Meridian Gallery Searches for a New Home

535 Powell St. Source: Joe Lasqo's blog.

535 Powell St. Source: Joe Lasqo’s blog.

I suppose it’s true that all things must pass, but it’s still sad whenever a music venue gets uprooted for economic reasons. The latest example being Meridian Gallery, which left its Union Square home in San Francisco last week.

The gallery’s landlord gave an advance warning of sorts, demanding $100,000 to cover upcoming rent. In pure business terms, Meridian got a fair shake — the gallery could have stayed if it could raise the kind of money that San Francisco’s hyperbolic spiral of rents commands. Of course, it couldn’t.

As unfortunate as this is for the visual artists and the musicians whom Meridian supported, the real tragedy might be the loss of a space for its youth arts program, which served the city’s at-risk high schoolers. Meridian, which spent seven years on Powell Street, has moved before and will now move again, but of course, relocation isn’t free. It’s another example of how it costs money to not have money.

Many thanks to proprietors Anne Brodzky and Anthony Williams for providing a home for creative music. Some results of those efforts can be heard on the compilation album Earth Music, released in 2011 on the Innova label.

Meridian’s home page still shows a “Donate” button, and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind the help.

September 14, 2014 at 10:34 pm 3 comments

Bass Clarinet Quartet: Late Classic Era

We are witnessing the Late Classic Period of Edmund Welles: The Bass Clarinet Quartet, apparently. You can bear witness to the last days of this period on Sept. 12 when the quartet plays in a bass-clarinet-heavy concert at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

The show includes the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk and a performance of a bass clarinet nonet by Jonathan Russell. If you don’t like the sound of the bass clarinet, this will not be the place to be.

As for Edmund Welles’ different eras, bandleader Cornelius Boots lays out the whole chronology on his blog. This wasn’t a decades-long master plan; it’s more that, with benefit of hindsight, he sees the phases of his musical development. He’s been nurturing the idea of a heavy bass-clarinet band since the late ’90s (the Inspirational Era), developing some songs as part of hard-rock band Magnesium. I got turned on to Edmund Welles during the band’s Early Classic Era, as the album Agrippa’s 3 Books came out, and what I’ve written on this blog has covered the Classic Era and beyond.

Boots’ other foci have included teaching — the Edmund Welles album Tooth and Claw now has a companion book that teaches you how to play the songs — and the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. He recently recorded a shakuhachi album, Mountain Hermit’s Secret Wisdom, in a cave, exploiting the acoustics to produce meditative pieces such as “Banshiki” — listenable on Bandcamp.

But he’s also playing metal on the shakuhachi, making clever use of athletic tongue-trilling and the instrument’s ability to bend notes. Here’s his cover of “Run to the Hills.”

September 6, 2014 at 1:49 pm 1 comment

Fred Ho Memorial Concert, Sunday in Oakland

The world had better damn well miss Fred Ho. Radical, revolutionary, bandleader, writer, philosophizer — he was a brash, larger-than-life character, the type who doesn’t come into jazz’s orbit much any more. He championed the baritone sax specifically for its loud, unyielding sound.

His fight with colorectal cancer, which ended early this year, drew generous platitudes from the media, not for the tragedy of the story but for his inspirational energy and determination. He released CDs and was awarded a Harvard Arts Medal, and he managed to get one final master work onto the stage.

The ROVA Saxophone Quartet commissioned a work from Ho, back when. “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism” appeared on The Works (Volume 2) in 1996, and they’ll be revisiting it for a concert Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

The piece plays like a big-band suite, with those same tight horn harmonies and some aggressive swinging rhythms. Like most of Ho’s work, it’s a fun ride — and it includes a burly, unaccompanied solo for the baritone sax, of course.

For more about Ho, check out his Big Red Media web site (which automatically launches a music player, so be forewarned); an early 2014 NPR interview; a detailed, pre-cancer, 2005 interview for Harvard Magazine, and his elegant obituary in The New York Times.

Here’s the info about the concert, cut-and-pasted from ROVA’s mailer.

STRUGGLE FOR A NEW WORLD: Fred Ho Memorial

Sunday, September 7, 2:00 – 4:30 PM

Oakland Asian Cultural Center
9th Street #290
Oakland 94607

The memorial will feature performance by many of the forward-thinking artists touched by Fred Hos significant cultural contribution. Rova will perform Hos 1992 composition, Beyond Columbus and Capitalism, a work commissioned by Rova through The Meet the Composer / Readers Digest Commissioning Program.

Other performers include: Ben Barson, Royal Hartigan, Mark Izu, Jon Jang, Masaru Koga, Genny Lim, Hafez Modirzadeh, John Carlos Perea, Akira Tana, Marty Wehner, Francis Wong, Brenda Wong Aoki, with speaker/emcees: Diane Fujino and Matef Harmachis.

September 3, 2014 at 9:34 pm Leave a comment

Kris Davis Gets Heavy

Kris DavisMassive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013)

Kris Davis -- Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013)Massive Threads is a difficult combination of minimalism and brashness that almost dares the listener to try to enjoy it. Some of these solo piano excursions include passages where Kris Davis might well be saying, “Let’s spill a bunch of paint and see if the critics can convince themselves it’s art” — but I don’t think that’s the case. I do think I’m finding artistry and beauty in this music — and I admit, I do enjoy the academic side. This is material that takes multiple listens to embrace, and it’s worth the effort.

Davis’ work got increasingly abstract and challenging during the past decade. You can hear some of that minimalist touch it at the end of “Whirly Swirly,” the mostly friendly opening track of Waiting for You To Grow. But that album, like much of Davis’ work, kept its feet anchored in jazz. Massive Threads boils away jazz pretense, reducing musical forms into primordeal ideas and an obsession with the piano’s highest or lowest registers.

That doesn’t mean it’s simple or slow. “Ten Exorcists” is an impress display of lightning precision. It starts as an almost toneless, Philip-Glass-on-speed exercise, later developing something of a melody in the form of left-hand chords. For maximum contrast, that exercise in concentration is followed by the gaping empty spaces of the second track, appropriately titled, “Desolation and Despair.”

The title track gives you a little bit of everything. The intro is attractively splashy, full of free-jazz abandon, but it soon crosses into a desert of twisted, gloppy chords stamped out in slow, robotic, quarter-note succession, describing a stern 6/4 cycle. It’s not always easy listening, but I like the idea of it. Nicer but hardly normal is “Dancing Marlines,” a whispered monologue of upper-register keys like drippings from an icicle. It builds into staggered, stair-step pickings that have a light mood and even a sense of swing.

Monk’s “Evidence” gets pulled apart into a halting, stuttering non-rhythm. A ray of jazz manages to poke through, in the harmonies and the phrasing — especially at the end, when Davis gets into a high-register ostinato and some convoluted cross-rhythms, like an alien music box.

“Slow Growing” ends the album on a morose note. It’s a careful, creeping piece full of heavy harmonies; it reminds me of the glum CD of piano sonatas by Russian (soon-to-be-Soviet) composer Alexandr Mosolov on ECM. What Davis’ album shares with that one is the sense of complex emotion that’s too thickly stacked to express in simple terms. There’s a sense of therapeutic outpouring that’s worth the time to absorb.

August 31, 2014 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

Swimming in Bengal

Swimming in BengalVol. 1 (Lather, 2014)

Swimming in Bengal -- Vol. 1It’s the drums — the hollow, ringing sound of a hand drum and the percussion of what sound like a half-dozen found implements. Not just that, it’s the sitar-like sounds, produced by Jed Brewer’s custom-made guitar that has a gourd for its body and a raised wooden bridge for that twangy sustain.

Or maybe it’s just the name. Swimming in Bengal feels like a mashup of Indian music, “world” music percussion, and King Crimson-style improvisation. The kind of improvisation where long, held guitar tones create a backdrop at once droning and alive. The mix of styles builds grooves and improvisations to get gloriously lost in.

Vol. 1 gives us three doses of the band, each track speaking that raga-like language for nearly 20 minutes, but with different accents. “Slow Burn,” contrary to its name, turns into a forceful, strumming guitar jam. And “Scattered” uses aggressive sax to suggest a jazzy sound, where Alex Jenkins‘ drumming has almost a swingy feel — only to settle back into the psych-jam exploration of a Brewer guitar solo.

The band is a trio of players active in Sacramento’s jazz/improv scene: Brewer; Jenkins on tabla, drums, and who knows what else; and Tony Passarell on saxophone, flute and percussion.

Passarell is the band’s wild card. On “Walking Alone,” Passarell waits several minutes before he starts drawing lines in the sandbox, beautiful and fast-fluttery. In a way, the sax is an alien voice brought into this world-jam world — and yet, it’s perfect, adding just the right tint. The effect is a bit like the John Lurie National Orchestra: one saxophone carving out lines of melody that seem untethered and free but are actually working within the geometric knitting of the percussion and, in this case, the sitar-like drone. Passarell’s voice and personality on the sax differ from Lurie’s of course; I’m just referring here to the skeleton of the music.

Passarell gets more of a lead voice on “Scattered” — and then, on “Slow Burn,” his soprano sax is the cathartic climax, stepping in a the height of a rock-jam phase, leading to a final few minutes of sunburst jamming.

Swimming in Bengal is one of several projects Brewer is involved in. Find out more on the Lather Records blog; read about this particular band in the alternative weekly Submerge (pages 12-13); and check out the album on Bandcamp.

August 11, 2014 at 12:24 am 1 comment

Fusion from Catalonia

Xavi ReijaResolution (Moonjune, 2014)

Xavi Rejia -- Resolution (Moonjune, 2014)I have to admit, I was drawn to this album by a review on the Monsieur Délire blog, not only because this guy’s name starts with “X,” but because he’s Catalan.

Friends of mine have hosted me in Barcelona twice now, and through them, I’ve learned a little bit about the Catalan people and their centuries-long struggle for independence, a fight that’s still not over. You can see the pride in the Catalan flag draped over so many balconies around the city. The review made the CD sound interesting, and the thought of hearing a bit of jazz/prog out of Catalunya was intriguing.

Resolution is a guitar-trio album that fits in that space between jazz fusion and progressive rock. I have a soft spot for this stuff. I feel like I’ve kind of outgrown some of the power-guitar licks, but I still love counting out the odd time signatures. This album shows maturity and depth more than prog flashiness; even though it rocks out frequently, it tilts toward a mature jazz sound, and that’s what I really enjoy about it.

My favorite track is the mini-suite, “Gravity” — winding and exploratory, where you can luxuriate in the spaces between Dusan Jevtovic’s guitar phases and savor the glassy bass solo put up by Bernat Hernández. Later, it breaks into a rock-hero groove, showcasing Reija’s drumming over a simple bass pulse.

In a setting like this, though, it’s the electric bass that I really enjoy listening to. Credit Percy Jones of Brand X for that. (I heard him before I got exposed to Jaco Pastorius; that’s just the breaks.) One highlight in that regard is “Macroscope,” where Reija sets up a complex groove for Hernández’s thick, bubbling soloing.

Hear some samples on eMusic, or take a look at “Flying to Nowhere,” below.

August 10, 2014 at 10:52 am Leave a comment

Grex Brings Monster Music on Tour

GrexMonster Music (Brux, 2014)

grex-monsterGrex has already toured a little big around Monster Music, hitting some shows on the east coast in July. They’re now in the middle of a west-coast swing:

August 4, Sacramento, CA, 7:30pm at Luna’s Cafe (Nebraska Mondays, w/Luis Clifford Childers

August 5, Sacramento, CA, 8pm at The Witch Room (w/Practice, The Lurk)

August 6, Sacramento, CA, (Grex at 10pm), Live Broadcast on v103, at Marilyn’s on K (w/Devon Galley, Ken Koenig)

August 7, Portland, OR, 9pm, at Slabtown (w/U SCO, The Sarcastic Dharma Society, Drunk Dads)

August 8, Seattle, WA, 8pm, at The Woodshed (w/Insistent Caterpillars, Honey Noble)

August 10, Seattle, WA, 7:30pm, at Cafe Racer (at Racer Sessions)

August 15, Long Beach, CA, 8pm, 4th Street Vine (w/Don’t Trip)

August 16, Los Angeles, CA, 8:30pm, at Curve Line Space (w/Dead Air Trio feat. Joe Berardi)


Monster Music, which came out in February, is a nifty package of pop/prog characterized by bubbly and dreamy electric piano, swinging chords, and regular doses of fiery guitar. Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, the wife/husband team who both contribute vocals, augment the Grex duo with other instruments, but this time, drummer Robert Lopez is a fixture on every track, which somehow makes the songs feel more, well, songlike.

grex-yellowmouseI think of Grex as a prog band, but really it crumples musical styles into one multicolored mix, willfully dropping jazz melody, experimental improv, or rock attitude. A track like “Romancing Stone” reminds me a lot of Pierre Moerlen’s Gong with that pleasant, floating keyboard sound, although here it gets augmented with the more tangly, grumpy free improv that’s also a Grex ingredient. “Christmas Song” is a quirkier brand of prog, with a stringy melody spelled out on warbly keys and/or guitar to introduce Scampavia’s smooth, airy vocal.

Rock elements show up on “Hurdles,” a swirling, jamming piece that pairs fuzzed-out guitar and weighty electric piano, and on the psych jam “Guinea,” with its towering piano-chord theme.

This is the kind of album that’s easy to digest but has a lot going on under the surface, making for multiple rewarding listens. It probably makes for a good show, too, so if you’re on the west coast, don’t sleep on this one.

You can download Monster Music on Bandcamp.

August 5, 2014 at 5:58 pm Leave a comment

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