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If not for the muse

Always true to his muse, composer and recording artist John Nilsen never stops writing new material for solo piano or his five-piece rock band — a fact exemplified by 15 recordings on his independent label, Magic Wing, along with three made in the mid '80s on Eagle Records in Los Angeles.

"I'm always pushing forward," Nilsen says during a telephone interview from his home office in West Linn. "I'm always writing new songs, reworking my own compositions. That never stops. My life wouldn't be normal without that."

Nilsen will present his annual solo piano concerts during this coming week in the Rogue Valley. His shows include selections from his lengthy oeuvre, some boogie-woogie piano, classical, jazz and familiar holiday tunes, along with a few new songs slated for his 19th album. He and his band, Swimfish, are in the process of putting together a dozen songs or so for "Local Ocean," with a tentative release date of sometime next summer.

The new album's title is as tentative as the release date.

"It's what I would call a strong contender for the title of the CD," Nilsen laughs. "We haven't made a decision, but we're calling it that after one of the songs."

Swimfish features Nilsen on guitar, piano and vocals, Don (Woody) Woodward on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and vocals, Mike Snyder on drums and percussion, Jamin Sweson on bass and vocals and Bob Logue on guitar and vocals.

"I keep the band to have a vehicle for my guitar compositions," Nilsen says. "Probably more than half of the material on the new album will be guitar-driven music."

Nilsen's holiday concerts are set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Upper Rogue United Methodist Church, 18977 Highway 62, Shady Cove; 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, at Newman United Methodist Church, 132 N.E. B St., Grants Pass; 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17, at Paschal Winery, 1122 Suncrest Road, Talent; 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, at RoxyAnn Winery, 3285 Hillcrest Road, Medford; and 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, at United Methodist Church, 416 Fourth St., Gold Hill. Tickets for the Dec. 16 and 17 concerts are $10, all others are free.

Audiences can look for such new songs as "So Hot, So Not" at the concerts. Written for piano, it's treated more like a rock tune. Another is "Out and Away," just recorded at the end of November. Slower and more melodic, Nilsen says, it still fits under the rock genre.

"Another, under the working title 'Forever,' will get a big sound on the album with lots of musical instruments, but it also can be stripped down for solo shows," he says. "It's more of a ballad."

Nilsen wrote the, er, working title track, "Local Ocean," while driving to a gig in north-central Washington state.

"I was in this town called Oroville, and I thought of my dad, Orville," he says. "As I passed through the town, I became flooded with imagery, ideas and melody. I literally wrote the song in 10 minutes. I pulled over to write down the lyrics before I could forget them.

"All songs are different. Some you labor over and others just come through you, and if you're lucky you can receive them. This one feels like it was written already, like I don't deserve the credit."

Audiences can also look for traditional holiday classics at Nilsen's shows.

"Always," Nilsen says. "I stick to the ones that I grew up with. They're certainly my favorites, and far more traditional. Like 'O Come All Ye Faithful' and 'Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.' Songs like these are masterpieces, well-written compositions. I also do some of Vince Guaraldi's stuff, like the Charlie Brown music. It's all a feel thing. I choose songs I sincerely feel. That allows any artist to more effectively deliver in a performance."

Nilsen also is a big fan of The Beatles, and adds a few of their songs to his programs. Look for John Lennon's "Imagine," "If I Fell" from "A Hard Day's Night" and an arrangement of the Lennon tune "Across the Universe."

In early October, Nilsen toured Ireland and The Netherlands. Later that month, he was selected to become an artist with Deering Banjo Co. In January, when he chooses a banjo at the family-run factory near San Diego, he will join the ranks of Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Carolina Chocolate Drops' founding member Dom Clemmons, Chris Funk of The Decemberists, Winston Marshall of Mumford and Sons and many others.

"There's no saying how that will turn out since I'm not a bluegrass player," he says. "It'll be fun, though, to see where the muse goes. It has been quite a ride, but I have little interest in looking back. It's all about moving forward with the same enthusiasm as when it all started ... by paying close attention to the muse."

Portland composer and recording artist John Nilsen returns to the Rogue Valley for his annual series of holiday concerts. Nilsen attended Southern Oregon University (SOSC) and performed around Ashland and Medford. Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Nilsen