“Wherever You're Starting From”
Street Date: February 26, 2018
On the Chicago native’s second solo piano endeavor, Clearfield explores his fascination for a compositional approach to improvisation, which is highlighted through the album’s distinct and dynamic sonic landscape.
“My hope is that some of the music sounds through-composed, some sounds like simple songs, and all of it sounds spontaneous.”
Clearfield’s compositions have been strongly influenced by his friend and colleague Makaya McCraven, the great Chicago-based drummer whose 2015 double LP In The Moment (International Anthem) is comprised of excerpts from live improvised performances. While touring together, Clearfield and Makaya had an in-depth discussion about an intriguing and innovative new approach to composing; improvising complete pieces by focusing more on individual moments.
“If a beginning or ending is slow to arrive, but a fully-formed spontaneous idea is captured in the middle, it's a success!”
This new idea gave way to a renewed sense of freedom, both in the studio and during the editing process by allowing Clearfield to develop a strong ear for the elements of a piece that worked, and to then utilise, edit and produce them to a high standard, regardless of the other parts that didn’t make the cut. As a result, two tracks off the album begin with a fade-in, and one ends with a fade-out, highlighting short pieces which were originally inside larger pieces. The prologue and epilogue of the album were also chosen with this unique improvisational production approach at the forefront. Clearfield introduces and closes Wherever You're Starting From with two takes of the same song.
Clearfield’s progressive and virtuosic compositional skill is rooted in both classical and jazz influences. Since the release of his debut album A Thousand Words in 2009, the established composer spent a considerable amount of time studying the canon of classical piano music, particularly the romantics (Brahms, Chopin, Rachmoninoff) and the impressionists (Ravel, Debussy).
“Their influence, particularly in regards to the textural palette of the piano, is at the forefront of the sound of this record.”
This 12-track opus includes two freshly interpreted tracks by two of Clearfield’s musical heroes: Johannes Brahms and John Coltrane. The inclusion of their music in this project represents the varied musical traditions Clearfield has spent his life studying: classical and jazz, composition and improvisation, solo piano and group playing, European music and Black-American music. While the Brahms piece is played in a straightforward manner, sans improvisation, Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is only faintly recognizable at first; the melody doesn't enter for several minutes, and the rhythm is stripped away almost completely.
Called “…one of [Chicago’s] most enjoyably unpredictable players” by Neil Tesser, Clearfield has taken part in a number of highly creative and genre-bending releases since his emergence on the scene over a decade ago. They including several releases with Matt Ulery (including 2016’s Festival, with Ulery’s Loom/Large, 2014’s In The Ivory, and 2006’s Music Box Ballerina, to name just a few), as well as with Dan Bruce (2017’s Earthshine), Adam Larson (last year’s Second City), and Jon Deitemyer (2016’s Tall Tales), among others. Clearfield’s previous releases include Islands (2016) on ears&eyes Records, The Long And Short of It (2013), a collaborative EP with Bethany Hamilton The Beauty That We Live In (2010) and his debut A Thousand Words (2009).
With each of his musical endeavors, Clearfield has always strived to be as expressive and as personal as possible. However, Wherever You’re Starting From represents a new level of vulnerability and exposure, that until now, Clearfield had not yet experienced with any past venture.
“Ultimately, I came to view this work as an autobiography of sorts. My trio and quintet records are like works of fiction, creating new worlds and characters in my own image. This, on the other hand, is more of a documentary. What you're hearing is who I am, nothing more and nothing less.”
"As he spins out elegant melodies in glistening strands of notes, Clearfield’s phrasing is so imbued with the language of classical music that when he serves up a familiar Brahms work (the Intermezzo no. 2 in B-flat Minor) it sounds as if it could be a piece of his own writing." Read the full review here.
"A young piano improviser that almost plays with a magic touch shows how you can be original while having Coltrane and Brahms as musical heroes." Read the full review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"With an ear for development, an appreciation for brevity, and an eye for sussing out form within form, Rob Clearfield provides everything that's needed and then some." Read the full review here.
"It’s mostly original compositions on this solo set, but a rendition of works by Coltrane and Brahms speak right to the influences that inform his sound." Full roundup here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"He is obviously a connoisseur of the piano, but there is something special about the way he composes and shares himself with his listening audience. " Read the full review here.
"There’s more to the art of one of Chicago’s most poetic jazz pianists than listeners may have realized." Read the full review here.
"Sometimes squeezing his music into narrow alleys and back streets, sometimes expanding it into highways and vast lands, Clearfield always brings something very personal attached to his rides. The development of his voice is undeniable and this album can be seen as a sonic self-portrait of the artist." Read the full review here.
"One of the things that distinguishes his playing is its elegant impressionistic character." Read the full review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
On Coltrane's "Giant Steps": "But the rich creativity of Clearfield's treatment is striking, and it lends a dark emotional weight to the piece that is quite compelling." Read the full 4-star review here.