Fitting tribute... Houston jazz bassist Dave Nichols had always wanted to record his own material, storing it away patiently over the last year while he waited for the right set of circumstances. Those circumstances never came.

A ubiquitous freelance presence around town, a busy producer and a doting husband, Nichols never found time to give his own ideas the attention they deserved. But by this August, time -- a commodity never in short supply when it came to helping other musicians -- was running out on Nichols. Holed up at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, he was succumbing to a potent form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Nichols' 33 years were winding to a close in the early morning hours of August 23 when a few friends came by his room waving a cassette. It contained seven songs -- all Nichols' -- performed by some of the most adept jazz aces in Houston. Nichols was groggy from painkillers, so it was hard to gauge his reaction as the tape wound its way through a diverse set of instrumentals. Some were playful; others were more profound. Three ("The Beave," "The Weight" and "Always Changin' ") were written -- either in full or in part -- from a hospital bed.

While Nichols was not in any condition to articulate how he felt, the value of the gesture was obvious to those around him. It was the purest, most flattering form of charity for a friend, and it couldn't have come at a more appropriate time.

"We finished recording it at about one o'clock in the morning," says saxophonist David Caceres, a close friend of Nichols'. "We got it to Dave in the hospital at 1:30, two o'clock. He's asleep, he's alone, his wife went home. We woke him up, and we played the music for him. He was lethargic, but he knew what was going on. He passed away 24 hours after that."

Caceres and a group of ten others -- guitarist Paul Chester, percussionist Joe Ferreira and keyboardists Ted Wenglinski and Joe LoCascio, longtime Nichols compadres all, among them -- spent the evening of August 22 laying down the material with Sugar Hill producer Andy Bradley, who stuffed his equipment into a garage apartment to record the session. All the tunes were done in one take; the session lasted three hours. "The vibe," says Caceres, "was wonderful."

Nichols is perhaps best known for his work with the jazz-rock fusion outfit Stratus, which he formed in 1982 with Wenglinski, drummer Brian Hull and guitarist Scott Ayers. After Ayers went on to weirder pastures with Pain Teens, Chester joined the group. For more than a decade, Stratus moved forward, transforming and expanding as it went. Caceres eventually came aboard, as did drummer Todd Harrison, and the band recorded two CDs, 1990's Hyperbole and 1995's Iconoclast. Always in demand as a player, Nichols was a model of virtuosity and efficiency, and perhaps most important, he was a quick study.

"He had tremendous facilities, and he was gifted with incredible hands," says Chester. "Every advance I made in my playing, he countered with more speed."

Even after he was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1995, Nichols refused to slow down, performing with Chester and drummer Tim Solook in the Houston Jazz Trio, playing with Caceres' quartet and engineering and performing on two CDs, Caceres' Innermost and Tod Vullo's uh*huh.

"It was almost like playing was more a priority than treatment," recalls Nichols' wife Ruth. "Music was the center of everything."

A musical memorial was held for Nichols last Tuesday at the Doubletree Hotel, followed by an informal jam session at the Ale House that lasted well into the night. The memorial featured live renditions of Nichols' tunes performed by Caceres, Chester, Wenglinski and other musicians who had participated in the apartment-session tribute. Plans are in the works for a CD release of that as-yet unnamed apartment recording, which is dedicated to Ruth Nichols.

Release activity... Sunday at Numbers, Houston's Violent Blue rang in the release of its self-titled debut, sharing a premium triple bill with Comet and Libertine. Violent Blue's layered performance was befitting of its eponymous new CD's atmosphere-heavy trance rock. In her Euro-flavored whisper-howl, singer Brigid Sade drones away as distinctively on-stage as she does in the studio. Any fan of arty, ambitious modern rock should be able to easily spot Violent Blue's U.K. frame of reference -- Cocteau Twins, Echo and the Bunnymen, Cranberries. Not that it matters much. Music this preening and tasteful doesn't emerge from these parts often enough, so get sophisticated.

Fuzzgun Records just pressed a fresh batch of a new maxi-single, Nothing to Say, from clatter-popsters Rubbur. Since I'm without a turntable to play the thing on (the belt drive in my vintage Realistic snapped), I can't in good conscience recommend all four songs. But the one studio track I know, "Shame," was included on last year's Nothing Is Cool compilation, and was one of that CD's standouts. The other three tunes on Nothing to Say kick swiftly live, which should count for something. Heck, buy it even if you can't play it; you can always look at trees and stuff through its translucent mellow-yellow vinyl.

Etc.... Of the acts in town this week, two are particularly worthy of mention -- if for completely different reasons. First, there's Atlanta's Impotent Sea Snakes, a quintet of punk rockers in drag whose latest release, God Save the Queens, is as disturbing as it is a hoot. They'll be at Fitzgerald's Saturday, so be prepared to let down your hair -- and leave your pants behind -- for this show. Another experience altogether, Sting performs Sunday at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Granted, his hard-thinking shtick is getting a little tired, but Sting always seems to come out of his pretentious shell live, especially with the coaxing of those crack backup bands he has a habit of assembling.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland