Can an hour-long album of something technically labeled “classical music” actually be the closest thing to musical theater tradition to an original cast recording?
That may in the case of last month’s release of one of the most outstanding new albums of any genre during the pandemic (move on, Taylor Swift!). It’s titled Archetypes and it’s by a Chicago-based, Grammy Award-winning quartet called Third Coast Percussion.
Archetypes is produced in collaboration with one of the most notable duos in world music, the Brazilian-American father-daughter team of Sergio Assad on guitar and Clarice Assad on piano, bass and everything else. she decides to play (or sing). Each of the 12 tracks takes a lingering “archetype” from psychology, mythology and ancient history – think Ruler, Jester, Hero, Innocent, Lover and so on – and draws a musical portrait of that archetype in a unique soundscape.
Corn Archetypes began as a live concert, almost a “show,” which mixes elements of a fully planned musical score with improvisations and even choreography largely directed by Clarice Assad. She was inspired to combine her Brazilian jazz chops with this quartet of percussionists when she first saw Third Coast Percussion in 2015 at Chicago’s distinctive Ear Taxi Festival.
The “Archetypes” concert featuring Third Coast Percussion and the Assads hit the road in early 2020. You can imagine the implications of this timing. But when the six musicians retired to the studio to record the tracks, they kept the idea of staging and improvisation in mind, much like capturing a new piece of musical theater in a recording of distribution.
However, there are two reasons why I must tell you that it is “classical music”. The first is a very pertinent question for listeners in the Washington area. The album comes from Chicago-based Cedille Records, a classic but uniquely adventurous label founded and run by James Ginsburg, the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The second reason is that the four members of Third Coast Percussion are Northwestern University Conservatory graduates who were originally formed as a percussion “chamber band” analogous to a string quartet. Yours truly being a fellow graduate from the Northwest, I am able to tell you that “Third Coast” means the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, although I understand that residents of the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas may have a different claim on the term.
Still, if you walked into the start of the show, as captured at the start of the album, you would probably think at first that you walked into a rock or pop musical concert. In the show, Clarice Assad asked Third Coast’s David Skidmore to take the stage alone and do a pure 30-second riff on the drums – much like many rock concerts start – even before the other players do not appear. This device is copied for the ear in the first track of the album.
This first issue of the show depicts the first of the 12 archetypes – the “Rebel”. “Clarice imagined a real rebellion that needs people,” David Skidmore told me in a recent phone conversation. “It needs someone to lead it and others to follow and foment the energy you would need to overturn whatever order it is.” Remember that Skidmore is about an ancient archetype. He’s not actually advocating a revolution, as I knew from hearing him laugh until the end of this comment.
“When the groove kicks in, the instruments come in one at a time and lock together,” Skidmore explains. Clarice Assad herself, in a recent Zoom chat with me, added, “You can’t do it alone. Others must follow you. His own entrance into the room is on the piano – yes, with its 88 hammers hitting three strings each, the piano is technically a percussion instrument – and the real magic happens when the sound of the piano mixes with one or more of the instruments. “mallet” that all members of Third Coast Percussion play.
It is vibraphones, marimbas and xylophones that produce actual notes rather than just the effects of drums and cymbals. A special moment comes nearly two minutes when Clarice Assad actually begins to sing without a word. In classic terms, she’s a “vocalizer” that dips and bends notes and eventually gives way to her father, Sergio Assad, on guitar, exchanging lines with vibraphone and other instruments. A return of Clarice’s vocals signals the climax of the “Rebel” archetype as the six musicians wrap up the number.
Halfway through the album, an immense circus atmosphere invades the room with the archetypal “Jester”. “It was actually the hardest piece to record, because it was very well designed for live performance,” says Skidmore. “When we perform this piece live, Clarice does all kinds of call-and-response with the audience. She takes us on stage one by one and directs us live on stage. So what we ended up doing [in the studio] preserved what I consider to be the jokes of the play.
It must have worked, as Skidmore says her three-year-old daughter always demands to hear the beginning of the piece, with the comedic sound of a “jaw harp.” You might not imagine trained musicians using them, but “Jester” also features a slide whistle and duck call, as well as Third Coast member Robert Dillon banging on a ceramic skillet. melting. There’s also a “Flexatone,” which is a small, flexible sheet of metal suspended in a wire frame that produces an instantly recognizable sound from classic cartoons.
“But it’s theatrical, almost like a frustrated conductor who can’t control his musicians,” laughs Clarice Assad, who “composed” the archetype of the jester, even allowing improvisation. “I ask them each to play, and things go wrong. The public when I point them out, they make a sound. It’s like a game. It’s supposed to be fun!”
“We struggled to put that together on the album,” she says (though it certainly turned out well). “We thought, how are we going to capture all of this in audio? I think it was good, but I’ll mention it again, it’s much better live!
Skidmore himself composed one of the tracks, a startling take on the “Lover” archetype. “I didn’t want it to be a really schmaltzy track,” he says. “I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be what I think love actually is, rather than a romanticized ideal of it. He came up with a compelling concept of two people who aren’t fully aligned and “move at different speeds”, but connect their musical threads at the end.
Musically, Sergio Assad on guitar and Clarice Assad on piano team up on a speed representing one of the lovers, and Third Coast member Sean Connors and Skidmore team up on two of the mallet instruments moving at a speed different for the other lover. Skidmore designed the music so that the harmonies of the two bands’ notes would line up logically at all times, even if the rhythm only hits at the very end.
“What was interesting was thinking about what it really means to love someone, not just to be in love with them,” Skidmore says. “At some point you let go of your expectations that you are going to be aligned in every way at all times. And instead, you find a way to move, each in your own way, and align with the things that matter most.
Two other tracks on Archetypes bring a sort of folk-rock feel to what is an ostensibly classic composition. “Innocent” centers around Sergio Assad’s guitar with Clarice Assad’s vocals and the most bell-like of mallet instruments. “Caregiver” has exceptionally pleasing chord sequences and harmonic transitions centered around Clarice Assad’s piano. Sergio Assad’s acoustic guitar styles include a clearly audible glide along the strings, with bell sounds from the percussionists contributing to the sense of benevolence in the room.
Fans of the “classic” or serious contemporary music genre that ditches the traditional sense of a key center or scale also get a nod. Third Coast member Robert Dillon’s “Sage” archetype is essentially atonal – that is, music that is not in a particular key – with deep piano tones and what can be a bass drum causing a feeling of infinity or unfathomable, eventually adding a number that further seems to indicate infinite time and space out. The “Orphan” archetype, composed by Sergio Assad, seems almost deliberately aimless and sometimes even lost before settling into a long final chord.
The “Magician” archetype, also by Sergio Assad, features true virtuosos playing on mallet instruments and guitar in shifting and unpredictable rhythms, with short cuckoo phrases appearing suddenly and repeatedly on drums and various toys to percussion. And intentionally or not, Third Coast member Sean Connors’ archetypal “Creator” evokes a pointillist concept reminiscent of music imitating Georges Seurat’s paintings in Stephen Sondheim’s musical. Sunday in the park with George.
An almost endless amount of music has been composed in all genres, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like this. It’s the kind of discovery that will have you picking out your favorite tunes and listening to them over and over while pondering the meaning of the lingering archetypes that have spoken to human generations since time immemorial.
The Scrapbook Archetypes by Third Coast Percussion was released on March 12, 2021 by Cedille Records of Chicago. It is available from Cedille Records, Amazon, Spotify, Apple Music and several other streaming platforms, including specialist classical music service Idagio. For more on Third Coast Percussion, check out their website and check out their appearance on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concert” series.