“One should play the guitar like a man drowning at sea….” – Captain Beefheart
The sea can be a terrifying place. “I love sea shanties because they embody the spirit of men holding on in the face of a vast and unknowable ocean which combines beauty and fear in equal measure,” says saxophonist and clarinetist Jeff Lederer.
“I love the tension of individual and group that is so present in the very form of these songs through the call and response structure. I love the way this music is connected to the acts of physical labor on a ship – it’s feeling of resistance-the pushing and pulling of the beat; actually, more pulling of the beat than pushing – you don’t push with a rope.”
Years ago in conversation with longtime musical collaborator Matt Wilson (who appears here on various concert percussion), Wilson shared his impressions of first hearing the great Albert Ayler recording Love Cry. “He told me how it sounded very folk-like to him, almost like sea shanties.”
Years later, cornetist Kirk Knuffke (also present on this recording) played Lederer a recording of the traditional vocal group The Foc’sile Singers which contained much of the repertoire we hear on this recording. “The idea of connecting sea shanties with the music of Albert Ayler seemed to me to be not only completely natural, but inevitable. It is sadly relevant to mention that Albert Ayler met his own tragic death at sea,” notes Lederer.
A Los Angeles native, Lederer was initially turned on to the jazz icon when his Oberlin college professor Wendell Logan hipped him to Love Cry. “It spoke to me right away. It has a folk music quality to it, a directness. People don’t always identify the lyricism in play with Albert because they’re so taken aback by the sound and the extended technique. But it’s right there. I’m drawn to tenor players who work that gritty aspect. Like George Adams on Mingus at Carnegie Hall.”
Lots of modern improvisers try to balance the joy of boundless expressionism with the buoyancy of swing, but few do it with Lederer’s sense of ease. On Brooklyn Blowhards the relatively tame sea shanties are punctuated by the leader’s roars and rumbles, which lovingly conjure the heady atmosphere of late-‘60s jazz.
The shrieks here have a soulful purpose, fluttery murmurs have an attractive warmth. When he rockets a solo from 0 to 100, there’s always a story being told between the lines. “When I would do that at the Showman’s Club, they definitely understood that the squeaking and honking wasn’t coming from an artsy intention, but an emotional one. I like that my ecstatic thing differentiates me from other cats, but I like it most when it fits in, when it comes from what’s around me.”
Chemistry is key and Brooklyn Blowhards has a noticeable family feel to it. Wilson, Knuffke and Lederer often work together in Wilson’s quarter. Drummer Allison Miller, here playing concert percussion and bass drum has Knuffke in her band BOOM TIC BOOM and trombonist Brian Drye is a ubiquitous presence on the Brooklyn creative music scene, often playing with everyone here in different contexts. Miller and Lederer are bandmates in Honey Ear Trio. Art Bailey was the perfect man for the job here adding his reedy accordion to the pentatonic sound of the shanties. Petr Cancura is Lederer’s favorite tenor sax player and loves the folky aspect of his sound. He feels they are kindred spirits.
The artwork associated with this project comes from visual artist Matt Kish, whose book Moby Dick: A Picture for Every Page, Lederer discovered in a whaling museum in Nantucket. “The art seemed to me to embody everything that I was feeling about the sea; the creatures that live in it, and the men whose lives centered on killing them.” The artwork is as elemental and spiritual as Herman Melville’s words that inspired it. “The images reflected everything I heard in this music as well – violence, a Quaker spirituality, and a striving for order in the midst of turmoil. These are all qualities that I hear in the music of Albert Ayler as well.”
A key member of The Matt Wilson Quartet & Christmas Tree-O, the 51-year-old saxophonist is one of New York’s most versatile horn players. He has accompanied tap dancers at Harlem’s famed Showman’s Club, grooved the five boroughs as part of Jimmy Bosch’s salsa outfit, and played frequently with larger-than-life Afro-Cuban drummer and bandleader Bobby Sanabria. Regardless of setting, the impassioned peal of his sax is always on display.