Local jazzmen spread the avant-garde gospel by teaming up with out-of-town acts.

Birth of the Cool 

Local jazzmen spread the avant-garde gospel by teaming up with out-of-town acts.

Birth: Downtown jazz for Cleveland.
  • Birth: Downtown jazz for Cleveland.
Normally, the Other Quartet, an avant-garde jazz group with an album out on Knitting Factory Records, would draw 25 people or less, due to the lack of interest in experimental jazz here. However, there'll probably be a much larger crowd when the group plays on October 6 at the Happy Dog. The reason is that the Other Quartet will be opening for Birth, a local trio that aesthetically has much in common with the Other Quartet and other jazz acts that draw from a variety of different musical sources. When visiting avant-garde jazz musicians have played Cleveland with Birth, they've done amazingly well: Chris Speed drew over 200 people at the Happy Dog last March, and Tim Berne and Joe Maneri have each drawn well when they played here with Birth as the opening act.

Birth's lead solo voice, Joshua Smith, who played with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra as a youth, is not only a brilliant saxophonist, but also an astute businessman -- he keeps a mailing list and puts out a newsletter informing recipients when the group's got a gig.

"I feel particularly fortunate to be able to play a part in exposing Clevelanders to musicians who otherwise wouldn't be noticed," says Smith, who books the out-of-town acts with which his band plays. "It gets really time-consuming to keep everyone informed about the shows, but it's worth it if we get to play with some of our influences. We usually send out a newsletter every month."

There are a couple of reasons why Birth, though an experimental band, is relatively popular. One is that it usually plays steady tempos, even though it frequently modulates both tempos and time signatures. The other is familiarity. Smith says that he, bassist Jeremy Bleich, and drummer Joe Tomino have, over the course of their existence, "gotten to know each other so well musically that abrupt tempo modulations happen spontaneously."

"We trust each other so much that, where we may have shied away from exploring these ideas in the past, we aren't afraid to go there now," he says.

Another thing that Birth fans will hear on Friday is drum 'n' bass. Wild rhythmic grooves similar to the ones employed by Birth have been produced with electronic instruments in the studio by artists such as Squarepusher, Amon Tobin, and Photek, but Birth does it live, so it sounds more organic.

"We use electronic equipment, but sparingly, and only to enhance the live performance aspect," Smith says.

Smith's a terrific, technically accomplished saxophonist and clarinetist who's been influenced by Speed, Berne, Joe Lovano, and Dewey Redman. After releasing its self-titled debut last year, Birth has been gaining attention not only here, but nationally. It has played the Knitting Factory and Wetlands in New York, has already toured through the Northeast, and has an upcoming fall tour that will take it to Chicago's Empty Bottle and the Knitting Factory again.

It was while playing in New York that Smith met Other Quartet trumpeter Russ Johnson, whose work he'd admired on record. The two developed a mutual admiration, and when Johnson told Smith about his current Midwest tour, Smith recommended the group play with Birth in Cleveland.

One of the interesting things about the Other Quartet -- which, in addition to Johnson, includes tenor and soprano saxman Ohad Talmor, guitarist Jim Hershman, and drummer Mark Ferber (who recently replaced Michael Sarin) -- is that it has recorded authentic adaptations of classical works by Stravinsky, Bruckner, and Elliott Carter. Talmor, an Israeli raised in Switzerland, studied classical piano playing, and Hershman is an accomplished guitarist -- they help to bridge the gap between notated and improvised music.

Like Birth, some of the Other Quartet's improvised solos are free and some based on preset structures. Influenced by the Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw school, Herb Robertson, and Dave Douglas, Johnson has developed his own unique style and uses extended muted techniques. He also blows pure air through his mouthpiece. He's got a big, pretty tone, excellent chops, and an excellent range that enables him to skip wide intervals easily -- it's no wonder he and Smith became peers. Talmor also has good chops and improvises inventively; his style's rooted in the playing of Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Lovano, and Wayne Shorter.

"On this tour, we're playing music that's going to be on our next CD, plus some tunes off [1999's] Thirteen Pieces," Johnson says. "When we play live, we sometimes choose a different set of material than what you hear on record, because some of the things, like the chamber ensemble stuff, works better in a studio than a club. Now we're really trying to write in a style that's specific for this group's instrumentation, and the composer writes with the other three guys in mind. Often someone will bring in a new composition or composition fragment, and we'll rework it or turn it into a new composition. Each tune is shaped by the whole group."

Talmor is the group's most prolific composer, and he's also a fine arranger, having adapted the work of French impressionist composers for Lee Konitz on the CD Lee Konitz Plus the Axis String Quartet Plays French Impressionist Music from the Twentieth Century. Recently, the group commissioned classical composer Ludmila Uleha to write a couple of pieces for them, which it performed at the Manhattan School of Music.

"We borrow from different stylistic worlds, but what's important is how we treat the material from them," Talmor says. "This band has been together for so long and we have so much trust in each other that it enables us to tackle any music, knowing that our efforts will be substantial."

Like the Other Quartet, Birth uses odd meters and metric modulation, and like many jazz groups from New York City, Birth has been inspired by the playing of Balkan musicians.

"Balkan folk musicians have the ability to improvise on complex time signatures," Smith says. "Individually and as a band, we want to internalize these odd time signatures to the point where we improvise with the same fluency and communication as we would in 4/4.

"Whatever harmonic structure we're playing on, we have the freedom and trust as a group to leave it behind and explore anything we want," Smith continues. "Much of our music has a tonal center, but we use it as a jumping-off point for whatever ideas capture us emotionally at that moment."

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