This week I’m taking a Thanksgiving break of sorts. Instead of my stated project of documenting the northeast Ohio scene I’ll cover something notable that’s happening in my old hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania: a concert Saturday evening headlined by New York improvising trio Three Shamans at Erie’s Grounded Printshop on a bill that also includes New American musicians from Syria and an experimental trombone and percussion duo.
“Ultimately, I’m not interested in presenting just jazz,” said Matt Laferty, one of the founders of the music presenting organization New Ghosts told me. “I’m interested in everything that pushes, and you know, this is going to push in ways that I can’t even predict having an awareness of.”
Laferty was describing the music that Allegories will play Wednesday night at Bop Stop—or at least, he was attempting to predict what the cooperative quartet of pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, trumpeter Dave Ballou, pianist Michael McNeill and percussionist Shelly Purdy might play.
It’s not an easy task. All four range freely across genre borders, but can be found in the dead center of a Venn diagram where jazz, contemporary classical music, improv and something that hasn’t yet quite acquired a label overlap.
McNeill, who lives in eastern Virginia, formed the ensemble after a planned tour with his jazz-oriented trio of New York bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Phil Haynes fell through. “I thought, well, who in Baltimore might I like to play with?” He started with Purdy with whom he played when the two were on the vibrant new music scene in Buffalo and Ballou, another artist with whom he’d worked. Susan Alcorn’s work was wall known to McNeill, but he didn’t know her personally. “I sent her an email and said, ‘I have this date. Would you like to play?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’ So that was that.”
It’s an ensemble that has collected a wide variety of playing experiences and styles. Ballou has performed or recorded with Maria Schneider and Steely Dan, Woody Herman and Andrew Hill, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano. He teaches at Towson State University in the Baltimore suburbs. Purdy, who also lives in the Baltimore area, is a percussionist and composer who presents new and experimental music on both traditional and found instruments.
Alcorn, a Cleveland native, might be the best-known but least classifiable of the quartet’s musicians. She’s played with similarly genre-agnostic musicians such as guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Nate Wooley and her solo work touches on jazz, ambient sounds and music that Laferty described as “abstract in the almost American primitive style of someone like John Fahey.” Though her instrument is associated with country music, something Alcorn has played a lot of, her work nevertheless transcends that—and every other—genre.
Together, the quartet played an engagement at Baltimore’s An Die Musik venue in 2018 that was so successful that they planned to work together, perhaps in 2020. You know how that story ends.
When the band got together again, McNeill, envisioned a short tour of venues in Maryland and Virginia, but Alcorn suggested that he call Laferty about playing in Cleveland.
Alcorn remembered a hometown concert presented by New Ghosts in the back room of the now-shuttered Nighttown where she was joined for part of her set by the local trio Iceberg. “She’s a brilliant musician,” Laferty said. “I find her playing endlessly compelling. So, even though I didn’t know Michael’s music well, I jumped at the chance to book Allegories.”
About that music: Allegories isn’t about completely free blowing. “I’m writing things that I hope lend themselves to interesting improvisations that without trying to control three great improvisers will get us into some areas I’m interested in exploring,” McNeill said. But, he added “We could probably do that without the compositions. So, we might play some totally free music too.”
In other words, there no telling what might happen Wednesday night at Bop Stop, and that suits Laferty just fine. “I’m counting on the fact that I cannot count on what I’m going to get,” he said. “What better gift could you want?
Allegories, June 22, 7 p.m., at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. $20 available here.