Bass Clarinet Quartet: Late Classic Era

We are witnessing the Late Classic Period of Edmund Welles: The Bass Clarinet Quartet, apparently. You can bear witness to the last days of this period on Sept. 12 when the quartet plays in a bass-clarinet-heavy concert at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

The show includes the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk and a performance of a bass clarinet nonet by Jonathan Russell. If you don’t like the sound of the bass clarinet, this will not be the place to be.

As for Edmund Welles’ different eras, bandleader Cornelius Boots lays out the whole chronology on his blog. This wasn’t a decades-long master plan; it’s more that, with benefit of hindsight, he sees the phases of his musical development. He’s been nurturing the idea of a heavy bass-clarinet band since the late ’90s (the Inspirational Era), developing some songs as part of hard-rock band Magnesium. I got turned on to Edmund Welles during the band’s Early Classic Era, as the album Agrippa’s 3 Books came out, and what I’ve written on this blog has covered the Classic Era and beyond.

Boots’ other foci have included teaching — the Edmund Welles album Tooth and Claw now has a companion book that teaches you how to play the songs — and the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. He recently recorded a shakuhachi album, Mountain Hermit’s Secret Wisdom, in a cave, exploiting the acoustics to produce meditative pieces such as “Banshiki” — listenable on Bandcamp.

But he’s also playing metal on the shakuhachi, making clever use of athletic tongue-trilling and the instrument’s ability to bend notes. Here’s his cover of “Run to the Hills.”

An Edmund Welles Christmas

Edmund WellesHymns for Christmas (Zeroth Law, 2012)

edmundwelles5I’ve been a fan of Edmund Welles (the bass clarinet quaret) and recently posted about how their latest album took a turn for the metal. So I had to wonder what dark horrors would be dredged up when Edmund Welles went and did a Christmas album.

None, it turns out. Unless you count Christmas music itself as a horror. I have to admit, I’m in that camp, due to decades of exposure to syrupy muzak and cloying lite rock. There’s a Bay Area station that plays that stuff 24 hours a day during December — and they brag about it, and the Law does nothing to stop them. What a world.

I tend to forget that Christmas music started out as simple classical/folk songs. That’s what Hymns for Christmas delivers, an elegant, stripped-down approach that’s so refreshing.

Cornelius Boots, the brains behind Edmund Welles, wrote some eloquent notes (and a nice blog entry) about what the music means to him and how he shaped his approach, citing Dickens and handbell choirs along the way. It’s that kind of Christmas music, without the artificial sweeteners, played as gently as falling snow.

That, I can live with. And while listening, you can marvel at the range of the bass clarinet — which, as Boots points out, comes close to the range of male vocalizing. It’s possibly the most enjoyable Christmas caroling I’ve ever heard.

Listen for yourself at Bandcamp, CD Baby, or Cornelius Boots’ store … which is part of a snazzy new web site for all his work in general. This entry is peppered with links to it, but here’s one more just to be gratuitous.

The Metal in Edmund Welles

Edmund WellesImagination Lost (Zeroth Law, 2011)

To my ear, the metal influences in Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet, have been more foundational than foreground. For example, as ominous as the core riff sounds on “Watch Me Die,” on Imagination Lost, it has a catchy and even jazzy element to it, and the higher-registered melody above it tickles my jazz/prog center more than my metal center. It’s probably just the way my memory associates bass clarinet with jazz.

Imagination Lost makes the metal influence clear. The opening “Moira the Warrior” is one of their most ominous tracks to date. Not just dark, but more looming, and when the drums suddenly and surprisingly kick in — a guest appearance for what’s normally a bass clarinet quartet — the metal takes over, and it grabs hold for much of the album.

If you don’t already know: Edmund Welles is the creation of Cornelius Boots, who’s a serious student of metal but also a disciple of classical and free jazz. His compositions for the bass clarinet quartet deftly mix the three influences, creating songs that can dart and fly like jazz while also rocking you like, well, rock. The heaviness of metal has always been there, drawn by the low, low basslines of bass clarinets doubled- or tripled-up, but the music doesn’t alienate jazz fans. (See “Chamber Demons and Prankster Gods.”)

In fact, the songs often come across brightly and even flash a sense of humor. The band’s signature tune for years was their cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” Imagination Lost adds its own goofy touch with “At the Soda Shop,” a doo-wop tune with an ending that lets you know they’re not serious.

Most of the album presents a heavier mood, though. “When I Woke Up, Everyone Was Gone” is grand and fatalistic. “Moira” and the closing track, “Curtains,” have a processional feel, as if a dark ritual is taking place. The centerpiece is a tight, faithful cover of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” with Gene Jun on vocals. (And Gene’s got pipes. Man.)

This is only the band’s third full-length album, but they’ve been around for 15 years, so it’s not surprising that Boots chose to mix up the format a little — drums on two tracks, Jun’s vocal guesting.

I do miss some of the crazier, breakneck jazz pieces that dot Edmund Welles’ catalog. That element doesn’t seem as prominent on Imagination Lost. But it’s still a solid, varied album showing off some high-caliber musicianship. (Another track to note: “Separating Sanity,” which feels like a classic rock song, down to the voice-like lead and the bluesy touches, but it’s an original.)

Edmund Welles is a band that works hard for its results, and hopefully this album can give them the expanded audience they deserve. You can find it at CD Baby and Bandcamp.

Chamber Demons and Prankster Gods

Edmund Welles (the Bass Clarinet Quartet) and Arrington di Dionyso’s “Malaikat dan Singa,” at The Hotel Utah, Sun. Oct. 17, 2010

One fun thing to do while watching Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet, is to pick out who’s making which sounds. Ah, so that’s where the high squeaking is coming from. That’s the thumping sound. There’s the one doing that awesome riff.

Some of that is visual, based on the fingers and on who’s taking a breath when.  Some of it, though, is your own ears being able to pinpoint the sounds that exactly, even though the four players are so close together, usually facing each other in a boxlike formation. Maybe the bass clarinet’s range helps; it’s easy to pick out the low, low growls from the high screeches.

That’s fun even at a distance, but at a place like front and center at the Hotel Utah, where the band is practically close enough to kick you, it’s a treat.

You’ll hear Edmund Welles described as a “metal” jazz quartet, and that’s technically true. Cornelius Boots draws inspiration from metal bands; he’s arranged covers of bands like Sepultura; and, well, just look at this album cover:

But the music, to me, is a rollicking mix of jazz, classical, rock — and yeah, maybe some metal, not just in the occasional power chords but in the machine-gun notes in some of the arrangements, reminiscent of the relentlessness of metal’s drumming or rhythm guitar. It’s personable and fun. After a particularly rapid-fire, complex piece — like “Synge,” inspired by Melt Banana — you and the band are both left smiling.

I’ve now seen Edmund Welles in concert-hall and bar settings, and either one works. The music is serious and complex enough to get the arthouse treatment. But it also works as a fresh instrumental breather from the indie rock scene. A sense of humor helps.  Boots noted that the band was once accused of not bringing the “party vibe,” so they did their hit single (so to speak) from their first album, Agrippa’s 3 Books.  It’s an ace cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” Definitely a highlight.

Boots is the instigator and arranger for the quartet, and while he’s been fortunate to have some big local names pass through Edmund Welles’ ranks, it’s even better that he’s had a stable lineup for the past few years. The band used sheet music only for the newer songs, which will hopefully see an album release next year.

From Arrington de Dionyso (who also happens to play bass clarinet) I was anticipating something noisy and improvised, but this turned out to be a rock trio, Malaikat dan Singa. It’s a (mostly) guitar/bass/drums lineup providing stomping, trance-inducing rock beats against passionate lyrics sung in Indonesian.

De Dionyso is quite the showman, prancing the stage and declaring the vocals, showing off an impressive range from throat-singing growls to strong baritone wails. For one song, he wore an Indonesian mask and gestured robotically, like a sinister monkey god. And he did break out the bass clarinet for some distorted, guitar-like soloing.

A ragged, psychedelic attitude governed the music, but de Dionyso also sang with a reverence to the language and the text. (I don’t happen to speak Indonesian, but some of the lyrics on the band’s recent album are taken from William Blake or the Zohar.)

It’s an exhilarating band.  Don’t miss them.

Clarinetty Things, Edmund Welles, and sfSound

I did see Edmund Welles last weekend and still need to write it up.

But for the moment, take a look at this story from The Bay Citizen: “The Hot New Sound on the Scene? Oh Yes, It Is the Clarinet.”

It’s about clarinet becoming a hip leading instrument in jazz circles. And it comes to us from : Cornelius Boots, Edmund Welles’ founder; Aaron Novik, another Edmund Welleser who’s led many a band himself; Beth Custer and her Clarinet Thing; Ben Goldberg; and Matt Ingalls, a founder of sfSound.

The story also appears on The New York Timessite. Nice press, folks. Congrats!

Edmund Welles: A Tip

If you’re scouting out the Edmund Welles Myspace site, perhaps because you’re considering seeing this awesome bass clarinet quartet performing at The Hotel Utah in San Francisco tonight…

… then, you’ll want to scroll down the comments to find a douchebag named “Tran Qual.”  He’s inserted a music player that starts automatically and plays his guitar bombast, drowning out any actual Edmund Welles tracks or videos you might try to launch. You have to hit STOP, or the thing will keep going and going.

Myspace has become a surprisingly good tool for bands to spread their music. It’s a great sampler for test-driving a band before making the trek to see them live. Unfortunately, Myspace is also spam heaven, as our buddy Tran proves. Don’t let him deter you. Kill his music, and check out some of Edmund Welles’.

Upcoming Bay Area Shows

This is not an exhasutive list; it’s just a clutch of shows that I’d love to see if only it were a five-day weekend.  You need more than this.  Go read The Bay Area Improvisers’ Network ( or the Transbay Calendar (.org), and bookmark them, and check them often so that the fuzzy happy goodwill of the local music community doesn’t wear off.


Weds. 1/27 — Myra Melford’s Be Bread at the new Freight & Salvage, Berkeley.  You already know about this.

Thu. 1/28 — Full Moon Concerts return to the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco.  Polly Moller organized 12 shows last year based around the themes of different types of full moons (here’s the Long Night’s Moon, from December), and she’s apparently up for another cycle. First up, it’s the Cold Moon: “Experience the lunar radiations and transmissions of Thomas Dimuzio and Scott Arford as seen only by the ear.”

Fri. 1/29 and Sat. 1/30 — Edmund Welles: The Bass Clarinet Quartet at the Hillside Club, Berkeley.  Mu-hahahahaha!  Unlike Beth Custer’s Clarinet Thing (previously noted), Edmund Welles is all bass clarinets and draws from an even wider musical stretch. Including metal. They’re not above doing a Spinal Tap cover (in intricate, meticulously transcribed form, I might add).  It’s been a 10-year labor of love for leader Cornelius Boots, and you need to read about it in this East Bay Express article.  (Separately, you can read what I thought of the band in 2008.)

Sat. 1/30 — Aram Shelton brings his Active Music series (previous reference) to Bluesix, a cozy venue situated in the parlor room of a SF Mission District duplex.  Shelton’s Marches will play, followed by the free jazz of Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch (previously noted here).

Sun. 1/31 — Citta di Vitti at Cafe Royale, San Francisco.  A trio organized by Phillip Greenlief (sax) and inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. Expect a spare but warm, jazzy sound, embellished with some rich sax soloing. Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and John Hanes on drums.

Mon. 2/1 — What, you missed Citta di Vitti on Sunday night?  Well here’s your chance:  Go see them Monday at the Make-Out Room, a bar that’s been handing the rock stage over to jazz folks once a month.  Citta di Vitti opens, followed by The Little Blue House Suite, and then Aram Shelton’s Ton Trio (previously noted here).