Tony and GRAMMY Award-winning bassist, composer and producer Todd Sickafoose is proud to announce the release of BEAR PROOF, which he describes as “62 minutes of music for eight musicians.” The sound is evocative, melodically rich, rhythmically intense, and features a unique instrumentation of violin, accordion, electric guitar, acoustic piano, clarinet, cornet, bass and drums. “There’s something exponential that happens when you gather these eight instruments together, played with such beauty,” Sickafoose marvels. “The number of combinations, blends, doublings — it feels like there are endless possibilities.” The album is “intended to be performed straight-through in a concert,” Sickafoose writes in a brief liner note, so that’s how the recording went down: “live” in one continuous take.
The title BEAR PROOF has more than one meaning, though it might initially call to mind camping safety (bear canisters, etc.). As a California native now based in Eugene, Oregon, Sickafoose has some experience in that regard. But BEAR PROOF is also meant in the sense of withstanding downturn: “It’s that thing that protects you from the bad times, a skin you put on.”
On another level, BEAR PROOF is what Sickafoose calls “a surreal meditation on BOOM and BUST.” As he writes: “Is music perhaps better than words for talking about high times and utter ruin? In California, there’s still a bridge that spells out GOLD HERE. Let these nine song titles lead you in that direction, if you wish.” The storytelling aspect of the work is strong, though listeners’ interpretations will vary as the hourlong narrative unfolds almost like a theatrical play.
Sickafoose has stellar support in the players of the BEAR PROOF octet, all of them fine composers and leaders in their own right. Guitarist Adam Levy and drummer Allison Millerwere on Sickafoose’s 2008 album Tiny Resistors (“a satisfying synthesis of instrumental improvisation and atmospheric groove, with remarkable attention to detail in composition, color and texture.” — LA Weekly). Acclaimed violinist Jenny Scheinman co-leads the group Parlour Game with Miller and has featured Sickafoose in her own quintet. Cornetist Kirk Knuffke and clarinetist Ben Goldberg had never met prior to the BEAR PROOF session, but their musical relationship developed, resulting in the 2018 duo album Uncompahgre and other projects. Pianist Erik Deutsch (currently with The Black Crowes) and accordionist Rob Reich bring a wealth of complementary tone colors and harmonies to the set, not to mention formidable soloing voices.
Sickafoose viewed the central compositional task of BEAR PROOF as “taking little kernels of melody and seeing what I could do with them. Many are extrapolated from the simple melody in ‘The Gold Gate,’ the four phrases of three notes that you hear in the opening piece.” One of the iterations, perhaps the most obscured, occurs in the solo piano coda of ‘Magnetic North,’ which Sickafoose considers the halfway point of the song cycle. “I think of the whole first half as descending down, down to that moment,” he says, “then everything resets and the second half begins.”
From commanding grooves to mysterious rubato asides, from the unstable floating tempo of “Bent Into Shape” (with Levy and Reich on additional ride cymbals) to the stark, bluesy motive that begins “Boom Bust Startup Ruin,” BEAR PROOF reveals itself as a work of wide dynamic range, ceaseless formal invention and energized improvisational spirit. Befitting a bass player’s album, the bass sound is massive, but nuanced and never overpowering, much like Miller’s drums. “It’s a delicate instrumentation,” says Sickafoose. “Allison has such a beautiful light touch but can still communicate a lot of force through that touch.” Achieving that harmonious balance, the BEAR PROOF octet puts Sickafoose’s ideas across with crystal clarity, resulting in one of the most vivid and distinctive jazz ensemble efforts of our time.
ABOUT TODD SICKAFOOSE
Todd Sickafoose won a 2019 Tony Award (with Michael Chorney) in the Best Orchestration category for the hit Broadway musical Hadestown. He also produced the Hadestown Original Broadway Cast Recording, which won a GRAMMY in 2020 for Best Musical Theater Recording. Along with his own projects, he has collaborated since 2004 with singer-songwriter and activist Ani DiFranco, recording seven albums and two concert films and performing over a thousand shows to date. He has also played and recorded with singer/violinist Andrew Bird, Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief & Mayhem, the Scott Amendola Band, Trey Anastasio, Darol Anger, Lizz Wright, and many more. As a producer/engineer, he has helmed albums by the Blue Cranes, Rupa & The April Fishes, Mipso, Kneebody, and a host of others.
Bear Proof was made possible with support from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.