Over the course of his career, which spans nine releases as a leader, trumpeter and vocalist Nate Birkey has consistently cleaved to a less-is-more ethos, whether by virtue of his West Coast cool vibe or specific technical choices that prioritize feeling and lyrical expression. That quality is particularly evident on Just A Closer Walk, Birkey’s spiritually minded new studio album. The disc opens, appropriately, with a nod to Donald Byrd’s 1963 gospel-jazz game changer New Perspective, which Byrd referred to as a “modern hymnal.” Yet where Byrd made Duke Pearson’s stirring “Cristo Ridentor” famous with the help of an eight-piece gospel choir, seven instrumentalists and his own clean and clear articulation, Birkey’s take is introspective and mellow. A hushed fuzz of percussion juxtaposed against the restraint of Birkey’s lines underscore the song’s somber essence. “And It Can Be” takes that quietude a step further as Birkey, having put aside his usual mix of playing and singing for this all instrumental album, virtually transforms his trumpet into a human voice, complete with ranges of emotion that taper off into a diaphanous whisper at the song’s end. That’s not to say Just A Closer Walk neglects the uptempo, New Orleans-inspired elements of the church music that influenced it. A playful rhythm section kicks things off with a parade beat on “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” As the tune progresses, a series of occasionally knotty improvisations update the song’s traditional foundation before a low piano refrain heralds a return to the opening rhythms. “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” meanwhile, nearly flirts with funk. Albums like this suggest Birkey is on his way out from under the shadow of all those early Chet Baker comparisons; his musical ideas deserve to stand on their own.
—Jennifer O’Delle - Downbeat, April 2015
"If you want to hear the roots of jazz within a modern quintet context, this album will give you a very special, introspective perspective. And you'll rarely hear a trumpet player with such a deep self-expression as Nate Birkey."
Vic Schermer - All About Jazz
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"With his muted trumpet and hush-a-bye vocal style, Birkey recalls a healthy Chet Baker. His modern-yet-classic-sounding group rolls through tunes like “Silent Night” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The piano chair is split between two very underrated modern players—Jim Ridl and Steve Rudolph—but there’s no shifting of style or momentum, at least in part because they both swing so well with the very tight rhythm section of Tony Marino and Marko Marcinko.
On the instrumental cuts, the band recalls vintage Prestige-era Miles Davis, and even when they shift rhythmic gears to a loping funk on “We Three Kings,” the music still swings mightily. Birkey adds a Hanukkah tune to the mix, and even the Jewish-born and reborn Bob Dylan didn’t do that. Without question, this is one of the gems in this year’s batch of holiday releases."
Lee Mergner - Jazz Times Magazine
"What comes to mind in connection with Nate Birkey: Christmas are dry martinis, The New Yorker magazine, twilights by the ocean, and being half-asleep as embers glow in the fireplace. - the quality of the music itself is quietly stunning. While Birkey's music is generally understated, it always has a way of getting inside and impressing with its sincerity and finely-honed expressiveness. This album is no exception."
Vic Schermer ~ All About Jazz
"Recent New York transplant Nate Birkey shifts easily from unabashed romanticism (“Bianca,” “Theme From Cinema Paradiso”) to blues (“Almost Home”) to sensitive Chet Baker-meets-Michael Franks singer mode (Cole Porter’s “All of You,” Willie Nelson’s “I’m Falling in Love Again,” Michel Legrand’s “Little Boy Lost” and his original bossa “Sing to Me”). He makes his most forceful statements, though, on originals like the 12/8 groover “The Promise” and the all-out swinger “Tuesdays on the Ridge.”
Bill Milkowski - Jazz Times Magazine
“Nate Birkey, he of mysterious charisma, subtle gossamer trumpet lines and understated voice, hunches over the microphone and leans into his phrases, shutting out the world."
Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times
"Nate Birkey's trumpet rings with a clarion tone, as his quintet interprets straight-ahead ideas. Acoustic, and derived both from jazz and blues traditions, his session favors original compositions. Birkey's sense of the modern mainstream includes light Latin reflections, moody trumpet daydreams, cohesive ensemble play, and a bit of adventurous growth. The album is a clear winner. Nods to Miles Davis are everywhere. When the trumpeter steps forward, his ballad tone takes over. There are classical music overtones. Several of the pieces proceed suitelike, telling stories through their myriad mood changes. The title track - a loose, bouncy affair - adds guitars to color with a contemporary brush. Guest Joe Woodard elevates Birkey's straight-ahead piece to the leading edge. This is where today's jazz should be. The tradition remains intact, while familiar elements from rock, pop, and world music serve to provide an avenue for growth."
Jim Santello, All About Jazz
“Nate Birkey has a lithe trumpet sound and slight, soft vocal delivery that will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Chet Baker…His trumpet playing is more plaintive and even closer to Miles Davis' minimalist approach than Baker's ever was. Ballads is a recording of just that and a nice introduction to Birkey's "medium cool" aesthetic. With creative group arrangements that often feature vibraphone, he breathes atmospheric life into "For All We Know" and "I Will Wait for You." This is touching and pleasant afterglow music.”
Matt Collar, All Music Guide
“The third and fourth albums by trumpeter/singer Nate Birkey and his excellent colleagues contrast greatly. The Mennonite, with its essentially Hard-Bop orientation, suggests the music once associated with the Blue Note studios. The pensive Ballads seems derived more from West Coast cool… Both Recordings feature creatively varied arrangements. The players are strong musicians, with Birkey himself being something of a cross between Miles Davis and Chet Baker.”
David Franklin, Cadence Magazine
"Make way for Nate Birkey, a talented trumpeter / vocalist / composer who has been honing his talents in the Santa Barbara jazz scene and is now getting the national exposure he deserves. Birkey's latest release, Shortest Day, recorded live in 2004, showcases his considerable gifts and puts him front and center among jazz' most promising musicians."
Florence Wetzel, AllAboutJazz-New York
“The timbre of his disarmingly soft and reedy voice is itself closely akin to the sound he gets out of his horn, and it is precisely these unexpected and melancholy vocals that - combined with his seemingly effortless skill on the trumpet - have most critics rushing to compare him with the late Chet Baker”
Jim Reed, Connect Savannah
“Birkey’s trumpet chops are strong, his playing is lyrical and passionate… his singing voice is soft and sensitive, making the ballad format the most appropriate for his style. Birkey seems to me to be an enigma. As was once queried of Chet Baker, is he a trumpet player who sings, or a singer who plays trumpet? Birkey is adept at both.”
Frank Rubolino, Cadence Magazine