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Article Published June 26, 2019
Back in Branford: Dan Pugach Nonet Opens Branford Jazz Series June 27
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

When Dan Pugach Nonet featuring Nicole Zuraitis opens the free Branford Summer Jazz Series on Thursday, June 27, fans will be arriving from across Connecticut to hear the sound put together by the band of Dan Pugach, the Grammy-nominated jazz drummer/composer who’s career has blown up since the last time he played the Branford green, back in 2012.

Of course, Dan is planning to perform his 2018 Grammy-nominated arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (Best Arrangement, Instrument and Vocals) featuring Nicole on vocals. The song is just one of many creative milestones the two have marked together since Dan Pugach Nonent first came on the scene only four years ago.

“Oh yes, we’re a power couple,” Dan says, laughing.

On a more serious note, he credits Nicole with not only introducing him to the Branford Jazz Series (back then, he was playing with her band) but inspiring him to arrange “Jolene,” which went on to become a featured track on his first album, Dan Pugach Nonet Plus One (2018).

“We played there in 2012 with Nicole’s band and then we got asked to come back this time with the full nine-piece band featuring her, and I can’t wait,” says Dan, who arranged “Jolene” as a surprise gift for his wife.

They’d been playing it for years at gigs, usually as a duet, he explains.

“Nicole really like the lyrics, and she’s been playing that song forever; and her mom loved that song. And so every gig we did, we ended up playing it as a duet,” he says of his wife, a Connecticut native. “Before we were married, before we were even engaged, we had a show with a full band in Connecticut, and I wanted to surprise her and surprise her mom by arranging Nicole’s version of ‘Jolene’ for a larger ensemble, and so I wrote that arrangement. And that arrangement took off, and we decided to record it.”

Sounds pretty simple, right? Listen to Dan’s fascinating back story and you’ll learn that this amazing artist, who just claimed the Charlie Parker Prize/Manny Albam Commission at BMI Jazz Composers Workshop Showcase in New York City two weeks ago, came to America and became one of the rising stars in the world of jazz.

Growing up in Raanana, Israel, Dan first picked up the sticks at 12 and “played for fun,” he says.

“I was just a rock drummer; I had no intention of becoming a professional drummer,” he says. “But I kept doing it, and I got into high school with a music program where the emphasis was more on jazz. And I was like, ‘I don’t want to play jazz—I don’t get it!’ I was 15.”

By the age of 18, Dan had developed the strong roots of the dynamic drumming his fans love today—and was lucky enough to take his music with him during his mandatory stint with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“When you finish high school, you start getting letters from the Army; ‘...what are you going to do, what are you good at?’” says Dan. “They try their best to fit the job to your best abilities. They don’t want frustrated soldiers! Because everybody has to do it, it’s not voluntary. You finish high school, and then 18 to 21 you spend in the Army.”

Dan auditioned for drummer positions and was selected for one.

“I got into basically the best gig in the Army; which is playing for the Air Force Band,” he says. “It was very loose, so you could do whatever you want outside. You can play gigs, you can practice, rehearse, and work on your craft.”

Dan was able to attend the Rimon School of Jazz while in the IDF. Training at Rimon, a sister school of Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA), ultimately brought him to the U.S. in 2006.

“Berklee has many programs all over the world, and once a year faculty auditions students in all their sister schools, including Israel,” says Dan. “So I auditioned. I got a really nice scholarship; and only because of that, I was able to pack my stuff and start a new life.”

After earning his Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee, Dan says the notion of forming up his own group wasn’t top of mind.

“Actually, I was never thinking about it, until it found me,” he says. “I always wanted to just play, and my goal was to be someone successful’s drummer. But you have to go out a lot and you have to be at the jazz clubs at 4 a.m. if you want to meet people. And I also realized you have to have a very specific goal [of] the artists that you want to be associated with, that you want to play with; because you need to learn their music. You need to go to their shows. You need to be around them, until that opportunity comes up where you can sit in with the band. And I didn’t really have that in mind. I just wanted to play. So I started working with Nicole a lot, who’s now my wife. I always loved her voice and her writing.”

Moving from Boston to New York (the couple lives in Brooklyn), Dan started “experimenting” in composition, he says.

“I ended up doing another degree, also in performance—I never studied composition at college—and then I started experimenting with writing for five horns,” he says. “And I realized there’s a lot I need to learn, but I wasn’t bad at it! I had good intuition. And I did that for a minute, and then I stopped; because I was kind of broke!”

Dan earned an M.A. in music from the City College of New York. He didn’t have trouble making a living—Dan’s versatile and powerful musicianship kept him in demand in New York City and beyond. He’s played with notable artists including Livingston Taylor, Airto Moreira, Gregoire Maret, Billy Drews, Jeremy Pelt, Wayne Bergeron, and many others.

“And then, in 2015, I felt kind of empty from just gigs for other people, and I started the band,” Dan says. “And it just took off. We were playing, and the first show was packed, and the second show was packed...everybody wanted, all of the sudden, to be in that band! I was like, ‘Oh my God—all you got to do is build something, and it creates a life of its own!’ The people wanted to be in it, and they want to help push it.”

At first, unless you were able to catch the band at a club, the only way to hear them play was to find videos Dan posted on YouTube.

“My focus was never on getting blown up,” says Dan. “I just wanted to make music, and get it better and better and better, and play better gigs. So we were playing a bunch of residencies in New York City; like Rockwood Music Hall and we got into the 55 Bar, which is a very good jazz club. And then little by little we got gigs out of town.”

When a promoter told him he needed to make an album, Dan had to think on it.

“There was a lady who was a promoter; and she was like a gatekeeper for one of the jazz clubs in New York. I sent her my stuff because I really wanted to play there; and all I had at the time was YouTube videos,” he says. “She said ‘Nice music, but as far as the industry goes; you don’t exist. You need to record an album, get reviewed in magazines, all that stuff.’”

At first, Dan said, he was “a little resentful” of the assessment. But it didn’t take long for him to come around to the idea.

“That made me really think about the album, and what needs to go there; and I started producing [Plus One],” he says. “And then I pushed the album, 100 percent, with publicists, and it got played on the radio, and we got a lot of buzz. And then, it got nominated for a Grammy. It’s crazy.”

On June 27 in Branford, Dan Pugach Nonet featuring Nicole Zuraitis will bring live performances of some favorite tunes from the album, including “Brooklyn Blues,” which jazz author Debbie Burke (debbieburkeauthor.com) describes as, “a steamy, raucous sound with articulated rhythms, horns that sizzle, saxes that know how and when to push a groove, and a trombone that sasses you up and down and all around. All nine instrumentalists (Plus One, that would be the vocalist) empty their pockets to give all they’ve got.”

“It’s a ten-piece ensemble; it’s like a mini-big band, with six horns, a rhythm section, and the huge voice of Nicole,” says Dan. “It’s a mix of entertaining and engaging as well as hip and sophisticated and jazzy instruments. It’s a good amount of all the ingredients; like a good salad. Not too much of anything.” 

Dan Pugach Nonet featuring Nicole Zuraitis opens the 2019 Branford Summer Jazz Series with a free, live performance on the Branford town green Thursday, June 27, 6:30 p.m. Visit branfordjazz.com to learn more about the schedule of performers coming to town for a total of nine Thursday evening performances June 27 through Aug. 29. For more information on Dan Pugach and Dan Pugach Nonet featuring Nicole Zuraitis, visit www.danpugach.com.