Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Nels Cline/Larry Ochs/Gerald Cleaver in Pittsburgh

On Monday, December 11, Nels Cline, Larry Ochs and Gerald Cleaver blew into Pittsburgh to play two nearly hour-long sets at Spirit, an evening that ranks as one of the top concerts of 2017. This year was a pretty good for free/experimental/improvised jazz in the Steel City too. The show was originally booked at James Street Gastropub, but was moved when it was announced that the original space was closing.

The downstairs intimate room at Spirit, with more table and chairs set up than usual, proved to be a great locale, for both the crowd and the sound of the band. As Cline told me a few weeks earlier, what would normally have been an audience of 50 was doubled that night, in part because of his recognition as a member of Wilco. The report I heard put the turnout at around 120, all of whom seemed to be taken with the work of the trio.

The first set began with Cline twiddling a few knobs on his bank of effects, setting in motion a low bass drone and a loop that sounded like an organ. Cleaver starts a gentle 6/8 groove that didn't restrict the rest of the band, but added an appropriate foundation to the music. This would continue throughout both sets, so when he broke from the pulse and went free, the feeling was exhilarating as he used his whole kit to kick up the energy.

Larry Ochs' tenor playing had a unique sound. Though it was strong and clear, his blowing had a bit of softness to it in the first set, like he was trying to muffle it a little. It made him sound more intriguing, wanting to lean in and figure out what he was thinking, and it made for a nice collision with Cline's guitar when the latter played below the bridge.

As the first set moved on, the trio explored a variety of sound shapes. When Cline caressed the pickup of his guitar, Cleaver's beat moved to a slow 4/4, which turned into a dirty rock riff (so say my notes). Moments later they went in a free direction. Cleaver then dropped out leaving Ochs' tenor to duel with Cline's guitar, which he was manipulating with a metal spring. But even this morphed into something thoughtful, with clean guitar chords.

That clean guitar sound launched the second set, but it quickly gave way to some free, mutant melody lines, with Ochs on sopranino sax and Cline manipulating his pedal boards (more often with him forearm than his feet) and looping some backwards noises that almost sounded too eerily human, getting under the skin easily.

Cline hit on some guitar lines that were rapid and aggressive but still seemed to follow a pattern, instead of just careening all over the fretboard. Later he hit the strings and subterranean waves came out of the amp. Ochs echoed similar waves on tenor, with Cleaver playing his kit with just his hands.

The band seemed to reach a climax a few time where they could have stopped playing. But they kept going. At first, it felt like it was starting to flag, but this is music that requires trust from the listeners to realize they know what they're doing. The final minutes evoked the calmer moments of Sonic Youth, ending beautifully with Ochs first blowing air through his tenor and closing on some overtones. If I had felt restless a few minutes prior, I was glad I stayed put, taking all this in.

This trio has done mini-tours together for a few years now, around the winter season. Hopefully, they'll make Pittsburgh a stop on the tour the next time they're out.

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