Jazz Performance at The New School in 2009. He received a Masters of Music from Juilliard in 2011. Pino has since traveled the world, performing in Japan, Australia, Poland, Spain, Britain, The Netherlands, Brazil, and Costa Rica, as well as throughout the United States and Canada.