Alan Hall: Heroes, Saints and Clowns

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Ratatet, the sextet led by drummer Alan Hall, doesn't seem to quite fit into a musical box of any style or shape. One of the San Francisco Bay area's most respected musical performers and educators, Hall assembled this uniquely constructed ensemble from fragments of previous engagements: He previously played in a trio called Electreo with Paul Hanson (here on tenor sax and bassoon, acoustic and with electronic treatments) and Jeff Denson (on fretless electric and double acoustic bass). Hall and trombonist John Gove played in a Latin band together; the drummer began recruiting Dillon Vado (vibes and percussion) to join the band from the time Vado was a student at the California Jazz Conservatory; and another Bay area musician, Greg Sankovich, completes the sextet with piano and keyboards. For Heroes, Saints and Clowns, Joseph Herbert sits in on cello, as does the legendary Paul McCandless of Oregon on English horn and oboe, helping to create a fully textured yet reflective sound.

"This music is informed by what I see in the news, the violence, the police, the politics," Hall explains. So it opens with a "Demographic Shift," introduced through a marching procession led by the One Planet Drum Corps before the prominence of Vado's vibes in its stutter-step yet bouncy jazz melody sounds like Ruth Underwood flipping through different melodies in GrandMothers of Invention songbook. "A Short Poem for a Shattered Age" casts acoustic piano and shimmering cymbals in a lovely, warm sound that seems to genuinely welcome the cello, saxophone, and other instruments, in a reverent song that may well be a prayer. It's short, not small.

"At the same time, we have to keep our chins up," Hall continues. "I'm also looking at personal heroes, people who help me stay positive."

"Agnes Martin" synthesizes jazz, classical, and chamber music into a tonal homage to the abstract painter whose work Hall first experienced at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "She has these subtle veils of color that pop out as you look at the canvas. Her paintings are all patterns and geometry, so the tune has this recurring part to reflect that," the drummer explains. With "Lane and Joanna," Hall honors two more personal muses with jazz that shimmers like instrumental pop: It's clear and clean and crisp but not sterile, and the music's pleasant surface quickly reveals more complicated structures; for example, as simultaneous layers of rhythm build and then fall out to make room for Sankovich's breathless and beautiful piano solo.

It's up to you to figure out who your own personal Heroes, Saints and Clowns might be.

Track Listing: Demographic Shift; Lane and Joanna; Heroes, Saints and Clowns; A Short Poem for a Shattered Age; Grattitude; Michael Shannon; Agnes Martin.

Personnel: Paul Hanson: bassoon, tenor sax; John Gove: trombone; Dillon Vado: vibes; Greg Sankovich: piano, organ; Jeff Denson: electric bass, acoustic bass; Alan Hall: drums; Joseph Hebert: cello; Paul McCandless: oboe; "One Planet Drum Corps."

Title: Heroes, Saints and Clowns | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Ridgeway Records

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