As a consummate sideman, Oakland multi-instrumentalist Cory Wright has made himself an invaluable member of the Bay Area arts scene by providing exactly what any given musical situation requires. This summer you may have heard him playing the score from The Big Lebowski with the Red Room Orchestra at Outside Lands, or accompanying the antics of Circus Bella at an Oakland park with Rob Reich’s Circus Bella All-Star Band. He could be found laying down dub reggae grooves with Joseph’s Bone at Jupiter, playing the lapidary compositions of Beth Schenck in the Social Stutter Saxophone Quartet, and holding down the alto sax chair in the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at the ensemble’s Sunday afternoon California Jazz Conservatory residency.
There’s no shortage of opportunities to catch Wright in action but what’s rare indeed is the chance to hear him playing his own music and leading his own ensemble, which is one reason why Tuesday’s gig at the CJC is particularly intriguing. Part of the school’s weekly Way Out West series focusing on the original music of Bay Area artists, the concert is the second performance by Cory Wright’s Fellow Hominids, a quartet featuring drummer Jordan Glenn and guitarists John Schott and John Finkbeiner.
While Wright is probably best known as a tenor and baritone saxophonist, he plays alto sax and bass clarinet with the Hominids (his instrumental bailiwick also includes clarinet, soprano sax and flute). He created the group to investigate the kind of spaces he could conjure with the unusual instrumentation. “The inspiration was to write and explore how two guitars interact contrapuntally, bringing in the idiomatic, bluesy, funky elements from their traditional roles,” Wright says. “I wanted to see how that would sound not having a bass, with the guitars creating the harmonic structures, if there are harmonic structures.”
That might sound a little academic, but Wright conceived Fellow Hominids with particular homo sapiens in mind, particularly John Schott, who can often be observed in his natural Berkeley habitat. Wright turned on to Schott’s sound via the mid -1990s bent-bebop quartet Junk Genius with Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
“He’s someone I’ve always admired and love as a person,” Wright says. “I started listening to him really before I moved to the Bay Area. I remember hearing a sound I loved, that also inspired me in terms of what I wanted my music to sound like. The same thing is true for John Finkbeiner, who’s got a certain kind of energetic, angular attack that’s unique and exciting. I enjoy finding ways to feature his guitar sound.”
A beacon on the Bay Area improvised music scene for some three decades, Schott has played with Wright in a variety of contexts, including the Green Mitchell Trio and trumpeter Sarah Wilson’s ensemble. But he admits feeling a little skeptical when Wright first approached him about Hominids. “A group with two guitars and no bass is something that I am initially going to be suspicious of,” Schott says.
“What was exciting to me the first time we got together was that he had a very deliberate sound world calling for that instrumentation. That makes all the difference. There are parts of the music that are really challenging and mysterious. In some cases challenging in an existential way, and in others challenging in a familiar, hard-to-play way.”
Jordan Glenn has been an essential part of Wright’s music world for the past decade, and they’ve played in each other’s ensembles over the years. Jordan recruited Wright for his volatile trio Wiener Kids with Aram Shelton on alto sax and bass clarinet, and he featured Glenn on his 2013 Cory Wright Outfit album Apples + Oranges. “He’s a drummer who’s so versatile and inventive,” Wright says. “He can groove and hold it down. He’s always incorporating different sounds into his kit and he plays every part of his kit as a separate instrument, rather than as part of an interlocking groove.”
There’s a temptation listening to Wright’s music to look for forms relate to an upbringing where building structures was taken very seriously. His paternal great grandfather was Frank Lloyd Wright, and his grandfather, Lloyd Wright, was also a prominent architect. Cory’s father, Eric Lloyd Wright, is an architect who apprenticed in both his grandfather and father’s firms. “He continued that organic architectural legacy, but he was also an amateur flute player with a real love of music,” Wright says.
While strongly supporting Wright’s growing love of jazz as a teenager, his parents were careful not to suggest they were expected to go into the family business. “But we still felt the pressure,” Wright says. “Family friends would inevitably say, so, you’re going to be an architect? That expectation was out there. Fortunately or unfortunately, we were able to resist that.”
After a couple of years at Oberlin he transferred to the University of Southern California to immerse himself in jazz at the Thornton School of Music, where he studied with saxophonists Bob Sheppard and Louis Taylor. After graduating, Wright spent several years in New York City during the height of the Downtown scene, catching many shows and performing occasionally at the original Knitting Factory. Back in LA in the mid-90s for graduate studies at USC he took composition classes with Vince Mendoza. The underground LA scene was rife with exceptional improvisers, and he collaborated widely with artists like bassist Roberto Miranda and wind player Vinny Golia, an icon in adventurous Southland music circles.
Looking for a change of scenery, he and partner Kay Peterson relocated to the East Area in 2006. Wright already knew saxophonist Phillip Greenlief from LA, which put him one degree of separation from a vast and varied network of creative musicians. “Phillip has always been at the center of the jazz and improvised new music world, and I met and played with a lot of people through him,” Wright says. “He actually referred me to Cornelius Boots for his Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet and I started filling in, which was an incredible and wonderful challenge.”
Early on he started collaborating with bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, another essential mover and shaker on Bay Area creative music scene, and saxophonist, composer and Berkeley High math teacher Dan Plonsey “a major figure in my entering the Bay Area creative music world,” he says. “Dan has been a tremendous example to me of how to maintain a unique creative voice, how to be productive, and how to incorporate a sense of humor in your work.”
Humor isn’t the first word that comes to mind with Wright’s music. It’s often playful, but more in the sense of Texas Holdem than say, Operation. He creates musical situations that require high stakes gambits, even while maintaining what Schott describes as “preternaturally calm.”
“He’s so soft spoken and gentle in his demeanor, and capable of playing so sweetly and understatedly, even romantically,” Schott says. “And yet he also has a real appetite for ferocious intensity that seems to have no analog in his actual lived life, with tremendous dissonance and complicated structures. I think from someone who’s so consonant in his mind, that speaks to the integrity and quality of what he does.”
Oh yeah, and about the band’s name, Fellow Hominids, Wright says “I just wanted to include whoever’s in the band, and extend fellowship to the audience and anyone else.”