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.