Making a Scene Presents an Interview with Nancy Wright!
Nancy Wright is one of the most highly respected and in-demand sax players on today’s blues, Americana and R&B scene. Major music writers have hailed her big-toned tenor and compared her to the all-time greats.
Though she’s called the Bay Area home for 30 years, Wright’s saxophone career got its start in Dayton, Ohio. She was a classically-trained bassoon player majoring in Music, when the university theater department offered her the sax player role in a production of “Cabaret.” Arriving early for rehearsal one day, she found a group of musicians in the hallway jamming on the blues. They invited her to sit in. “The coin dropped that day,” says Wright, “and I discovered the world of improvisation.” Having trained on piano, violin, concert harp, flute and brass, as well as bassoon, Wright says it was also “a question of finally getting to the right instrument.”
While in Dayton, she discovered a mentor in Lonnie Mack, one of the founding fathers of blues-rock guitar, joining him regularly on stage. She also toured with Grammy-award winner John Lee Hooker, performing at Carnegie Hall and the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival, and performed with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Albert King, and Albert Collins.
Wright first appeared on the Bay Area music scene in 1984 with the critically acclaimed New Orleans Rhythm and Blues Band, Hot Links. Following a successful North American tour, Wright and Hot Links were tapped to perform with Swamp Boogie Queen Katie Webster, appearing on her Arhoolie Records release, “You Know That’s Right.” Wright and Webster also performed together at the Chicago Blues Festival and appear together on B.B. King’s album, “Blues Summit,” winner of the 1994 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.
After relocating to San Francisco, Wright spent the next two decades touring North America, Europe, and Asia with such artists as Lonnie Mack, Elvin Bishop; Commander Cody; New Orleans legends Johnny Adams and Earl King; Joe Louis Walker; Maria Muldaur; and Greg “Fingers” Taylor (accompanied by Debbie Davie and Janiva Magnus, opening for Jimmy Buffet’s top-grossing summer amphitheatre Outpost Tour). Wright recorded with B.B. King, Katie Webster, Elvin Bishop, Joe Louis Walker, Little Charlie and the Nitecats, Mark Hummel and many others in the 80’s and early 90’s, and chose to stop touring in the mid-1990’s. During this period, she also performed with many top blues artists including Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Lowell Fulsom, Son Seals, and Ike Turner. “I have been blessed to play with and learn from so many wonderful musicians,” says Wright.
While the blues thread remains the strongest in the tapestry of Wright’s music, in the late 90’s a new thread appeared—the opportunity to work with local Hammond B3 organ artist Jackie Ivory (who also worked with sax luminaries Junior Walker and Willis Jackson). This rekindled her love of organ combo music, which led to a performance with monster Hammond star Tony Monaco and to the release of her critically acclaimed debut CD “Moanin’” (produced by Monaco and backed by his trio) featuring a mix of soul jazz, blues, ballads, and boogaloo, including four original compositions. Like Texas Tenors Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet, and Chicago “Tough Tenors” Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, Wright works back and forth between blues and jazz comfortably.
Wright performed regularly in Northern California with her own group and also performed regularly and/or recorded with blues and roots-based acts including the Blues Broads, Mighty Mike Schermer, Houston Jones, Lady Bianca, Steve Willis, Macy Blackman and others. In 2013, Wright was awarded the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Blues Saxophone Player of the Year. In 2014, she hit the road again, touring in Europe, Canada and the US with Frank Bey (who received multiple Blues Music Award nominations in 2014) and Greg Nagy (31st BMA Best New Artist Debut), and continued to play in Northern California with her own group and other artists.
Nancy Wright released a new blues/roots CD in early 2015, adding vocal and songwriting dimensions to her artistry. “Putting Down Roots” consists of twelve blues/roots originals (six instrumentals and six vocals) spanning blues, R&B, New Orleans, funk, and gospel styles, and was awarded a top-20 spot for Blues Album of the Year in the DownBeat Reader’s Poll.
Nancy released PLAYDATE! in 2016 on the heels of her successful 2015 all-original Putting Down Roots CD. For PLAYDATE!, Nancy continues to deliver original material but also delivers fresh renditions of blues/roots/Americana cover material. Nancy has been blessed to work with award-winning blues/roots artists, and the CD’s ten special guests draw from Nancy’s musical network: Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Joe Louis Walker, Frank Bey, Wee Willie Walker, Victor Wainright, Mike Schermer, Chris Cain, Terrie Odabi, and Jim Pugh. PLAYDATE! was included in Downbeat Magazine’s Best Albums of 2017, and received a 2017 Blues Blast Music Awards Honorable Mention in the Soul Blues Album category.
Wright is gearing up to release her third CD in five years, “Alive and Blue”, on the Direct Hit/Vizztone label in June 2019. Wright received her third consecutive Blues Music Award nomination in 2019 for Horn Player of the Year. She also appears as a sideman on multiple Blues Music Award-nominated CDs.
Wright continues to tour regularly, playing major festivals and clubs with headlining artists and her own band. She is a popular regular on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, performing with Tommy Castro and the Painkillers.