Novello, John (Niacin) (June 2000)

A Member of the Vitamin B Complex: John Novello

John Novello, courtesyNicotinic acid, more commonly known as Niacin, is but one member of the vitamin B family. B3 to be exact. And the B3 happens to be instrument of choice of John Novello, himself but one member of the Niacin family, a trio that also includes Billy Sheehan (bass) and Dennis Chambers (drums). The B3 is perhaps one of the most recognizable sounds in music. The Niacin website includes this about the Hammond:

"The sound of the Hammond Organ has been somewhat absent in popular recordings of the previous decade or so. There was a time, though, when its presence on stage was de rigueur for any self-respecting band - you simply weren't a real band without one. It could easily be argued that the characteristic Hammond B3/Leslie tone was as important to '60s and '70s music as a Stratocaster or Les Paul guitar. To the uninitiated you've probably heard the sound on some of your favorite and popular music's most essential records. It was a key ingredient to the Vanilla Fudge, Humble Pie, Spooky Tooth, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Blind Faith, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana and many many more." [1]

Niacin - Deep (2000)Add Niacin to that list. Niacin have released three albums to date, the self-titled debut, High Bias, and their latest Deep, released on the progressive rock label Magna Carta. Plus there's a Japan-only live release that CDNow strangely classified as heavy metal; go figure. Well, Niacin is far from being heavy metal. Novello's keyboard style harks back to the 70's sound of the jazz and popular musical styles, so you won't hear percussive assaults on the instrument a la Keith Emerson, though Novello lists Emerson as an influence, which can be heard in "Panic Button." In fact, Novello's list of influences almost reads like a who's who in music. "Dick Contino and Myron Floren on the accordion; Bach on the pipe organ; Jimmy Smith, Keith Emerson, Bryan Auger, Lee Michaels, Larry Young, Pete Robinson (Quatermass), Jon Lord, Rick Wakeman, Chester Thompson, Felix Caviliere, Mark Stein, Sly Stone, Billy Preston, Gary Peterson (a genius organist from the strip clubs of Boston), Mike Ratledge (Soft Machine), [and] Stevie Winwood - all on the B3; Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Joe Zawinul, Stanley Cowell, [and] Bill Evans on the piano; Stravinsky, Pendereki, Bartok, Schoenberg, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, [and] Debussy as composers; Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, [and] John Maclaughin on guitar; Edgar Winter, Gino Vanelli, Robert Plant, Sly Stone, Lenny Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, James Brown, Sam & Dave, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jack Bruce, and Stevie Winwood as singers."

We recently had an opportunity to "cyber-chat" with John Novello in a recent email-interview. When asked what first drew him to the Hammond B3, Novello said, "'Whiter Shade Of Pale' [by] Procol Harum. That haunting soulful tone bit me! And then about a billion other bands all mentioned in tribute on the first Niacin CD. Niacin - Niacin (1997) Of course when I played my first B3, I instantly fell in love with the 'organic' primordial beast. The drawbars, the spinning Leslie speaker, the tone - it just allowed 'my' soul to speak and that was it. Of course I can speak on any keyboard and I love the piano and Rhodes and synths etc, but the B3 is something else."

The story of Niacin's formation all started when Billy Sheehan, Billy Sheehan then with Mr. Big, was looking for a vocal coach for the band. As luck would have it, the ad that Sheehan responded to was one posted by Novello's wife Gloria. Discovering that both he (Novello) and Sheehan had a love for that classic Hammond B3 sound, the seeds for a band that included the B3 were planted. It wasn't until later, when Sheehan asked Novello if he "wanted to play on [a track for a Guitar World compilation], which by the way was named 'Niacin'"[1], that the plan really took shape. When the time came to find a drummer they both instantly thought of Dennis Chambers, Dennis Chambers who both viewed as a tremendous funk and jazz drummer.

Each member of Niacin has played with some big names in the music world; for Novello that list includes Chick Corea, Mark Isham, Manhattan Transfer, Donna Summer, and many others. In fact, Corea appears on Niacin's second album, High Bias. It was while playing as organist with a blues band, CJ Bri, that Novello first started getting noticed, and went on to further study at the Berkeley College of Music, which led to getting quite a bit of session work. He has released at least five solo albums, has done film scores (including Au Pair, Omega Code) and is the author of instructional books. He has written two, the highly regarded The Contemporary Keyboardist which has been called "The Bible of contemporary keyboard playing," and Stylistic Etudes, about which Novello tells us: "Stylistic Etudes is 86 etudes (studies) for the piano that demonstrate how to play most contemporary styles. It comes with a CD recording of all of the original etudes and a MIDI File." (There are audio samples on his website).

Too Cool; photo (c) Dick ZimmermanAside from Deep, Novello has been involved in a number of projects over the last couple of years, including recording a track, "Prism," with Andy Summers for As Long As You're Living Yours: A Tribute To Keith Jarrett (Joel Taylor plays drums on the track). He is also contributing to a tribute album Summers will release in September 2000 called Myself When I Am Real, released by RCA. "[I've also done the] film score [to] Omega Code just released last year. [Plus the book] Stylistic Etudes. All my products were on Warner Brothers Publications but I recently just switched to Hal Leonard. I now have out The Contemporary Keyboardist, Stylistic Etudes and three videos called The Contemporary Keyboardist Three Part Video Series." And add tutor and lecturer to that list, as he and Gloria Rusch (Novello), offer at least four different workshops, covering such topics as Success In Music, Keyboard Performance, Stage Presence.

Niacin - High Bias (1998)With the jazz-rock genre of music, there is often an energy about it that suggests improvisation. I wondered how much was improvised and how much was composed. Novello replied, "50/50. Improvisation [is easier]. Composing is harder and so gives me more satisfaction when I do it well. In Niacin, it's fairly even although sometimes I write a complete piece and/or Billy does." And what about those song titles? There's a track that's "This One's Called...," which opens up that question - what's the processing for naming? "The working titles are usually dumped when the tunes are finished being recorded. Then we have a naming session and we play the song and vomit out titles until both Billy and I agree. Usually takes about an hour or two at most. Sometimes we name them seriously and sometimes we joke around. [As in the album's title.] Nice And Deep = Niacin Deep. Get it! Not kidding. Another joke."

The music on Deep has a nice juxtaposition between a classic sound and a modern feel. Even the blues slowburner "Things Ain't Like They Used To Be" with Glenn Hughes on vocals and Steve Lukather on guitar sounds like an instant classic. But does Novello have any particular affection for any of his "musical children"? "Everyone is special but I like 'Blue Mondo' and 'Panic Button' and 'Best Laid Plans.'" (I can see why, as the B3 is the lead instrument on "Blue Mondo," which starts off darkly, with a slow deep churn, before Novello's grinding B3 enters.) Hughes, Sheehan (photo (c) John Harrell

Glenn Hughes, as some may know, was bassist for a while with Deep Purple (1973/4-1976), after a stint with Trapeze (a band he helped form). How did Hughes come to be involved with Niacin? Novello said, "His manager called me a few years ago to see if I wanted to hook up with Glenn and do some writing. I did and we hit it off well. I love his vocal ability. So when Billy and I wrote the ballad 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be,' we realized the tune needed lyrics and a vocal. So I called Glenn and he smoked it! Then we realized it needed guitar, and so Clapton, Beck and Lukather came to mind. We ended up with Luk due to logistics. He smoked it first take! Billy knew him better then I did and so he contacted him. We didn't know it but he was a fan of Niacin as well so it worked out quite well." Steve Lukather (photo (c) John Harrell

And what does the future hold? "I'm about to start a new project called LUNATEK. LUNATEK is going to be sort of Tangerine Dream meets Propeller Heads meets Subotnick meets Penderecki meets Herbie Hancock! A real fusion of heavy rhythmic grooves, thick but aesthetic keyboard textures, jazz harmonies and blowing all morphed into one. LUNATEK will be [myself] and Alan Howarth. Alan is a sound designer and his credits include all the Star Trek special sound effects as well as Red October, Poltergeist. He is also a film composer, as am I. We have together two digital recording studios across from each other in the same complex. Both studios are connected together and so we're using ALL of our inventory of equipment to create this project. Protools 5.0, Logic Audio 4.2 and tons of samplers and synths and two Hammond B3's plus Alan's Synclavier Rig. Hopefully we'll get it done this year." And with whom would he like to work that he hasn't yet? "Eric Clapton, Dave Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Gino Vanelli, Steve Tyler to name a few...oh and Jimi Hendrix!"

As busy as John is going to be for some time yet - Niacin will be playing a few July dates on the East Coast (see concerts) and West Coast dates in the fall - does he get time to listen to other artists' music. I asked him what has caught his ear recently. "Gonzalo Rubalcaba. He's an amzing Cuban jazz pianist and composer. Amazing!"

I wondered if he felt being on Magna Carta would open other doors for the band, that it might draw in listeners who might not otherwise be into jazz-rock-fusion? "Hope so. America is tough because of the suck radio formats. At least Magna Carta specializes in progressive rock." Which might explain that Japanese "heavy metal" classification, something I found a bit strange. Novello's reply to that was, "No Comment. This is an insane planet. I have always just wrote and played the music I like and whether it's successful and what people categorize it as I mostly ignore for sanity reasons."

Our thanks to John Novello for taking time out for us, and to Anne Leighton for arranging for the interview.

Niacin (l to r: Dennis Chambers, John Novello, and Billy Sheehan); courtesy

[1] these quotes taken from the Niacin website. [though it seems it is now no longer there]

Chick Corea - Eye Of The Beholder (1988)
John Novello - Too Cool (1990)
Mark Isham - Mark Isham (1990)
John Novello - On The Other Side (1991)
John Novello - What's Goin' On (1993)
John Novello - The Lady Sings The Blues (1995)
Niacin - Niacin (1996)
John Novello - Here & Now (1996)
Niacin - Niacin Live! Blood, Sweat & Beers (1997/2003) Niacin - High Bias (1998)
Various - Encores, Legends & Paradox (ELP Tribute) (1999)
Niacin - Deep (2000)
Gloria Rusch - Tightrope (2000)
Various - As Long As You're Living Yours: The Music Of Keith Jarrett (2000)
Andy Summers - Peggy's Blue Skylight (2000)
Niacin - Time Crunch (2002)
John Novello Quartet - Always & Forever (2004)
John Novello - Threshold (2004)
Various - Man Of The Year (OST) (2004)
Niacin - Organik (2005)
John Novello - B3 Soul (2008)

Added: June 3rd 2000
Interviewer: Stephanie Sollow

Artist website:
Hits: 2337
Language: english

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