Monday Make-Out, January 2014

Nathan Clevenger Group @ the Make-Out Room, SF
Nathan Clevenger Group, bathed in the Make-Out Room’s red light.

On the first Monday of every month, jazz takes over the Make-Out Room bar in San Francisco’s Mission district. It had been more than a year since I’d gone, and I finally atoned for that this month.

I arrived in about the middle of the first set — the Nathan Clevenger Group, whose new album I’d just written about. The band’s sound relies on feathery harmonies of clarinet and sax that have to work just so; one of the strengths of the Observatory album is the silkiness in the recording. I’d imagine a venue with a bright sound, like the Luggage Store Gallery, might not be so conducive to that sound.

It worked in the Make-Out Room, though, which was a pleasant surprise. The band was locked in with the harmonies and their solos, playing for a decent-sized audience, many of whom had come to truly listen to the music. Late in the set, when guest Jason Levis stepped in as a second drummer, he and Jon Arkin got into a brief, unaccompanied drum battle– and I swear, the whole bar went silent for it. They even got a few laughs when they traded off quieter and quieter sounds (the machismo of silence). It was nice to see a jazz band capture that much attention in a bar setting.

Levis and Lisa Mezzacappa were up next as duo B, a reunion of their bass-and-drums combo. Duo B used to play around town quite a bit, and I’d imagine venue owners helped come up with one of their song titles: “So It’s Just the Two of You.”

Duo B was an acoustic act, but they added an electric guitar for this set, producing a heavy sound. While the guitar did have its mellow moments, the first of two improvisations started with an electrified, industrial feel. A later segment had Levis going nuts on the snare and high-hat with Mezzacappa delving athletically on the bass. The second piece was more of a long, glorious sunburst with elements of drone; it started with some prickly guitar in an adversarial approach but ended up as an example of nicely sustained mood and coloring.

The third act was apparently Denny Denny Breakfast, performing one long, unexplained suite. On the web, DDB seems to be a pop act, the musical vehicle for Bob LaDue. What we saw was different: a fairly large band playing a long, polished, complex suite full of tricky passages at breakneck speed. It was as if a marching band had grown up in a town where Zappa chemicals leaked into the water supply. Drums and/or vibes triggered goofy synth patches as well, adding a madcap Nintendo silliness to the music.

This wasn’t throwaway stuff. The band’s charts were long and, according to one guy I was talking to, really complicated. (The charts were also photocopied just a couple hours before the show, apparently.) It was impressive.

Nathan Clevenger Strikes Again

The Nathan Clevenger Group plays Monday, January 6, at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco at 8:30 p.m., the opening act in the venue’s monthly jazz program.

Nathan Clevenger GroupObservatory (Apoplectics, 2013)

Source: NathanClevengerMusic.com; click to go thereBay Area guitarist Nathan Clevenger has a pretty good formula down, using the tight, silky harmonies of conventional jazz charts and applying those sounds to modern composing ideas. Building from a sextet format with two saxes and a clarinet (Evan Francis occasionally provides flute as well), the songs are recorded with a quilted, gentle sound but create space for some spirited soloing.

Observatory is more a jazz sextet album than a guitar album, and it seems like it would be great music for late summer evenings, especially with tracks like “The Letting Down” and its gentle, bluesy air.

That track is also one of the few to feature Clevenger’s guitar, in a patient, gossamer solo. As on his previous album, The Evening Earth, Clevenger’s jazz guitar is in the background, shaping the music while the spotlight goes to the horns. They’re at the heart of the melodies and they get the bulk of the solos. (OK, yes, the horns outnumber Clevenger 3-to-1, so of course they’d get the bulk of the solos. The point is, Clevenger’s role is more as composer, bandleader, and accompanist.)

The overall mood is soft. If I were to play you the first 30 seconds of each song, you’d get the impression of an album of pretty and mellow songs, and that’s not inaccurate. But the music is set up to let the solos really cook. An example is the opener, “The Irreconcilables.” Here’s a touch of the catchy main theme and of Kasey Knudsen‘s alto sax solo toward the end:

I especially liked the opening of “Sleepwalker’s Anecdote,” where Clevenger’s guitar plays a kind of counter-melody that adds a scrambling feel to the pleasant horn lines. (The polyrhythmic drumming of Jon Arkin helps, too.)

And I should probably note the quirky track “Equinauts,” which adds Jason Levis on marimba for an extra touch of whimsy. You also get to hear Clevenger set his guitar on stun.

Welcome to Viracocha

They’ve been hosting music at Viracocha, a boutique in San Francisco’s Mission District, for some time now. I finally made it to a show, and although it sounds weird to be holding music shows in an antiques shop, it turns out to be a delightful little venue.

Viracocha sells clothes, antiques, and also modern sundries: soaps; poetry and fiction books; even CDs. The wooden decor gives the place the feel of a cabin in the woods, an outpost you’ve stumbled upon.

The music is hosted in a separate area entirely, down a flight of stairs in a basement theater area that’s quite nice, outfitted with tables and chairs, some living-room decor, and a stage that’s roomier than you’d expect.

Viracocha has been hosting a variety of music, but of course I stopped by on a jazz night.

The Nathan Clevenger Group played mostly new material, composed in the last few months. Some of it is pretty complex, with lots of intricately interlocking parts and some interesting time-signature play. Yeah, they got lost early on one piece, but they got through it. Little stumbles can be worth it if you’re bringing out music that needs concentration and rehearsal. Clevenger hasn’t abandoned his jazz traditions, though, as some of the songs were cool and swingy, including (if I’m remembering right) a pretty one called “Syracuse Blue.”

(I wrote about Clevenger’s band and album about a year ago.)

They were followed by Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch. The two bands have made it an annual tradition to do a show together around the holidays; they were just a little late this time around.

Mezzacappa said Bait & Switch had a studio date planned for their next album. We were to be the last audience to hear the material before it got nailed down in recorded form, she told us.

I don’t recall the titles, but the new songs sounded great. One was about the red ants marching up from Central America to destroy us all, and it was appropriately march-like and a little bit cartoony. Another song played some fluid games with tempo. Vijay Anderson laid down a clackety racket on drums while the other three members played simple patterns. Anderson then sped up and slowed down the pace, with the band following his cues to create a rubbery sound.

I’m hoping Viracocha can keep going as a music venue. It’s a good addition to the Mission District scene, it’s got a wide-open booking attitude, and it’s just plain nice. Booking is handled by Laura, who runs the cool Fenderhart blog and also blogs about upcoming live-music shows under the handle LiveNLocal. You can find out more by joining the Viracocha mailing list (there’s a link on the Viracocha site) or by following LiveNLocal on Twitter (@LnLSF) or Facebook.

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.