Jen Baker x2

February 13, 2011 at 9:50 am 1 comment

With a couple of evenings free, I had the chance to check out a couple of the improv shows featuring Jen Baker, the former Bay Area trombonist who’s now living in New York.

I’d also never been to Mama Buzz Cafe, out in Oakland on a less-gentrified stretch of Telegraph Avenue. It’s essentially a diner that’s been converted into a coffeehouse, with a counter that offers coffee and food and yummy spheroid vegan donuts. Greasy spoon meets Bay Area bohemia. An adjacent room, sheltered from the counter, is scattered with tables and chairs in the classic DIY coffeehouse look, and that’s where music events are held. (Photo below is by Flickr user katerw; I’d forgotten my camera that night.)

Wednesday night, Baker was playing here with a quartet including Phillip Greenlief (sax), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Ava Mendoza (guitar).¬† Only a half dozen of us were in the music room, including a couple of people with the requisite Mac PowerBooks (it can’t be a coffeehouse without¬† a couple of open laptops), but everyone paid rapt attention to the music, which was nice.

The sparse crowd, the midweek vibe, and maybe the fact that Baker had been out of town — it all made for a fun and casual session.¬† These were four friends just having fun with music. Mendoza’s electric guitar mixed well with the acoustic instruments; she seemed to be keeping things at a careful volume and contributed some nicely choppy rhythms. There were good long passages of all four tuning in on a propulsive mood and a strong pace.

Baker also found a couple of good spots for a few seconds of lyrical vibrations — the multiphonics created by singing into the trombone. It’s become an area of study for her, but the sound stands out and could really overwhelm the music, applied carelessly. She used the technique only for seconds at a time, and it worked well. Later, she told me she’s started transcribing some of her previous lyrical-vibrations improvisations — which turns the method into a composed technique that requires a different type of thinking in performance.

The set ended sublimely, with Greenlief dedicating a birthday piece to his late mother. It started with just Greenlief and Mezzacappa playing in a wistfully lyrical mood, with Baker and Mendoza following suit in long, gentle tones.

Thursday night, Baker played in two sets at the Luggage Store Gallery. The first was an improvising trio with Philip Gelb on shakuhachi and Tara Flandreau on viola, all three standing in front of the blank movie screen that occupied the gallery’s back wall. (A video installation was playing on the other side, visible out on the street.) Lots of serene moments in this set, some of that attributable to the natural sound of the shakuhachi — Flandreau even spent one passage playing whispery sounds on the viola’s bridge, matching the wooden flute’s demeanor.

The evening closed with 25 minutes of Baker’s lyrical vibrations. She introduced the solo performance by explaining that this music draws her into a trancelike state that she’d never experienced before — which is part of her fascination with the concept. The goal of the set was to share that experience with us, and it worked, aided by the stark white of the Luggage Store’s blank walls.

You can hear samples of the concept on Baker’s Web site.

Between Baker’s sets was the duo of Eric Glick Rieman (prepared electric piano) and Teresa Wong (cello). I’m going to write that one up separately. (Preview: I finally got to see the prepared electric piano!)

Entry filed under: Bay Area music, shows (past). Tags: , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Philip Gelb  |  February 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

    thank you for the review, Craig!

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