Silver Dollar (Avant-jazz, 2020) **** ~ The Free Jazz Collective

Written by on May 22, 2020

By Sammy Stein

Threadbare are a trio of Chicago musicians comprising Jason Stein on bass
clarinet, Ben Cruz on guitar and Emerson Hunton on drums. Stein has enjoyed
a long career as an avant-bass clarinetist in Chicago, as well as a string
of releases spread across different projects, including playing with Ivo
Perelman on ‘Spiritual Prayers’. He leads Locksmith Isidore and his own
Quartet and co-leads Hearts and Minds and Nature Work.

Guitar player Ben Cruz is an Oberlin College graduate and a versatile
guitarist. Drummer Emerson Hunton is also an Oberlin graduate and has both
power in his rhythms and an understanding of when to cut, tinker and dive
right back in. Both Cruz and Hunton play in indie band Moontype, and Hunton
is a Modern Dance Accompanist at the Hyde Park School of Dance, and Music
Program Manager at Logan Square’s Comfort Station art space. They share
composition of tracks on this CD.

The opening track, ‘And When Circumstances Arise’ is a great example of how
a track is built around the musicians who are creating it. The opening is
bass clarinet playing phrases of 4, 6 ,4,5, notes with the drum thudding at
the end of each phrase before the rhythm changes very briefly to triads and
the piece segues into a rock-leaning number – the guitar and drums
continuing the rhythm whilst the bass clarinet follows and diverges away
into patterns of its own. What is also very creative is the guitar in the
background, which changes rhythm apace with the clarinet. By the halfway
mark, Stein is travelling the full registers of the clarinet whilst the
drums and guitar work around his lead, crafting supporting webs which lift
and bounce the bass sounds aloft. The quieter final section is instigated
by the drum dropping back and the bass clarinet soaring into upper
registers and takes the listener by surprise in its gentleness.

‘Threadbare’ is calming, tentative almost at the start with extended,
breathy bass clarinet notes and atmospheric cymbals and guitar. The
introduced ascents developing in the bass clarinet lines stress the
quietude – and the gaps between the notes also play their part. A track
with changing rhythms, emphasis and a sense of building. After the five
minute mark everyone is improvising along their line and it gets really
interesting, with Stein way up on the register and then switching down with
ease. The final two minutes are glorious.

’70 Degrees and Counting Down’ is introduced by guitar, over which the
clarinet sighs a gentle melody – for about 30 seconds before the drums
introduce a heavier rhythm and the others respond. Then a sudden drop to a
gentle interlude which in turn morphs again into a rocky, pounding section
before bass clarinet solos. The guitar joins and there is a dialogue, into
which the drum rudely wedges itself but proves worth the room as it leads
the trio with the heavy, determined beat, to heady heights and Stein comes
into his own – inspirational.

’24 Mesh Veils’ sees the trio investigating varied patterns and the guitar
is given space to solo, proving the choice of Cruz for the role an
excellent one. Here Stein largely shows his supportive side as he now
provides the steady underlying support over which the guitar sings. At
times the huge, deep sound of the bass clarinet come across so clearly, it
is as if there is a bass onside as well.

‘Funny Thing Is’ is snappy, riotous and light from all players initially
before the natural progression to a deeper, more textured sound prevails
and the rapid paced drums, steady guitar and slightly deranged speedy
progressions and drops from Stein make this a delight to hear.

If ‘Threadbare’ is meant to show what the band Threadbare are about, it
serves its purpose. In this track there is free flowing improvised music
with Stein on stut notes and popping his wood, as well as more traditional
leaning towards pop/ rock and ensemble playing. There is noise, there is
travel through genres, there is space and delight in the beauty held within
the notes.

‘Silver Dollar’ announces its intent with crashing drums, chords on guitar
and loud belly rumbles from the clarinet. What strikes here is the vitality
and importance of the tight support over which Stein rises, falls and
rolls. Stein here is pretty amazing and he demonstrates nearly all that a
bass clarinet can do. This track is full-on; it is huge; it is fiery,
intense noise and it is musical. If you turn the headphones up it nearly
takes your head off – wonderful music. The standout track on this album of

‘Untitled’ completes the album and this track is a contrast, with the first
minute taken up by weird and wonderful guitar over which the sax offers
breathy extended notes and later gentle phrases, delivered slow and then
rapid-fire in upper register of the bass clarinet, creating at times an
almost metallic purity. By the halfway point the track is heavier,
developing layers, skins and texture and it is the drums again which
largely emphasis the changes both in rhythms and pattern. Cruz is given
space in which to solo, which he takes and produces a well structured
delivery. An explorative track which highlights the importance of each

Together Crus and Hunton provide a solid, bubbling rhythm section , tight
against Stein’s fluid and effervescent bass clarinet. They never overshadow
the genius of Stein but they also know when to up the ante and become showy
in their own right.

Throughout, the playing on all sides is excellent, both tasteful and
forceful at once. Jason Stein demonstrates the exquisite possibilities of
the bass clarinet and hearing Cruz and Stein trade off on this album is an
absolute thrill. Yet the valuable presence of Hunton on drums and
percussion cannot be underestimated. It is often the drums which direct,
change the tempos and lead – subtly but with an authority not often seen in
such a young player. this combination makes for an intelligent, well
delivered and bloody marvelous listen.

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