When three high-caliber musicians meet for the first time as a trio—and
they have resumes the likes of Larry Ochs, Nels Cline and Gerald
Cleaver—there’s sure to be some avid interest, and in this case there’s
added significance in that this release represents the 500th
album brought forth by the venerable Clean Feed label. But as with all
free-improvisational outings, sometimes the results aren’t quite sufficient
to meet the lofty expectations. Even the record’s ambigauous title, What Is To Be Done, which could either be viewed as a declaration
or an open-ended question, is a hint, perhaps, that the music here hasn’t
quite found its purpose, despite the episodic moments of magic that do
These guys aren’t strangers to one another. Cline brought his electric
guitar wizardry to saxophonist Ochs’s magisterial Electric Ascension Live, a vital revisiting of Coltrane’s landmark Ascension recording, while Cleaver and Ochs recently teamed up on Songs of the Wild Cave (Rogue Art, 2018), a drums-sax duo album.
Here the three come together for three improvisations: two lengthy ones at
over twenty minutes each, with a shorter six-minute piece, “A Pause, a
Rose” sandwiched in between.
It’s clear from the outset that the trio is on a mission to rock out.
Anyone familiar with Cleaver’s output knows that he can bring the goods
when it comes to a fearsome rocking intensity—witness the Black Host’s Life in the Sugar Candle Mines for evidence. But here it’s even more pronounced, with Cleaver offering a shifting
series of steady, granite-solid rhythms designed to instigate and support
the contributions of Cline and Ochs. From the opening moments of the first
track, “Outcries Rousing,” one can appreciate Cleaver’s ability to
establish a deep groove while Ochs joins in with some bluesy figures. Cline
too offers chunky riffs to nice effect before dropping out to let Ochs and
Cleaver do their thing for a while. And that’s all to the good, until Cline
comes back in—and that might be the first sign of trouble, as Cline starts
to bring a heavier, grittier sound from that point onward, and Ochs seems
to start to lose his place in the conversation. Which is not to say that
Cline is not terrific: the bag of tricks he’s able to bring to bear
throughout the album is at times astonishing. His looping technique alone
is a marvel, at times suggesting the presence of two different guitarists.
But it’s not always commodious enough to make room for Ochs in the way that
one would like, especially once Cleaver and Cline go into overdrive mode,
as they frequently do on the record. Ochs, to his credit, does his best to
find his footing, and he’s not shy about jumping into the fray. He offers
plenty of feisty energy himself. But that isn’t quite enough to make the
music a true three-way conversation.
Part of the problem lies in the mixing of the album. Rather than situate
the three musicians in clear distinction across the listening field, Cline
and Ochs are put together very closely in the center, with Cleaver spread
out over the left, center and right channels. This blurs the differences
between the players, making it even harder to hear the music as an exchange
of ideas. Moreover, when Cline really brings the heat, as happens midway
through “Outcries Rousing” and elsewhere, Ochs is in danger of being
subsumed beneath Cline’s distorted onslaught. More openness and equity in
the mix all around would have helped a great deal.
Ironically, it’s on the shortest track, “A Pause, a Rose,” where the
potential of the trio is suggested most enticingly. As Cline begins with
some entrancing figures that loop and wind around each other, Cleaver waits
until just the right moment to enter with some delicate cymbal work,
leading Ochs also to contribute with some felicitous flurries and cries.
And when Cleaver does eventually find the groove that drives the rest of
the track, the trio’s chemistry is enhanced rather than buried beneath the
rhythm. There are other moments of a similar nature at various points on
the album; for instance, the closing minutes of “Outcries” are riveting, as
Ochs merges beautifully with Cline’s looping filigrees to create a
captivating conclusion to the track. But nuances tend to be in short supply
on the closer, “Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend,” where Cline’s outsized
presence once again comes to dominate the proceedings, Ochs’s heroic
efforts to keep up notwithstanding. Here too, a bit more subtlety and
balance might have gone a long way.