Local Educational-promotional Venture New Ghosts Aims to ‘Seed the Community’ with Cutting Edge Music

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It’s a Friday night at Mahall’s and the place is filled with the usual quotient of hipsters and young revelers. But if you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t know to go to the corner of the downstairs bar where there’s a paper sign with the name Josh Abrams Natural Information Society hand-written on it. It points you upstairs to the old apartment where the venue’s previous owners used to live.

A ragtag group of musicians who look like they stepped out of a different world have assembled for the first-ever show in the small space. They’ve hung a giant orange tapestry in one corner of the room and sit in a semi-circle while a crowd of about a dozen or so people have pulled up chairs to listen to Abrams who sits in the center of the room strumming a guimbri, a three-stringed animal hide bass traditionally used in healing ceremonies.

In a city known for its DIY spaces, this show, which has the feel of a house concert, is on another level. Tom Orange, Matt Laferty and Andrew Auten, the promoters behind the show, call themselves New Ghosts in honor of the late Albert Ayler, the famous free jazz musician who was born and raised in Cleveland. Since the start of the year, they’ve been booking and promoting concerts that are avant garde even by avant garde standards.

They all met by happenstance. Five years ago, Laferty moved to Cleveland from upstate New York. Prior to living here, he had never booked a show. But after moving here and checking out the musical landscape, he realized he could fill a niche by bringing obscure jazz groups to town.

“One day I drove to Cincinnati to see a jazz trio called the Thing, a group that did a record with Neneh Cherry and named themselves the Thing after a song by her father Don Cherry, who had played with Ornette Coleman, and the drummer asked, ‘Why did you drive four hours to see us,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘You guys weren’t playing in Cleveland.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ That’s literally how I started booking bands.”

First, he booked the avant garde jazz group Ballister to play Now That’s Class in 2010.

“The first show went well because people showed up and liked it,” says Laferty, adding that he considers the endeavor a “labor of love” rather than a profitable venture. “It went well because the band was happy. It went well because it was a band that played here that never played here before.”

He continued to regularly bring bands to town and in 2011 teamed up with Auten to issue an album of early Albanian traditional songs and improvisations. He also started seeing Orange at the same concerts he would attend. So it made sense for him and Auten to join Orange and start booking shows together in some capacity.

“We kept seeing each other at shows and talking and Matt and I were booking shows that were very related,” says Orange. “There were multiple contexts that overlapped and last year Matt wanted us to team up on the booking level. We were going to each other’s shows so it made sense.”

Laferty says the name “New Ghosts” works on several different levels.

“I realized that when we book shows, we bounce from space to space and from venue to venue and in some way, we haunt the venues,” he says. “When thinking about Albert, I remembered that he had an obscure version of his most famous song, ‘Ghosts.’ He recorded a version late in life called “New Ghosts.” It dawned on me that people playing this music are new ghosts. For me, that’s the ‘aha’ moment.”

Orange agrees.

“We want to celebrate and promote the legacy of Albert Ayler,” he says. “So many touring bands are psyched to play in his hometown and they know and like the music. The audiences are great but there’s no civic recognition that he grew up here.”

The New Ghosts guys say they want to do about a dozen shows a year at various venues around town. Last month, they even co-sponsored a show at the West Shore Universalist Church in Rocky River.

“We see ourselves seeding the community,” says Laferty. “Cleveland has a great DIY culture here, almost to a fault. The only reason the Grog Shop is something is because they haven’t given up over the years and even Now That’s Class has survived somehow.”

“The Bop Stop has been very supportive,” adds Orange. “The timing there was perfect because that space became available as we were starting up. It’s a great place for all types of music, not just jazz but also modern classical music and gypsy stuff. We want to promote free jazz acts but a group like Josh Abrams Natural Information Society could be called free jazz in the Ayler tradition but they’re taking in interesting directions. We’re interested in music that doesn’t fit into categories like jazz. That’s a challenge for potential audiences. The labels predispose people one way or another. Someone who might not like free jazz might really like a show we do.”

Upcoming New Ghosts gigs include the Toronto-based jazz quartet Lina Allemano’s Titanium Riot (May 18, Bop Stop) and the instrumental group Spectral (May 19, Bop Stop). They’ve also booked a solo saxophone/electronics show featuring experimental jazz/folk music by Jonah Parzen-Johnson (June 1, Bob Stop) and a performance by Rent Romus, a jazz saxophonist and record label director from the San Francisco Bay area, who’ll play with a local ensemble (June 10, Bop Stop). And that’s not to mention performances by the guitar and bass free improv duo Secret Keeper: Stephan Crump & Mary Halvorsonm (June 13, Bop Stop) and “extended technique percussionist” Will Guthrie (June 14, Now That’s Class).

The Romus show will be a special one. After he performs at the Bop Stop, he’ll conduct a live-in-the studio conversation and performance on WCSB 89.3 FM from 11 a.m. to 12:30 on Thursday, June 11, and will then play the What You Will festival of improvised music that takes place outside Columbus from June 12 to 14. That festival will also feature an appearance by Mutawaf Shaheed, an imam at a local mosque who played and recorded with Ayler in the 1960s. He’ll appear at both the festival and at the Bop Stop but won’t perform.

You gotta think the late Ayler would approve of all this New Ghosts activity if he were still alive today.

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