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.
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.