Nathan Clevenger

Nathan Clevenger GroupThe Evening Earth (Evander, 2010)

Having missed seeing Nathan Clevenger’s band last month, it’s been great listening to them in recorded form on The Evening Earth.

The audience that night certainly liked them. I had the impression this would be peppy, often pretty, and just a little weird. Pretty close.

Clevenger’s writing takes a lot from the swing era, but it’s packed with odd time signatures, twisty compositions, and passages of improvisation that go well beyond the old concept of a solo. On “Gap Embryo,” after Tim Bulkley‘s drum solo, the three horns — two saxes and a clarinet, I think? — swirl along their own, untethered paths, backed by bowed bass and a very light-touch guitar in the corner. That’s followed, quietly, by bassist Sam Bevan knocking strings with the wood side of the bow as part of his solo. So, no, it’s not a plain swing album.

The band’s emphasis is on the horns (saxes and clarinets by Mitch Marcus, Kasey Knudsen, and Aaron Novik). Clevenger himself plays guitar, and for the most part, he’s content to spin little lines and chords from his chair off to the side (literally; his guitar is pushed into the right speaker). It’s an airy sound, sometimes infused with a cowboy twang — especially on “Trellis,” which, when you start concentrating on the springy, old-timey guitar chords backing the solos, starts to take on the knowing smile of slapstick.

The writing generally has a sunny disposition — even the song called “Hopeless” comes with a skip in it step. “Soul Is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel” combines big-band retro with a driven, almost late-’60s air, while “Gap Embryo” is a 5/4 trickster with some Mingus-like tempo shifts. I also find myself liking the dreamy swing of “Low Resolution,” possibly the straightest track on here.

The horn harmonies frequently recall the big band era, but Clevenger puts lots of creative twists on the concept. You don’t get the breakneck tempos of bebop, but neither is the music frozen in the ’40s; the writing is fresh, and the musicians are given free rein to turn things upside-down, as on Novik’s offbeat, scribbling bass clarinet solo on “Late Kasparov Drives a Cab.” (You have to love these song titles, too.) And something about the heavy use of clarinets creates a circus atmosphere, in a good way. It’s more calm than madcap, but still, something about buoyant clarinets evokes images of tightrope walkers and trapezes.

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