Resonating between sky and sea, you will hear The Saxophones; the husband and wife duo of Alexi Erenkov and Alison Alderdice whose minimalist after-hours tones will prop you up amidst the darkest corner of a smoky lounge bar. Documenting the next chapter of their lives having returned to Alexi’s childhood home 20 years later – this time with kids of their own – their third album To Be A Cloud resounds like a backyard soundtrack of rediscovery; rekindling their love for the jazz of their instrumental namesake and revealing what happens when just as a cloud transforms to rain, then snow, then river and returns once again to cloud, life comes full circle.
“The title was inspired by a passage of Zen monk Thich Nat Hanh’s writing in No Death, No Fear which both calms my own fear and leaves me with doubts,” explains Alexi, of the album channelling its influence of comforting yet disturbing limbo. “He uses clouds as a metaphor to illustrate the impermanence of all things, suggesting clouds are no different from people in their fleeting nature. Suffering arises when we try to preserve a person, a moment, or an experience and fail to recognize that all things are both fleeting and cyclical. Hanh contends the cloud does not die, it simply changes form, and if we look deeply, we can see the cloud in the rain.”
Navigating the individual’s place within the greater universe, Alexi and Alison have always offset metaphysical musings with a minimalist approach. Now, led by Hanh’s pearls of wisdom, The Saxophones offer a further extension of grappling with mortality and the meaning of existence – this time via the second coming of parenthood. Whilst their melancholic debut Songs of the Saxophones was written amid the incessant rain of a northern Californian winter aboard the boat they lived on, and swells of emotion lapped upon buoyant follow-up Eternity Bay, their nocturnal third’s cyclical nature looks at love (fostering and growing familial and romantic feelings that eventually transform and fade with time), art and passing creativity, and self-reflecting as they consider the life cycle of raising their two young children. Written in their family home between calm moments once the kids had gone to bed, To Be A Cloud is attuned to the peaceful bay of Inverness, California where Alison’s family has lived for several generations. “It’s where we are most at home and creative,” Alexi says. “There, the ocean and nearby beaches are endlessly inspiring.” So integral to the album, Shell Beach in Tomales Bay is also where the artwork photo was taken. “I love Alison’s expression – direct eye contact from the mysterious beauty… like the cover of a Martin Denny album.”
Never far from water, the album was recorded in the coastal town of Anacortes, Washington, under the high ceilings of Phil Elverum’s The Unknown studio. A former Catholic church where the pair lived during 24/7 recording sessions, time was no object as they experimented and developed the sound of the record. Its magical setting and ample space provided natural acoustics for Alexi’s arresting vocals which were recorded live to 24-track tape, suspending them in an ambiguous historical and chronological context between analogue and digital. Enhanced by Alison’s percussion alongside the bass and keys of Richard Laws, together they made the most of the studio’s many instruments which fill out and bookend their exploration of the billions of years of evolution that have led to this moment in time.
Like an ornate stream of consciousness telling journal entries, ‘Speak for You’ and ‘Boy Crazy’ are intimately personal stories of the exhausting joy of parenthood – raising boys with an awareness of the pitfalls and dangers of typical masculine behaviours. Elsewhere the intimate and contrasting gentle-ominous melody of ‘Margarita Mix’, the languid ‘Goddess in Repose’, and ‘Hunter,’ attempt to navigate what’s deemed to be roles of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ before ‘In My Defense’s lyrics (I don’t want to be a cloud / It bored me then it will bore me again) return to Hanh’s deep observations. “It can be comforting to think that upon death we continue to exist in other forms within the same system,” Alexi ponders, “but I find what I’m most afraid to give up is my consciousness. I haven’t come to terms with ego death. There is beauty in the idea of being a cloud, but also dread. I fear the nothingness of my cloud nature.”
Meanwhile ‘The Hunter’s lyrics (To be a cloud / to have a name / to be one / to be all the same) recall 60s mystic and proto-hippie Eden Ahbez’s ‘Full Moon’ (I am the wind / The sea / The evening star / I am everyone / Anyone / No one). Whilst sonically akin to soundtracks of The White Lotus (Mina) and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic (Sven Liabek’s flute heavy Inner Space), their ideas lean into the songwriting of Cohen, Callahan, and Cash as they evolve into their own all-encompassing soundscapes of widescreen wonder. Elsewhere neat jazz arrangements re-claim their namesake, once chosen as an exorcism of the complexity which pulled focus from their compositions. “I’ve come full circle,” Alexi says alluding to the album’s recurrent theme once more, “as a Sax player I’ve always enjoyed Stan Getz’s bossa albums.”
Whether bringing the saxophone back into spotlight through instrumental solos and live performances, or delving deeper as they continue to explore the process of nurturing a new record as mindful as they do their own children, every step taken may be further from the start and yet, To Be A Cloud is another note closer to a reawakening of more good things come.