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Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver: What Is to Be Done (Clean Feed)

A review of the trio's metal-inspired album

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Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver, What Is to be Done
The cover of What Is to be Done by Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver

Is there a place for metal bloodletting in your free jazz stew? Nels Cline thinks so. He, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and saxophonist Larry Ochs fall flat on their backs and bark screaming mad in tribute to what sounds like Mastodon impaled on Sunn O)))’s altar of slow-motion disaster. It’s about crunch, calamity, and release—then you die.

To be fair, not all of What Is to Be Done is ear-splitting. The album starts quietly enough, Ochs tracing hiccups while Cleaver keeps a gentle groove in the 21-minute opener, “Outcries Rousing.” Enter Nels Cline, stage right. The groove becomes more alert, chords imply danger. Ochs looks over the horizon, spits on the ground. Seven minutes in and Ochs is a dead man; Cleaver is thumping a funeral march; and Cline has ripped off his skull and poured molten lead down his neck hole. Fifteen minutes in and the death grip holds all, only muscle memory plucking strings and depressing keys. It’s a deranged show, a deafening blast that will foul your children.

Cline does his best John Renbourn-meets-effects-pedals impersonation in “A Pause, a Rose,” a collection of laughing loops and geese cries that mutate into pattering cymbal play and fits of coughing saxophone. Think The Twilight Zone for free jazz players, demonic saxophone swoops agitating a funky-drummer loop.

“Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend” is all tub-thumping rhythms and spewing saxophone. Cline pours sheets of pure quicksilver tone into the arrangement, allowing Ochs to go nuts against the guitarist’s Hammer horror-worthy guitar phantasms. It’s the fitting end to a mesmerizing performance.


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Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.