The Jazz-Adjacent Sound of Now
Feeling Positive with Alabaster dePlume
Ten days ago, my parents – they are both 91-years-old, and still in the New York City apartment where I grew up – tested positive for COVID. I’m relieved to be able and say they are now doing well (vaccines, and boosters, really really work!).
I was in a bit of a daze all week, but it felt right when I stumbled on a Clifford Brown CD in a “free” box on a stoop in my neighborhood. Jazz – in particular 1950s, post-bop jazz – is very much my parents’ music. My mother is a singer whose career began with an album on Candid, 1961. Music from combos like the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet is what they have always listened to at home, and on the town.
I played those classic Clifford Brown recordings all week, but I found myself drawn even more to a new release: Alabaster dePlume’s GOLD – Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love. This album, too, features a tenor sax and a lot of improvisation. But dePlume is no Sonny Rollins. In fact, the sound of Alabaster dePlume’s saxophone is, if you go by the classic jazz vocabulary I absorbed from my parents, rather outré. He’s got a wide and quavering vibrato, a somewhat drone-like sense of melody. And yet… dePlume’s tone is generous, and welcoming. There’s more than a hint of the amateur to it, like in punk rock, though it’s the opposite of aggressive. It’s warm, and slow, and thoughtful: a DIY Lester Young. (I was charmed to find, in videos online, that dePlume even holds his horn at a Prez-like angle.)
Or – this is a comparison many have made, because the influence on his tone is unmistakable – a DIY Getatchew Mekuria, the “negus of Ethiopian sax.”
DePlume not only speaks through his horn, he talk-sings his way through a number of tunes, more poet than vocalist - and here again a very DIY type of eccentricity shines through. “Don’t forget you’re precious,” he intones, without the wry edge one might assume would accompany those words. He’s far more Jonathan Richman than Gil Scott-Heron. “I remember my PIN number. I remember my ex’s email address. But I forget that I’m precious.”
The arrangements on GOLD are anything but innocent, though. They are mesmerizing to me – at times clear as a small combo of improvisers playing on a soundstage in front of you, at other moments opaque and mysterious, with overlapping instrumentation and impossible leaps in voicing. The players are fantastic, drawn from a wealth of talent on the London jazz scene associated with the rehearsal studio, Total Refreshment Centre. But even the most telepathic of improvisers can’t make some of the shifts these tunes contain.
These drifting clouds of density remind me of another great recent jazz-adjacent record, L’Rain’s Fatigue. Like Taja Cheek, it seems Alabaster dePlume works with collage as much as improvisation. This is a distinctly digital music, for all its tactile, physical, personal touch.
That combination – the directness of hand and breath from jazz, with the layered alterity of digital media – feels very now to me. It has the urgency of this moment shared not together in a room as we might have done, or might like to do. Instead, these online days are a different kind of collective moment, marked by sudden environmental shifts that can take us all by surprise together, even at great distance. Even in isolation.
It was a ten day stretch of positivity. I’m trying to write that without any irony, like I imagine Alabaster dePlume might.
Cooking: Asparagus. This is the moment.