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.