Archive for February, 2011
Vijay Anderson’s sextet performs Monday, Feb. 7, at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco.
As a drummer, Anderson has a nice free-jazz resume that includes Marco Eneidi, sax screamer Lynn Johnston, and the highly acclaimed bands of Adam Lane. More recently, he’s been part of the four-person axis that forms both Go-Go Fightmaster and Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch. His style can be fleet and explosive.
But Hard-Boiled Wonderland, like a lot of good improvised CDs, is more about process. Anderson sits more in the background or is even absent (as on the tracks “Nix” and “Dilation”).
It’s improvised jazz in a group setting, a sextet of equal parts where the two horns or the two guitars could be spinning virtuoso lines or providing the backdrop for the scene. The predominant sound is the vibraphone played by Smith Dobson V, presenting a cooled sound even on the title track — where the guitars, played by Ava Mendoza and John Finkbeiner, chug away continually, sometimes heavily distorted. It’s a drifting piece full of peaks and valleys, using long tones and guitar effects to build the music to its heights.
For much of the album, Anderson uses subsets of the band. “Skittering” drops the vibes in favor of letting one guitar and Ben Goldberg’s clarinet take the lead. As if to show what a group effort this is, I’m not sure Anderson and Dobson play at all on “Dilation,” a slow piece with rubbery clarinet sounds, carefully springy guitar, and some continual bubbling from Sheldon Brown’s sax.
“Swimming in a Black Well” is an Anderson/Dobson duet and one of the more directly jazzy pieces on here. Anderson lays down a jazz-aimed cymbal-tapping rhythm, and Dobson solos accordingly on the vibes. That’s followed by one of the least jazzy pieces, the choppy, all-out abstraction of “Nix.”
On “A Widow’s Last Penny,” the two horns flit among a shimmering backdrop created by Anderson’s rolls on the toms and the occasional splash from Dobson. Long, stretched guitar wails complete the picture.
A lot of attention is going to go to the title track that starts the album, but it’s the finale, “March at the End of the World,” that really shows off what the band can do. It’s also the one track that feels like it might be composed, or at least pre-planned. Military drums lead to shrill horn calls, a military declaration drawn in jazzy cartoons. After some loose improvising, Anderson starts into a drunken swing beat, surrounded by mildly chaotic group sounds.
Anderson’s Touch and Go band, part of the Make-Out Room’s monthly jazz installment, will be a different breed: four horns and a bass. A different sound, probably, with an intriguing lineup that includes Brown, Goldberg, and 3/4 of Byte and Switch/Go-Go Fightmaster.
Jen Baker performs in various groups, every night from Monday, Feb. 7 through Friday, Feb. 11. Details below.
Jen Baker — Blue Dreams (Dilapidated Barns, 2008)
She calls it “lyrical vibrations:” the music that can be produced by singing into the trombone while playing. The parallel tracks of melody come out in a buzzy, growling sound that’s quite close to Tuvan throat singing. It’s certainly something different.
Before leaving the Bay Area for New York — where she’s now part of the madcap Asphalt Orchestra — Jen Baker was working on this concept, exploring its musical possibilities. She’ll be back this week in a series of improv shows where I would assume she’ll continue that exploration — and try out whatever other techniques she’s been interested in.
There is admittedly a sameness to the lyrical vibrations tracks on Blue Dreams. With the exception of “Pip Squeak,” a cute dijeridoo-like hoedown, the music is all improvised. But the music is toneful — that is, it doesn’t come from the sound-sculpture school of abstract improv. In addition to the Tuvans, Baker lists Gregorian chant as an influence, and her shares the same sense of “meandering melodic lines,” as she puts it in the liner notes.
The melodies process slowly, not surprising considering the trombone isn’t as fleet an instrument as, say, a piccolo. Some of the most interesting effects come when the vocal and trombone melodies diverge. More often, I think the trombone or vocal holds one note while the other instrument varies in pitch, creating something almost like a dijeridoo drone but not quite. “Neptunian Love Song,” the longest track on the album (5 minutes) is packed with both types of moments.
Careful listening also reveals different kinds of interference between the voice and trombone, creating little pulses in the long tones. Baker hits a couple of these delicious dissonances early in “17 Unpredictably Disappears,” one of the album’s more abrasive melodies.
For some samples, check Baker’s web site.
Here’s her upcoming calendar (see also BayImproviser or the Transbay Calendar). Lyrical vibrations won’t be the only musical tool she’ll use, but I would expect it to be a big part of some of these shows, especially the Mills events.
Mon., Feb. 7 — Solo performance at the Mills College Ensemble Room. Free.
Tues., Feb. 8 — Quartet that includes Tony Dryer (bass) and Jacob Felix Heule (drums), 2/3 of the spacious improv trio Idea of West. At The Uptown, opening for the Oakland Active Orchestra. Free.
Weds., Feb. 9 – In various improv combinations with Phillip Greenlief (sax), Ava Mendoza (guitar), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass). At Mama Buzz Cafe, $5.
Thurs., Feb. 10 – Baker (mostly) takes over the weekly Luggage Store Gallery show, performing solo and in trio. Sliding scale admission, $6-$10.
Fri., Feb. 11 – Back at Mills, playing in the resonant atrium of the Concert Hall. This will be a quartet called DYNOSAUR, consisting of three brass players and Karen Stackpole’s gongs. Expect lots of echoing.
Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, which disbanded sometime around 2000, left a wealth of long-form pieces to pore over — 20- and 40-minute compositions (or longer!) with compelling composed segments and spellbinding improvisation. The quartet tears it up on the rough and ragged 3-CD set, Unwound, and they’re presented in more studious, pristine form on the essential Paris Concert trilogy (still available on Winter & Winter).
And the basement tapes from that 1994-1998′ish timeframe keep coming. Berne put out a 2-CD set, Seconds, featuring tracks a mere 10 or so minutes long (but accompanied by a DVD of the 51-minute “Eye Contact”).
Now there’s Insomnia, two half-hour pieces featuring the five-man Bloodcount team plus three guests. It adds up to what looks like a chamber ensemble, including trumpet (Baikida Carroll), clarinet (Chris Speed), cello (Erik Friedlander), violin (Dominique Pifarely), and acoustic guitar (Marc Ducret). Recorded in 1997 after a sleepless night on Berne’s part, as he recounted for Downtown Music Gallery (click here and scroll down), the album delivers two long-form suites from the vein that Bloodcount so skillfully mined.
There’s a familiarity to the moments when the group comes in for a landing, easing into a composed section after playing freely. It’s not like Bloodcount is the only group that’s ever done that, but something about those moments on here sounds like Bloodcount. It’s as if the core quintet is the hive mind directing the piece, even though the three guest members each bring strong personality to the music.
The sound palette is considerably wider than Bloodcount’s, though. “The Proposal” starts out velvety and chamber-like, drawing from the same source as Bloodcount’s track, “The Other.” Ducret’s acoustic guitar adds a soft, chiming texture that I’ve never heard with Bloodcount (he’d always been on electric). There’s a particularly nice moment early on where he doubles up with Michael Formanek’s bass, splashing the occasional chord against the plucked bass strings and a lightly dancing Carroll solo on trumpet.
About halfway through “The Proposal,” Ducret launches a peppy, strings-heavy theme that leads to a particularly symphonic passage where trumpet, guitar, cello, sax, and clarinet are each playing fragments of themes. It’s a carefully arranged and fast-moving segment that shines. It’s through moments like that that Berne’s suites, at their best, exude an aura of control that I’ve always enjoyed. You feel like you’re traversing a carefully laid-out plan, an invisible schematic.
“Open, Coma” opens unlike anything Bloodcount ever did — with acoustic guitar and trumpet dominating the scene, followed by a frenzied Pifaly violin solo. It’s only 6 minutes into the 29-minute piece that a Berne-like theme pops up, returning the song to familiar ground.
Like “The Proposal,” “Open Coma” goes through a gauntlet of mood swings. Its composed themes feel grander, almost like dark marches sometimes, and the improvising seems more of a free-for-all, touching on that orchestra-tuning-up sound more often than “The Proposal” did. Much of the second half is taken up by a good, long Berne solo, lively and kicking, showing none of the ill effects of sleeplessness.
One odd thing I noticed was how little I noticed Jim Black. He’s there, but it wasn’t until his solo at the end of “Open, Coma” that I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to him. I guess there was just that much else going on.
It’s good to see Michael Formanek get so much critical praise for this album. Down Beat gave it five stars and put it on the Best-of-2010 list. The Village Voice poll ranked it 27th overall, with nine critics placing it in their Top 10s and Ed Hazell assigning it No. 1 status.
I’m not sure any of Formanek’s other albums are available, save the solo bass outing Am I Bothering You? So, it’s especially nice to see his music getting some ink.
A lot of the attention has to do with the record being on ECM, although it’s interesting to note that this album was recorded without an ECM deal. ECM’s Manfred Eicher later mixed the album at Avatar Studios, a fave ECM haunt.
Whether it’s inherent to the music or a trick of the mixing, this album certainly sounds like an ECM record, as you can hear on the promo video (which I’d embedded in a September post). That’s the track “Twenty Three Neo.” The piano has a crystalline air, and Gerald Cleaver‘s drums rely on lots of light cymbal taps, that placid wood-on-metal sound that’s so ECM. Even when Cleaver gets ferocious, as on “Jack’s Last Call,” he’s pushed back, so as not to overwhelm.
Craig Taborn‘s piano work is amazing, spinning away at computer-like speeds. He carves a fleet solo on “Inside the Box,” and he’s a monster toward the end of “Tonal Suite,” where he’s hammering away at an irregularly regular theme while also soloing with the right hand. Every jazz pianist can do hand independence, but something about Taborn’s playing here seems like it’s slipped in from another dimension. I went back to check on Feign, the 2005 Tim Berne trio album where Taborn’s on acoustic piano throughout, and traces of the same strong hand independence are there, so — I guess I’ve proven I’m an unobservant idiot.
With Berne (sax) and Taborn on board, it’s fair to wonder if the soloing sections might end up sounding like a Tim Berne album themselves. I mean, you put the same people together in an improvising-friendly combination enough times, and you’d wonder if the output would all take on the same tint. There are moments of similarity. On “My First Phone” on Feign, an open-ended, floating piano pattern backs a poking, staccato Berne solo; the whole moment could probably be inserted somewhere into The Rub. But overall, Feign has more of an attack posture. Understandably, the pieces tend to be written with a sax-driven theme in mind, and Tom Rainey’s drums are more of a co-leading instrument, whereas Cleaver on The Rub takes a lighter, tactile approach.
As for the composing itself, Formanek goes with a suite-like approach, with one long theme after another, spread apart by well-knit group improvising spaces. Quirky time signatures abound. As bassist for Tim Berne’s Bloodcount in the ’90s, Formanek got a lot of experience with these kinds of blueprints, but the composing certainly shows his own mark, in elements such as the swinging shuffle of “Inside the Box” or the insistent, thick piano chords of “Too Big To Fail.” It’s good to hear his compositions again, and he’s found a fertile environment for letting them bloom.