How jazz taught Alabaster dePlume to face his fears
By Grayson Haver Currin April 14, 2022
When Gus Fairbairn was in high school, decades before he adopted the nickname alabaster feather, her German teacher pointed to a calculator during an exam and asked for the translation. Fumble as he might for the right answer that day in North Manchester, England, he had nothing but silence to offer.
“I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but I To do remember the German word for calculator: task-en-rech-ner,dePlume, now 41, laughs, pronouncing the syllables with the diligence of someone who has indeed spent the past quarter-century dwelling on that little teenage mistake. “I felt shame. We cling to many things when we feel shame.
In his warm Mancunian beat, dePlume also recites the German word for calculator during “Don’t Forget You’re Precious,” the motivating marvel at the start of his musically sprawling and personally assertive new album, Gold—Go forth with the courage of your love. He presents it not as a point of educational pride, but rather as a personal note: the mistakes and details you carry around all your life, like an ex’s email address or a teenager’s embarrassment , matter less than who you are now and what you can become. . “They can’t beat us if we don’t forget,” chirps the poet, saxophonist, singer and philosopher from the bar over a lush bed of thoughtful horns and strings and playful synths. “They can’t use us on each other if we don’t forget how valuable we are.”
DePlume recorded the 19 tracks Gold during several weeks in London Total Refreshment Center, the low-rent, high-yield creative center he has been the linchpin of for six years. He built new groups daily from a rotating cast of 21 musicians, asking them to play a set of patterns and melodies they had barely heard, let alone rehearsed, on a click track. After creating a graphic illustration of the results on a huge roll of white paper, he assembled a 70-minute edition of all those sessions, weaving between versions of the same songs like a mashup master.
“I don’t really know if it’s over,” dePlume said four days before gold outing to Chicago’s jazz bastion international anthem, speaking from label chief Scott McNiece’s apartment. “Is a work of art ever finished? But everything in my life pointed in a little life to this record.
In fact, the manufacturing process Gold hinged on the skills and enthusiasms that dePlume developed over the course of his life. “I had to grow up and choose courage and love to get there,” he wrote in the liner notes. A former teaching assistant, dePlume previously worked at a Manchester charity that cared for adults with learning disabilities. He led the musical program there, sometimes guiding joyful improvisation sessions with an impromptu orchestra of 30 people. Some of their melodies served as fodder for the halcyon instrumentals. To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals, Vol. 1his breakthrough 2020 debut for International Anthem after a decade of releasing albums.
After a move to London, a gig at the Total Refreshment Center prompted a residency that involved a monthly gig. He initially balked at the invitation, fearing that his ambition to write new music for each show would interfere with his daily work and wear him out. He recruited new bands for each set so they could catalyze his work.
“I had to connect to different communities and bring them together, which I want to do, anyway, bring people together,” he says. “I was scared because I didn’t have time. But I had to go towards fear.
dePlume often compares fear to meeting a ghost – you may run away, but the ghost will surely follow; or you can wait for the ghost, let it pass, then move on with your life. “I want to go towards fear”, he continues. “Otherwise, how do I know what fear is saying?
In a sense, Gold itself is an act of going towards this fear. Cy and Lee omitted the sociopolitical poetry of dePlume’s past works in hopes of providing a casual gateway for newcomers. It worked, gaining legions of new listeners, including Bon Iver who sampled “Visit Croatia” after being introduced to his music by Drew Christopherson. But Gold is a more robust and comprehensive manifestation of dePlume’s vision, his poetry and acting winding into one continuous motion. And when International Anthem encouraged him to make it a double LP, he hesitated again, fearing it would sound too pretentious. A friend, however, reminded him that The Clash London calling had been a double LP; now it was a lead he was willing to follow.
It’s tempting to label dePlume as an easy New-Age jazzer obsessed with talking about love and togetherness or a guru of personal hope playing the saxophone out of the side of his mouth before offering another inspirational mantra. There is more to Gold and feather on both planes. DePlume’s saxophone lines, for example, have a startling ease, with the graceful lead of the opening “A Gente Acaba” unfolding like a slow spring breeze. And his musical zone is notably ecumenical, as he zigzags from spiritual jazz to no-wave uproar, from blissful dub to twilight ballads.
Working with so many musicians and letting so many sounds in was another opportunity to overcome fear or overcome any sounds that didn’t immediately feel right to him. “When the players come in and there’s a difference in sound from what I expected – which is always the case, by the way – I love that,” dePlume says. “That’s what I asked for, so how can I do anything other than celebrate it?” Sometimes it can be difficult, but I love it.
And despite pleas to remember you’re precious or dePlume’s promise at some point that “I won’t be safe / I’ll be magic,” Gold is interspersed with episodes of self-doubt and darkness. During “Broken Like,” a flip-flop between propulsive and pensive, dePlume details how we’re all obsolete and hurt. “Now (Stars Are Lit)”, as magnificent as it is, wallows, its quiet electronics and muted horns suggesting a mind that just won’t start. To overcome an obstacle, suggests dePlume, you must acknowledge it — how can you remember that you are precious, after all, if you don’t forget it in the first place?
“These feelings are all part of me, all part of our experience of this world. If I have to make choices that hurt me, I’m still going to celebrate my choices by going about my life,” he says. ‘let’s not bring peace to this world by saying, ‘Let’s not talk about nasty things.'”
On a recent Sunday, dePlume played the first set of the final day of the Big ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. The faces in the room betrayed the exhaustion of people who had spent three days discovering an immersive world of free jazz, experimental electronics and psychedelic pop. But just after noon, the towering dePlume leaped onto the stage in jeans so baggy they looked like the mere suggestion of a skeleton, gleaming behind his messy brown beard.
“I don’t know if you can tell,” he waved to the crowd, “but I love my life.” He jumped up and down repeatedly, waving his red-gloved hands. The energy of the room changed instantly, each hangover rising.
The trumpeter Branch of Jaime and his versatile group fly or die had dragged dePlume onto the coagulated stage, ready to perform with him for the first time at that point. He had briefly met Branch and bassist Jason Ajemian a day earlier, showing them some melodies and tunes he could want to play. Every few minutes on stage, he would hum a few bars or suggest a key, and the band would dig in, motivated by the possibility of what might happen next. “If in doubt, yes“, dePlume told the group and the crowd, everyone laughing even though it was clear that he really meant and embodies this axiom.
As they worked on half a dozen tracks, the band seemed to surprise themselves, as if the tracks had taken them to a place they never thought they’d visit. dePlume read snippets of text he had collected over three days in an art installation he calls “Confusion Desk,” where he invites everyone to share anything, a mutual lesson in radical vulnerability. There were birthday wishes, pleas for world peace, and life advice like “Come with fierce grace.” Everyone smiles at that note, reflecting on the sudden intuition. “It’s a good one, isn’t it?” beamed dePlume, a benevolent Cheshire cat.
It all sounded like non-denominational fellowship, a word that dePlume bristled slightly with a few days later for its sectarian connotations. But everyone seemed vulnerable and open, the barrier between audience and performer interrupted by a common plot: what might happen next? “Did you come to my concert and forget that you are precious?” he joked at one point. If they had, no one seemed to leave that way.
It’s the thing that animates Gold and, it seems, dePlume’s status as one of the great new enablers of modern jazz exploration. “Technically, I’m just the entertainment,” laughs dePlume. “But we don’t decorate. I used to think it was sad when people saw music as decorative, but nowadays I think it’s dangerous, an attack. We are work on something real.