The magic of 7 at the California Jazz Conservatory

Guitarist/composer Nathan Clevenger, left, and trumpeter/composer Ian Carey present overlapping septets Friday night at the California Jazz Conservatory. Photo: Andrew Gilbert

Some of the most important lessons at the California Jazz Conservatory take place after hours, outside the classroom. Friday night’s double bill in the CJC’s Hardymon Hall brings together two very different bandleaders who embody jazz’s overarching imperative, the quest for an individual voice. Richmond trumpeter Ian Carey and Oakland guitarist Nathan Clevenger are both eloquent improvisers, but they’ve largely defined themselves as composers and arrangers who create music for specific ensembles featuring some of the region’s most compelling players.

Carey’s latest band Wood/Metal/Plastic made its debut performance at Oakland’s Sound Room in September, and he presents the talent-laden septet Friday featuring alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, violinists Alisa Rose and Mia Bella D’Augelli, cellist Jess Ivry, and drummer Jon Arkin. The group combines the delicately calibrated dynamics of a chamber ensemble with alternating sections of close voicings and free improvisation, a tricky marriage that requires keen ears and bountiful imagination.

After several projects with his sextet (the Ian Carey Quintet + 1), he “started thinking what if I added strings to that,” Carey said during a recent interview with Clevenger. “I’d never written for strings. I realized I like listening to chamber music more than orchestral music because I can hear each voice. I like the idea of writing simple things, but it’s hard to resist the pull of over elaboration. I abhor a vacuum in my scores.”

“That’s an affliction we share,” added Clevenger, whose septet features Cory Wright on tenor sax, clarinet and flute, Rachel Condry on bass clarinet and clarinet, Tim DeCillis on vibes and percussion, and Wood/Metal/Plastic’s Knudsen, Mezzacappa, and Arkin.


“I’ve gravitated to music like the Charles Mingus and Miles Davis sextets, groups where they easily go between openness and orchestral density and maintain rhythmic flexibility to turn corners. A lot of the music for my group focuses on adding rhythmic counterpoint and pairing different players, breaking down into different subgroups. This isn’t a new project. It’s my long running group, and we’re ramping up to make a third album.”

Looking to explore less structured improvisation, Carey’s Wood/Metal/Plastic includes several sections “for free improvisation while also adding a whole bunch of written material,” he said. “With seven people if you just tell everyone in the band we’re going to play free, if everyone’s tentative, nothing’s going to happen, and if everyone’s not tentative, it can be a fiasco. Maybe a good fiasco, but I’m mindful of listeners ears. A lot of my favorite ‘free’ shows, the more cacophonous the tune, the shorter it would be.”

In addition to their ability to craft vivid instrumental settings designed more to create a distinct ensemble sound than to serve as a launching pad for solos, Carey and Clevenger share a self-deprecating sensibility. Both bandleaders write music that could easily enchant listeners unfamiliar with jazz, but they’re painfully aware that the avenues for reaching uninitiated audiences are few. I’m particularly grateful for the way they’re ensembles offer a brilliant cast of Bay Area players myriad opportunities to stretch themselves, at the same time that writing for these musicians provides a steady flow of inspiration.

“I’ve played more with Kasey more than anyone, and she’s been in my band over the last decade,” Clevenger said. “I’ve developed a sense of how to write for her. And if she’s coming to rehearsal, you want to give her something to do. It’s inspiring working with people who are game.”

Often out and about to hear what their colleagues are doing, Clevenger and Carey are responding to the local scene as much as they’re helping shape it. Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a creative force for some three decades “is a hovering influence over this band,” Carey said. “Because when I was working on this stuff I was going to hear him a lot. Actually, one tune the band plays I initially wrote as a sketch to go take a lesson with him, and I ended up fleshing it out for the larger group.”


While Clevenger and Carey explore different sonic territory, they both assiduously avoid certain jazz conventions, particularly the entrenched bebop cliché of playing a theme, or head, followed by a round robin of solos. “Both of us are not super interested in writing pieces with a head, a long string of solos, and head,” Clevenger said. “That gets tedious. One of the really fun things I try to do is give the soloists enough say.

“One of my biggest tenets is not having everybody play on the same tune, giving people different settings,” Carey said.

“We’re both lucky,” Clevenger added. “There’s not a lot of ego in the bands. We’ve got people who don’t need or even want to solo on every tune.”

The concert concludes with new tunes they’ve written for an all-hands-on-deck 11-piece lineup combining the two ensembles.

Recommended gig: Sambrazil!

BrasArte presents “Sambrazil!” on Nov. 4-5, a celebration Brazilian culture that explores the diversity and evolution of samba from its roots in Afro-Brazilian slave traditions to the highly orchestrated carnival extravaganzas with their dazzling displays of technique, sensuality, and percussive power. Under the artistic direction of Marcelo Chocolate and Alvaro Reys — revered samba stars from Rio de Janeiro — the performances feature some of the most talented Bay Area sambistas and BrasArte artist-in-residence Weslei Guimaraes.