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.