Nigel Hall keeps a photo of civil rights activist and former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry in his home studio to remind him of what he nearly lost. Taken during a 1990 press conference prior to his conviction on misdemeanor charges for possession of crack cocaine, the photo captures Barry pouring sweat while talking to reporters as his long-suffering wife, Effie Barry, looks away, her face twisted in pain and disbelief. This sordid chapter in Barry’s life was written while he was in the throes of addiction. An FBI sting and the now-infamous video of the mayor smoking crack in the company of a prostitute resulted in a sixth-month jail term that nearly derailed his promising political career. More than that, like all addicts, he lost the trust of those close to him, with his wife taking the brunt of his lies.
The photo hits home for Nigel. As a recovering addict, the Grammy Award-winning keyboardist, singer, songwriter, and member of cosmic funk-fusion juggernaut Lettuce knows a thing or two about alienating those who care about him—most of all, his wife, whom he credits with setting his rehabilitation in motion.
It’s his own wife’s pain he sees when he looks at the image of Effie Barry. “I look at that picture all the f—in’ time,” said Hall in an interview aboard Jam Cruise 19, “and that was the look on her face.”
“I made a vow to her,” Hall continued. “I made a vow to her father, who died. I made a vow to protect her at all f—ing costs, and be good to her through sickness and health, and be there for her. That is not the face of somebody who’s receiving that. And it made me feel terrible. And I said, ‘I’m not going to do this.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to f—in’ rehab.’”
Two years after that momentous decision in 2021, Hall remains sober—Cali sober, to be exact. He’s now focused on peeling back the layers of his life and art that were once clouded by the fog of substance abuse, though he acknowledges that his road to sobriety was unusually paved with successes. “I was [using] for a long time,” he reflected, “[but] it wasn’t like I was just doing just that. I was still making strides in my career and doing cool things. I’ve been nominated for however many Grammy’s. I won two. I traveled the world with my heroes and recorded some great music that was released. So, it wasn’t like I wasn’t doing s—. I got a house. I have a wife. It wasn’t like I wasn’t doing nothin’.”
“Doing nothin’” does not exist in Hall’s toolkit. Within the first decade of his career, Hall joined forces with Soulive, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Ledesi, Snarky Puppy, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, John Scofield, Warren Haynes, The Nth Power, and Butcher Brown, among others, and won Grammys with the likes of Snarky Puppy (in 2014) and Jon Cleary (in 2016).
“Everything took the time it needed to take for me to get where I am,” Hall said of his recovery journey. “Had I stopped earlier, I definitely would have gotten a whole lot more done. But I’m cool, because I’ve spun my wheels for so many years talking about it—what I wanted to do and what I was gonna do and so forth and so on. Now, I’m actually doing some of those things.”
His most recent album, 2021’s Spiritual, serves as the final chapter in a broader saga: the story of Nigel Hall becoming Nigel Hall. Recorded during his last days as an alcoholic and drug addict, the album both reflects the inner tumult of a man at war with himself and reveals the first rays of a new day seeping through the cracks.
As he continues to get reacquainted with his creative flame outside the fog of addiction and reckon with the dark days that eventually brought him to the light, Nigel Hall has begun to open up about his path. “The most beautiful thing about this,” he explained of his recovery journey, “is that in order to keep it, you have to give it away.”
Hall, 41, traces the start of his journey to his childhood in Washington, D.C., where he was born to music-loving parents who sowed the seeds of his lifelong obsession. By his own admission, he was a weird kid. While other teenagers were listening to C&C Music Factory or MC Hammer, he was consuming ’70s fusion, jazz and funk including Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra, David Sancious and Tone, and Stanley Clarke.
When Hall was just four years old, his father, a guitarist, sat him down to listen to Herbie Hancock’s seminal work, Head Hunters. Today, Hall is recording new music at the very studio where Head Hunters was cut, San Francisco’s famed Hyde Studios, formally known as Wally Heider Studios.
The senior Hall also taught his curious son how to read liner notes, a passion Hall maintains to this day. His mom, a singer and ardent Phyllis Hyman fan, gifted him with his voice appreciation for soul. From there, Nigel developed a keen ear and voracious appetite for identifying jazz and funk samples buried in popular tunes of the day.
“Once I started listening to something,” Hall explained, “I [needed] to go deeper into that. What got me was hip-hop, because what they did was use all these samples of all of this old s—, which is what caused me to go into the records and want to know what that is. … Normally they take just one little piece of the song and it’s just repeated over and over again, and things are built from that, but the original is not just one little piece—it’s an entire expression.
“What I heard was literally the most minuscule s—, and if that little minuscule s— is dope like that, then I want to hear the whole thing. I want to hear the whole record. I want to know what you ate for breakfast. I want to look inside your stool, know what I’m sayin’? It’s deep. I wanna know,” he laughed. “That’s what it is for me. It’s a constant quest all the time. It does not stop, especially since I’ve been sober.”
Following his parents’ divorce when he was young, Hall went to live with his father, a practicing Muslim. While faith still plays a role in Nigel’s life, he was deterred by the particular form of Islam his father adopted, describing it as cult. “We grew up in Islam,” Nigel said, “but he kinda of veered off to a part of it that was different than the actual Nation of Islam, and it was led by someone who said he was the physical manifestation of Allah, and my father fell for it.”
When Hall turned 15 and the conflict in his childhood home got to be too much, he struck out on his own. “My father and I were not on the one,” he recalled. “My stepmother and I were absolutely not on the one. I was young and full of vigor. I decided that I didn’t want to live the way I was living anymore. … Without getting to deep in it, my dad and I just came to an agreement that I was just gonna leave. And I was ready to. I was scared to death. Oh, my God, I was so scared. I remember that.”
“You know what’s crazy?” Hall pondered. “Now that my thoughts are clearer, whenever I have memories like that, it’s almost like I can see and relive it again. Like, the actual thing. It’s crazy.”
The father of two grown young men himself, Hall has since made peace with his dad. “There was a long time that I blamed him for things,” he said. “And yeah, there’s some responsibility he gotta take for a lot of things, but that man was trying to do the best he could. He really was. That’s the other thing, too. I’m not in no position to say nothin’ about nothin’ because I wasn’t going through that. I was going through my own s— because of that. I didn’t have no control over that. I was a f—ing kid, you know? But I left with a goal and I actually achieved it. I can’t even believe it.”
Hall’s rocky adolescence didn’t stop there. At age of 17, after following his girlfriend of two years to Bangor, ME, tragedy struck. In 1999, he broke his back in a car accident that claimed the lives of two good friends. His newborn son was barely a month old when he found himself in the hospital, unable to walk and being told he might never do so again. But Hall attacked his recovery with the same determination that lifted him out of the black hole of addiction. “I didn’t think I’d walk again,” he said. “I got the scars to prove it. I lived a life. It used to be a sad story for me, but it’s not anymore because it’s a story about resilience.”
Hall recuperated from his injuries and soon established a nascent music career. Completely self-taught, he joined his first band, Funkizon, made up of musicians who shared his love of funk, fusion and soul. This time spent playing local gigs opened doors for him in other ways, including a stint as a DJ at WMEB-FM, the University of Maine’s student radio station in Orono. “The guitar player went to college up there and he knew somebody at the radio station,” Hall recalled. “On a whim, I just went and asked them to help me get a show. … The guy who ran the station had seen us play because we always played on the campus, and he was like, ‘Yeah. You can have a show.’ Showed me how to use all the s—. I wasn’t going to school there but I had a show. I had Saturdays, 1 [p.m.] to 4 [p.m.]—three hours I was on—and I would go on and play nothing but fusion. Oh, man. It was so fun.”
Hall used his show to land radio interviews with several of his heroes including famed synth master Jan Hammer and legendary keyboardist composer, singer, producer, and educator George Duke, whom Hall continues to champion as one of his biggest influences. Hall cites his Duke interview, in particular, as one of his proudest and most educational moments: Hall tapped into his skill for absorbing liner notes to land the chat, tracking down the contact info for George’s manager, Herb Cohen, in the liner notes of his records and reaching out via email. The call was confirmed that same day.
Hall recounted the interview with all the starry-eyed enthusiasm of his teen-aged self. “So, he’s on the west coast,” said Hall. “He sounded like he was just wakin’ up, but we had a great conversation. I was playing all this old shit, like for background music. Like, playing it from his record, too. But it was cool. He could hear it. I was a kid, and I was, like, talking to him! Oh, my God. I was so nervous. And we talked for, like, an hour. I got to talk to him and ask him questions about all of my favorite music. He really appreciated that I was really drawn to this one period, which was kinda like his experimental period coming out of Zappa, because he was playing with Zappa. Also, he was playing with Cannonball [Adderley], but he was recording his own music then. There are these five albums that are, like, the five books of Moses to me. I got to talk to him about that.
“I said, ‘Yo! I’m a keyboard player!’ And he said, ‘I could tell.’ I asked him what should I be doing, and he dropped so much knowledge on me that day. He made a monster! He knew I was ripping him off somehow from just how I was talking to him, and talking about him. He just knew. … But he said, ‘Despite the fact that you love me and love what I play, somewhere in that, you can take that influence that I give to you and take me around the next star.’”
“When he said that, my whole s— just dropped! You know why? ‘Cus it made perfect sense. Because I will never be able to do what George Duke can do, but George Duke will never be able to do what I can do. Because we’re individuals, and that’s the whole point of God making us individually. If we were the same motherf—er, then what would be the point?”
Threads of Duke’s influence are woven throughout Spiritual. Hall even lovingly preserved a snippet of that long-ago interview on the album’s last track, “From George With Love: A Message From George Duke“, and its message of pursuing the music that you want to make, above all else, plays like Nigel’s mission statement.
While his time in Maine had its ups and downs, his connection with saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, a local native and his eventual Lettuce bandmate, helped set his career in motion. Zoidis was playing with Soulive when he and Hall first met in 2007. By then, Hall’s reputation as a talented singer and keyboardist had spread beyond Maine, and Zoidis suggested that Nigel connect with Soulive founder Eric Krasno. The introduction almost didn’t happen after Hall once hung up on Krasno, thinking Zoidis was playing a joke. “I’m so glad he called back,” Hall said of that near miss.
“Zoidis is the reason that anybody knows anything about me, and I owe him,” he added. “I tell him that all the time. Zoidis is one of my best friends. We fight and we love. That’s my brother. That dude would take a bullet for me. I have no doubt in my mind and it’s the same for me. We spend so much time on the road, we got into a fight yesterday. And we got into it. Boy, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go! Right now!’ And you know what? The special thing is, after, we can look each other in the eye and shake hands like men, because we talk it the f— out without knocking each other out. He’s a man. That is a true passion and a true brother because we are both passionate people about our s—, and the sparks fly sometimes. Because if we’re not fightin’, then what are we in a band for? We’re going to express ourselves. And he don’t have no problem tellin’ me, either. As my best friend, it’s your responsibility to check me when you think I need to be checked. If I don’t, I’ll let you know. That’s what it is. That’s what true friendship is, and that man has always been a friend to me. I love him dearly.”
Blown away by Hall’s prowess as a singer and keyboardist, Eric Krasno soon invited him to sit in with Soulive, where he became a regular fixture. The collaboration turned into a lasting friendship, with Krasno later acting as producer on Ladies & Gentleman…, a sometimes-painful labor of love that took years to complete.
Big passions often come with big conflicts, and so it was with Krasno and Hall, who often verbally duked it out as the album came together. Still, the experience sealed a deep friendship and working relationship between the two. “I learned so much from him because he’s an amazing producer,” Hall said of Krasno. “He’s the reason why I want to really get into the producing game and do music scores and things like that. It’s because I learned how to make records for him. The reason we would fight is because I would be trippin’, because I ain’t never made a record and I want to make this pure f—in’ record, or I wanna do this, blah, blah, blah… Like, okay, that’s great, but the producer has to be the one to tell you, ‘No. That’s not it.’
“The things I learned in the studio from Kras, I’ve applied to life,” Hall continued. “I call it making funky decisions in your life. … If you don’t think it out all the way through, it becomes a bad decision. If you don’t go into this song and come up with an aesthetic of how you want to do the song and stick to that, you can’t be doing a record like Norah Jones with a (Yamaha) DX7 and a Minimoog solo. You can’t do that. It takes away from the music and the vibe that you want to set. … Ladies & Gentleman… was not supposed to be the f—in’ George Duke Minimoog album, f—in’ space exploration. … That record was a soul record, and that’s what we were going for, and I learned how to stay. You know what I’m sayin’? I’m already all over the place all the f—in’ time. … I learned how to be a disciplined musician.”
“I learned discipline from him, even when I wasn’t being so disciplined,” Hall continued. “The first tour I ever went on was with him and Soulive—a band that I f—in’ loved and respected already before I was even anybody—I got to go on the road and be in one of my favorite bands. I got to play with my heroes because of him, because of his word. … He is my heart, that dude.”
In 2013, Hall decamped to New Orleans and co-founded The Nth Power with power-hitter Nikki Glaspie. Two years later, he backed away from that project when he joined Lettuce full-time. All the while, Hall set about absorbing New Orleans’ singular music culture and heritage with the same scholarly curiosity he applied to liner notes as a kid. The city’s music community responded in kind, and he was soon sought out by some of New Orleans’ most recognizable acts, from Jon Cleary to Mardi Gras Indian funk ensemble Cha Wa, and landed slots at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with his own band.
Of all the artists Hall credits with nurturing his success, Kofi Burbridge stands out from the pack. The beloved flautist and keyboardist for the Tedeschi Trucks Band and more took Hall under his wing, acting as his mentor, close friend, and confidant. Kofi’s sudden passing in 2019 at the age of 57 left Nigel devastated. Tears rolled freely as he discussed the man he called a brother.
“Kofi was my friend,” Hall said. “I heard his solo on ‘Gonna Move’ on Derek Trucks’ live album [Live at the Georgia Theatre]—and that solo was eight bars, it wasn’t even a long solo—but that man told you everything about who he was in those eight bars.”
“When I met him and got to know him and realized how much of a beautiful person that he was… he just really became my friend. … It really hurt me the day that he died. He died shortly after my mother’s birthday, who had also passed away. Dealing with that…” Hall trailed off. “Yeah. I miss my friend.”
“He was the greatest Clavinet player of all time. … He would get on the Clavinet and just melt your heart. I have his name on my Clavinet so that everyone can see his name. Every time I go on stage, his name is on it.”
“When he died, I remember being in Memphis, because [Lettuce] had played that night in February. … We found out he died after I got off the stage, and I just lost it. I just f—ing melted. Zoidis was there to pick me up and help me. We were in Memphis on that tour. Ah, man. I was just so sad. And I remember it just raining. It was raining and I was just, like, beer drunk. I just needed to be drinking something. And it was just weird. Oh, my God. … I was just so sad, and I could not stop crying.
“I remember [later] we were on stage doing a sound check and I was playing. I was trying to play. And I just remember looking over to the side and thinking of him because during Jazz Fest, he’d always be over to the side with his top hat and his flute. I just remember I kept looking over,” Hall recalled through tears, “and seeing him over there, and wanting to see him—really wanting to see him. … I just wanted to see him with his hat, and his flute and his smile…. That’s all I wanted at that moment.”
Nigel Hall ft. Kofi Burbridge – WWOZ Piano Night 2015 – Full Set
Hall spent the next few years in some very dark places. Crushed by grief and the weight of substance abuse, Hall was losing both his art and himself. He knew something had to give. One day, after a long night partying in New Orleans, his wife had had enough: “She looked at me one day and she told me she didn’t trust me,” he said. “It hurt my heart. It really hurt my heart. … The thing that really got me to change, aside from being a liar, feeling like a dirtbag, was the fact that I lost her trust.”
At that moment, Hall’s reluctant connection with the Barrys came into focus. The first call Hall made was to his old friend Ivan Neville, a prominent New Orleans figure in both music and sobriety communities. “Uncle Ivan,” as Hall calls him, acted as a guide, sponsor, and mentor for Nigel—and still does. “He got me clean,” said Hall of Neville. “He’s been there for a lot of people. … He stopped what he was doing and he helped me, and he helped my wife. He was there for her, and he was always there for me and continues to be there for me.”
Not long after that call, Hall checked himself into Crossroads Centre in Antigua, the addiction recovery center founded by Eric Clapton. His long journey back into the light had begun.
In the years it took Hall to get sober, he nearly quit making music. It wasn’t until Alan Evans (Soulive) turned him on to Richmond-based hip-hop/jazz/funk/R&B/fusion innovators Butcher Brown that the fire to create was stoked in him again. Sharing a love for fusion and spontaneity, Butcher Brown and Nigel Hall were a natural fit.
Spiritual blossomed from that connection. “The first time I heard of them, I was playing a gig in New Orleans, I heard ‘Forest Green’ from [Butcher Brown’s] All Purpose Music. Now, I heard this … at a point in my life where I was kind going to give up. I was going to stop playing music. I was at the point where I was tired. I heard them at a time when my heart was broken and I was goin through some s—, and then I heard three notes of their f—in’ song and I’m like, ‘Whope! I’m back!’
“Then, I went to Richmond on tour with the guys, with Lettuce, and I went on Instagram and I started calling ‘em out. I was like, ‘Yo, I’m in Richmond! One of y’all motherf—ers need to pull up!’ And [drummer] Corey [Fonville] pulled up immediately. I went over to Jellowstone—the world famous Jellowstone Studios—and I met [multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer] DJ [Harrison]. After I met DJ, with me and that motherf—er, it’s been a wrap, cause the first time we met each other, we sang the entire solo for ‘Chameleon’ by Herbie Hancock. We literally sang it, harmonizing with each other. Like, it was f—in’ weird. Everyone else in the band was there looking at it, and it was like, ‘This is some weird s—.’”
“DJ is my twin. When you see him, you see me. DJ is probably my greatest living influence. Not only that, he’s my f—in’ homie. We call and talk to each other about dumb s—, and I actually enjoy that more, the fact that I can do that more with him than music, which I really, really enjoy. But that f—in’ dumb s— that homies have with each other, it comes through the music, and it’s beautiful.”
Hall still lives in New Orleans with his wife and their Wheaton Terrier puppy, Ree Ree (short for Aretha). Even though drinking, drugging, and debauchery are among the Crescent City’s popular pastimes, Hall guards his sobriety by staying home and staying busy. His backyard studio is a hive of activity where he constantly works on new music and content for social media—from his “Behind The Groove” videos on YouTube to his regular Instagram Live streams. His nights are spent playing with a range of projects around the city and beyond.
Nigel Hall admits he’s still in the process of becoming a better version of himself. In an industry that breeds dysfunction, he continues to give pieces of himself away so that others might benefit from his story. To those struggling with depression, substance abuse, and despair, he offers this advice: “This too shall pass—if you really want it to.”
“I can only speak for myself,” Nigel said. “I was fortunate and intelligent enough to know that now’s the time, and that’s something that you have to find out within yourself, but all you really have to do is want it. You can want it and not be ready, but all you gotta do is keep wanting to be better.
“I think what’s helped me, aside from therapy, is really talking to myself and constantly convincing myself that I’m here for a reason that’s bigger than me. And if you are creative, you have already given up yourself to something that is bigger than you, because you allowed yourself to create. The only way you could create is if you were inspired to do so, and the only way we can get true inspiration is from God, or from whatever it is that allows us to exist. So you, number one, have to trust in God and you have to trust in yourself.
“Listen, I didn’t trust myself for a long time,” he added. “I had to learn to develop that trust. It’s just like a song. … You build from nothing, and then as you start to reinvent yourself, take pride in the things that you know are right, and stick with that s— as hard as you can. It’s hard at first. But if you really, really want it, it is easy. This too shall pass—if you really want it to.”
To keep up with Nigel Hall’s comings and goings, check out his official website and socials including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.