Nico Segal has stories to tell, and he’s determined to share them without saying a word.
Segal is perhaps best known as Chance the Rapper’s longtime friend, musical collaborator and trumpet player, but his artistic accomplishments run even deeper and wider. The 24-year-old musician has collaborated with numerous artists, including Neil Young and Frank Ocean and released recordings under the name Donnie Trumpet, including the acclaimed 2015 release with the Social Experiment, “Surf,” and the internet hit “Sunday Candy.” Throughout, he has brought a committed sense of narrative to his playing, a musician who reaches out to engage the listener rather than simply indulge in the shock and awe of empty virtuosity.
“I had written a song for my then-girlfriend who is now my wife and played it for her for years,” Reid says. “I asked Nico to play it at the processional for the family as they walked down the aisle.”
For Segal, it was a homecoming of sorts. “It made me realize there was a real part of my musical soul that I was missing. When I played at his wedding, the song itself was incredible that Julian arranged. I thought we’ve got to see where this goes.”
Texts were exchanged weeks later, then came a phone call. The two talked about the importance of songs and how whatever they did had to be guided by the notion of not just soloing and improvising, but creating stories, tone poems. “I appreciated Nico thinking like that, because what people want now is enjoyment of a song with a line they can follow, not an open-ended jam,” Reid says.
In recording “Exchange” with Social Experiment keyboardist Nate Fox as co-producer, the quartet rigorously whittled down moments from group improvisations and shaped and amplified them until they made sense as a musical narrative. The album encompasses everything from the pastel meditation of “Patients” to the breezy Chicago stepping groove of “We Good,” with Jamila Woods contributing vocals. Call it jazz if you will, but Segal insists he doesn’t want to be pinned down so easily.
“The word ‘jazz’ historically has been an abused term,” Segal says. “It was a term used to label music to make it easier to sell. The term now is so broad, it’s useless to me. I feel elusive to genre in my music. Jazz has influenced me, but there is an exchange happening. We all love jazz and studied jazz, but we don’t like to think we participate in the sport of jazz.”
Reid adds that though the record is largely instrumental, its influences can’t be confined. “This is music that is reflective of how I respond to (John) Coltrane, how I hear Herbie (Hancock), how I hear Janis Joplin or (Jimi) Hendrix. I think we need to hear it in terms of communities of artists, not as a commercialization of music that fits the box that record labels need.”
There’s a challenge inherent in presenting a largely instrumental collection of music at a time when there are numerous entertainment options competing for listeners’ attention. That’s perhaps why “Exchange” suggests a singles collection, with a series of distinct moods and melodies. It is deeply considered, but presented with snap and allure. It’s not supposed to sound like work. It feels effortless.
“It takes more time to understand an instrumental, to get to know horn players, their history, where they come from,” Segal says. “In the information age, it’s harder to communicate that way, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
“A lot has to do with confidence,” Reid adds. “There was a time when an audience member felt confident about grasping the unknowable in a Miles Davis solo. They didn’t need to know all his theories, but they could feel something, rock with something in his playing. Now a lot of quote-unquote ‘lay music listeners,’ they feel utterly lost. They feel a lack of confidence, as is perfectly natural, so they don’t engage.”
Segal jumps back in: “It’s also on the musicians, who choose to let their egos dictate the music. We approach this music with a mindset that isn’t about being the biggest, baddest horn or piano player. It’s not about what makes this solo or these (chord) changes cool. Instead, it’s about the story. What makes this story work?”
Greg Kot co-hosts “Sound Opinions” at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 11 p.m. Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.