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Making Room for Listening 

How drummer and composer Scott Clark created his latest long-form jazz suite, “Dawn & Dusk” out of the stillness of the pandemic.

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Peter Gannushkin

It’s 2018. You’re at Black Iris Social Club on Broad Street watching a solo performance by Richmond-based drummer Scott Clark. It’s quiet. So quiet that Clark can strike a cymbal and allow the sound to fade completely, until silence refills the room.

You’ve just witnessed a turning point in the career of one of this city’s boldest, most imaginative composers – a moment that set Clark down a pathway toward creating exploratory jazz that soundtracks introspection with grace and deep humanity.

There’s been no shortage of opportunities for introspection lately, especially for musicians. Amid the early-COVID live music shutdown, as the ability to look listeners in the eye vanished, Scott saw an opportunity to look inward. “When everything got stripped away,” Clark says, “and all of your outlets were taken away, you were left to dwell in some of these latent feelings that you’ve had for a long time.”

Out of that stillness came “Dawn & Dusk,” Clark’s latest long-form jazz suite, which invokes the pandemic’s unsettling monotony while making room for much-needed hope to return. Clark and his sextet premiered the 40-plus-minute collection of songs at Black Iris in early February of this year. Droning upright bass mixed with drawn-out, repeating horn phrases. Lyrical reflections on finding inner peace rang out over shimmering piano parts. And Clark gave a masterclass in dynamic range, from barely-there cymbal taps to thunderous bursts of percussion.

Audience members weren’t the only ones hearing the piece in full for the first time. Clark’s sextet tracked “Dawn & Dusk” last August at Minimum Wage Recording, and there are plans to release that version later this year on Out of Your Head Records, the label run by the group’s bassist, Adam Hopkins. But there wasn’t time to practice ahead of recording, and since tracks were recorded individually, the Black Iris performance was the band’s first uninterrupted trip through it.

“That experience of finally getting it performed and out there that way was really cathartic,” Clark says.

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His musical slate wasn’t totally blank at the pandemic’s onset. He had a few musical phrases in mind, and a keyboard at home that could store those snippets for later listening. But as the days wore on, elaborating on what he’d written proved difficult. “I couldn’t get anything else to come out from them,” Clark says. That stagnation eventually turned into inspiration.

“I would sit at the piano and play them and listen to them over and over again for hours at night, and it got to the point [of], ‘I think this is just the piece.’”

To make it come to life, Clark assembled a tightly knit circle of collaborators. Among them were Bob Miller, who played trumpet on Clark’s two Clean Feed Records releases, “Bury My Heart” and “ToNow,” and saxophonist and bass clarinetist J.C. Kuhl, who was also part of “Bury My Heart.” Those earlier works are emotionally intense and musically complex – qualities that “Dawn & Dusk” embodies through a markedly different lens.

“There’s one piece [of ‘Dawn & Dusk’] where I ask Bob and J.C. to play two notes for six minutes and nothing else,” Clark notes. “They’re great soloists, great musicians, and they didn’t bat an eye at it to help create the vision I had in my mind for this thing.”

Clark graduated from VCU’s jazz studies program in 2004, having transferred after previously attending Richard Bland College and Eastern Carolina University. The relationships he’s formed in Richmond over the years are invaluable when it comes time to turn abstract ideas into sound.

Clark described his connection with Bob Miller as especially long-standing and significant: “So much of the music I make wouldn’t happen without Bob, because he just kind of gets it. I can write a certain thing, and he phrases it exactly how I hear it, and it’s because we’ve been playing music together so long.”

“It’s almost like [they’re] actual regional sounds,” Clark adds. “People have stayed in Richmond, this handful of us that are still playing music and doing all sorts of stuff.”

Vocalist Laura Ann Singh is another member of the sextet with whom Clark shares close ties, given their work in local Brazilian-focused outfit Quatro na Bossa. Nevertheless, “Dawn & Dusk” pushed their collaboration into exciting new territory, given that it was Clark’s first experience with writing for voice. Clark and Singh both contributed words, and Singh shared vital insight into factoring in a singer’s range – a limitation Clark doesn’t experience with the malleted instruments he regularly sits behind.

“I can play the lowest note and I can play the highest note, and they’re both equally easy for me to play,” Clark says. “[Singh] was really good at explaining, ‘Well in this part of my range, it’s going to sound this way, and in this part of my range, it’s going to sound this way. And these types of syllables work better when you have to do these types of jumps.’ Stuff I never would have thought about.”

It may have been Clark’s first go-round with composing for a vocalist, but Clark and Singh have been exploring the interplay between voice and drums for years, and not just in Quatro na Bossa. In fact, they opened the February show at Black Iris with a unique duo project they started working on pre-pandemic: a remarkably stark take on the balladry of Brazilian songwriter Dorival Caymmi.

Caymmi is considered a foundational figure in the bossa nova world, though he’s also known for chronicling the connection between the Brazilian coastal state of Bahia and its fishing trade. While Clark admires the chord progressions in those fishing ballads, particularly on recordings that feature just voice and guitar, he and Singh set out to distill those narratives even further. “

I was always intrigued with this stripping down of things,” Clark says. How stripped-down? On one song during the opening set, Clark didn’t play at all, letting Singh embody the song herself. At several other points, Clark added sounds – the whoosh of a brushed drum head, for example – that never formed a beat. The project, whose recorded material remains unreleased, is in thrillingly uncharted territory.

“There are no voice-drums records,” Singh says. “We [couldn’t] find any. So it was kind of daunting, but it was also exciting. ‘We can do whatever we want, and whatever it is, is what it is.’”

“A lot of that stuff is about trust,” Singh adds. “Trusting the other musicians to inhabit the space of whatever the sound world is that you’re creating.”

That’s where Scott sees a connection between the two projects that performed at Black Iris: “The whole idea is, as much space as we can put in – that’s how it’s going to be effective. Almost using the space as a third instrument with the duo and a silent instrument with the six of us. Really being patient in that space. Which is a hard thing to do, because we all want to fill it up.”

There’s a sense of poetry to “Dawn & Dusk” premiering at Black Iris, where Clark had his epiphany around the power of quiet spaces. The drummer draws a direct line from that moment of realization, which took place during one of the venue’s Tiny Bar Sessions, and “This Darkness,” a sparse album of solo harmonica and drum recordings that came out in January of 2021 on Out of Your Head Records. Clark’s stated focal points – “trying to let everything breathe, and trying to be as patient as you can be with that” – read like a statement of purpose. By pushing himself to find comfort in quiet, Clark is shaping the places in which he performs.

Getting to a point where he can reliably match mood and material hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Just about any gigging musician can relate to times when noisier environments called for corrective action. “Let’s play this first song just to shut everybody up in the bar, and then we can play,” he remembers telling his group before a performance at Commercial Taphouse. “I always had pieces that I knew I could get people to be quiet to, for whatever reason – through the silence or the space or the intensity of something, and then you can draw them into your world.”

Clark has several years of experience setting the stage from a booking perspective as well. He says his name “somehow got out” as a point of contact for out-of-town musicians looking to set up a show in Richmond, and he sees those artists as a wellspring for this city’s own creative vitality.

“One part of keeping the scene going is having other people come and visit,” he says. “Having Richmond be a destination [where] people want to stop and not just pass through on their way to D.C. or North Carolina.”

Before 2020’s live music shutdown, Clark had been looking at Spacebomb Studios as a potential venue. Clark is in frequent collaboration with Spacebomb artists and producers, including extensive touring with Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass, and they’d been in talks to host shows in the facility’s sizable live room. Spacebomb has since started up a similar series – now dubbed House Concerts – and Clark will be performing “Dawn & Dusk” there on March 28 as part of a bill that includes John Hollenbeck's GEORGE ensemble.

“It’s like a listening room, essentially, which we need more of,” Clark says.

Judging by the way Clark has managed to align the sounds he imagines and the situations in which they’re conjured, those in attendance will surely be listening.

Scott Clark will perform “Dawn & Dusk” at Spacebomb on Monday, March 28. John Hollenbeck's GEORGE will also perform. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information, visit Eventbrite.

Note: Masks required. Must present proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test within the last 72 hours at the door. Limited parking available in front and in back parking lot in spots marked with a red and white Spacebomb.

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