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Label Watch: American Clave

Kip Hanrahan

It all started with a film that never got made. Kip Hanrahan, a Bronx-born composer, producer and bandleader hoped to bring together the texts of Ishmael Reed and the music of Cecil Taylor. But it eventually became apparent to Hanrahan, who had worked on a number of jazz recordings “from the inside out” that he could “make this piece as a record instead of a film for one tenth of the price and have control of the distribution as well.”

And so American Clave was born.

Growing up in a predominantly Latin neighborhood left an indelible impression on Hanrahan musically. “Working with Jerry Gonzalez, since I was a kid,” he explains, “I felt that the name has a certain resonance. The idea of the Afro-Cuban clave, it had a myth attached to it. But since we’re basically American, Jerry and Eddie Palmieri and Milton Cardona and most of the other people I’ve been involved with, the idea of American Clave was a kind of joke. A kind of oxymoron in a musical way, but it was truthful and funny.”

Realizing it would take some time to create what became Conjure, based on Reed’s text, Hanrahan produced and released Gonzalez’s A Yo Me Cure in 1979, a distinctive rhythmic and cultural gumbo that was to set a very high standard for the label’s future releases. “Jerry had the idea of combining first rate Latin creative percussion from the Bronx, heavily influenced by the image of Cuba and his Puerto Rican heritage and New York music,” Hanrahan explains. “Mixing with that the image of rebellion, and the defiance that jazz represents.”

The label’s other releases, including Conjure, which features music by Taj Mahal, Allen Toussaint, David Murray, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, Lester Bowie and Hanrahan, as well as his own A Thousand Nights And A Night, are musical tapestries with a cinematic quality, each a cultural commingling.

Hanrahan likes the comparison and feels that “the movie reference is key because I stopped playing an instrument after the first couple of records, although I do play percussion on Nights. I thought I could be more critical from the outside in and it was more interesting for me to see the musical movement more clearly. I direct the recordings the way a film director directs a film. As the story of each composition unfolds, you make decisions, like when someone makes a mistake and you leave that mistake in because that player is reaching for something.

“And it is a tapestry. You’re not concentrating on a music but on a whole bunch of stories coming from different players. Interweaving them to create the story you want to tell.”

A Thousand Nights and A Night, which was released in Europe last year, was inspired by the 40 volume Arabian nights series compiled by Richard Burton. It includes two key collaborators both on record and in person, bassist Jack Bruce, and documents the last recordings of pianist Don Pullen. “They were the vital center of the group, and had a dynamic that was breathtaking.”

A companion volume for Nights is in the works, which will utilize rhythm tracks created by Pullen before his death. “When Don realized he was dying in the summer of ’94,” Hanrahan explains, “he wanted to record as much as possible because he didn’t know if he was going to be around the next day. So we recorded nine and a half hours of music.”

Five other releases, with such collaborators as Ruben Blades and Piri Thomas and by such artists as Chico Buarque, the bassist Garcia-Fons and percussionist El Negro Horacio Hernandez are also in preparation.

Originally Published