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.