When it comes to discovering new bands, musicians make the best sources. Over a quarter century covering music I’ve found that the surest way to hit upon unfamiliar sounds is by paying attention to the colleagues mentioned by musicians. Which is why my ears perked up a few years ago when several players I greatly respect made a point of praising Albany guitarist/composer Nathan Clevenger, who leads a talent-laden sextet dedicated to extended dreamscapes that unfold with their own quirky, internal logic.
The Nathan Clevenger Group performs Wednesday at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space at 2133 University Avenue as part of a double bill with the Lost Trio, a collective ensemble featuring saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Tom Hassett. A long-time Oakland resident, Greenlief is an inveterately inventive improviser with a three-decade track record as a creative force. He was one of the first players to drop Clevenger’s name to me, noting that he’d watched him develop from an avid listener in the mid-90s to a composer and bandleader possessing his own unmistakable sound.
“Nathan has assimilated Monk and Strayhorn and Sun Ra, some of the great jazz composers, and he’s writing all this amazing stuff where some of his influences are clear,” says Greenlief, who released the Clevenger Group’s impressive 2010 debut CD The Evening Earth on his Evander Music label. “But he’s really got his own thing. I know right away it’s his music, and that’s the best compliment I can give anybody.”
Clevenger has attracted some of the most expressive and consistently inspired musicians on the Bay Area jazz scene. Featuring alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, Cory Wright on clarinet and tenor sax, Aaron Novik on bass clarinet and clarinet, bassist Sam Bevan and drummer Jordan Glenn (filling in for regular drummer Jon Arkin), the band he present Wednesday makes up the core ensemble on his recent album Observatory (Apopletics). These musicians play together in various combinations in some half a dozen other ensembles, but none of them sound like Clevenger’s sextet.
Much like Harry Carney’s supple baritone saxophone anchored and helped define the sound of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Clevenger builds his compositions upon the sinuously woody resonance of the bass clarinet. The music is intricately arranged and sometimes completely notated, while retaining the rhythmic churn of a jazz ensemble. An incisive, cool-toned improviser who makes canny use of space, he’s more interested in showcasing his players on richly imagistic themes than with displaying his guitar prowess.
“I actually enjoy it when people come up to the horn players after a show and say I love your band,” Clevenger says. “There’s so much of me in the music, I don’t feel like I’m lacking in authorial voice if I’m not soloing on every piece. I think in terms of what does this music need? It’s more fun to think of shadings or textures, or how can I change or complicate the rhythmic drive. Aesthetically, it’s very important for me not to have a band that devolves into playing the head followed by a string of solos.”
Growing up in Oakland, Clevenger saw himself pursuing a life in academia studying literature, though he was also powerfully drawn to music. After graduating from Maybeck High School he attended UC Santa Cruz in the mid-1990s and nursed his passion for the music of Charles Mingus. While soaking up jazz at Santa Cruz’s venerable club Kuumbwa he started driving up to San Francisco several nights a week to catch the musical action at Bruno’s when the Mission District club was the hub of city’s boomtime jazz scene.
Exposure to brilliant Berkeley players like guitarist John Schott and clarinetist Ben Goldberg convinced Clevenger to refocus his creative ambitions from literature to music. A long-running gig with bassist Jory Cunningham, a buddy from high school, at Café Piper (which became the lamented Beckett’s, then Bec’s, and may soon open as Tupper & Reed) provided an ideal opportunity to expand his repertoire and hone his technique.
In 2001 Clevenger moved to New York City looking to steep in the creative ferment of the Big Apple’s jazz scene. “I didn’t have an expectation I’d play a lot,” he says. “I went with the idea I’d go there for a bit and write.” In fact he assembled a quintet that rehearsed regularly and ended up playing three gigs over two years. Moving back to the East Bay in 2003, Clevenger was determined to start performing regularly and an early incarnation of his sextet found a home at Tuva, a cozy performance space near Ashby BART that enjoyed a brief but brilliant life as the Jazz House. Coincidentally, the band’s debut gig was a double bill in 2004 with the Lost Trio, which already had a decade-long track record exploring a vast array of material, from Thelonious Monk and Steve Lacy to Radiohead, Bjork and the Beatles (as well as tuneful originals).
In the ensuing decade Clevenger has found a series of homes for the sextet, from Uptown’s Café Van Kleef and Café Royal in the Tenderloin to Uptown’s Awaken Café. He’s often been tempted to expand the ensemble, “there are so many players I like,” he says, but six pieces “has always been the sweet spot. Mingus’s 1964 groups are a touch point, where you can go from quiet passages to big band power and textural variety.”
Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.
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