Swimming in Bengal — Vol. 1 (Lather, 2014)
It’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.
Xavi Reija — 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 4, Sacramento, CA, 7:30pm at Luna’s Cafe (Nebraska Mondays, w/Luis Clifford Childers
August 6, Sacramento, CA, (Grex at 10pm), Live Broadcast on v103, at Marilyn’s on K (w/Devon Galley, Ken Koenig)
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.
I 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.
He calls it the West Coast Acoustic Bicycle Tour. He’s done it before, touring the six New England states by bike, with his trumpet presumably included in his bags. (Good thing he’s not a bassist.)
One highlight of the tour is his septet performance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival on Sept. 27 and 28. But he’ll also be making a swing through the Bay Area, Sept. 16-19. His itinerary here includes the improvising group Orchesperry, a Braxton-blowing quartet with James Fei, and a duo with Myra Melford.
Jack o’ the Clock — Night Loops (self-released, 2014)
The atmosphere darkens on Night Loops, the latest album by Jack o’ the Clock. The band still plies its trade in a smart blend of pop, prog, and folk, but the layers of electronics and percussion have thickened. It feels like the already sophisticated band has gotten even more sophisticated.
Electronics, sound effects, and dense production have been on previous albums, but they’re unleashed in force here, in circles widening further beyond the rootsy music that always felt like the band’s starting point.
“Ten Fingers” hammers that home, emerging slowly with skeleton-bones percussion and mysterious violin; the eerie mood persists even as the catchy melody comes in. Later, the song is enriched by Jason Hoopes’ long, coiling bass riffs from the deep — a thick mix of prog and funk.
There’s also the eerie crawl of “Fixture,” full of chimes, effects, and dramatic violin. “How the Light Is Approached” is a different kind of madness, a time-bomb chatter of instruments and voices.
Leader Damon Waitkus hasn’t abandoned the pop side of his songwriting, though. The mostly acoustic “Come Back Tomorrow” harkens back to mostly acoustic presentation and catchy songwriting, as does the deceptively simple “As Long As the Earth Lasts,” which is highlighted by nifty guitar and bassoon solos.
And then there’s “Down Below,” a darned good rock song with a pulsing beat and a steady bassline (sadly, some of the coolest rock songs have the most primitive bass parts). The final verse packs in the syllables for a heightened sense of tension: “I’d leave today for Mecca / If I thought I could complete the trip / But the surface of the landscape / Is like a Moebius strip.”
Rich songwriting has always been a strength of the band, along with high musicianship. Leader Damon Waitkus’ hammered dulcimer remains a stalwart voice, with a pinging sound between a piano and a Fairport Convention mandolin. Emily Packard’s violin deepens the atmosphere but also adds some gorgeous melody, including a soaring section on “Come Back Tomorrow,” and Kate McLoughlin’s quirky, jazzy turns on bassoon and bass clarinet are always a delight. One of the best showcases for all this talent is “Salt Moon,” a squiggly instrumental full of sharp turns navigated by Jordan Glenn’s drums.
I missed the app’s concert debut, which was the other night at The Uptown in Oakland. Warwick came out to the Bay Area, playing the app as his instrument in a larger ensemble that played “In C.” It’s all a little bit meta, isn’t it?
If you’re not familiar with “In C” … the composition consists of 53 composed phrases, all in the key of C, none of them very complex. More than one consists of whole notes, indicating a drone effect. What makes the piece is that the players move forward through the 53 phrases at their own speeds. They do stay in tempo, as I understand it, but they don’t have to stay synchronized. You want the overall ensemble to keep up — no one should be stuck on Phrase 2 if the rest of the group is on Phrase 17 — but you also want them to be playing different phrases.
The overall effect can be like a gentle showering of bells. It’s one huge major chord that’s splintered into snowflakes that land softly on your shoulders and hair and shoes. Alternatively, I’d imagine it could be a drone, or — in the hands of someone like Acid Mothers Temple, who recorded “In C’ along with companion pieces “In D” and “In E” — a blissful psych explosion that just keeps exploding.
And now you can do all that with just a couple of fingers and an iPad. The app appears to be free, so have at it.
With Humanity Suite, guitarist Ross Hammond has created an extended piece that’s certainly free and aggressive but exudes a sense of serenity. It’s a free-jazz statement based on rhythms that become the foundations for individual solos — an uncluttered, free sound with lots of chances for soloists to soar.
We got tastes of this on Hammond’s quartet albums. The heart of the music is the same: Hammond’s fuzzed-out guitar, spinning bright and bluesy forms in a mostly contented spirit. I think of it as sunny, with an African influence, but Hammond can also pour it on. Early on Side 2, he turns up the electricity, egged on by Dax Compise’s splashy snare-and-cymbal playing for a tough-shredding solo. Eventually, he steps aside for another horn free-for-all that ends with a slowly fading triplet rhythm in 15/8.
The occasion for the Suite was a commissioned concert at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum in October. It coincicded with an exhibition of works by Kara Walker, an artist who draws from African-American history for her works. She’s best known for silhouetted pieces set in the Civil War era, and she recently made headlines with an installation for the condemned Domino sugar refinery, a set of works crowned by a 40-ton sugar sculpture in the shape of a sphinx.
Inspired, Hammond decided to use the same sense of history, injustice, and truth-telling as the backdrop for the instrumental suite. It’s not tied to particular pieces of Walkers; it’s more about the spirit, especially when it comes to her detailed silhouettes that tell complete stories. That’s the sense he wanted to convey.
For all its bustling freedom, the suite carries a calm demeanor, a contented wisdom. The early mood is patient, set by open-air guitar lines and slow trombone melody, but around that, the horns calmly trace their own paths. Throughout the piece, the horns command most of the attention, not only in the high-energy solos by Catherine Sikora and Vinny Golia on sax, or Clifford Childers on trombone, but for their adept free-improvsed interludes between composed sections. A fairly long, busy improvisation for the horns in the middle of Side 1 is the perfect break to set up a new phase with somber tones against Clifford Hilders’ trombone solo.
Even during Hammond’s high-energy solo early in Part 2, which includes some high-voltage free jazz from the entire group, a sense of reverence pervades. Humanity Suite is meant to be weighty, and it pulls that off without becoming stiff or heavy-handed.
Humanity Suite is a vinyl release, but you can also buy it digitally at Bandcamp.