By: Ian Mann, The Jazz Mann
Rob Clearfield is a pianist, composer and improviser from Chicago. I first heard his playing on the recently released album “Blue Nights” by the Israeli born, New York based trumpeter Itamar Borochov. In November 2018 Borochov brought his quartet, including Clearfield, to London for a memorable performance at the Pizza Express venue in Holborn as part of that year’s EFG London Festival. The event confirmed the promise shown by the “Blue Lights” recording and turned out to be one of the most compelling performances of the entire Festival, a true Festival highlight. After the performance I was privileged to meet with Borochov, Clearfield and drummer Jay Sawyer and I’m grateful to Rob for providing me with a review copy of this, his latest album.
“Wherever You’re Starting From” is a solo piano recording that was first released in early 2018. It follows two entirely improvised albums in the same format, 2009’s “A Thousand Words” and the following years concert recording simply titled “2/26/10”.
Clearfield has also recorded in the classic piano trio format, 2016’s “Islands” sees him leading bassist Curt Bley and drummer Quin Kirchner. Prior to this he had led a quintet featuring saxophonist Scott Burns, guitarist John Kregor, bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and drummer Eric Montzka, this line up releasing “The Long and Short of It” in 2013.
Clearfield was born into a musical family and began learning the piano aged five, abandoning the instrument for the guitar (which he still plays) during his teen years, before returning to the piano, and associated electric keyboards as an adult, professional musician.
Clearfield is a highly versatile musician with a broad range of influences who has performed in a variety of musical genres. He began his professional career accompanying guitarist Fareed Haque and he has subsequently played with many of Chicago’s leading jazz musicians, among them trumpeters Marquis Hill and Russ Johnson, bassist Matt Ulery, saxophonists Greg Ward and Adam Larson, vocalists Bethany Hamilton and Grazyna Auguscik, guitarist Dan Bruce and rising star drummer Makaya McCraven.
Between 2004 and 2011 he led the progressive rock band Information Superhighway and he has also worked extensively with another prog rock outfit, District 97. The latter were noted for their collaborations with prog luminaries such as the late, great bassist and vocalist John Wetton (Family, King Crimson, UK, Roxy Music, Asia).
Clearfield’s versatility has led to him working with artists as diverse as the soul combo Hood Smoke and the folk/rock band Outertown as well as composing music for theatre and film and also for the church, the latter a reflection of his childhood background and ongoing faith.
As his credits suggest Clearfield’s range of influences is impressively broad, encompassing jazz, blues, gospel, classical and prog with Brahms, Radiohead and contemporary jazz artists such as Marilyn Crispell, Ben Monder, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Kneebody all mentioned as sources of inspiration. He has also cited the inspiration of other art forms, notably film and directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Besides his recordings as a solo pianist or small group leader Clearfield has also worked extensively as a sideman and his total discography embraces over thirty recordings across a variety of musical genres.
“Wherever You’re Starting From” appears on Matt Ulery’s label Woolgathering Records. It differs from Clearfield’s previous solo piano recordings by virtue of its inclusion of written material, including versions of Brahms’ “Intermezzo No. 2 in Bb Minor. Op.117” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. The remaining ten tracks are credited to Clearfield, but once again the pieces are largely improvised.
The album was recorded by engineer Blaise Barton at Chicago’s Joy Ride Studio at two separate sessions in September 2016 and February 2017. Clearfield declares himself as adopting a “compositional approach to improvisation” saying “my hope is that some of the music sounds through composed, some sounds like simple songs, and all of it sounds spontaneous”.
It’s a method that has been strongly influenced by Makaya McCraven, whose own 2015 album “In The Moment” was constructed from excerpts of improvised live performances. The focus here was on the beauty of individual moments or segments within the whole, a process of distillation and refinement.
It’s an approach that has also served Clearfield well with the pianist developing an acute understanding of the elements of a performance that work. Thus the album is as much about the art of editing as it is about improvisation and performance. In some respects it represents an updating of the methods that producer Teo Macero pioneered in his work with Miles Davis.
“If a beginning or an end is slow to arrive, but a fully formed spontaneous idea is captured in the middle, it’s a success” Clearfield says of these performances, some of which start with a fade in or end with a fade out, highlighting short pieces that once formed part of lengthier improvised performances.
The album commences with “Prologue”, its rippling arpeggios and sophisticated counterpoint emphasising Clearfield’s classically honed technique and the influence of composers such as Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Debussy.
The immersive “Starchild” is lengthier, and explores a wider dynamic and emotional range and exhibits more of a jazz influence. Bill Evans is an obvious reference point but I’m also reminded of Keith Jarrett’s ECM début “Facing You”, which featured shorter pieces such as this, rather than the side long improvisational epics of his later recordings.
Johannes Brahms’ “Intermezzo No. 2 in Bb Minor. Op.117” is delivered straight, with little or no improvisation, in a faithful reading that honours Clearfield’s classical roots.
The brief “What Was Your Name Again?” is more vigorous, exuberant and outgoing, with Clearfield dazzling with his bravura technique.
The title track is even shorter; at a little over a minute and a half it’s a brief, lyrical, gently questing miniature.
“Minor” and “Major” follow each other, two contrasting but thematically linked pieces. The first maintains the wistfully melancholic mood established by the title track before shading off into more troubled, turbulent waters. “Major” re-introduces an element of optimism in a charmingly melodic performance.
Clearfield puts his own classically informed stamp on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, cleverly disguising the theme while still bringing a quiet, but thoroughly compelling, intensity to the piece.
“The End” doesn’t actually signal the conclusion of the album but represents a brief, if melancholic, Romantic interlude; another example of the perfect miniature within the bigger picture.
“Blues in C” is implied rather than overt as Clearfield toys with his numerous influences, all the while demonstrating his phenomenal technique.
The lyrical and reflective “Alice” best illustrates the ‘simple songs’ of which Clearfield has spoken, with the emphasis placed on the yearning melody.
The album concludes with “Epilogue”, a variation on the tune that opens the recording and which, although not radically different in performance, helps to bookend the album neatly.
“Wherever You’re Starting From” is an intriguing album that reveals Clearfield to be an intelligent musician with a superior piano technique. Despite the focus on improvisation the music is almost classical in feel, which may dissuade some jazz listeners, but it should be remembered that this album only represents one aspect of Clearfield’s multi-faceted musical persona. It’s satisfying to see him taking such a focussed approach and distilling his thoughts so effectively. This is an album that combines rigour and beauty to considerable effect.