From 1998 to 2004, Birth, a Cleveland/New York-based saxophone, electric bass and drums trio, received attention and praise from some of the leading voices of the avant-garde jazz and creative music world. The group took a break in 2004 but reconvened in 2015 and next week will release Almost Never
, its first new studio album in more than 15 years.
It’ll play a release party at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 27, at the Bop Stop
Drummer Joe Tomino first started playing with saxophonist Joshua Smith way back in 1996.
“Josh was a younger cat,” says Tomino one morning over coffee at Rising Star in Hingetown. “[Local musician] Eddie [Stevens] got me a gig with Josh at a place in Tremont, I can’t even remember where. We were playing standards. We just hit it off. We decided to get together for a jam session. We had some bassist but whoever it was didn’t come through and we improvised as a duo. Even though I wasn’t as much of a student of jazz like he was, we had something there. There was a spark, musically. We decided to explore that. I was really into electronic music, and Josh didn’t know much of that. He was into jazz.”
That duo wasn’t known as Birth. But Smith knew Jeremy Bleich, who was also on the scene, and Birth was born.
“When Jeremy came over, that first session was it,” says Tomino. “We started to write compositions then too.”
Originally, the group put out what Tomino refers to as a “bootleg cassette.”
“We just did it at a duplication place in 1997 or 1998,” says Tomino when asked about the cassette. “We would play shows in upstate New York and Buffalo and Rochester. I had a metallic silver sharpie and was handwriting ‘Birth’ on every single cassette on the way to the gigs.”
The group would release its self-titled debut in 1999. It recorded the disc at Mr. Small’s Funhouse in Pittsburgh.
“It was the first Mr. Small’s, before they moved up the hill into a church and made it into a concert venue,” says Tomino. “It was a nice, open wooded warehouse. We did four or five days there. We did the second record, 2001’s Find, there as well.”
After the second album, the band cut a series of CD-Rs with original artwork.
“They never made it to print officially,” says Tomino. “That was material that never got recorded. It was all live stuff. It’s one thing to see it and hear it live where it’s very visceral and engaging, but I wanted to record those songs at some point too.”
After a performance at the High Mayhem Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2004, the group went on an indefinite hiatus as its members dispersed to various corners of the country. Smith relocated to just north of San Francisco, where he has performed with various groups under his own direction and as a sideman. Bassist Bleich moved to the Southwest and Tomino decided to devote his time to studio and touring projects.
“What was difficult was that everyone at that point was in different cities, and it became hard to find the time to do it because everyone had their own schedules,” says Tomino. “It was difficult financially to fly out and rehearse. We couldn’t make money doing that. The music right at that time, when we were still giving it a go, had reached its height. We’d structure the compositions out so wide and we had this beautiful thing and since we weren’t playing regularly or rehearsing, it wasn’t going any further. We didn’t want to do the music a disservice. We thought when the time was right we would come back together.”
Members made significant strides during the hiatus. Smith worked with the Scott Amendola Quartet, performed with Wilco’s Nels Cline and served as the musical director for leave me alone, the Harvey Pekar opera featuring music by Cleveland native Dan Plonsey. He also performed with bluegrass and jazz acts such as Peter Rowan, Blaine Sprouse, Ches Smith, Sean Hayes, Mike and Ruthy, Tao Seeger, Ben Goldberg, Trevor Dunn and Simon Lott.
Bleich moved to Santa Fe in 2005 and composed music for Lifesongs, Wisefool New Mexico, the Santa Fe Opera’s all-arts integration program. He recently won a grant to write the rock opera, Love and Emma Goldman, and also produces music for his Grasshopper Music label.
Tomino performed and/or recorded with the Fugees, Lady Gaga, Mike Patton, Wyclef Jean, Matisyahu, Blondie, Rahzel, Del Amitri and many other artists.
“It all started with Birth,” Tomino says of playing with so many notable musicians. “Having brought New York and Chicago artists to Cleveland, I made a bunch of connections, and when I moved to New York I had already met people in the scene. I was in a bunch of bands. Mainly Actual Proof which led to Dub Trio, and through that I had met a bunch of producers and other artists. That led to me working with and getting calls from other artists. It has been really satisfying. Touring-wise, I’ve always been hired to do what I would do as a solo artist. They hire me to do what I do and not just play the parts.”
The group would reconvene in 2015 when Smith returned to Cleveland and set up a session with Tomino and Bleich.
“We again played in the basement, and it was still there,” says Tomino. “The magic was still there. The tunes were still there. The spark was still there.”
In 2016, the band played its first public show in more than a decade at Mahall’s in Lakewood.
“That show was magic,” says Tomino. “We had fans from Cleveland, from upstate New York, and from Michigan. It was special. We played the tunes and there was still that inherent freedom within the music and we could stretch out.”
The group brought a few new tunes to the show. They even had to read the charts to play those songs at the show. At that point, they decided to record a new album at a new studio space in the Masonic Temple in Ohio City.
“We had written new material and rehearsed it and did three days there at the Masonic,” says Tomino. “When we first checked it out, we got in there and we went into all these different spaces to find one that had the right juju. We picked the right one, and there was beautiful natural reverb and a good vibe. Our friend Dave Kennedy was the one who told us that he wanted to get us together by any means necessary. He brought all this gear for our three days there. It culminated with a gig at the Bop Stop.”
The first single, “Dust,” comes in at more than eight minutes long. It picks up where the band had left off and starts with a head-spinning sax solo that then simmers into something more traditional once the bass and drums kick in.
In the wake of the Bop Stop show, the group hopes to tour in support of the new record.
“I’d love to get this band over to Europe,” says Tomino. “I booked a Birth tour back in the early 2000s, and it was a huge success. I would love to do that again. With a little bit of work, we can do that. I think we’ll do some coastal stuff, and we’ll definitely do a Midwest thing. If we get in front of a fan base that just loves music, even if they don’t get the language of jazz, they’ll dig it. There’s a noise element and an avant-garde element and a groove element and electronics. It’s about getting those fans out.”
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