Hello, Strangers

I trust there is not much mystery regarding the silence here, but it seems like as good a time as any to offer a brief rundown of some recent projects as well as a glimpse of what’s coming up in early 2021.

Since we’ve been sheltering in place, I’ve been writing as much music as I can. The necessary focus was not always available — given the 2020 of it all — but I’m trying. 

The first public evidence of this work is a duo piece written for bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and guitarist John Finkbeiner. Lisa and John were kind enough to record this as part of a remote concert for BAM/PFA. You can watch their performance here; my tune is called ‘Quickness’ and is the first piece performed. I can’t thank the amazing John and Lisa enough, not to mention the crucial BAM/PFA, which has played a major role in my education (film in particular) going back to high school.

Another piece written during quarantine, Mare Insularum, was recorded by the incredibly versatile and talented Mitch Marcus. You can purchase this EP on Bandcamp.

I have also completed a new score for a short film by my frequent collaborator, Kim Miskowicz. The film is called ‘Undercover Orbit’ and it should be available to the public soon; more on that when it drops, as they say. I recorded most of the music at home, but was also helped out by key socially distanced contributions from dear friends/Nathan Clevenger Group mainstays Kasey Knudsen and Jason Levis.

There is also another album length project nearing completion, a 5 part suite dedicated to the great Lee Konitz, one of too many masters we lost in 2020. The Mezzacappa/Finkbeiner piece above is part of this suite, and I am eager to share the recordings of the rest of the movements, featuring some of my favorite musicians alive in solo or duo settings.

Finally, just last month, I released the first live album by the Nathan Clevenger Group. Live at Rendon Hall is available now via Bandcamp and features a full set captured in 2019, just prior to recording our last proper album, Stateless. I can’t begin to express how much I miss playing with the 7 musicians on this album, and I hope you’ll take a listen.

Thank you for your interest and I hope that you and your loved ones are staying as healthy and sane as the times allow.

Until soon,

5 June 2020

As you may know, today is another Bandcamp Day, which means all proceeds from music you purchase goes directly to artists, many of whom are passing them along to the causes they support. I’m directing proceeds to Campaign Zero (https://www.joincampaignzero.org/) and Communities for a Better Environment (http://www.cbecal.org/about/mission-vision/). This includes sales of the newly released studio recording of Ice Hours, a multimedia project from last year (co-composed w Kristina Dutton, visuals by Kim Miskowicz & Camille Seaman). Please follow the links above to learn more about these organizations and the Ice Hours Bandcamp page can be found here. Thank you.

don’t know where / don’t know when…

None of us are sure when either day-job work or gigs will return…scary times. If you’re in a position to do so, and feel like it — and if you’re not already directing all of your cash to worthy causes like Cat Town or Temescal Arts Center — please feel encouraged to purchase a copy of my recent Nathan Clevenger Group album, ‘Stateless’, from Bandcamp. This is the most direct way to lend your much-appreciated support. 

Additionally, I’ve just released a new compilation of live recordings by 2 regrettably one-off projects from 2014, called ‘Apocrypha (2014)’, and you can find that here. It’s a little on the lo-fi side, but you can listen and then decide if it’s worth paying for; your call! You can read more about the contents at Bandcamp, but I will say that one session is a trio with me, alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, and pianist Michael Coleman, and the other is a long form composition, The Seamless Sea, for quartet (Cory Wright, Jordan Glenn, Sam Bevan, and me). 

Stay safe and hope to see you on the other side.


You win this round…

The Ashen Cleric gig scheduled for March 24th, 2020 at the California Jazz Conservatory has been postponed on account of plague. Hopefully we’ll have a new date sooner or later. Be safe out there.

‘for dcb’ 2/20/20 @ CJM

Tomorrow night — Thursday 2/20 — I will be at the SF Contemporary Jewish Museum, presenting the premiere performance of an extended work for quintet, dedicated to the late, great poet/musician/polemicist David Berman. 

Admission is free and our performance begins in the YOD Gallery (2nd floor) at 7 PM sharp.

The ensemble is:

   Cory Wright: clarinets, alto flute

   Crystal Pascucci: cello

   Jordan Glenn: drums, accordion, percussion

   Tim DeCillis: vibraphone, percussion

   Nathan Clevenger: harmonium, percussion

I’m incredibly excited to be premiering this piece in a unique and striking acoustic environment and I hope that you’ll stop by. I should note that this is NOT a performance comprised of cover versions of Berman/Silver Jews music. In fact, you won’t find a lyric, vocal, or guitar on hand. The piece, ‘for david berman’, is a original ~45 minute continuous chamber composition with improvisation. It contains a generative nod to another hero, Morton Feldman, and the title is a reference to his ‘For Philip Guston.’

At any rate, all manner of details in this event post.

Thank you for reading.

Stateless Debrief

The Stateless album release gigs — at the Makeout Room in December and Temescal Arts Center in January — were genuinely affirming and successful events which left me feeling uncommonly…well…good! Thank you to everyone who participated and attended. Debuting a couple big new pieces at the TAC show was particularly gratifying and, all in all, I’m left eager to reconvene the band and get on to what’s next ASAP. I’m so proud of this record and also delighted beyond measure that it serves as a platform to showcase the extraordinary playing of my brilliant band mates. Needless to say, the album remains available for purchase here. If you like what we’re up to, please do consider purchasing a copy; each purchase (not each stream, mind you) is a vote for recording another album in the future.

As long as I’m indulging in some vainglorious prattling on, here’s a recent press quote for good measure:

“A guitarist and composer who has quietly honed an unusually rich repertoire of intricately constructed tunes for a singular ensemble brimming with outstanding improvisers, Oakland’s Nathan Clevenger is celebrating the release of his third album Stateless (Slow & Steady). It’s jazz-adjacent music laced with improvisational passages but defined by Clevenger’s tightly notated extended forms and thoughtfully lapidary textures. With up to nine players, the arrangements create an infinite variety of voicings that take full advantage of a nonpareil reed section with Kasey Knudsen (alto sax), Cory Wright (tenor sax, clarinet and flute), and Rachel Condry (bass clarinet and clarinet). Despite a masterly rhythm section with Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), Tim DeCillis (vibraphone and percussion), and Jon Arkin Jason Levis (drums and percussion), Clevenger’s music never feels busy or crowded.” – Andrew Gilbert, East Bay Express

Come ye!

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.