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Review: Clibber Jones Ensemble straddles raw line between rock and classical

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The Clibber Jones Ensemble at Kavarna.

If you’ve never heard of Clibber Jones, you shouldn’t be surprised. The name is not a mispronunciation of that of Atlanta Braves third baseman “Chipper” Jones, not even intentionally. It’s the curious nom de plume of percussionist Olivia Kieffer, better known as a member of Atlanta’s all-female percussion group Chix With Stix and part of the music faculty at Reinhardt University.

Kieffer concocted the name “Clibber Jones” when she began to experiment with the idea of composing music with GarageBand software, just for fun and an audience of one: herself. But the recording software has its limitations for  a solo musician and couldn’t accommodate the complex music she was accustomed to playing.

Finally, Isaac Anderson, Kieffer’s husband and himself a percussionist, convinced her that she should go live with the music. She started transcribing, writing out scores and parts for real musical instruments and, last December, the Clibber Jones Ensemble held its first rehearsal.

The number of musicians has grown to six in all, with a profile as much like a rock band as anything else. The music, all written or arranged by Kieffer, is somewhere between loose-edged rock with progressive aspirations and a somewhat abruptly raw approach to Philip Glass-like minimalist sounds.

The rawness could be attributed to the newness of the group, which made its debut last Wednesday at the Drunken Unicorn, known for its raucous post-punk, rock and metal indie bands, before playing the much more low-key Kavarna, in Decatur’s restive Oakhurst neighborhood, on Sunday evening.

Bandleader Olivia Kieffer.

The roster for the Kavarna show was Kieffer on drum set, Bill Pritchard on bass, guitarist John Turner, keyboardist Scott Wesley Hawley (subbing for regular keyboardist and flutist Tenicia Stanton), Tim Crump on soprano and tenor saxophone and Victor Pons on vibes and other percussion.

With Turner about to move to New York, the Clibber Jones Ensemble is, in many ways, still a work in progress. While that showed in the Kavarna performance, so did its promise as a group that doesn’t fit into the pigeonholes of either rock band or new-classical chamber ensemble. As it develops and better coalesces and stabilizes both personnel and concept of overall sound, the group is going to become very interesting.

Amid all the original music in the opening set, the group played one cover: “Music for a Found Harmonium,” written by the late Simon Jeffes of the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra and best known from its use in the film “Napoleon Dynamite.” Kieffer transcribed it by ear for the ensemble from a recording by the Irish folk band Patrick Street.

The first set ended with Kieffer’s “I Am the Avalanche” and “1997,” of which some of Sunday’s performance can be viewed on YouTube. Of the band, only Kieffer cannot be seen in the clip, although part of her drum set can be. She is positioned behind Pritchard and Turner.

For the second set, the ensemble had put out an all-points bulletin for musicians to join it in a performance of Terry Riley’s minimalist classic “In C.” Word is that about half of those additional musicians who agreed to play showed up for a rehearsal that afternoon; the rest came to the show and sight-read in performance. (Some of them might have played it before.)

So it would be better described as a jam session based on Riley’s “In C” than a performance of it. That again produced an interesting rawness to the event. Though there is no unpitched percussion in the original score, Kieffer played her drums based upon the rhythms Riley wrote while percussionist Pons weighed in with some contrasting but inviting free improvisation.

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