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Cleveland’s Third Law Collective offers space for jazz experimentation

Cleveland jazz ensemble Third Law Collective plays at the Bop Stop.
Linda Kennard
A collective of Northeast Ohio jazz players created a lab to test new music and attract composers. The Third Law Collective is co-led by a core group of writers, including Dan Bruce, Chris Coles, Bryan Kennard, Aidan Plank, Howie Smith and Brad Wagner, and performs the last Thursday of every month at the Bop Stop in Cleveland.

Songwriting workshops and open mic nights have long been outlets for musicians to gain feedback on new music and flesh out their material.

Third Law Collective aims to serve that need for area jazz artists.

Created in 2021, the collective gives songwriters the space to explore their craft, experience and collaborate with like-minded artists.

The collective is co-led by bassist Aidan Plank, flute player Bryan Kennard, guitarist Dan Bruce and three sax players: Chris Coles, Brad Wagner and Howie Smith.

Plank, who performs in the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and teaches at Kent State University and Cuyahoga Community College, wanted to connect with other jazz artists after COVID-19 prevented artists from collaborating with each other.

“Like many people in the world, especially creative people, I really suffered and suffer from imposter syndrome,” Plank said. “My idea was that it would be so helpful for me, personally, just to have a group of people to write for.”

Finding a home at the Bop Stop

The Third Law Collective began a residency the last Thursday of every month at the Bop Stop in Cleveland, where Kennard became the director in 2022.

Originally from Northeast Ohio, Kennard earned his doctoral degree in jazz composition from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. He lived in Florida until the pandemic hit and connected with the other musicians when he moved back to the area.

Kennard said the Bop Stop, which was donated to the Music Settlement more than a decade ago, has always been a home for creative musical thought. It has won numerous awards as a jazz music destination in Cleveland.

“In taking over the Bop Stop, I was really interested in kind of moving those ideas forward and kind of perpetuating this idea of the Bop Stop being home for original, creative music,” he said.

“The jazz world is a really unique place for experimental music, because jazz musicians are really incredibly willing to improvise and not know what's going to happen."
Aidan Plank

The collective’s ethos is to be a “testing ground” that inspires new musical ideas and encourages collaboration and improvisation. Area jazz players, in turn, perform and workshop their new songs with a live audience.

“I wanted to really promote and find a way to start building this community around original music for large ensembles,” Kennard said.

The group’s name is inspired by Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, where there is an equal and opposite reaction for every action.

Kennard said he views composers as objects in motion, inspiring others and being pushed in new directions.

“The third law of motion, staying in motion and being impacted by another force, I feel like it fit the kind of idea of this ensemble,” he said. “The musicians in the group are interested in being pushed by other composers.”

Embracing experimentation

Since the collective started, the participants have written several original pieces of music, including Plank’s song “The Grand Arch of Nothingness,” which he said is an experimental piece.

“Instead of using conventional notation of notes on a music staff, the instructions are all in text, and it reads like kind of a cooking recipe,” Plank said.

The unconventional piece of music includes written instructions to play a portion loud or soft, rather than notating those cues on a traditional music staff.

“The jazz world is a really unique place for experimental music, because jazz musicians are really incredibly willing to improvise and not know what's going to happen,” Plank said.

Kennard said one of the pieces he wrote for the ensemble is an “adventurous exploration” of manipulating pitch.

“[It] was initially inspired by these walks that I took with my wife during the pandemic, so it's entitled ‘Walk With Me,’” Kennard said.

He said the group has also been playing a challenging piece by Smith called, “Off the Mark,” which explores the number 11 and leans into the blues genre.

Hoping to make Cleveland a ‘jazz composer’s city’

As the core members of the collective started working on their new pieces, they realized the ensemble could also serve as a creative outlet for other composers and collaborators outside of Cleveland.

“My hope is eventually that this Third Law thing widens to embrace, like a whole community of jazz composers in the region,” Plank said. “It would be really nice if Cleveland had this kind of reputation as being like a jazz composer's city.”

Kennard said he would like to bring in younger musicians and composers to do clinic work with the collective and guest artists.

“Giving musicians sort of a lab band to work with, to bring their music in and be able to have it heard… It would be awesome,” Kennard said.

Kennard said turning the collective into a nonprofit and creating educational programming around it is another goal toward turning the idea into a hub for creative composition.

Plank said his goal is to have jazz composers and musicians seek out Third Law Collective, but also to turn their Thursday residencies into more of a destination for music fans.

“Something that wasn't just purely about the experience of jazz composers honing their craft, but also a place where people enjoyed just coming to hang out and experience some really amazing new music,” Plank said.

During a live show at the Bop Stop on April 27, the collective will record its first live album, featuring songs they’ve written during the last two years. This includes new compositions, written for guest trumpeter Russ Johnson from New York.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.