Nicolas Meier: guitar for all seasons

    The Swiss guitarist plays jazz, metal and a range of 'ethnic' styles and from 2013-15 toured with rock luminary Jeff Beck

    Nicolas Meier (guitar) and band. Photo by Nick Rabett

    Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier is a musician of truly mind-bending eclecticism. As well as playing in jazz contexts he leads a metal band, he has toured with rock legend Jeff Beck and he incorporates elements of Middle Eastern, Turkish, Balkan, North African and flamenco music, as well as jazz, in his work with World Group.

    Much of this eclecticism is apparent on World Group’s new album Magnificent, reviewed here last month. But how deeply has Meier studied all these different styles, I wonder. Is it possible to really be an expert in so many disparate types of music?

    “I love studying and listening but you need a lifetime to learn, for example, flamenco so I am very far from that,” he acknowledges. “People say: ‘Oh, your flamenco style is beautiful,’ but I know I’m not authentic. I have my own interpretation of a style: I grab a bit of the influence and put it into my playing and make it more personal and I love that.”

    On Magnificent Meier’s bandmates Richard Jones (violin), Demi Garcia Sabat (percussion) and Kevin Glasgow (bass) all contribute creatively. “I always admire Richard’s beautiful sound and lyricism,” declares Meier. “And Demi’s full of ideas: ‘We can have this instrument … or this one … and we can have this rhythm …’ He’s very creative. And Kevin plays so well with Demi and he’s an excellent soloist so he has a voice on his own.”

    Meier composed all the tracks on the new album. “Composing is for me the essence of being an artist,” he asserts. “It’s about having your personal voice.”

    He describes how he presents his material to the band: “Musicians want to know the direction or the feel of the tune and within those parameters they can have freedom. If they had complete freedom they could go in the wrong direction so they need to have an understanding of the composition, the sound, the rhythm and the melody. When it’s the improvisation part, of course, they need to tell their own story – but the composition should guide them on how to solo. If not they could play any solo on any tune!”

    Meier plays a range of guitars on Magnificent, including a nylon-string acoustic guitar. “That’s my main guitar,” he says. “The nylon string sound appeals to me and of course for Arabic or Turkish music or even flamenco it’s essential to have that sound.”

    Meier also plays glissentar, ostensibly a guitar but with 11 strings like an oud. “The sound is closer to the oud but because it’s like a guitar it’s wider in possibility than a proper oud,” he explains. “I can even play some chords.”

    The new CD is actually packaged with a band live album, called Live, and a Meier solo album called Stories, both of which have previously been released digitally. “The live album was a concert just before lockdown. We usually sell CDs on concerts but as we were not doing concerts when the pandemic started I just [released] it digitally. And the same later when I did the solo album. So when I finished Magnificent and concerts were coming back I thought: ‘What about giving a bigger package with more music on it?’”

    As is typical with Meier’s albums the cover shows a painting by his wife Songul Yilmaz-Meier. “It’s of a beautiful mountain in Switzerland and it always makes me think that even though we’re going through a difficult time economically and with the pandemic and wars we should never forget the world is really beautiful.”

    The painting also helps explain why the album is entitled Magnificent even though there is no track of that name on it. “We have a chalet in the mountain and from the balcony that’s the view,” smiles Meier. “And every time I see that real mountain, I always say: ‘Magnifique!’”

    Meier is happy to agree with those who see a Pat Metheny influence in his playing. “Of course! Pat Metheny was always around in my childhood when I was learning the guitar and I love him not only for his playing and his whole different sound but also for the way he experiments, from one album to another having different sounds and pushing boundaries. That of course has some influence on me. And he’s such a great composer, together with Lyle Mays. He’s a unique voice and a genius.”

    On Stories, the solo album in the package, some of the songs, including Night & Day, are from the Great American Songbook. Meier’s early influences were the likes of John McLaughlin and Joe Satriani, players who aren’t associated with that repertoire, so how did Meier familiarise himself with those songs? “[At Berklee College Of Music] I studied Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Miles Davis so the repertoire was always there and I always loved it. But then I focused more on original music [until] the last 10 or 15 years when I incorporated more standards in concerts.”

    Stories includes an interpretation of Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat in a medley with Jeff Beck’s Brush With The Blues. Meier actually toured with Beck between 2013 and 2015 and appears on the subsequent Live In Tokyo and Live+ albums. “I had a wonderful time playing with Jeff Beck and one of my favourite tracks was Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Brush With The Blues. I so much enjoyed listening to him playing that and playing the chords for him so it was really fun to do a solo version of what we used to do.”

    Of Jeff Beck: ‘I admire his uniqueness. He always has his own version of anything. As a guitar player you need your own voice and he has that’

    Meier enthuses about Beck’s musicianship. “I admire his uniqueness. He always has his own version of anything. As a guitar player you need your own voice and he has that. You hear the Jimi Hendrix vibe, the fusion vibe and some jazz vibe in his playing but he just sounds like Jeff Beck. Many people want to emulate this but only he can do it.”

    Meier explains how Beck would work with his band on material: “He doesn’t verbalise too much so we sometimes have to read his mind but as long as we play the essence of the tune and whatever rhythm we are working on he’ll just say: ‘Yes, that’s great.’”

    Was it frustrating playing with Beck insofar as everybody in the audience would have been wanting to hear him solo and not Meier? “No,” he says emphatically. “It’s his show but he left us a lot of space to do what we do. And I wouldn’t actually want to play a solo on Little Wing, for example, because he’s going to play something really nice so I just want to play chords – that made me really happy. I can only say good things about playing with him. He loved the support he got from [the band] and he was very respectful and he gave me a few spotlights and that was really nice. He didn’t have to but he did.”

    Of course rock superstars like Beck enjoy a level of luxury on the road that most jazz musicians can probably barely even imagine. “The main difference is that when I’m playing with my band I have to drive!” laughs Meier. “With Jeff Beck it was lovely to be taken care of and of course it’s very nice to sleep always well at night and in a nice hotel and always have nice food before the concert.”

    Stories also includes the Metallica song Nothing Else Matters. “I’ve seen Metallica four or five times,” says Meier. “They’re very powerful. When I picked up a guitar in childhood, it was because of Metallica and Bon Jovi and Iron Maiden. I got into more jazzy stuff pretty quickly but this style always stayed with me and even nowadays I love listening to it – the excitement, the energy, the fast beats, the distorted sounds, the loud screaming …”

    Meier himself has a parallel career playing metal. His band Seven7 released three albums and he currently has a solo metal project My Dark Side. He doesn’t, however, entirely change his guitar style when he’s playing metal rather than jazz. “Quite a lot of the melodic aspect [of my playing] will be on both styles,” he points out. “And sometimes some Turkish influence that I may use on a jazz track I’ll also use in metal.”

    Like many musicians Meier, who has lived in England since 2000, streamed concerts during lockdown. “How it happened, I have an elderly neighbour and the first week of lockdown she was depressed. And I said: ‘Go into your garden and I’ll play music for you in my garden.’ I got the amplifier out and did this and all my neighbours were clapping. So I thought I’d do it the next week with a camera and stream it to my friends in Switzerland. And within a few weeks I’d let people on my mailing list know and I ended up having a weekly jazz club live streaming with solo, duo and trio performances. It was lifesaving. Not only financially but also having friends around, other musicians, and not losing that connection. And at the same time helping people by giving music free to anybody who needed it or couldn’t pay. And I asked if you were able to pay, to donate to help the musicians. It worked very well.”