CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Alexander Claffy: Leading from the Bass

The bassist is making progress through pluralism

Alexander Claffy
Alexander Claffy, looking forward to the future

There’s a touch of irony coloring the fact that bassist Alexander Claffy has developed a singular artistic voice by pursuing a pluralistic direction—one that doesn’t actually showcase his instrument. Yet it’s not so odd when you hear him explain it. “I’ve always been a fan of the great bass leaders and those who release records that are more bass-centric; I’ve just never really heard music that way,” he says. “I lead from the bass in a different way, because I grew up playing piano first.”

Claffy, a force on his second instrument, has become a fixture on the scene through sideman associations with a series of A-listers—pianist Orrin Evans, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and organist Joey DeFrancesco among them. A love of the canonical classics, passed down from his parents, comes through clearly on his 2018 brush with the tradition, Standards: What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? But it’s an ongoing series of eponymous recordings, stretching his skills as a songwriter, arranger, conceptualist, and studio chemist, that speaks most clearly to the man’s passions and partnerships. “[2016’s] Claffy came about because I had been writing all of these songs and I really didn’t know what to do with them,” he recounts. “Around the same time I met guitarist Ben Eunson who, along with Jonathan Barber and Mike King and all of these guys who are now doing amazing things, was willing to get together and just play this music.”

The resulting experiences allowed Claffy to flesh out his genre-blurring vision, but it was recording ace Michael Perez-Cisneros, a behind-the-scenes force on colleague Kurt Rosenwinkel’s highly influential Heartcore, who would help to crystallize the material. “He was the catalyst for so much music and we loved working with him right away,” Claffy explains. “It was kind of a Miles vibe—we had these little scraps and we didn’t really talk about it much. We just recorded in bulk, and then Mike and I worked together for almost two years to piece things together.” The final recording, a brilliant bricolage and multifaceted concept album running the arc of romance and dissolution, set Claffy apart. And it was only the beginning.

Claffy II, a “continuEP” released in late 2019 on the La Reserve imprint, leverages the same catholic taste(s) while further extending the idea of using post-production as a tool of creation. That’s evident on the dancefloor-friendly “Evelina,” an original featuring vocalist Kate Kelsey-Sugg and John Swana (on Electronic Valve Instrument) that speaks to the architect’s blended love of Weather Report, Sérgio Mendes, and disco; the kaleidoscopic “Growing Pains,” highlighting Eunson’s guitar work and the chemistry between pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Kush Abadey; a reimagining of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” fronted by vocalist Michael Stephenson, that fuses jazz harmony and aerated rock; and “Tassia,” a love song that brings Rosenwinkel, one of Claffy’s greatest sources of encouragement, into the picture. But it’s the EP’s lone standard—“The Windmills of Your Mind”—that best exemplifies Claffy’s operating methods. “It was two years of overdubs, taking things off, putting things on, determining voice-leading, Mike working with different types of delay and compressors, and just trying to figure out how to make parts sound more epic,” Claffy says. The finished track, a cosmically swirling design housing a strong statement from trumpeter Josh Evans, embodies the ideal of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

With additional tracks from the Claffy II sessions on hold (including several featuring trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah) and work on the next sequel already underway, Claffy continues to look forward to what the future holds, for both this project and music itself. Rather than fear shiftingattitudes, reference points, and methods of consumption, he embraces change and makes a simple admission: “There’s nothing you can do to stop progress.” 

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.