This is the kind of thing you can do with arts funding: Gather friends from a couple of continents, swing through a set of summer festivals on both U.S. coasts, and take the time to get the band into the studio.
That’s how Didier Petit is spending the last half of June. His East-West Collective, mixing European jazz/improv music with Asian traditional instruments (partial roster: Larry Ochs on sax, Miya Masaoka on koto), is coming to America for the Vision Festival in New York and the Vancouver Jazz Festival.
In between, the band was supposed to play at Yoshi’s yesterday (Tuesday, June 18). That show was canceled; in its place, the quintet will play at San Francisco’s Center for New Music tonight (Weds., June 19) at 8:00 p.m.
It’s possibly the only chance to ever see the multinational band playing together, unless you’re in Vancouver. The band’s current tour is funded by the French American Jazz Exchange, a bit of fortune that doesn’t come along every day. And the members are busy enough that getting them together is like an alignment of the planets. They’ll document their existence by recording a CD while during their Bay Area stay.
You can sample East-West’s work via the video below. DJ Larry Blood on radio KUSP included them in his recent playlists as well; here’s the June 11 show, which is still available for hearing on the KUSP site as of this writing.
All About Jazz recently ran interviews with two musicians with ties to the Bay Area. They’re the first two items in this set of arbitrary links.
1. Marco Eneidi, free-jazz saxophonist, talks about his life in Vienna, the hard economics of music, and the “devouring of grid” compositional method he learned from Cecil Taylor.
2. Sacramento guitarist Ross Hammond discusses his latest album, Cathedrals, the second he’s done with his all-star L.A. band.
3. Following up on my story this week about Santa Clara’s laptop orchestra … This is a video, not a “read,” but a month ago, the AP did a story about Princeton’s laptop orchestra — which, as I understand it, is sort of the grandaddy of them all.
4. A 2009 blog entry by James Hale got me interested in Cecil Taylor’s 1950s output. I’d heard some of this stuff without really listening. Hale, with the help of some research references, dissects the album Looking Ahead! in a way that made me want to give it a good listen myself. It’s Cecil, all right, but with touches of swing that aren’t in the ’70s/’80s material I’ve always listened to. A nice eye-opener.
SCLOrk, the Santa Clara Laptop Orchestra, performs Thursday, June 6 at 5:30 p.m. — for free! — at Santa Clara University’s Recital Hall in the Music & Dance building. It’s at the corner of Lafayette and Franklin, next to Mayer Theatre. More info here.
It’s a lazy May afternoon as Music 157 convenes in the Recital Hall of Santa Clara University’s Music Building. Ten sets of sitting pillows are carefully set up, lining the front lip of the stage, each station accompanied by a low table adorned with a Dell laptop. Behind each station, and just to the side, is one expensive-looking speaker. The pillows look comfortably meditative, but the taller students are having trouble contorting themselves into position.
This is the Santa Clara Laptop Orchestra, nine students who have been meeting weekly, two-and-a-half hours every Wednesday, to work on the concert they’ll perform on June 6, on this stage. It’s the brainchild of Bruno Ruviaro, an assistant professor who’s recently come to Santa Clara by way of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).
There were no warmup lectures about theory, method, or history — this is all about creating something as a group and getting one’s bearing with a new musical instrument. “Every class is a rehearsal,” Ruviaro tells me.
A traditional orchestra starts by tuning up; the laptop orchestra begins rehearsal with the players trying to get applications to boot and strugging to make sure they’re all using the correct sound files. It’s all very chilled-out; this isn’t a frenetic Apollo 13 situation room. “Is it ‘T_sample’ or just ‘TSample?’” “Try quitting SuperCollider.”
Ruviaro, wearing his trademark cap, pops in and out as students help one another set up. A few of them catch on, and small sounds burble up from the speakers: sonar blips, rainstick rustling. It’s very much like the doodling of an orchestra warming up.
By about 3:45, everything is in place, and the class discusses how they want to set up their first piece,one composed by three of the students. It involves five distinct sounds, each assigned to a pair of performers who will start playing two by two, starting with the outermost pair then working inwards. Each pair will then stop playing, then restart in reverse order, creating patterns of silence-then-noise that the audience will be able to follow.
The first rehearsal starts. Sounds bubble up, one after another, then drop out subtly. At one point, someone triggers the wrong sample — always a danger when it comes to laptop music. During the peaks, with all five sounds running, it’s a nice pastiche, and the halfway point, featuring only the two middle players and their tribal-sticks percussion, works well as a dividing point, a chance to assimilate the music so far.
“What do you guys think?” Bruno asks, once it’s done. “I like the sounds but would like a more formal shape to the piece,” one student says. Most agree that timing is an issue — a faster spacing between entrances or exits would help the audience hear the progression in the piece. There’s discussion about how to cue one another, so each pair can make its transition simultaneously. Oh, and a pro tip: Take your hands off the keyboard when you’ve stopped playing, as a cue to the others.
* * * * * * * *
Classes like Music 157 aren’t classes in the traditional sense. The Laptop Orchestra is all about one performance — June 6 — preceded by 10 weekly rehearsals. Along the way, students learn about the laptop as an instrument and gain the experience of playing in a cooperative ensemble (something at least a few have done before; one student is in the Santa Clara jazz ensemble that will take over the stage after this rehearsal). They’ve learned about performing, about listening, and a little bit about programming and creating sounds in applications like SuperCollider and Pd-extended.
Ruviaro isn’t much older than the students. Originally from Brazil, he came to the United States determined to study electronic music, enlisting at Dartmouth and later moving out to Stanford, where he was part of CCRMA. It’s his second quarter teaching at Santa Clara and his first time convening the Laptop Orchestra.
His role is more as an experienced colleague than a professor, guiding the process more than controlling it, and all the time encouraging them to experiment and to hear. “The sounds that are more sharp and pointed, you can play more with — think of when you want to play more and when maybe silence is better,” he tells them at one point.
They run through the students’ piece a second time using a synced-up stopwatch on the laptops. The shape of the piece emerges more definitively, but the difficulty of knowing who’s playing or not becomes an issue: Three players drop out at once, instead of one by one as a wave. Each player’s sound field is dominated by the speakers nearby, so it’s hard to tell who else is playing (and, as will become clear during other pieces, it’s all to easy for someone to be making noise without realizing it.)
“Perhaps we don’t need to look at the stopwatch. It’s more the duos looking at each other,” Ruviaro says. One of the writers also suggests that the first wave, the entrances, spread out more slowly, as more of a setup. Changes in volume would add some welcome variety too, Ruviaro says. “The sounds that are more sharp and pointed, you can play more with — when you want to play more and when maybe silence is better.” He’d also like to hear more volume from the central duo.
* * * * * * * *
Different pieces in the concert highlight different ways of using sound, and they also expose the students to a range of interfaces and programming tools. While this first piece is about individual sounds, for example, “What Happened in Salt Lake City,” written by Ruviaro’s colleague Alex Christie, is more about the collective mass.
“Salt Lake City” started as a conducted piece, but Christie has decided to trust it to the ensemble’s sense of timing. They’ll be cross-fading from one group of sounds to another, eventually moving out of the crinkly, chaotic noises and into the hum of oscillators, which will fade down to the sound of the students’ own humming. Christie gives the first movement a listen from the center of the theater — because, perhaps more so than with acoustic instruments, an electronic ensemble sounds different depending on where you’re sitting. “It sounds great, but people are going to hate it,” he says gleefully. “It is high-pitched sounds.”
Ruviaro’s own “Grain Master Scratch,” originally titled “Wheels,” uses a 3×3 grid of pre-programmed sounds, so that students will just click each square and then bend and twist the sounds by moving the cursor around. It’s filled with noises resembling Formula 1 cars revving up or careening around corners in slow motion, so when its turn comes up later in rehearsal, students have fun warming up to the sounds of their own virtual racetrack. “Move to different corners and see what you get. Learn your instrument,” he encourages them.
The group has a say in every piece’s shape, and in the case of “Scratch,” they’re helping Ruviaro decide on an ending. One of his presets includes a smooth-jazzy loop that could be a candidate. The students start looking for it — the mouse has to be at the equator of the screen, about three-fourths of the way to the right — and as they find it one by one, an interesting effect forms from the out-of-phase loops. That could work, they agree.
* * * * * * * *
One big difference between computers and normal musical instruments is the level of control. You know when a violin will make noise, and what kind, and you can always make it stop. Laptops, less so. More than once, someone doesn’t fade out completely and doesn’t realize they’re the culprit.
And always, there’s the struggle to listen. It takes concentration enough to hear what you’re playing; add to that the brain-cell cycles to absorb and process what else is going on, whether it presents the cohesive front you’d like, and what you can do about it. Multiple times throughout the afternoon, Ruviaro — who’s often pressing the ensemble to play louder; some sections are still coming across too timidly — reminds them they can also throttle down. “Leave some empty space to listen the others,” he says.
Similarly, Christie tells the ensemble that class time is a good opportunity to practice listening and reacting. “If you feel you and your neighbor are creating an interesting polyrhythm, then go with it,” he says.
On the third run of the students’ piece, the careful two-by-two introduction of sounds really works. The final fadeout is still a bit choppy, but the last of the sounds, a pulsing heartbeat that began the piece from the stage’s edges, lingers nicely. Bruno says he’d like to hear more volume from the central duo, and he’d like them to rehearse getting the tribal sticks to establish a beat versus “fighting against the machine” — in other words, getting the unsynchronized computers to sound more like natural, acoustic instruments. It’s also decided that the Morse code and sonar sounds should switch places. Everything is still in progress, and everything is up for discussion.
Pat Metheny — Tap: Book of Angels Vol. 20 (Nonesuch/Tzadik, 2013)
I’d read that I should expect Tap to sound like a Pat Metheny record, considering each track consists of Metheny overdubbed on Metheny, adding only Metheny’s drummer (Antonio Sanchez) to glue it all together. Well, OK then. What happens when Metheny fills your ears but mind of John Zorn is pushing the buttons?
This is not another Song X or Zero Tolerance for Silence — that is, Metheny fans won’t cover their ears. You could mistake any one track for a Metheny original that happens to have some Middle Eastern influence to it.
But while the whole album carries his unmistakable sound, it seems to me Metheny also took seriously the mission behind the Book of Angels albums — that is, he’s trying to extrapolate the possibilities lying inside these Zorn compositions. That means covering them with his own fingerprints, yes, but he also cuts loose in ways that fit the Tzadik mold, and he uses a variety of guitars to create different sounds and personalities — it’s as if he brought a few different bands to the gig. The result is a really good album.
Metheny’s trademark cinematic soaring? It’s in there, in places. But a track like “Mastema,” the opener, also serves notice that Metheny is opening the creative box. It’s a pleasant, upbeat song, based on an ostinato that’s maybe spikier than Metheny’s usual melodies, and a driving beat by Sanchez that gets the blood flowing. With a bit of imagination, you could hear Zorn and Dave Douglas playing the short main theme in unison, flexing that Klezmer scale.
For most of the piece, Metheny solos over the main pattern — rocking out, basically, and it sounds great. He doesn’t use the usual synth-horn guitar; in fact, what Metheny adds is some hard-rock distortion on one of the soloing guitars for some unexpected punch. It’s later in the song that Metheny unleashes a staticky, scribbly guitar — like controlled feedback, played at an almost subtle volume, an edgy touch that tells you this album isn’t meant to be Masada Lite.
Similarly, “Sariel” opens in a traditional, folky vein and follows the arc of a typical Metheny song. Toward the end, though, it turns into an electric Metheny freakout over intensely strummed, zithery cords. The finale is a two-minute crash like an airliner coming apart in slow motion, with Metheny grinding away at electric guitar and Sanchez splashing a collision of drums into the foreground once in a while.
A more normal Metheny shows up on the mellow, acoustic “Albim,” where he picks at a slow, gentle melody that’s allowed to unfold at its own pace. The song’s Klezmer roots twinkle in a comforting Spanish-guitar solo. The backing guitars are breezy, the drums a smooth rock bed.
“Tharsis” is jumpy, springy fun, probably in criss-crossing time signatures (it’s going to take another few listens for me to count it out). During a slower, airy stretch, we get full-force Metheny; here’s where the synth-horn guitar shows up, and the small metallic percussion to mark the beat (an effect he’s used for decades), and the sweeping cymbals in Sanchez’s drum work.
“Phanuel” is the slow, creeping one: dark shades and drifting metallic tones that eventually give way to the comfort of a slow, tender acoustic guitar. And Metheny apparently plays piano (or possibly MIDI-triggered piano via guitar) on “Hurmiz,” something I don’t think I’ve ever heard from him. That track is just the piano and Sanchez, blasting away gleefully, and it’s something you won’t find on Zero Tolerance, The Sign of Four, or any of Metheny’s other infamous albums. This track, or the closing of “Sariel,” are the places to start if you’re just out to annoy your Metheny-loving friends.
For a couple of years, I’ve eyed the Barbès calendar jealously. Tucked into the toney Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, the little bar hosts rock, world, and avant-jazz music, but I’ve never managed to have the proper night free in New York to go check out the jazz part.
That finally changed. On this recent trip, the one that included the Stone and Story Collider shows, I took an extra day for myself to explore Brooklyn, ending it with Barbès and Tony Malaby‘s Trio Paloma, a sax-guitar-drums subset of the quartet on his album, Paloma.
Barbès is quite a bit smaller than I’d expected, a cozy neighborhood bar with a dark back room that can’t hold more than a few dozen. The place filled up quickly, and I actually got squeezed over to a seat in the front corner, where I would get the full blast of Ben Monder’s guitar and Malaby’s sax (but no view of Nasheet Waits on drums).
Rather than draw from Paloma, they improvised — two half-hour pieces, intentionally stretched. Frequently, especially during the first piece, Monder and Malaby would settle on a resolution point, but then one would start up something new, nudging the group into the next phase.
Subtlety was checked at the door; these guys went for a big sound. Malaby led the first piece with slow and grand melodies, elephantine fireworks. Often, the music grew into a bright blur, like a song-ending fanfare stretched out. (I started thinking of Neil Young’s Arc, the collage of feedback and song-ending fanfares. I’ve never heard it, but the descriptions I’ve read matched the feeling I was getting here.)
The second piece started with bumpy melodies from the sax, a more quirky sound aided by a steady eighth-note babble from Monder. The sound was big but more defused, a more relaxed vibe. Toward the end, Waits started playing a light drum roll that felt like it lasted about five minutes, a constant hum that flickered over each of the drum heads without losing that hummingbird buzz. It was like a bass pedal tone underneath the guitar and sax, a damn impressive touch that stayed subtle and ran like an undercurrent through the music.
When Malaby’s set was over, the Mandingo Ambassadors stepped in for their regular Wednesday late-night set.
They’re an African pop/jazz band led by Mamady Kouyate, who grew up in Guinea learning a musical mix of Guinean tradition and electric jazz. His was one of three electric guitars filling the space with that happy, clickety sound I associate with African music. The rest of the band was rounded out by horns, percussion, drums, electric bass, and a vocalist. This didn’t seem like a jam session; they were clearly a band.
The first few songs were like light grooves, mildly funky music that sort of lingered pleasantly. Closer to midnight, the bar really started filling up, with more of the crowd filtering back into the music room, and that’s when the bass got turned up and the horns put more of a punch into their unison themes. What I’d been hearing was a warm-up; the band smartly saved the top-shelf stuff for a crowd. Only a few people danced, with most of the audience content to loiter around the back wall just tapping feet and nodding heads, but the band had their full attention.
When I left, the bar was crowded, the music room was even more crowded, and Malaby’s trio was still hanging around. It was a good time.
Dumb luck is sometimes on my side. My friend Erin is a producer with The Story Collider, a nonprofit group that organizes storytelling performances — creative non-fiction — about how science has changed people’s personal lives. Story Collider is based in New York, so I always thought it was a shame I would never get to see one of their shows.
And then I got assigned to a one-day trip to New York, and what should be happening that very evening but the Story Collider’s third-anniversary show. It was idiot-proof! I blocked out that evening’s calendar and bought a ticket a couple of weeks in advance.
The event was at a theater called The Bell House, which features a generous stage room with a bar to one side — a great place for an indie-rock show. This particular night, it was filled with a couple hundred folding chairs, and the place did fill up. Story Collider has a strong following strong enough that Erin and Story Collider founder Ben are being invited to take the concept to universities and conferences up and down the east coast and even in London.
A usual Story Collider event consists of five or six speakers, each delivering a 10- or 15-minute story around a particular theme. This being a birthday bash, there was no theme; Ben and Erin instead went out and got some real heavy hitters — a former child actor, a Macarthur fellow, a couple of prominent psychologists.
And they were great. The funny stories were damn funny — John Rennie sticking his arm into liquid nitrogen, on purpose, with effects that weren’t as bad as you’d imagine, but still weren’t good. Others swam into deeper waters. Amy Cuddy finished the show with the story of her own brain injury leading to a career studying the effects of brain trauma — and coping with losing the person she’d been before the accident.
You can hear for yourself: Stories from that evening have begun appearing on the Story Collider podcast, with Mara Wilson and Esther Perel leading it off.
I know Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte organized monthly storytelling shows in San Francisco several years ago, and I would guess someone else in the Bay Area has since picked up the torch. It’s a fine experience, if you happen to stumble upon one. Story Collider travels around, so keep an eye out for them.
The Stone isn’t just a nonprofit space; it’s a non-revenue space. So owner John Zorn throws rent parties, monthly improv concerts with proceeds going to The Stone. My latest trip to New York, in mid-May, happened to coincide with one such concert.
It was fun. Ten musicians played in different combinations, each group improvising for maybe five minutes, then disappearing to the basement green room while another group took the stage. Many seemed to be meeting each other for the first time, judging from the handshakes before or after each piece.
The big-name players included Zorn, Jon Rose (violin) Erik Friedlander (cello), and Kevin Norton (vibes, percussion, and oh my god he’s as good as people say). A second cellist was someone I’d pegged as “random young guy” — and he might be, in a sense, but he’s also Jeff Zeigler, the Kronos Quartet’s cellist for the past eight seasons. In fact, he’d played his final concert with Kronos just two days earlier.
A few highlights:
- Zorn himself played in a few of the sets, including he opener with Jon Rose, a drummer (Brian Crane?) and David Watson (guitar). They opened things with an immediately jagged, raucous piece.
- Rose and Norton drew up a frenetic duet that stopped on a dime — because perfect eye contact is an advantage to having only two players. In a subsequent piece, Rose seemed to be setting up for the same kind of ending with a trio but couldn’t get the guitarist to make eye contact.
- Zeigler and bassist James Ilgenfritz were concocting good, slow bowed duet when the drummer (Brian Crane, if that’s his actual name) tried fiddling with a saucepan lid on a cymbal. It slipped, making a bit of a clatter — and Crane, to his credit, compensated by immediately clashing a drumstick against the cymbal rapidly, as if the clatter were part of a plan. It was a perfect recovery, because the two string players, backs to the drums, took it all for an intentional change of direction, and the piece finished out with some aggressive and hard-edged sawing.
- A frenetic trio of Norton, Ilgenfritz, and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch. They locked into a jamming non-groove that bordered on traditional (if you want to call it that) free jazz.
I was tempted to come back for the second set — Jon Rose with Zeigler and Ilgenfritz — but an early Tuesday-morning wake-up time was beckoning. I settled for a slice of pizza for the walk back to the 2nd Ave. subway station, pausing at bar windows for glances at the Rangers mercilessly shutting out the Capitals in Game 7.