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.