Within the greater universe of sound lies the interstellar sound-space called improvised music. And it is from within this specific interstellar sound-space that music lovers discover the interplanetary system wherein Nels Cline, Gerald Cleaver, and Larry Ochs mind-meld their sonic energies for each unique concert. Expect the music to be focused and energized. Know that these sound explorers -- veterans of decades of improvised music -- will be doing their utmost to raise the bandstand, and you with it.
Guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and saxophonist Larry Ochs are three experimental icons, individually and collectively drawing upon the outer limits of free jazz, structured improvisation and bicoastal noise punk.
The trio’s first CD – What Is To Be Done - released on Clean Feed in February 2019. Available here
NELS CLINE - GERALD CLEAVER - LARRY OCHS in southeast USA, APRIL 2019:
April 11 – Orlando: Iron Cow (produced by The Civic Minded Five)
April 12 – Gainesville: Heartwood Soundstage (presented by Pulp + Heartwood)
April 13 – Tallahassee: Fifth and Thomas
April 14 - Atlanta: The Bakery Atlanta
April 15 – Chattanooga: Barking Legs Theater
April 16 – Athens, GA: Hendershots
April 17 - Nashville: Little Harpeth Brewing Company (presented by FMRL + LHBC)
The Trio actually began as a duo of Ochs and Cleaver, premiering at Ochs’ week of concerts at The Stone in New York in September 2014. Ochs was so taken by the musical possibilities which this duo first explored at The Stone that he vowed to play at least one concert a year with Mr. Cleaver, whenever Ochs passed through NY. Cline and Ochs, both living in California, had known each other for decades; Cline has been featured since 2003 in Rova”s Electric Ascension bands. In winter 2015, on one of Nels’ visits to Ochs’ home base of Berkeley, the two had had a conversation that ended with a run-down of some upcoming concerts. Ochs mentioned an upcoming duo concert with Cleaver and raved about the first one. Nels took a look at his calendar and asked how Ochs would feel if he joined the duo, as he too had always wanted to play with Cleaver. As a result, the trio was born in Brooklyn in May 2015. The music that night was exciting; it hinted at all kinds of possibilities and was a fun challenge. Ochs determined that night to keep this trio purely for pleasure, to only play concerts that were easy to book, where the promoter was genuinely excited right from the downbeat. The trio has since performed 12 concerts in the northeast and midwest USA, including sets where the trio expanded to a quartet adding Marshall Allen (in Philadelphia), and (in Baltimore) to a sextet with the additions of Michael Formanek, Hank Roberts and Ches Smith. The three look forward to performing annually in the USA when all are available at the same time. Next up, in April 2019, looking forward to seven special shows in the southeast!
“Cleaver — one of the most versatile percussionists alive—is perfect for this configuration. He adroitly shifts gears between everything from feather-stroke delicacy to rocklike tribal thumping to direct flow-and-response to his partners. As heard on a live recording Ochs shared with me, the drummer masterfully feeds the trio’s front line, which enhances its proclivity for stealthily switching functions; Cline might shape a hovering drone only to counter the loosely coiled tenor spell cast by Ochs with a sudden surge of pedal-enhanced mayhem. Elsewhere the guitarist constructs lapidary patterns, injecting his tone with an acidic bite, yet progressing with a calming patience that is caressed and shadowed by terse sax figures. The pair’s steeplechase machinations develop with an organic flow that is exhilarating as it moves from the lyric to the chaotic, the serene to the explosive.”
Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader (11/30/2017)
GERALD CLEAVER (drums) is a product of Detroit’s rich music tradition. Inspired by his father, drummer John Cleaver, he began playing the drums at an early age and, as a teenager, gained invaluable experience playing with Detroit jazz masters Ali Muhammad Jackson, Lamont Hamilton, Earl Van Riper and Pancho Hagood. While majoring in music education at the University of Michigan, he was awarded a Jazz Study Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study with drummer Victor Lewis. After graduation, he began teaching in Detroit, where he worked with Rodney Whitaker, Marcus Belgrave, Donald Walden and with visiting musicians Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Frank Foster, Ray Bryant, Eddie Harris, Diana Krall and Don Byron. In 1995 he accepted an appointment as assistant professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Michigan, and in 1998 also joined the jazz faculty at Michigan State University. He moved to New York in 2002. He has performed or recorded with Roscoe Mitchell, Matt Shipp, William Parker, Craig Taborn, Charles Gayle, Jeremy Pelt, Tomasz Stanko, Charles Lloyd and Miroslav Vitous, among others. Cleaver has released four recordings as a leader and leads the bands Black Host and Uncle June.
Guitar explorer NELS CLINE is best known these days as the lead guitarist in the band Wilco. His recording and performing career – spanning jazz, rock, punk and experimental – is well into its fourth decade, with over 200 recordings, including at least 30 for which he is leader. Cline has received many accolades including Rolling Stone anointing him as both one of 20 “new guitar gods” and one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Cline’s most recent release, Lovers, out now on Blue Note Records, is a collection of “mood music” over 20 years in the making. Beyond Wilco, Cline performs in a duo project with jazz guitar prodigy Julian Lage in addition to a quartet The Nels Cline Four (that includes Lage plus bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey. Cline also performs in CUP, a duo with wife and musical collaborator Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto) and leads The Nels Cline Singers (featuring Scott Amendola, bassist Trevor Dunn and Cyro Baptista). www.nelscline.com
LARRY OCHS (saxophones) is best known as a founder of the Rova Sax Quartet, a San Francisco institution that focused right from the start on the application of improvisational strategies within the context of contemporary compositions, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing right up to the present day; 40 years old in 2018. Equally inspired by modernist 20th century composition and the more worldly, abrasive strands of 60s free jazz as well as by fellow pioneers around the globe, Rova and Ochs became widely celebrated for the lengths they would go to stretch the performance parameters of notated music through early collaborations with Henry Kaiser, Anthony Braxton, and John Zorn. Ochs connection with Cline began in the late 1990’s and culminated with the Celestial Septet, a band comprised of both Rova and the “Nels Cline Singers,” with a fantastic CD release (New World Records) including a long, ecstatic Ochs composition, as well as tours from 2009 – 2011. Ochs and Cleaver have performed off and on as a duo since 2013. A duo CD release – a beautiful , haunting set of music called “Songs of the Wild Cave” (Nov. 2018) – documents their 2016 live-recording experience inside a secret cave in the Dordogne area of France; a cave that contains upwards of 150 Pleistocene-era paintings. It’s a unique recording in which the cave itself seriously influenced the music, becoming essentially the third member of a trio. Ochs’ many other bands and a select discography can be perused and heard at www.ochs.cc
Art of the Improvisers by Roboi, immunetoboredom.com April 12, 2019
Springtime in Tallahassee offers a glut of high-caliber creative offerings that puts our little town, if only for a few weeks, on equal footing with the most celebrated cultural capitals. This weekend (April 12-14) , the Word of South Festival hosts its annual takeover of Cascades Park with a terrific lineup of music and literary heavies that I previewed for Tallahassee Magazine. The FSU School of Dance is kicking off a week-long celebration of the 100th birthday of the legendary Merce Cunningham. And just last weekend, the Tallahassee Film Festivalmounted a well-attended series of films, panels, and performances that attracted broad notice well beyond anything their modest budget should have allowed.
But the hands-down highlight of this season for me is the leaderless trio of guitarist Nels Cline, saxophonist Larry Ochs, and percussionist Gerald Cleaver, landing at the terrific listening tavern 5th & Thomas in Midtown on Saturday, April 13.
This trio, which recently released its first album, What is to Be Done, on the visionary Clean Feed label, is running a short tour of the deep southeast to showcase their approach to structured improvisation. Aside from Atlanta and Nashville, all the stops on their agenda are smallish college towns like Gainesville, Chattanooga, Athens, and our own little outpost in the Panhandle.
I realize most folks do not follow the ins and outs of the improvised music world like I do, but I’d bet that most of you recognize the name Nels Cline from his work with rockers Wilco over the past 15 years. Most Wilco fans may not realize that by the time he joined the band, Cline had been in the biz for 25 years and was widely recognized as one of the alt-jazz world’s most prominent players. 1Cline calls himself a “near-jazz” guitarist, which seems about right while also underplaying his considerable technical abilities. He’s a modest guy, even after Rolling Stone named him one of the top 100 guitarists of all-time.
But if you come out to 5&T expecting anything that sounds like Tweedy, you are in for something of a surprise. Cline and his trio partners Ochs and Cleaver are intrepid sonic explorers, musicians who cultivate the sound ground to generate surprise ecstasies and audiophonic epiphanies. There will be no verse/verse/chorus/bridge at this show, though it will likely incorporate elements of rock, jazz, folk, classical, and Oliveros-style Deep Listening in combinations you might not have imagined before.
I cannot stress enough: You really should be there to see what happens when three players of this caliber and collected experience set a framework and go to work. Contrary to conventional wisdom, structured improvisation is not an anarchy of everybody playing whatever they want whenever, especially when a guy like Ochs, founder of the legendary Rova Saxophone Quartet, is on hand. The guy is a wicked composer and conceptualist who establishes working paradigms – think of rules in a game – that serve to both spur and constrain the group. You might find yourself holding your breath during one of his sustained flights. Personally, I recommend that you breathe, but you do you.
Cleaver is an endlessly inventive drummer who has played with the best musicians of the past 40 years, including Roscoe Mitchell, Taylor Ho Bynum, Matthew Shipp, and Craig Taborn. Prepare to have your sense of time and dynamics turned inside out.
How to listen to such a thing? First off, prepare to be mildly confused, maybe even utterly lost. Just hang with it. If you listen to them as closely as they will be listening to each other (listening being the prime directive and single most important skill an improviser can bring to the table), patterns will emerge. Conversations between musicians take shape, sometimes among all three at once, sometimes just two of them as the third steps back. Occasionally, one player will command the floor to make a statement, and not necessarily forcefully; the manipulation of dynamics is another of the improviser’s key tools. A whisper to draw you closer, perhaps?
What is quieter than a whisper? Silence, perhaps. As in any great music, the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. The contrast between loud and soft, the emphasis a suddenly created space places on what came before or will come next: These are the building blocks of any conversation of depth. And in the end, that’s what you are witnessing when you attend a show like this.
So come to 5&T (or to the other shows on the tour) and catch a glimpse of what another approach to music might have to offer. Our world is filled with infinite variety. It’s nice when our musical diet is, too.
POINT OF DEPARTURE — July 2019 — by Chris Robinson
Larry Ochs + Nels Cline + Gerald Cleaver
What is to be Done
Clean Feed CF500CD
If there’s one take away from Larry Ochs, Nels Cline, and Gerald Cleaver’s What is to be Done, it’s that the trio’s audience gets their money’s worth. Recorded live in Richmond, Virginia, in 2016, the album is a rousing masterclass in freewheeling improvisation performed by a group that gets after it as soon as the first note drops.
For whatever reason, a lot of free improvisers seem to be allergic to tempo and meter, often to their detriment. But not these three. Within thirty seconds of the opening track, “Outcries Rousing,” Cleaver lays down a heavy, straight eighth note, lumbering groove, which Ochs weaves his tenor through. Each performance is a succession of different episodes with their own character that come to life often at the moment when a player changes direction, prompting his mates to follow suit. Four minutes in to “Outcries Rousing” Cleaver slows out of his groove, Cline turns on his suite of electronic effects, and things start getting weird. Later, Cline goes into full avant rock guitar hero mode backed by Cleaver’s furious rock drumming. Upon Cleaver’s departure Cline gets fuzzy, a squawking Ochs enters, and it’s not long before Cleaver is at it again, pounding away. The succession of episodes unfolds organically, with each morphing into the next. It’s free improv storytelling at its most compelling.
The middle track, “A Pause, A Rose,” serves as a brief bridge between the longer opening and closing pieces. It shows both the promises and risks of free improvisation. There are plenty of ideas – from Cline’s balladic opening phrase which he then sends through effects to Ochs’ trills, tremolos, and flutter tonguing, but none of them seem to take hold long enough to inspire further investigation. As a stand-alone piece, it’s an instance where the sum is less than the whole of its parts. In the context of the album, however, it functions as an ideal narrative device that links the longer, developed, and sustained performances.
On the final piece, “Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend,” the trio continues on the same path. Cleaver and Ochs, this time on sopranino, slowly build. One gets the feeling that as the music gets louder and busier in a patient and measured fashion, that we’re headed into the obligatory free jazz blowout. Just as it seems as the moment arrives the trio teases us, taking us somewhere unexpected – it’s down through the Nels Cline looking glass spurred on by thudding toms and tenor sax filigrees, and it’s on to new lands. Does free improv get any better than that?