Pianist/composer Noah Baerman pays tribute to his close friend and former student Claire Randall on the epic Love Right on RMI Records
Love Right features over eighty minutes of performances by Baerman alongside a hundred instrumentalists and singers navigating a broad multitude of musical styles
As a pianist and composer, Noah Baerman has released ten prior albums as a bandleader and several as a co-leader including recent albums from cooperative groups Trio 149 and Envisage Collective. Since 2012 he has also directed the nonprofit Resonant Motion, Inc. (RMI), which addresses intersections of music and positive change. He is a respected educator, with ten published instructional books to his name and several teaching positions, including directing the Wesleyan University Jazz Ensemble since 2007. Many of his students have “grown up” to become musical colleagues.
One of these students was Claire Randall, a stunningly potent vocalist who appears on Baerman’s Ripples and Rock and the Redemption albums. After her 2012 graduation from Wesleyan, their teacher-student relationship evolved into a close friendship and musical kinship, and Claire was on the core team that launched RMI. All of this was halted along with Claire’s life when she was murdered in December of 2016, just shy of her twenty-seventh birthday.
Beset by his sorrow and that of their shared community, he assumed his creative energy would be on ice indefinitely. A month later, after a dream of Claire, he awoke with the substance of a bluegrass-infused song, “Beautiful and Cruel,” which he completed in less than an hour. Songs like this and the pleading gutbucket blues “I’m Goin’ Home” were the almost involuntary product of those first months of pain and deep contemplation, yet as ostensibly a jazz musician he had no expectation that these would be anything but personal therapy. He continued accumulating original songs articulating specific aspects of his grieving process, including a trilogy of pieces written just prior to Claire’s memorial service. “Blueprint,” a manifesto for incorporating Claire’s spirit into one’s life, was ultimately realized with wistful vocals atop a wind-based chamber ensemble. “Cheese Time” is a piano-driven rock/soul song telling a true story of Baerman’s experiences feeling her presence. Finally, “Love Right,” is a soulful modern jazz composition, conceived instrumentally from a philosophical poem (with a short a cappella rendering as a prelude for the album).
In early 2018 Baerman was awarded an Artist Fellowship from the CT Office of the Arts to continue to develop this material, and he then committed to organizing the growing, eclectic trove of material into some sort of album. Love Right was then conceived as a larger work to honor Claire and serve as a fundraiser for Claire’s Continuum, RMI’s initiative to celebrate her spirit as an activist and a remarkable forger of connections through commissioning first-time collaborators to co-create socially conscious work. He continued to compose, accumulating songs including “Sans Toi, Sans Toi,” which juxtaposes upbeat Afropop rhythms with a gritty French-language lyric expression of grief, and “Lilacs,” a tender ballad with strings and a lyric reflecting Tibetan Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on the subject of impermanence. Later in 2018 he was given the inaugural Artist Award in Music from the Guilford (CT) Performing Arts Festival, commissioning the extended instrumental jazz suite “Cliff Palace,” inspired by a life-altering visit to 13th century Pueblo cliff dwellings in Colorado.
As the music developed, it became clear that its scope and diversity invited a corresponding scope and diversity of personnel. In turn, Baerman invited a cast of 100 musicians who throughout 2019 recorded parts to different pieces over three continents and twelve U.S. states. Ranging from award-winning, prominent musicians to young students and friends (many of them also friends and collaborators of Claire’s) with often-hidden talents, each brought a mixture of musicianship and fellowship to the mix. Unlike his usual studio experiences trying to cut an entire jazz album in a single, efficient day, he savored each of these connections, musical moments, and opportunities to share music and thoughts and memories of Claire.
He rounded out the program with some outside contributions. Two songs, the contemplative neo-soul ballad “Sanctuary” and the wailing, samba-infused “Dream Without Me” feature lyrics by Claire’s sister, Molly. The album also premieres a song written for Claire by fellow RMI team member Dave Kopperman; conceived as a ballad, “Mercy” is given an ethereal yet funky performance here. Additionally, there are four bona fide cover songs. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the first song Baerman heard Claire sing as a student, is given a hard-swinging organ quartet treatment here. Joni Mitchell’s underappreciated, electrified 1980s song “Good Friends” is given an intimate reinvention here for electric piano, percussion, and voice. John Coltrane’s spiritual ballad “After the Rain,” the only song Baerman could listen to in the weeks immediately following Claire’s death, is presented here by Trio 149 in a live performance at New Haven’s Firehouse 12. Following the gospel piano and wordless vocals of Baerman’s “I’m Still Here,” the album concludes with Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s “Joy Will Find A Way,” with tuned wine glasses, ethereal guitars, euphonium, cello, and a choir, atop four percussionists melding rhythms from Latin America, North and South India, and New Orleans.
Conceived in four sections to simulate the experience of listening to a double-LP, the emotionally intense journey travels from appreciation of friendship to abject grief to spiritual and philosophical reflection, and ultimately finding hope and the will to go forward. Ultimately, though, Love Right resists the straightforward trajectory of despair-to-optimism, leaning on the capacity of music to express the potent emotions for which words are inadequate. Buoyed by this large, supportive cast of fellow musicians and the long, patient process of creation, Baerman takes a powerful step towards the goal, to paraphrase his song “Blueprint,” of keeping Claire Randall here in present tense.
Available for digital download at BandCamp