Stateless Liner Notes 10/10: Mornings In Feudal Japan

I feel like I have discussed this tune’s origin frequently over the years, but that may just be because it is the oldest piece on the album, by a significant margin. Debuting way back in 2010, ‘Mornings in Feudal Japan’ went through an extensive retooling process over the years, as I worked to hone the arrangement. There were times when we didn’t play it for a long while, but I kept coming back to it. This is unusual for me; while I generally do another small edit of my pieces after the (debut performance, if a piece requires an extensive structural overhaul, I am more likely to just move on to something else. Not that this is a great practice, but it’s what comes from having more music than gigs and being impatient by nature. I’m glad I stuck with this one though, and pleased with where we landed with the arrangement.

As for the background/inspiration of the tune, I’ll run through this quick since, if you’re reading this, you may well have seen this info on a program note or something over the years: during my freshman year at UCSC, I signed up for an 8 AM Japanese Cinema course during the perpetually rainy winter quarter. I was already a fan of a few of the more basic classics of Japanese cinema (thanks, UC Theater, 1976-2001!), but there was something particularly hypnotic and indelible about being submerged in classic Japanese films (Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Ozu, Ichikawa, Seijun Suzuki, etc) in this environment, accompanied by lots and lots of coffee (Santa Cruz Roasting Company’s Sweet Italian, please). This is also when I started accepting my destiny as a morning person; incidentally, a very sizable percentage of Clevenger Group music has been written between the hours of 6 and 10 AM. The blaring horns alternating with the misty textural improv that opens the tune is intended to represent the fight with the alarm clock and coming in and out of consciousness. Musically, there is nothing particularly Japanese about the tune, because that would be annoying, to my way of thinking. But hopefully it paints a picture nonetheless, whether you’re picturing a cinematic rendering of Kyoto or dodging spun-out hippie unicyclists in the early morning rain while walking from Crown College to the classroom units by the Science Library.

The tune’s main guitar/bass theme exemplifies the type of groove-starting-on-an-unexpected off-beat that I was talking about way back in the ‘Difficult Clocks’ liner notes. I’ve had a couple people tell me that moments in the opening harmonized saxophone line remind them of the music of the brilliant Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke, which, while unintended, I could certainly only take as a compliment. Following the theme, there is a duet solo by Cory Wright and yours truly, followed by an interlude in which I, as always, indulge my stubborn insistence in using slide guitar in a jazz ensemble context.

The second solo sees clarinetist Rachel Condry taking the lead. I first heard Rae playing with Crystal Pascucci (who returns on cello for this tune) and was immediately taken with her incredibly deep and beautiful tone on the bass clarinet and her expansive improvisational language. When Aaron Novik left town, Rachel was an obvious choice for the chair. She is a fearlessly game player and it’s been thrilling hearing her voice integrate with the band. Rachel’s solo on ‘Mornings in Feudal Japan’ is focused and beautifully phrased, with Tim DeCillis joining in throughout.

One last thing/shameless gushing: I absolutely love the drum duet on this take. We did one other take of this tune in which the drum solo was extremely intense and full-on. Honestly, I really enjoyed that take too (even at extreme dynamics, you’re at no risk of getting tasteless with Jon Arkin and Jason Levis), but the atmospheric approach, with each drummer utilizing all manner of small percussion instruments, on the master take was a clear winner. This is another moment where the quality of the engineering helps out a great deal. Engineer John Finkbeiner really shows what a virtuoso he is throughout Stateless. 8 musicians recording at once, with limited separation (all of us were in the main room at New, Improved Recording, with the exception of Lisa Mezzacappa and her bass and Tim DeCillis on vibes, each of whom were in isolation booths with sight lines on the main room. (The only overdubs on the album were Crystal’s cello tracks, a few keyboard/mallets from me, and a couple percussion details from Tim.) The proximity was essential for executing this music, but it certainly created challenges for the conscientious engineer! Finkbeiner did an incredible job throughout (he mixed the album as well) and I am grateful for his ear and creativity. The master Myles Boisen mastered the abum and is also a big contributor to the overall sound. I never master a project with anyone other than Mr. Boisen, if I can help it.

And with that, I’m signing off. You know where to reach me if you have any questions and, more importantly, I hope you will consider buying a copy of the album, Bandcamp streaming or CD (link below!). Making records with professional musicians, engineers, studios, and contributing visual artists is an extremely expensive business, and one that I really think should survive. At the risk of sounding like a ‘sad jazz pedant’, we all vote with our wallets when it comes to the culture we would like to support, and I hope you’ll hear something on Stateless that encourages you to, if you will, vote for us.

Thank you for reading and, much better, listening.


Stateless Liner Notes 9/10: Sabina Begins


I had a line at the beginning of the initial draft of the previous liner notes entry suggesting that it would be a short one and a nice break after the previous, 1140-word, entry. So, yeah…that didn’t happen; ‘Lesser Roses’ got all caught up in flute music and somehow crossed the 1300-word line. Sorry. This one will, I swear, be brief, which seems appropriate, as this is the shortest piece (4:30) on the album Stateless, other than the solo clarinet piece, ‘Rain Catalog.’ 

‘Sabina Begins’, well, begins with an unaccompanied alto sax solo by the peerless Kasey Knudsen, working off and toward a short cue phrase. I am just incredibly happy that this phenomenal solo was preserved and released upon the world via this album…what else can I say?

Our distinguished guest, Crystal Pascucci, returns on cello for this piece, mixing in arco and pizz contributions throughout. The head contains a repeating series of simple chordal hits from while the melody begins to splinter outwards, first the clarinet/alto sax, and then the bass, which is soon joined by the tenor sax, playing a groove that is periodically skipping a beat where your ear might expect one. Throughout, the dual drum sets (Jon Arkin and Jason Levis) and percussionist (Tim DeCillis on guiro and cowbell) are playing a tightly composed interlocking part that also alternately diverges and coheres. (I can’t resist noting that there are also duel cowbells, since Jason is playing one as well.) After the head, Cory Wright (tenor sax) solos over a set form, building to a section in which Crystal and Rachel Condry (Bb clarinet) join in on the improv maelstrom. The section that follows is a through-composed trio for 2 drum sets and, eventually, Lisa Mezzacappa’s profoundly sturdy bass, leading into a new section and altered recapitulation of the earlier thematic material, followed by an emphatic coda which sees the return of the line addressed during Kasey’s intro. Of the pieces on Stateless, this is without question one of the more technically challenging. 

If you have challenging music that you still want to retain a feel and, dare I say, groove, without selling out the abstraction, you can’t do much better than Jon Arkin on drums. Jon is a virtuoso and a totally unique player, bringing authoritative feel (swing and otherwise), surprise, and a truly unique humor to everything he plays. He is also somehow completely capable of reading even my most ill-conceived/dubiously notated percussion idea; I am continually amazed by the execution and just how deeply musical he is able to make even the most abstract ideas sound. All of these skills really come into play on ‘Sabina Begins’, and I can’t imagine the tune being totally successful without him. Jon has been playing with the band since 2005 and a full time member since 2008. Along with an incredible list of sideman credits (including a lot of records with the exceptional trumpet player/composer, Ian Carey), Jon is also a member of the extraordinary Schimscheimer Family Trio (w Kasey Knudsen & Michael Coleman), which I mentioned in the ‘Nash Hotel 2046’ liner notes.
Thematically, what we have here is one final piece of Oakland/personal history. When I was a teenager, my lifelong passion for Indian cuisine began at a (long defunct) downtown Oakland restaurant called Sabina, located in a historic art deco building. The building (337 17th Street, between Harrison and Franklin), was built in 1925 and served as the showroom for Howden & Sons, a tile company. The building was designed to feature Howden’s ornate tiles and hints of this history remain to the current day. Many years later, in 2015, the Clevenger Group played the same historic downtown building. By that time, it was a restaurant called Spice Monkey that, for a time, hosted shows presented by the wonderful Fernando Carpenter’s Oakland Freedom Jazz Society. I wrote this tune in advance of that gig, as a nod to my personal history there and the frequent brushes with synchronicity that you encounter often when you spend enough time in a city, particularly within the ever-shifting sub-world of live non-commercial music.

Stateless Liner Notes 8/10: Lesser Roses

The first thing you should know about ‘Lesser Roses’ is that it has gone by several different names, so you know right away that it is not to be trusted. When I write on an instrument, I write 90% of my music at the piano, and this tune definitely originated as and remains a piano tune, at least in my mind. I recall that I was thinking a bit about the brilliant composer/pianists, Carla and Paul Bley, and the way in which, as composers (mostly CB) and improviser/interpreters (mostly PB), they each bring a real clear-eyed melodic integrity to even the most dense, harmonic settings. The primary melodic line of ‘Lesser Roses’ (mostly carried by Kasey Knudsen’s alto sax and my Telecaster — wurlitzer piano joins the guitar on what is sort of a bridge) weaves through the changes and the flute/bass clarinet/vibes countermelodies and voicings, at times grating harmonically, reaching a tenuous resolution, and then destabilizing again. I love music that lives on that particular edge and the effect is particularly enjoyable when the melodic material has a relatively clear, tuneful character. I daresay no tune in our repertoire sounds worse when it is off than ‘Lesser Roses’! This tune also contains a recurring displaced triplet figure that has caused a hilarious amount of intra-band conflict and notational debates over the years. Some of these bruised feelings remain a little raw. 

The solos by Kasey Knudsen (backed by guitar and Lisa Mezzacappa creating improvisational harmonic support) and then Tim DeCillis (backed by both of his fellow percussionists) are extended and open; I love them both (after these solos I take a obbligato-style guitar ‘solo’ behind the new written material). Tim bends notes on the vibraphone and follows a patient, beautiful logic while Jon Arkin and Jason Levis support with their respective extended percussion palettes. Kasey’s solo is one of my favorites amongst her many great solos, and creating the harmonic progression with Lisa, starting from an extremely simple proposition (little more than a vague gravitational pull toward and then away from a naked C major), was one of the real pleasures of the recording session. 

Improvising with Lisa Mezzacappa, just in general, is one of the finer things that you can do as a musician; I recommend it! Listening to Lisa improvise is more or less just as good and, thankfully, chances abound, since she is in justifiably high-demand around the bay area (and beyond). I first worked with Lisa in a trio I put together with Lisa and Aaron Novik in the mid-2000s, inspired by the groundbreaking Jimmy Giuffre trio with Paul Bley (he comes up again!) and Steve Swallow. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have Lisa sub in the Group many times and opportunities to work with her in a wide variety of other projects. She’s a masterful musician and an impressively dedicated and together person — which counts for a lot as a bandleader! — and she was the no-brainer choice to replace the departing Sam Bevan as the Group’s bassist. Her playing throughout Stateless is a master class. 

Along with being a busy sideperson and improviser, Lisa is a prolific and visionary composer and a crucial force in bringing musicians together, sharing opportunities, and, just generally, Making Shit Happen. I advise tracking down as much of her music as you can, and would point to a couple recent efforts, the large ensemble epic ‘Glorious Ravage’ and the colorful and nimble ‘avantNOIR’ album/band. As I noted in the earlier ‘Things We Kept from the Fire’/Cory Wright liner note, I’m also a fan of Lisa’s Nightshade ensemble and their album ‘Cosmic Rift.’ She is also a member of Sifter, a quartet comprised of 4 of my favorite musician/composers (Lisa, Rob Ewing, Beth Schenck, and Jordan Glenn), holding down a monthly gig at Oakland’s Woods brewery, which I strive to catch as often as possible. There is also a book of guitar/bass/drums trio music that I heard Lisa present only once (at Oakland’s Layover a few years back) but still remember fondly…I could go on…

Now, let’s talk flute!

‘Lesser Roses’ is also the only tune on Stateless that includes the flute, played by the ever-versatile Cory Wright. As with a lot of folks with elementary school band experience, I had some flute trauma to shake off before I was ready to embrace it later in life. I also just have a tendency toward low tones and my ear hears them, as a composer, much more readily. The road back started with exposure to extraordinary jazz practitioners such as Eric Dolphy, James Spaulding (is that guy on any session where he doesn’t frequently steal the show, no matter how heavy the company?), Sam Rivers, and Evan Francis. The incredible Mr. Francis played flute (as well as tenor sax) in the Clevenger Group for a while before — you guessed it — moving to New York and is well represented on the instrument on our previous album, ‘Observatory’ (seriously: he has some mind-melting playing on that record, with a particularly daunting flute feature on ‘Slipshod Caffeine’). When Even left the band, we were fortunate to have legitimate flute virtuoso Rebecca Kleinmann step in to continue with the flute-centric material for a time, bringing the gorgeous alto flute into the Group for the first time as well.

There is also a deep literature of beautiful modern classical flute music that I have come to love, including Debussy’s masterpieces ‘Syrinx’ and ‘Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp’ (both mentioned previously in the ‘Rain Catalog’ liner notes), George Crumb’s ‘An Idyll for the Misbegotten’, Messiaen’s ‘Le merle noir’, and outstanding chamber pieces by Morton Feldman, Elliott Carter, Toru Takemitsu, Villa-Lobos, Charles Wuorinen, and, no doubt, others I can’t recall without getting out of bed and checking my record collection (and it’s freezing this morning, so forget about it). I’ve also had the privilege (through my day job) of working on some sessions with the impossibly talented and seemingly inexhaustible contemporary flute master Claire Chase, which has been, to put it mildly, eye-opening and inspiring.

Beyond my appreciation of the players and composers mentioned above, the inclusion of flutes in my own ensemble is primarily inspired by the beautiful flavor these instruments can add to harmonic voicings in mid-to-large jazz ensembles (this goes double for the gorgeous alto and bass flutes). Examples that jump immediately to mind include composers such as Gil Evans (e.g. ‘Out of the Cool’, “Individualism of…”, and, here and there, on the 3 classic albums with Miles Davis), Sun Ra (Marshall Allen on ‘Angels and Demons at Play’, ‘Secrets of the Sun’, and many other sessions, not to mention other flautists!), Herbie Hancock (the classic ‘The Prisoner’ and albums by the brilliant Mwandishi ensemble), Sam Rivers (the dense horn writing on ‘Dimensions and Extensions’ was a big influence on me at an early age and remains a favorite), and Graham Connah (there is a lot of beautiful flute writing on the Jettison Slinky album ‘Dank Side of the Morn’). While it’s not a mid/large ensemble, I also owe a special nod to the Dave Holland classic ‘Conference of the Birds’ (w Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton).

(Local side note: the first time I ever laid eyes on a bass flute was at a gig at the late, lamented Beanbender’s in downtown Berkeley; the band was Ben Goldberg’s shapeshifting Brainchild and the alto flute was wielded by the great Steve Adams.)

So, while I think we can all appreciate my touching rapprochement with the flute family, it is probably only fair to admit that the piccolo and it’s shrill pal the fife remains firmly embedded at the top of my instrumental enemies list (the washboard is on there too). 

As always, please stream/purchase ‘Lesser Roses’ and Stateless here.

Stateless Liner Notes 7/10: The Ballad of Bruce Bochte

(A continuing series of quasi-liner notes for each tune on the new Nathan Clevenger Group album, Stateless, available for purchase here.)

“I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible.” – Alvin Fielder

Bruce Bochte was a solid if perhaps unspectacular 1st baseman for the Oakland A’s for spell during my baseball obsessed Oakland youth. What did he do to deserve having his good name slapped onto one of my tunes? I’m afraid that he is simply standing in symbolically (if obliquely) here on what is, in a more direct sense, a meditation on current boomtown-era Oakland. Bochte was a member of the moribund Oakland teams in the years just prior to the ‘Bash Brothers’/championship era and subsequent steroid-soaked disgrace (draw parallels with this full trajectory and this tunes intentions as you will). While I picked Mr. Bochte for this dubious honor more or less at random — he doesn’t stand out much more vividly in my mind than teammates such as Mike Gallego, Dwayne Murphy, Curt Young, etc etc — it’s only fair to note that it has come to my attention that his post baseball life has been more varied and curious than I would have guessed.

The second dot-com era which the bay area continues to endure has, at the risk of severe understatement, had a profound and fracturing impact on my hometown. Since I’m already trafficking in understatement, let’s just say that the effects of this flood of moneyed tech workers on Oakland is a complex and vexing topic, one deserving of a more respectable forum than this for a sufficiently serious discussion. But, as far as the tune goes, it is intended as an objection and a taunt (I’m not above this), anguished and parodic; inspired, in part, by the parodic compositions of the great Charles Mingus, one of the artists I have been most influenced by (‘Mingus Ah Um’ was, fortuitously, one of the first couple jazz albums I purchased back in high school). Beyond the larger issues at hand, this song is specifically interested in targeting a certain strain of Oakland carpetbagger, common for a time not so long ago, with a tendency toward offering shameless and sweeping pronouncements regarding the nature, soul, etc of The Town. Said citizen was often more or less overtly attempting to will Oakland into “the new Brooklyn”, seemingly with little awareness that the version of ‘Brooklyn’ being idealized in this formulation was itself very much a post-severe-gentrification Brooklyn. It should be noted that, at this point (a few years after ‘The Ballad of Bruce Bochte’ was composed), a fair number of these folks have, for better or worse, been supplanted by the actual 1%, so the jokes on…I guess all of us really??

As you’ll note immediately, if you’ve been listening along at home, ‘The Ballad of Bruce Bochte’ is full of jazz feel and strategies, to a unique degree in the context of Stateless. I haven’t used the word ‘jazz’ to describe my music in a few years, for a long and complicated list of reasons, but there is no denying the central place that tradition holds in my musical education and my daily listening, then and now, and the awe with which I regard the many masters of the music. This tune in particular is no doubt informed, to varying degrees, by a group of bebop/bebop-adjacent players who brought uniquely personal character to their approach to the style, first and foremost the singular composer/pianist Herbie Nichols, but also including the likes of Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Bud Powell, Kenny Dorham, Dick Twardzik, and Sonny Clark, not to mention, of course, the inevitable Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and the aforementioned Mr. Mingus. While we’re talking influences, I should also note that the quicksilver 16th note phrase the regularly punctuates this tune often makes me think of the ferocious recording of Bud Powell’s ‘Tempus Fugit’ recorded by Junk Genius (local heroes Ben Goldberg, John Schott, Trevor Dunn, and Kenny Wollesen). 

Someone whose relationship with the straight ahead jazz world is, I daresay, considerably less fraught than my own is founding Nathan Clevenger Group bassist Sam Bevan. I’m giving Sam a note on this specific tune both because he was the first one to play the tune and the bass feature within, and because he always brought an essential, grounding authority to the more straight-ahead jazz moments of my music that was a valuable addition to the mix of personalities. (When ‘casting’ the Group, I’ve always strived for a mix of players coming from different perspectives/with different strengths, temperaments, and personal preoccupations. Even very good bands with too many players too closely aligned stylistically sometimes, to my ears, gain cohesion at the considerable cost of sounding somewhat monochromatic; I prefer the slightly rough edges and surprising friction created by a little more stylistic diversity. And, yes, this feeling is likely one of the many reasons I would never last in a professional grade big band.) I was fortunate to play a trio gig with Sam Bevan just before relocating to New York and, upon returning in 2004, there was no doubt I wanted him for the bass chair of my new Group. Sam stayed with the band from the formation until his move to New York (sensing a theme?) , bringing an incredible amount to the music, much of which remains in the music on this album, even , even though he does not appear. Sam has extremely strong feelings about music, feel, and jazz, in general, opinions well earned by his dedication to his craft and his incredible gifts as a player. The combination of strongly opinionated and limitlessly curious is rare a rare and delightful mix; also, Sam is fucking hilarious. In the early days of the Clevenger Group, getting Sam riled up and ranting was almost as essential part of any rehearsal as running charts. The most indelible moment from one of these rants was when Sam angrily referred to a noted local saxophonist as a “sad jazz pedant”, undoubtedly one of the finest phrases I’ve ever heard. Our rehearsals during this era — generally with Sam, Kasey Knudsen, Aaron Novik, Mitch Marcus, and Tim Bulkley, and usually taking place in the back room of Mitch’s Berkeley house — were utterly hilarious and remain some of my favorite music-related times.

What else remains to be said here…briefly, what you’ve got technically is a recognizably jazzy song form with a clear bridge (triplet action). The brilliant Kasey Knudsen takes an extended alto sax solo, followed by a brief full band scrum built on that aforementioned 16th note figure. After that, it’s time for bassist Lisa Mezzacappa to lay out a gorgeous free form solo statement, working her way toward the head out, which is slowed down and now decked out in a straight-8ths feel (change and transformation being the topic, after all!), before we finish up with a quick final rant. Smooth.


Stateless Liner Notes 6/10: Eucalyptus

STATELESS LINER NOTES

6/10: Eucalyptus

This tune is one of several specifically Oakland based stories on this album. People who know my personal history and see the title of our previous song — ‘Things We Kept from the Fire” — have asked if that song is about my house burning down when I was a teenager. As you, loyal liner note reader, will know, it is not…but this one is. ‘Eucalyptus’ aims to reflect both the ominous dread of the inexorably approaching conflagration (fun note: I first learned the word ‘conflagration’ around this time) as well as the eerie beauty, when the meaning of the image could be ignored, of the ashen moonscape left behind. Although they are an Australian import, the smell of eucalyptus trees is the defining smell I associate with my Oakland childhood. It just so happens that the oil in eucalyptus trees tends to explode during fires, a phenomenon witnessed during the large scale blaze that inspired this song. 

Since this is a bay area story touching on my own local history, I’m going to do the section of this entry addressing various minor items in the style (sort of) of the late famed local sports writer Herb Caen, famous for his ‘three dot lounge’ column: 

This tunes vibe was slightly inspired by Julius Hemphill’s masterpiece ‘Dogon AD’…there chord changes on the ‘eerie beauty’ moments of the tune referred to above seem to me to perhaps carry a hint of my deep appreciation for Billy Strayhorn, though the progression is certainly not one he would have used…solos here by yours truly, Tim DeCillis on vibes, and Kasey Knudsen on alto sax…watch your footing on those fleet ⅝ bars…for reasons that completely elude me, founding/longtime Clevenger Group bassist always enjoyed suggesting the alternate title ‘Heavy Petting’ for this tune…Sam’s originally from Utah, so that might have something to do with it…

For a number of years, one of the central sounds of ‘Eucalyptus’ was Aaron Novik’s bass clarinet (Tim takes over Novik’s solo in this current arrangement). The first version of the Nathan Clevenger Group was born while I was living in Brooklyn, and we played a few gigs and a lot of sessions before I returned to my native Bay Area in 2004. In the months leading up to my move, I was already lining up players for a west coast version of the 2-horn quintet I had been leading in New York. For the rhythm section, I was set on the amazing Ches Smith on drums, with whom I had already played briefly and hung with on both coasts, and the aforementioned Sam Bevan, a wildly talented and game bassist I had worked with once just prior to moving east and was eager to work with again (more on him in my next liner note). Ches recommended Mitch Marcus for the tenor saxophone chair, to my immense good fortune. For the 2nd horn, I knew I wanted a bass clarinetist, as it’s my favorite reed instrument, thanks primarily to early exposure to Eric Dolphy and Ben Goldberg, not to mention hearing the horn standing out in countless film scores and coloring certain key Ellington sessions (e.g. Harry Carney on ‘Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins’). Fortuitously, I soon heard Aaron Novik subbing for Ben Goldberg on a gig by the brilliant bay area composer, Graham Connah, and I immediately reached out to him. I delivered the charts for our first rehearsal/gig to Aaron at his regular gig with the band Telepathy (led by saxophonist Patrick Cress) at San Francisco’s London Wine Bar. A couple days later, I found myself coincidentally seated next to Novik (and Cress) on the dreaded, vertiginous Shoreline Amphitheater lawn during a Radiohead concert. Perhaps it was meant to be? Aaron was the Group’s regular clarinet player from 2004 to 2015, appearing on both of our earlier albums before moving back to New York. Aaron has played most of the music on Stateless quite a bit, so it’s rather odd not having him on the album. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to play Aaron’s thorny original music in a couple of his ensembles over the years; some of that music is captured on the beautiful recording ‘The Samuel Suite.’ Novik is one of my very favorite composers and musicians (and conversationalists) and I urge everyone to dig deep into the incredible range of music he has created over the years (he has released more albums — all of an extremely high quality — in the past 6 months than I have in my whole career). If you missed him with the Group, it’s not too late; Aaron is a permanent emeritus member and is always welcome to join us when he is in town (4 horns including 2 bass clarinets is kind of a dream for me).

In conclusion, it’s better if one’s house does not burn down. 

Please stream and purchase the Nathan Clevenger Group album Stateless here.

Stateless Liner Notes 5/10: Things We Kept from the Fire

“This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go” 

– Emily Dickinson

The ballad “Things We Kept from the Fire” is a bittersweet farewell and something of a cleansing ritual. Since that about as much as I’d like to share about that, let’s get (glancingly) technical!

The improvisation on this tune is as streamlined as it gets, by Stateless standards: there is one soloist — Cory Wright on tenor sax — and he takes one chorus of the tune’s central chord progression, which is damn close to an AABA form…it’s almost like jazz! Keen eared listeners will note that the alto sax and bass are often paired and playing a counter melody throughout the A sections, leaving the guitar to hold down the bass function during the primary repeating chord pattern (a 4 bar cycle with 2 bars of 3, a bar of 5, and then another bar of 3). The B section evens out and the players return to more traditional roles, with Kasey Knudsen’s alto taking over the lead melody. 

One of the first tunes that cemented my turn to full on jazz fanatic (and moved my instrumental studies in that direction) was the classic John Coltrane ballad, ‘Naima.’ It remains an all-time favorite tune and, as a teen, I responded to the sound of a pedal point bass underpinning beautiful chords in a big way and soon found this device in much of the music I was coming to love, e.g. pieces by heroes like Gil Evans and Ahmad Jamal and then, a bit later, the likes of Debussy and Ravel. (There is also a passing but key moment of this present in another all-time favorite: ‘Let’s Go Away for A While’ by the Beach Boys.) A related device, the brief bass ostinato underpinning a ballad, was also an early obsession, as heard in tunes like Scott LaFaro’s “Jade Visions” (another early and perennial favorite) and Scott Amendola’s “Red Lacquer Blue” (which caught my ear at many a gig at Bruno’s and elsewhere in the mid-late 90s). People who played with me a long time ago likely recall more than a couple early (semi)originals that leaned a little shamelessly into these pedal devices. I like to think I’ve got this situation under control at this point, but I still enjoy the occasional indulgence, as you’ll hear in the first part of the bridge on this particular tune (Eb7, Ebm7, B/D#, Eb7).

Let’s now discuss our soloist. The first time I recall hearing Cory Wright play was at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, on a gig with Lisa Mezzacappa’s Nightshade ensemble (check out their excellent album ‘Cosmic Rift’). With Clevenger Group founding member Aaron Novik temporarily indisposed, Not long after, I was in the market for a clarinetist, so I called Lisa for a scouting report. Having only heard Cory in more free settings, I asked her if he was comfortable with changes. Lisa assured me in no uncertain terms that this was not an issue. It didn’t take long to realize just how ludicrous my question had been; I’m fairly certain there is not an element of music capable of throwing Cory off. Jazz changes, free music, complex notation, etc etc…Cory makes the near-impossible sound simple, all without sacrificing a soulful, searching quality in everything he plays. He is also absurdly versatiles, which, it turns out was something of a mistake, as it has caused me to involve Cory in all manner of different bands/projects, playing just about any wind instrument you can imagine (see my earlier liner notes entry on ‘Rain Catalog’ for more on this); he is also one of only 3 musicians (Sylvain Carton and Aram Shelton being the others) who has been asked to play all 3 of the horn books in the Clevenger Group at one time or another (when Aaron returned, Cory moved over to the tenor sax/clarinet chair he currently occupies). Cory’s own music — as documented with Green Mitchell and his eponymous Outfit — is distinctive and joyful. He also has an outstanding newer ensemble called Fellow Hominids (featuring Jordan Glenn, John Finkbeiner, and one of my musical idols, guitarist John Schott), which I would encourage you to seek out; perhaps this coming Monday night at that Makeout Room?

‘Things We Kept from the Fire’ is deceptively hard to play, due to some rhythmic displacements, and I should note that Lisa Mezzacappa and Jon Arkin really do a great job of keeping it on the track. Another point of interest (don’t laugh, it’s rude): this is the only tune on the album without 2 drum sets, as Jon holds down the trap set while Jason Levis concentrates on gongs, singing bowls, and bowed cymbals. Finally, my wurlitzer piano overdub on the coda is an oblique nod to the lovely piano that comes and goes during the beautiful Rolling Stones ballad ‘No Expectations’ (played by the legend Nicky Hopkins), a thematically apt ending grace note.


Stateless Liner Notes 4/10: Nash Hotel 2046

(A continuing series of quasi-liner notes for each tune on the new Nathan Clevenger Group album, Stateless, available for purchase here.)

And now, for those following along at home, we go from the album’s shortest tune to its longest. Not coincidentally, the former ends on the very same note with which we begin the latter.

I spent my 21st birthday at a downtown Berkeley brewery/pizza joint called Jupiter, listening to guitarist Will Bernard’s outstanding and sadly short-lived all star ‘4tet’, featuring Rob Burger, Scott Amendola, and the late John Shifflett (their lone album, ‘Medicine Hat’, was released around this time and does quite a good job of capturing the music they were performing, though seeing how their book of colorful original tunes opened up live over the life of the band was something else altogether; I am thankful that I saw this band a lot). A little over 20 years later, various editions of the Nathan Clevenger Group play at Jupiter a few times every year. I really cherish these gigs, thanks to the combination of an unusually low pressure semi-background music scenario, the chance to stretch out over 3 sets, the fact that I never get cold so playing on the patio is awesome (less so for other members of the band, alas), and, no doubt, the nostalgia I carry based on the aforementioned personal history. Due to the possibility of inclement weather forcing the band indoors, I’m generally only able to bring a 4-6 piece edition of the Group, and, as a result, Jupiter gigs are a fun opportunity to mix in some tunes from earlier eras of the band’s repertoire, tunes that are less reliant on our current, expanded instrumentation. It is also — because I am a relentless and restless over-writer by nature — often a chance for me to bring in a simpler brand new tune or two designed to fit the looser context and smaller ensemble. Sometimes these sketches work well enough to warrant expansion and development for the full band, as was the case with Nash Hotel 2046.

Along with the direct, practical inspiration of an upcoming Jupiter gig, Nash Hotel 2046 is intended as an ominous yet somewhat comical (a little purple prose is imagined) sci fi/noir scenario. I’m a fan of a number of works that bring aspects of classic hardboiled/noir/gumshoe fiction into a futuristic environment, e.g. Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’, assorted Philip K. Dick novels, the film ‘Blade Runner’ (itself, of course, a creative PK Dick adaptation), Jonathan Lethem’s novel ‘Gun with Occasional Music’ (extra credit to that one for the Oakland setting!), and Wong Kar-wai’s ‘2046’ (see our none-too-subtle title nod). Visions of a future mixing shiny technological wonders with grim urban squalor, sharply undercutting the type of techno-utopian imaginings that seem ever more tragically remote with each passing day. (Note: don’t get me started.) There is also, in my mind, a connection to my affection for musicians who reject a simple straight-line-development theory of musical history; the “ancient to the future” ethos explicitly proposed and embodied by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and tacitly endorsed by exceptional artists from Sun Ra to Bartok and on and on.

(Quick parenthetical disclaimer: I simply cannot clarify strongly enough that the sci-fi/noir mix admiringly alluded to above is in no way at all related to the ‘steam punk’ phenomenon, which I personally find ludicrous and repellent.)

Incidentally, there is an actual Nash Hotel located just a few blocks from Jupiter, so it seemed appropriate to appropriate the name for my sinister purposes. It didn’t take a great leap of imagination to picture a dystopian future of the type alluded to above in this location. 

Nash Hotel, the tune, features a lot of largely atonal counterpoint and a couple overlaid meters, mostly underpinned by some very simple and earthly bass (w and w/o bass clarinet & cello) figures. You’ll note a repeating 3-chord guitar arpeggio motif that is one of the very rare instances in my music of an explicitly guitar-centric compositional element, leaning heavily on those friendly open B & E strings. There is also a repeating semi-functional set of chord changes that I’m pretty pleased with, if I do say so myself. The middle of the tune opens up, following a breakdown featuring a wheezy harmonium and some nice contributions by our guest cellist, Crystal Pascucci, for a free clarinet duo (Bb and bass, respectively) by Rachel Condry and Cory Wright, followed by a 2nd duo feature, this time for Tim DeCillis on vibraphone and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa. You heard it here first: our dystopian future will at least be enlivened by the occasional duo. These solos are preceded by an extended and thoroughly ripping solo by alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen.

Kasey Knudsen. Come to think of it, it is relevant in this context to note that the first time I heard Kasey play saxophone was at Jupiter, in a double-sax quartet with the astoundingly great Kenny Brooks. About halfway into her first solo that night, I was 100% sure I was going to ask her to fill in for Clevenger Group saxophonist Mitch Marcus, who was going to be away on tour for several months. Thankfully, she said yes, and played her first gig with the Group in November of 2007. When Mitch returned, there was simply no choice but to keep Kasey on-board and become a sextet, and, to my immense good fortune, she has been with the band ever since. She is now the only band member to appear on all 3 of our albums and is truly, profoundly essential to this project; at this point, Kasey’s voice on alto has become a foundational aspect of my compositional approach to the Group. She always surprises and is always evolving and deepening her approach, has a scary command of her instrument, and possesses the rare ability to make insanely sideways and complex (and occasionally ill-advised) written material come off as sure-footed and musical. She’s the best. Also worth a mention: the day I am posting this is Kasey’s birthday. I recommend celebrating by buying a copy of the Schimscheimer Family Trio (KK, Michael Coleman, and Jon Arkin, plus the master Ben Goldberg guesting) album “Broken Home”; it is a masterpiece and Kasey is incredible at every turn, as is her way.

Thank you for reading! As always, please find a link to this tune below and, if you’re interested in the music and supporting what we do, please consider purchasing the album, Stateless. See you next time, for what I expect will be a short entry.


Stateless Liner Notes 3/10: Rain Catalog

STATELESS LINER NOTES
Post 3 of 10: Rain Catalog

And here we all drop out and leave Cory Wright alone on the stage. First take, I should note! Although it was always intended to be adaptable to a variety of solo instruments, Rain Catalog began life as a cello prelude. No doubt this piece’s transition to life as a piece for solo wind instrument (usually) was smoothed over by the fact that the great composer Claude Debussy’s solo flute masterwork, Syrinx, was a significant inspiration.

In July 2014, I was invited to present an evening of original music for various ensembles, as part of the San Francisco Center for New Music’s Best Coast Composer series (curated by future NCG bassist Lisa Mezzacappa). Along with a set by the Nathan Clevenger Group (at the time a sextet augmented by Jordan Glenn on vibraphone, in an early indication of the coming NCG percussion deluge) and a new extended piece for improvising quartet (The Seamless Sea, performed by yours truly, Cory Wright, Sam Bevan, and Jordan Glenn), I also presented a brief set of pieces for solo winds, performed by the versatile Mr. Wright. Rain Catalog was played during this set, for the first time as a solo clarinet piece.

Prior to this first public Clevenger Group performance as a clarinet piece, Rain Catalog was afforded a few readings by the cellist Crystal Pascucci. Crystal is truly singular and irreplaceable talent on the local scene, equally masterful as a performer, composer, and improvisor. Excellent singer too! My other current working ensemble, Ashen Cleric, would not be feasible without Crystal’s unique and varied skill set; turns out it’s not easy to find a cello player capable of addressing music that is free or rigorously composed with equal authority and creativity. Crystal has been an occasional guest with the Group, and we are very fortunate indeed to have her contributing to 4 pieces on Stateless.

You may recall my earlier mention of the French master, Claude Debussy. Along with Thelonious Monk, Morton Feldman, Andrew Hill, Ellington/Strayhorn, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxton (for starters), Debussy resides squarely in the very top tier of my personal composer pantheon. I’ve apparently had a deep affinity for Debussy’s harmonic territory, predating my actual exposure to — much less study of — his music. What was less natural to me, and, hence, more directly influential, was the mysterious and quicksilver melodies he created. As much as I’d already embraced his remarkable piano pieces (maybe my favorite music ever), La Mer, and that ode to everyone’s favorite midday faun, I do think my engagement was spurred significantly upon learning that the great clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio w Paul Bley and Steve Swallow (another all-time favorite group/music) was influenced by Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. This information was enough for me to buy the score and do my best to gain some insight, which opened many a door. (Apologies for the abrupt ending; I don’t want reading this to take longer than it takes to listen to the piece.)

Stateless Liner Notes 2/10: Sacada

STATELESS LINER NOTES
Post 2 of 10: Sacada

‘Sacada (lit. “displacement”) A move in which one partner deliberately invades the other’s floor space, stepping close to or into the place their partner is currently occupying, thus displacing them. This often causes the partner’s free leg to describe an arc along the floor. There may or may not be physical contact between the legs of the two partners at the moment of displacement.’

I enjoy starting this quasi-liner notes entry off with a dictionary definition…I feel like I am working on a report as a grade schooler in need of applying himself more. Sacada is a land of contrasts…and so on.

Once upon a time, a tango enthusiast associate was breaking down some of the seemingly byzantine procedures and terminology involved in this most elaborate dance/subculture. I came across the concept of ‘sacada’ and, helped along by the purloined-from-the-internet definition above, immediately felt a kinship in or echo of my own musical inclinations. Rest easy: none of this sent me to the dance floor (the World breathes a sigh of relief). Of course, while I would love to see some intrepid choreographer take a crack at working with this tune, Sacada the tune bears essentially zero resemblance to actual tango music. (I am, however, very enthusiastic about the music of Osvaldo Pugliese and — it practically goes without saying — Astor Piazzolla, to name two.) I was aiming to represent a certain kind or breathing, shifting, and sensual movement; a sense of disparate trajectories, crowding each other, coming together, moving apart, repeating…that type of thing. It took a long time to get the feel right and to make the rhythms move in the lithe way I was hoping to achieve, in spite of the often unusual rhythmic shapes and frequent meter shifts (3 time signatures in the 1st 3 bars, for starters). The band worked very patiently to get this one up on its feet, perhaps particularly the rhythm section!

One member of the rhythm section, drummer/percussionist Jason Levis has, to my delight, used Sacada as an exercise for his students, asking them to clap out the shifting rhythms and even, to my delight, requesting an arrangement for a student ensemble comprised of vibes, bass, drums, and a vocalist! Jason is a perfect example of the type of rare and extraordinary musician without whom this music would not be possible…or, at the very least, not very good. As a performer and composer, he is equally comfortable and expert in dealing with, just to pick two examples, the thorniest spectral music and his beloved dub reggae. I believe the first time I heard Jason play was in his still-active (and amazing) duo with bassist Liza Mezzacappa, Duo B. Jason played with the Clevenger Group sporadically as far back as 2007 (he guests on marimba on a tune on our previous album, Observatory) and was the obvious choice when, in 2015, I decided that 1 drummer was not nearly enough. Dr. Levis is also extraordinarily generous in agreeing, seemingly happily, to drag all manner of gongs, bowls, cowbells, guiros, glockenspiels, and lord knows what other percussive flotsam to our gigs.

While the Sacada chart does bare the marking “dubius tango”, this is, again, an abstract relationship. In general, as a composer or listener, I can hardly imagine a less interesting compositional goal than the ever-fraught ‘authenticity’ regarding an established form or style. I’m reminded here of a favorite quote from my hero, Werner Herzog: “The so-called Cinéma Vérité is devoid of vérité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

Just a little more on the nuts and bolts Sacada; the semi-sprawling form includes features for each of our saxophonists (first Cory Wright and then Kasey Knudsen), both playing over chord changes and then assaying a brief cadenza accompanied by one of our drummers. There is also a brief drum exchange and, during the pastoral-leaning bridge, some hot glockenspiel licks from yours truly. This tune is also one of 4 on Stateless that is graced by the presence of a guest star, the utterly remarkable cellist Crystal Pascucci. Tim DeCillis alternates between vibes and guiro, Jason contributes some tambourine, and Cory alternates between tenor sax and Bb clarinet (Rachel Condry is on Bb clarinet throughout).

Thank you for reading; as ever, link to the tune we’ve been discussing below and don’t be shy: we love it when you buy our album!

n.c.

Stateless Liner Notes 1/10: Difficult Clocks

STATELESS LINER NOTES
Post 1 of 10: Difficult Clocks

Prelude:
OK, as threatened, here is the first in a series of quasi-liner notes, devoted to each song on the new Nathan Clevenger Group album. I’ll be going in album-order, hopefully dropping every couple of days leading up to our 12/2 gig at the Makeout Room. Please note: these are not intended as proper essays; I’m guessing they are going to get pretty digressive. So, you know, caveat emptor! Each post will include a brief digression discussing one of the extraordinary musicians on the album (plus two who are not represented here but contributed greatly along the way). Each post will also include a link to the album, as I am doing my level best to shamelessly hustle this album because: A) it’s tough getting folks to cough up cash for music these days; and B) I am profoundly happy with how this record came out; it feels like a personal culmination, of sorts, and I want people to hear it. Anyway, enough of my yakking…let’s boogie!

(In other words, more of my yakking.)

1/10: DIFFICULT CLOCKS

It felt important, narratively, to open the album with one of the first tunes specifically written for the double-drummer lineup of the Group, and Difficult Clocks fits the bill. As listeners will likely guess, the sections featuring Jon Arkin and Jason Levis switching to claves and guiro respectively represent an early indulgence in/foregrounding of percussive possibilities. Things got even more rich from a percussion standpoint when, a short time later, we added Tim DeCillis on vibraphone & percussion.

[Speaking of Tim, Mr. DeCillis first played with the Group as a sub for Jon. I have a hard time letting go of subs sometimes (our longest-serving member, Kasey Knudsen, joined the band in this manner too), and, hence, the band grows ever more comically large. After hearing Tim’s vibes playing added to our tunes, I had no choice but to keep calling him. Tim is a surpassingly brilliant and sensitive improviser. Plus, for the recording of Difficult Clocks, he performed his maraca and vibraphone parts simultaneously, which I found pretty amazing.]

Thematically, Difficult Clocks is a contemplation of the often primary — and frequently vexing — role that timing can play in the course of human relationships.

Musically, the tune features a melody (played by Kasey on alto sax) that is intended to have a vocal quality, giving the impression of floating semi-freely over the rhythmically aligned layers below. Difficult Clocks was written for and debuted, surrounded by butcher paper sheets emblazoned with notes from anarchist committee meetings, during a gig at Oakland’s Omni Commons. Trumpet master/fellow traveler, Ian Carey, was subbing for Kasey that night, so I wrote this with him in mind. I was also probably thinking of the way Dave Douglas would float over his Charms of the Night Sky ensemble.

The solo sections here are a study in contrasts, with Cory Wright (tenor sax) soloing over a section with fixed duration, chord changes, backgrounds, and unison guitar/bass lines, followed by Rachel Condry (bass clarinet) playing free with support from the drummers and Lisa Mezzacappa’s bass.

Speaking of those unison guitar/bass lines, while I don’t use much unison at all, I do have a weakness for the occasional bit of guitar/bass doubling, which I partially blame on my love of Curtis Mayfield and Henry Mancini. I generally like to employ this device starting on unexpected parts of the beat, enjoying the mild disorientation provided by a clear, groove-adjacent unison line that also can leave the listener feeling wrong-footed.

A final note, you’ll hear that Jason Levis is playing a metal guiro on this tune. I am an embarrassingly zealous proponent of the wooden guiro. This is a matter of irreconcilable debate between myself and the good Dr. Levis. Feel free to vote your conscience in the comments, fans of fish-shaped hand percussion: wooden or metal? I might as well break it to fans of the latter: all other guiro on this album is of the wooden variety.

Thanks for reading and — hopefully — listening! Purchase/stream Stateless here.

n.c.