Nir Felder | Photo courtesy of the artist

At the time that guitarist Nir Felder was writing the music for his debut album, the world around him seemed to be in the midst of momentous changes. It was 2011, and headlines blared news of the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. The events couldn’t help but start Felder wondering about the future – as well as the past.

“A lot of stuff was going on in the world and, without judging any of it as being positive or negative, I saw that things could be getting really, really good or really, really bad and it was kind of hard to tell which,” Felder says. “I think we ended up just staying at some kind of status quo where things didn’t really get much better or much worse, but at the time I felt really excited and hopeful that things could get really amazing, but at the same time I was frightened that they were going in the other direction.”

Those events had Felder thinking about the idea of a “golden age,” an idealized time that he says, “didn’t ever really exist, but that we can all imagine. For me, the title is more a question than a statement. It’s a concept that every culture has: the golden age that was way off in the distant past or way in the distant future. It’s just never right now.”

The same goes not only for society but for jazz music and New York City – two subjects near and dear to Felder’s heart – and, well, virtually any subject that can potentially be complained about. Things always were much better and have the potential to be much better – they’re just never very good right now. That idea gave Felder the title for his new CD, Golden Age, which incorporates soundbites from legendary speeches by world-changers like Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Richard Nixon, Elie Wiesel, William Jennings Bryan, and others.

“I saw that there was a lot of beauty in these older speeches,” Felder explains, “I was struck by how apt they were at describing what’s going on today even though they were made in totally different periods regarding totally different events. But also by the strength of the speakers’ voices – you could really hear the humanity in them, but at the same time they were art. The cadence of their voices, the rhythm, the pitch – they sounded like music to me.”

Felder folded those speeches – and the inspiration behind them – into a set of fluid, driving jazz that reflects his interests in pop and rock music through its dramatic, song-based approach. He’ll perform that repertoire with pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Massimo Biolcati, and drummer Nate Smith at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Saturday night.

Born in New York City and raised in Katonah, New York, Felder remembers being enthralled by music from an early age. “I grew up in the ‘80s, so I’d get home from school and my parents would be at work and MTV was like my babysitter,” says the 30-year-old guitarist. “I’m kind of a product of all this different stuff: Yo! MTV Raps, Headbanger’s Ball, 120 Minutes.”

He began playing guitar at the age of 13, when a local student home on break from college visited his middle school music class and offered lessons. “I signed up for a few and that was it,” he shrugs. “I was hooked.”

In his early years, Felder was most strongly drawn to blues and, later, classic rock, influences which continue to color his jazz playing. “Blues and classic rock are the things that the guitar naturally does really well,” he explains. “Bending strings and open chords just make sense. I guess they’re simple but they sound great on the guitar. So I was always into that, and that didn’t really go away once I started playing jazz and trying to do things that the guitar didn’t do naturally as well unless you really worked on it. I still love those open chords and natural guitar stuff.”

Those open chords and pristine lines ring through even on his virtuosic solos throughout Golden Age, which was recorded with Smith, pianist Aaron Parks, and bassist Matt Penman. Felder assembled the young group with musicians who shared his love for playing songs rather than simply showing off their chops. “You put a song in front of those guys and it’s not like they’re waiting for the solo so they can be themselves,” Felder says. “They see the whole picture and they know how to bring it to life. That’s stuff that I relate to from the musical upbringing that I had.”

Felder discovered jazz when he arrived at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he had his first opportunities to play with other improvising musicians. “That was when I was like, ‘This is what it’s supposed to sound like and this is what it’s supposed to feel like.’ And that was what turned the light bulb on.”

While there he was awarded the guitar department’s Jimi Hendrix Award and the Billboard Endowed Scholarship for musicianship and academic performance. He also came under the tutelage of sax giant Joe Lovano, who called Felder for a few gigs during his last year at school. Through Lovano, Felder met Cuban-born drummer Francisco Mela, who was already in New York City when the guitarist arrived after graduating from Berklee.

“I’d only been in town for a few days and had a gig at [Greenwich Village club] Smalls, which had just reopened, with Mela’s band,” Felder recalls. “I met a lot of people that first night, and through that got other gigs right away. I got started on the scene pretty early, which was a really lucky break.”

Since then, Felder has worked with a host of jazz heavy-hitters, including Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette, and Meshell Ndegeocello. But his main focus now is on his own music, which just may be enjoying its own golden age.

Nir Felder and his band perform at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Saturday night, October 11th. Tickets for the 21+ show can be found here.