Mixing free formulas, individuality, and a love of a good tune, the Clusone 3 had quite the run. Cellist Ernst Reijseger and madcap drummer Han Bennink were mainstays from the Amsterdam jazz scene, joined by expatriate American Michael Moore, who brought fluid alto sax and clarinet (and occasional melodica) to the party. It’s hard to imagine a trio more alive than this one, even in the two-dimensional respect of a CD. They find stasis in discord - not anarchy, more like friendly jousting, only to suddenly turn the corner into catchy arrangements that mix irreverence and straightahead joy.
I Am An Indian
June-Sept 1993 / Gramavision
This disc collects live renditions of whistle-worthy tunes, including Duke’s groovy “Angelica”, Bud Powell’s “Celia”, and a couple of obligatory Irving Berlin numbers. There’s also a Misha Mengelberg theme and Herbie Nichols’ “The Gig”, a complexity that the trio dashes off as easily as an American band might play “Take the A-Train”. These numbers are offset by free improvs like the opening “Wigwam” (war whoops from the drummer) and the gritty “Bella Coola” jam that prefaces “Celia”. Clusone 3 is a true democracy in that any of the players may change the trio’s direction at will. Moore has the advantage of melodic suggestion (and he’s very persuasive), while Bennink can get antsy and holds a power of veto. Reijseger bridges Moore’s sweetness and Han’s zany persona. Several of the tunes move forward on his cello lines, here walking, there strumming, and Ernst even mimics funk bass on the closing “Salish” (inspired by Bennink’s employment of a cheap keyboard drum program). He’s got a lot to handle in supporting Moore and in dealing with Han’s restlessness, yet in the midst of these tasks, Ernst manages to get his own messages across. For him, the cello is not only a time-honored classical axe but also a jazz bass, guitar, or percussion. He’s an amazing musician.
“Wigwam” sets a mood that is followed up later with two different takes on Irving Berlin’s title track, the second of which has a ritual dance feel. In between the two parts of “Indian” sits the convoluted exuberance of “The Gig”. Moore and Reijseger slither through this bizarre Nichols structure as Bennink brushes up an irresistible swing on snare. Maybe the catchiest line on the album is a Dewey Redman tune called “Qow” that really takes off when Han lays into a snare line behind the alto solo, and his later drum break is explosive.
All fourteen tracks spill over with swing, great solos, and the sense that anything can happen at any time, which it often does. Since this is a tune-oriented collection, I think it’s the best intro to the band. The trio’s dangerous dynamics are easier to appreciate within song contexts, and there are times when they establish grooves so strong that none of them want to let go.
While Indian culled money shots from various gigs, this German jazz-fest appearance captures Clusone in an unedited environment, flitting from song to song in a spontaneous medley-based way. The 25-minute opening suite touches on free improv, Lee Konitz (“It’s You”), the original “Uninhabited Island” (with a nimble cello solo), a Mercer ditty, and Weill’s “Bilbao Song”. That’s a big wad to blow up front, yet the mid-set tenderness of the folk song “Love Henry” - guitar-ish cello, emotional alto, and soft drumming - is the real centerpiece of the CD. It’s probably the most poignant tune the group ever recorded; they shed the chatter and simply sound lovely. Then comes Moore’s original “Company of Angels” to busy the group again, especially the cellist.
The homestretch of the set mixes and matches several flavors, from the drum barrage “Tempo Comodo” to the touching Mengelberg hymn “Moeder Aller Oorlogen” to Berlin yet again - “White Christmas” in July? The group bids good night with a swinging medley of “A Velho Pedro” and “Marie Pompoen”, followed by the encore “Goodbye”. It’s a fine performance overall, yet the spacious recorded sound sometimes swallows the smaller details.
Feather armor - neat concept. The delicate fronds that cover our avian friends aid flight, shun water, and trap heat; they also protect against bumps and scratches as the sparrow scrambles into a bush to elude a predator. Which is why ancient eastern warriors might have suited up birdlike to absorb a swipe or slice. Less barbaric is the analogy with the Clusone Trio, who twitter and joust like birds at play (or at war), and whose plumage deflects incidental blows from the improvised scenery. This is my two cents added to Kevin Whitehead’s ornithological liner essay for this studio album of bird songs. Whitehead focuses on the mysteries of birdsong; I’ve referenced a physical context; meanwhile, the band is thinking, Hey, these are some classic melodies.
As a conceptual studio recital, Rara Avis is the most polite of Clusone records. Though they skitter freely to introduce a few tracks, they emphasize song above all; “El Condor Pasa”, in glorious wingspan, and Saint-Saens’ magnificent “Le Cygne” suggest the majesty of soaring, while the likes of “Skylark” and “Nightingales Sang in Berkeley Square” use birds as romantic confidants. “Baltimore Oriole” is melancholic. The spirited island dance “Tico-Tico No Fuba” features sharp alto and rat-a-tat toms. Jobim’s “O Pato” is similarly danceable, led by Moore’s agile clarinet. The group’s good humor appears when the “Red Red Robin” comes bob-bobbing along. For the most part, the trio takes a steadily lyrical approach, although there’s collective sparring in the originals “Avocet” and “Secretary Bird”, and the ambitious reading of “The Buzzard Song” (which uses some of Gil Evans’ lines) reduces the wide musical range of a live set to seven minutes.
The instruments issue discrete snippets of mimicked birdsong at times, from cello duck quacks to oriole signals to flutter-tongued sax, and a field sample of real birds opens and closes the CD. The crystal-clear recording captures lots of detail, and it’s a very fun listen overall.
Flip a coin between this live set and I Am an Indian and you’ve got Clusone’s best album. An Hour With finds the band in top form as they revisit some of their favored material. The bird fascination continues in re-reads of a few tunes that made Rara Avis and also some tunes that didn’t, like the quiet “Peacocks” and the hoedown “Turkey in the Straw”. Apart from the cool bop of “It’s You” and the dark finale “Baltimore Oriole”, everything appears within a series of medleys - the usual C3 game of guess what we’re playing next (because we don’t know either). I’m especially fond of the suite that begins with Steve Lacy’s “Duck” (quack quack) and the grooving “O Pato”. The mood then changes drastically for Moore’s own “Duck”, a tune of soft alto lyricism underpinned by a smooth bassline.
In a different medley, “My Bird of Paradise” sings on top of a folksy cello part; Ernst then morphs into a funky vamp for Mercer’s “I Never Had a Chance”, which inspires great sax from Moore and sing-along from Bennink. Another suite begins with “Le Cygne” and carries through the adrenalized “A Velho Pedro”. The band has wizened a bit over time, or at least they’re not as antagonistic as they once were. In any event, there’s still a bundle of surprises on this well-recorded disc.