He demonstrates how melancholy harmonies, not unlike those played by legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans, can be transformed with a flick of the fingers into chords from tunes he plays with his minimalist pop-rock-jazz combo, the Nick Luca Trio.
"It's close enough to rock 'n' roll," shrugs the 34-year-old bandleader, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer as he plops back into his chair.
After a recent rehearsal, Luca and bassist Chris Giambelluca, 29, sat for an interview in the office at Wavelab, where Luca is an engineer. Drummer Jim Kober, 25, was absent, requesting via Luca simply that he not be misquoted.
Since arriving in Tucson from the East Coast in 1993, Luca has played guitar in the funky jazz group Greasy Chicken and the rambunctious funk-rock band Interlocking Grip. The introspective Nick Luca Trio came together almost three years ago as a reaction to the extroverted music played by those groups.
"I thought, 'I want to go in a completely different direction. I want to get sleepy on your ass.' And I chose to make it piano-based to lighten the mood a little bit," Luca says.
The trio's music is "basically an indie rock take on Bill Evans, but without so many chord changes. I just take one of his chords or harmonies and repeat it ad nauseum, sing some of my shit over the top and add some our stuff to it."
That was the direction Luca headed in 2001 with bassist Giambelluca, who also had played in Interlocking Grip.
Luca had known Kober, seen him around and heard him play drums here and there. "So one day I asked him, 'Can you, like, play quietly?' He said, 'Sure, I like quiet. I have brushes and stuff.' So I had him down here for our first rehearsal--it was in this very room."
Says Giambelluca, "Jim was in a rock band before that, so it was a 180-degree turn to play with us."
Says Luca, "It was that way for pretty much all three of us. We all learned to play quietly and what space was by playing together. The ego-less nature of this band is good. You can play nothing, and you're still contributing."
Says Giambelluca, "It's nice to be able to play one whole note instead of filling up the space with a lot of notes, and it can mean a lot more."
Luca, who holds a master's degree in music from the UA, certainly knows his music theory. But he is no buttoned-down academic. He wears shorts, a T-shirt, a couple days growth of beard. He displays a gently sarcastic sense of humor and talks about "weird shit" recording techniques, such as miking the tinkling sound that results from sliced-up squares of aluminum Coke cans being scattered on the floor.
The day after the interview, Luca sends an e-mail, apologizing for being too "music-geeky" during the interview. But in fact, the conversation was so enjoyable I forgot to ask prototypical rock-critic questions such as "What are your influences?" and "How did you get started playing music?"
Fortunately, the Web site of Luca's English record label, Loose Music, features an interview with him in which he states, "I started playing guitar when I was 12 or so, picking licks off of the likes of The Who, Led Zep and Hendrix ... when I got into college, I got into jazz and composition ... I really liked 20th century classical music, too, and I also got into electronic music, soundtracks, world beat and pop."
Thanks to the work of Luca and producer-engineer-owner Craig Schumacher, as well as excellent recordings by Calexico and Giant Sand, Wavelab Studio has earned an international reputation as an in-demand recording studio.
Among the artists who have journeyed from afar to Tucson to create music at Wavelab are Richard Buckner, Steve Wynn, Barbara Manning, John Parrish, Neko Case, Robyn Hitchcock, Jon Brion, DeVotchka and singer-songwriter Lisa Germano, who collaborated with Giant Sand on the project OP8.
That Luca seems to be able to play any instrument he lays his hands on means he's much in demand as a studio musician on a variety of records, including those of longtime collaborators Calexico and Giant Sand. Wavelab's Craig Schumacher calls Luca the studio's designated "ringer."
Next on the agenda for the Nick Luca Trio is a two-week concert tour up the West Coast in August and the release of a new record titled Slow Motion--a collection of previously unreleased tracks from Little Town, as well as some outtakes--on Loose Music.
The trio also is recording a new album with a projected release in early 2005. It will be released on the same Portland, Ore., label, Panther Fact Records, that issued Little Town.
But before all that, the Nick Luca Trio will perform Friday night, July 23, at City Limits, an eastside nightclub most notable for hosting concerts by national touring acts such as John Hiatt, Indigo Girls and Loverboy.
Luca says the concert's promoter, Cal Productions, has been great. "They called us up and asked us. And then they asked us how much (money) we wanted to play! Maybe I should have asked for more."
Far from the downtown, UA-area and North Fourth Avenue haunts where the band usually plays, the headlining gig is kind of special. But Luca wonders how many of the band's followers will venture to the other side of town.
"If by 'special' you mean in the sense that the club will be empty, yeah," he quips. "I assume there are people that live on the eastside and they go out, but I live downtown, and I bike everywhere, so it's a little out of my range of experience."
The concert also will feature two up-and-coming female singer-songwriters--Tristan Prettyman and Tucson's Cathy Rivers.
Luca says he expects his trio to play a little with Rivers. "We have a set of five songs where we play with her as her backing band. Yeah, we'll probably do that."