Throughout a career spanning over two decades, Nichols has crafted seven highly acclaimed albums and performed extensively, opening for such luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, Al Green, Wayman Tisdale and The Beach Boys. A riveting live act, his repertoire runs the gamut from his own original songs to pop/rock classics and Motown hits. His songwriting and musicianship have earned him the respect of his peers, and his albums have featured such acclaimed guest vocalists as Chicago’s Bill Champlin, Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer, Andy Chrisman of 4Him and award-winning songwriter Zac Maloy.
“Tony Bennett once told me that what he tries to do as a jazz vocalist is sound like an instrumentalist and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to do the opposite of that,’” Nichols says of his approach to his artistry. “I’m going to sound like a vocalist. Obviously, as a horn player, you’ve got to have chops, practice technique and study the greats, but I also spent a lot of time picking vocalists that I liked and analyzing their phrasing and how they approach a lyric., and then Then I tried to approximate it as much as I could with how I would play that lyric. I try to communicate an emotion and state the melody as such that it sounds like somebody is singing it.”
That creative philosophy combined with his natural musical gift has made Nichols one of the most respected musicians in the country. A 2016 recipient of the Golden Hope Award, Nichols has also received the Legacy Tribute Award from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and the Outstanding Achievement in Jazz honor from the prestigious Charlie Christian Music Festival. It’s all been much more than Nichols ever expected to come from his childhood obsession with the sax.
“Growing up on a farm in Arkansas, I really should have been a country artist,” Nichols admits with a grin. “Most guys who play jazz didn’t have a barn, so I’m kind of coming at this from a different place than I think a lot of instrumentalists are. Most sax players are traditionally West or East Coast guys. Everything you’ve experienced in your life comes out in your music and I love the saxophone.”
A chance meeting with Sanborn during his college years cemented Nichols desire to become a professional sax player. “What I loved about Sanborn was he talked a lot about having your own sound,” he recalls. “We had a great conversation. It wasn’t like a musician to fan discussion. It was player to player and he was just very encouraging. At the time I was like 19 or 20, and that really made a huge impression on me musically. It set me on a course of discovery. ‘What’s my voice? There already is a David Sanborn or a Kenny G,’ so I really worked on trying to find my own sound, my own voice so that if you heard a few notes, you would know it was me.”
Nichols succeeded in establishing his own unique sound. In 1996, he recorded his first album, Between You and Me. “I did four studio cuts and the rest was from a live performance because there really is nothing that could replace what playing in front of a live audience does to you, the energy and how much fun it is,” he enthuses. “Playing live versus recording in a studio is just two different mentalities. Right after I released the first album, Tulsa got a jazz station and at the time they were very hungry for people who did this kind of music. I had just put out this record, so they started playing me. I got management and then we started expanding where we got played and did another record and it did pretty well on radio, also.”
Nichols’ career continued to gain momentum. He’s played the most prestigious venues in the country and in the studio, he has worked with such noted producers as Chris Rodriguez, Jeff Lorber, Michael Omartian, Zac Maloy and David Hamilton. He’s made frequent forays onto Billboard’s Jazz chart with entries like “London Baby!” riding the chart for six months, and his Christmas collection, Falling in Love with Christmas, peaking at No. 2 on the smooth jazz.com holiday charts.
“Melodic, yet muscular, jazz.”
Lucy Tauss, Jazz Times
“Grady Nichols is the awesome new sax player for the millennium”
— Jeff Lorber – Grammy Award winning fusion keyboardist and producer, produced “Sophistication” and frequent collaborator.
“One word can describe Grady’s sax playing: TONE. His tone is soulful and sexy and always dead on in tune. I’m a major fan. There are a lot of guys out there with chops. Grady uses the chops to get to his heart and from his heart, it gets to you.”
— Bill Champlin – 2 time Grammy winner, founder of Sons of Champlin and former member of Chicago, appears on multiple Grady projects.
“Working on Grady Nichols’, ‘Falling In Love With Christmas’ was a true joy for me.Christmas songs approached with taste and respect always makes an experience like this special. I appreciate that Grady selected me to contribute on this fine CD. Grady is a great musician who knows what it is to play with taste. Nothing is overdone. Everything is very tastefully performed, and the list of other musicians on this CD made me feel like I was in very special company. Thanks, Grady, for making me a part of this.”
— Michael Omartian – First Record Producer to chart #1 hits in three consecutive decades, 17 Grammy nominations and multiple Grammy Award winner.
“Grady is a singer. Through his horn. He’s very lyrical and soulful. I never feel cheated by the fact that I’m not hearing a lyric. I can imagine that lyric in my head because you’re leading me to the words as a singer. That’s a pretty tall feat to accomplish.”
— Chris Rodriguez – Dove Award winner and producer of “Falling In Love With Christmas” and “Destinations.