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Cloning Americana: For Which It Stands

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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What are the color and the tone and texture of the music of protest and rebellion? Not red, it appears, but red white and tinged with the blues. At least this is what is posited by Cloning Americana, the ensemble that comprises saxophonist/clarinetist Billy Drewes, pianist Gary Versace bassist Scott Lee and drummer Jeff Hirshfield. Their quiet protest is a result of the belief that there is a "decline in the basic social values of respect, compassion and tolerance." This is not the first time that jazz has called America out on its hypocrisy—of preaching human rights and values but having none. It is often forgotten that jazz has always been the music of protest, from the plantation to the penitentiary; from the backyards of chicken shacks to gilded concert halls. It began as the language of the African-American slave, shouting out for his and her pain to be heard. It continued in the stolen music by empathizing white Americans, who understood what it was to feel deprived and downtrodden.

Does such an acrimonious reality have room for the luscious sound of Drewes' saxophones and bass clarinet to coexist with the forthright bopping of Eric Dolphy? Does the quietly mournful music of this ensemble (albeit a quartet) sit where the strident holy rolling of bassist Charles Mingus once sat? Strange but true. The music of Cloning Americana is charged with quiet protest. It is music that questions before the stammering of machinegun protest. The ensemble presents its unique protest music in a singularly harmonic, tonal manner. The cheers in "The Change-Up" nestle cheek by jowl with the madness of "Poster Boy." Yet "Comic Relief" stands in sharp contrast to "For Which It Stands." All of this, however, is meant to protest the declining values of America.

Cloning Americana presents the other side to stridency: calm. The turmoil in the soul is also manifest in the taut energy of Versace's dazzling runs on the piano. Lee's occasionally mournful bass speaks volumes for the white hot fever with which he rips through "Just Running Around." Only Hirshfield's rattling of the tom-toms and his tumultuous clashes with the cymbals show how taut the music really is. It pirouettes on the end of the ultimate stretch of the elastic and it could snap at any time, but is held together by the poise and grace of a band that is determined to sing protest and anger and grief through harmonic engagement, quietude and the joy of the true ideals of a socially just America.

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