Carving out a career as a jazz musician with one foot in the free improvisation tradition is hard enough. Jason Stein added another daunting challenge into the mix by focusing exclusively on bass clarinet, an instrument mastered by only a handful of musicians (almost all of whom are better known for their recordings on other horns).
The Chicago-based Stein isn’t exactly on a crusade to win greater recognition for the bass clarinet, but it’s no coincidence that the collective trio he performs with Tuesday at the Back Room is called Hearts & Minds. The group shares a double bill with bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s recently formed Tangle Trio featuring drummer/percussionist Kjell Nordeson and reed expert Sheldon Brown (a fine bass clarinetist himself).
Describing Hearts & Minds as a “bastard organ trio,” Stein created the group with his childhood friend Paul Giallorenzo, who plays synthesizer and electric piano. They’re joined by drummer Chad Taylor, who moved to Philadelphia after two decades as a major force on the Chicago scene. The musicians draw on the early electro-acoustic fusion of Miles Davis circa Bitches Brew, filtered through decades of subsequent ensembles exploring different rhythmic strategies.
“This band is a lot about the different grooves were dealing with, relating to pulse and meter in different ways,” Stein says. “This tour is heading into a recording session later this month, and we’re getting into some new music. It’s not a new approach, but a development, an elaboration with improvisation building toward monolithic sections dealing with specific grooves. Half the time Paul winds up functioning like a bassist or organist.”
I’d go check out any band featuring Chad Taylor, a player who was at the center of Chicago’s thriving creative music scene for much of the past three decades. But Stein’s work on bass clarinet, an instrument with a distinctively rich and woody sound, is also an irresistible draw. The horn has a singular pedigree in jazz, with brief forays by Duke Ellington’s foundational baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and the great LA multi-instrumentalist Buddy Collette before fellow Angeleno Eric Dolphy introduced it as riveting new voice in the early 1960s (for starters, listen to “Spiritual” from John Coltrane’s ‘Live’ at the Village Vanguard, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, and Dolphy’s Out to Lunch).
No artist really picked up the bass clarinet mantle until Bennie Maupin was was inspired to play the horn by Dolphy, who died from diabetes at the age of 36 in 1964. After establishing himself as a tenor and soprano saxophonist (horns he continues to focus on), Maupin made his bass clarinet debut on the epochal 1970 Miles Davis album Bitches Brew, adding an essential element to the trumpeter’s lean, sinuous fusion sound. And when Davis’s concept embraced denser textures and more intricate rhythmic patterns on Jack Johnson, Big Fun, and On the Corner, Maupin’s bass clarinet stood out amidst the kinetic sonic matrix.
Stein actually started his musical path as a jazz guitarist, studying seriously until the end of his teens though he never felt a natural connection to the instrument. When he went off to Vermont’s Bennington College as an undergrad he planned to major in journalism, but when he happened to encounter a bass clarinet he was immediately smitten with the sound. Unsure of what it was called, he went to a music store to inquire, and got a quick lesson in how make an embouchure. “It felt natural and right from the first second,” he recalls. “I went home that night and learned almost everything I could do on guitar on the bass clarinet.”
He actually showed up at his weekly gig with the new instrument and announced to his bandmates that he was adopting the horn. They looked skeptical but he made the switch. Seeking a more rigorous musical education Stein transferred to the University of Michigan, bluffing his way into a jazz studies major by saying he’d been playing the bass clarinet since childhood. He had to prove himself to veteran Detroit saxophonist Donald Walden would take him on as a student.
A jazz musician devoting him or herself to the clarinet is rare enough (Berkeley’s Ben Goldberg has long demonstrated that the decision doesn’t preclude musical achievements of the highest level). The decision to focus exclusively on bass clarinet is almost unique. Like Goldberg, Stein cites soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy as a formative influence “even though Lacy is playing an opposite instrument, he showed how you can get so much out of this one thing that’s inherently problematic,” Stein says.
Stein and Goldberg actually recorded together with Chicago clarinetist James Falzone’s Renga Ensemble on 2015’s The Room Is (Allos Documents), a fantastic all-star reed sextet that also featured Ken Vandermark, Ned Rothenberg, and Keefe Jackson. He’s performed in the Bay Area several times over the past 15 years, most frequently in Wrack, an ensemble created by oboe explorer/composer Kyle Bruckmann. More recently, he played at Bird and Beckett in 2018 with Locksmith Isidore, his long-running trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride (an ensemble that’s performed at theaters and arenas throughout the US opening for comedy star Amy Schumer, Stein’s younger sister).
Stein’s decision to concentrate on the bass clarinet offered him a path far less trod than if he’d played (or doubled on) saxophone. While he’s well-versed in the players who preceded him on the horn, and studied some with Berkeley-reared tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Murray, Stein has spent far more time transcribing solos by tenor and alto sax players than his own instrument. So why doesn’t he play the saxophone himself?
“I don’t know,” Stein says. “I like this re-articulation of something standard into something less so. Bass clarinet is relegated to this eccentricity of jazz music, and that’s what I’m trying to deal with and push against. Part of the reason more people don’t do it is that it’s freaking difficult to make work. It’s hard to play loud and hard to play in tunes across all registers. The frequencies get eaten up by drums and cymbals, so I’ve worked hard to be able to play through drums. Some bass clarinetist always use a mic. I try not be dependent on amplification. Figuring out the best way to do it is a constant process.”
Recommended gigs: Berkeley Festival of Choro | Sarah Cahill
The Berkeley Festival of Choro, an event devoted to the instrumental Brazilian style sometimes compared to ragtime, offers a new iteration on Saturday 7 p.m. at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley and Sunday 4 p.m. at 142 Throckmorton in Mill Valley. The program includes an opening set by the Oakland Public School Brass Collective directed by Zack Pitt-Smith. Among the featured guests hailing from Brazil are trumpeter Gileno Santana, guitarist Henrique Neto, and trombone great François de Lima (whose credits include recordings with dozens of major figures in samba and Brazilian jazz).
Speaking of intrepid musical explorers, Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill performs Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan at BAMPFA on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. as part of the Full concert series (assuming campus is open and the power is back on). She joins forces with Gamelan Sari Raras, a performing ensemble under the direction of Midiyanto and Ben Brinner in UC Berkeley’s Department of Music that focuses on traditional Javanese gamelan music and contemporary works.