Cornelius Boots developed the concept for his bass clarinet four-tet, Edmund Welles, several years before the band actually happened. He doesn't have an exact date for the band's genesis, but it must have been around 1996, when he wrote his first three-movement bass clarinet piece while pursuing a music degree at the University of Indiana. At the time, he played in a funk band and listened to a wide variety of music, from gospel to Seventies-era jazz fusion to prog rock to doo-wop. His idea for Edmund Welles was novel: four deep-voiced reed instruments, each imitating a different component of a rock band (often, two would share a bass line while the other two played melody, though Boots sometimes puts one voice on bass and three on top, or vice versa, depending on the genre). Boots named his band for a character in a Monty Python sketch.
Before launching the group, he tested its limitations. He wrote four-clarinet arrangements of several rock tunes, including "Creep" by Radiohead and "Is She Weird" by the Pixes. He followed up with wrote four boogie-woogie piano transcriptions, some baroque organ pieces, exacting versions of Shaker hymns and Renaissance motets, and some gospel with five or six vocal parts. He spent about three years in compositional boot camp, and premiered his material at his Masters recital in 1999.
After moving to Chicago, he tried to launch his band in earnest. Easier said than done. In three years he created a thick dossier, but never found three other bass clarinetists who fit the bill. So he moved to Eugene, Oregon, and spent a year practicing Japanese bamboo flute while writing the first Edmund Welles album. The following year, he migrated to the Bay Area at the behest of fellow clarinetist Beth Custer, who promised to help him put the group together. Its original incarnation — with Custer, Ben Goldberg, and Jacob Lindsay — lasted one year. Boots would form three more iterations before coming up with the current lineup in 2006. In the meantime, he produced two Edmund Welles albums himself, by playing all four parts and over-dubbing.
Considering the necessary qualifications, it's little surprise he had such trouble finding personnel. "You can't be just a classical player," he explained in a recent e-mail. "And almost never does it work out to be a jazz saxophonist who dabbles in honking on the bass clarinet." Add to that a whole list of other requisites: Each band member had to own an expensive model of bass clarinet that plays low C. Each had to sight-read and play at a virtuosic level, and be willing to rehearse often. Furthermore, Boots wanted all his fellow musicians to be omnivorous consumers of genre. His repertoire included arrangements of vocal gospel, black metal, and classic rock, most of which had never been touched by woodwinds, let alone bass clarinet. On top of all that lay the usual problem of finding people with "a cheery disposition, or at least a minimum level of orneriness."
Then there's the challenge of, well, keeping up with Boots. He grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, started playing clarinet in fourth grade, and went through his jazz phase in middle school. He played baritone sax in the high school jazz band, and started collecting records at a young age, inspired partly by his geeky older brother. As a kid he got in the habit of obsessively cataloguing one artist at a time, starting with classic rock group Jethro Tull. "That's all I spent my money on," he said. "I would go to the discount bin and buy $3.99 cassettes." He would later repeat the process with Black Sabbath, listening to their first eight albums in chronological order for two years.
Such listening habits led Boots to understand rock at a minute level. Give him a record by Tool, for instance, and he'll immediately get distracted by the intricacies: the key changes, the odd meters, the shifts in groove that stem more from the band members' interest in numerology than anything else. Boots' composition "Watch Me Die" imports the Tool format into his current four-clarinet setup, using a metal-rhythmic mid-section and over-the-top ending. It starts on a crescendo. Boots' 2004 debut album, Agrippa's 3 Books (named for an occult philosopher), includes three metal covers — one from Sabbath, one by Spinal Tap, and one by the Brazilian band Sepultura. Agrippa qualifies as chamber music, but it's structured like a rock album: It kicks off with a couple rock tunes (one is more "new-music-y," he said, but still riff-based), followed by a ballad, then more rock tunes at varying tempos, then an epic "death-metal ritual expedition and lamentation." (Its title, appropriately enough, is "Asmodëus: The Destroyer, King of the Demons.")
Edmund Welles has gone through five iterations since its genesis. The current version, in place since 2006, features Boots, Aaron Novik, Jonathan Russell, and Jeff Anderle. Novik — who also leads his own chamber band, Thorny Brocky — joined Edmund Welles in 2004, and has thus been the most consistent of Boots' collaborators. He said the group definitely has its rewards. The configuration lends itself to some very imaginative music that's transferable both to rock clubs (like the Starry Plough or Hotel Utah) or concert halls (like the Hillside Club, where they play this weekend). Not to mention that most bass clarinetists seldom get to play alongside three of their peers. Still, having a concept and discography that predates the actual group was, and is, a tricky thing to negotiate. "It's definitely come up a lot," said Novik. "Cornelius feels very strongly that the concept is stronger than any individuals. ... It took us a while to reconcile with that. Jonathan and I are composers, and it's such an attractive instrumentation to write for."
And given that it took ten years to find four clarinetists who got with the program, imagine what happens when Boots tries to foist his concept on other people. Agrippa is, in fact, pretty diffuse. Genre-wise, it careens in every direction. Boots wrote in the liner notes that he based his opening tune, "Cause & Effect" ("hip-hop electronica pop with chorale") on a beat he heard leaking from someone's headphones. "I suspect it was hip-hop," he explained, "since the listener was rapping along, but I could clearly hear the electronic drum beat which had a very mathematical and infectious increase of subdivisions every two measures." With everything transposed for four bass clarinet parts, it usually comes across as chamber music, regardless of all the pop-song signifiers.
Novik says that's not really a problem. "People hear saxophone, and they think jazz, no matter what genre the person is playing," he said. Similarly, the clarinet is condemned to always be a classical instrument. But there are a lot of people who get it, said Boots. Edmund Welles gets a lot of stragglers from the Faun Fables and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum crowds, plus a few die-hards who really like heady clarinet music. There's even an Edmund Welles Facebook page, and nobody is sure who made it. In the meantime, Boots has embarked on a new project: non-music. His new album, Sabbaticus Rex, combines Japanese flute and gong. All the song titles are named after types of bamboo. The music privileges sound over melody, said Boots. "We call it 'easy listening for dinosaurs.'"
Now he just has to find an audience.