Music for Music: Joe Clark & Arcana
By Dan Ursini ©2019
Usually I provide YouTube video links to songs I write about. But in this article I am also providing links to the album versions of the same songs at Bandcamp. They provide a much better idea of what Clark’s music really contains. These songs can be downloaded for free.
Necessity may be the mother of invention but the contrary processes of letting go and cutting back are its moody godparents. The deft channeling of both freedom and restraint in creativity can put a fine edge on any new piece of work. A musical artist like Joe Clark is familiar with all this. As an arranger, he has worked with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Rene Fleming. As a composer, he has written for jazz groups, including big bands; for experimental vocal groups; and for opera.
When Clark got the idea for his jazz quartet Arcana, he intended to write all its material—both original music and new arrangements of songs by other composers. He decided Arcana needed trumpet, baritone sax, tuba, and drums. I have known Joe for some years and I asked him about this unusual instrumental lineup. He explained that the particular combination of strengths and limitations it offered was decisive. A fundamental limit is that the brass instruments are powered by the musicians’ lungs. A chief strength is that Clark lives in Chicago, a city which has always been a home to world class brass musicians. Clark picked musicians he’d worked with and whom he knew he could compose for.
They are a formidable bunch. Tuba player William Russell is a member of the Boston Brass.
Drummer David Agee is also the drummer for the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters, the Navy’s official chorus.
Baritone sax player Mark Hiebert has worked with Clark in a range of bands over the years. There is a remarkable shape-shifting suppleness to his playing.
Clark himself is a trumpeter whose balanced style is both concise and deeply lyrical. He also sings and does comic monologs remarkably well.
The Arcana blend of contrary pressures is just right. Indeed during the band’s first year, Clark was so inspired, he wrote arrangements for over 100 songs—including several originals. Nineteen of them were used in their February 2018 debut, This Sounds Like Us.
The originals Clark wrote take the form of intelligent and evocative songs with inventive arrangements. The quality level is uniformly high. A favorite is “Mr. Rollins,” which opens with an extended graceful tuba solo by William Russell. It is a deceptively simple song with slyly developed dynamics that allow for a broad emotional range to the solos by Clark and Hiebert.
A quality which truly makes this band stand apart is its use of humor. This album offers several kinds, but not the usual kinds—to say the least: some of the humor involves arrangements of standards so radical only someone with a superb understanding how songs are put together could pull them off.
A standout track is an original Space Jam. Clark does a comic monologue, adopting the persona of a feckless egghead riffing on the initials LBJ. Behind him is a strong funk groove that propels this seven-minute song. David Agee’s drumming, very powerful throughout this album, is truly driven here.
Musical humor of an audacious sort permeates the sexxxy xxxmas EP released in December of 2018. It includes a medley of holiday chestnuts which are totally transformed by arrangements offering tribute to lounge band trumpeters like Al Hirt and Herb Alpert. Clark’s Good King Wenceslaus is a breezy hook-rich number; it is a world away from “the feast of Stephen” and in close reach of A Taste of Honey.
The same goes for “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” an elegant homage to Al Hirt. To achieve a seamless musical composition from such unlikely sources as holiday chestnuts and Sixties lounge music requires both a capacity for rarefied musical thinking and the ability to see and to share the humor in it. Precious few have both.
Later this summer I plan to return to Clark’s music to discuss Classical/New Music he has done.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: email@example.com