Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Night Loops

Jack o’ the ClockNight Loops (self-released, 2014)

Jack o' the Clock: Night LoopsThe 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.

A lot of these songs have been honed in live performances and then polished in the studio. It comes together in a cohesive, intelligent album that should open a lot of ears.

 

July 15, 2014 at 11:34 pm 1 comment

Humanity Suite: Ross Hammond, Inspired by History and Art

Ross HammondHumanity Suite (Prescott Recordings, 2014)

Ross Hammond: Humanity SuiteWith 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.

Kara Walker's “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life),” It measures 12 feet high by 85 feet long. Source: walkerart.org; click to go there.

Kara Walker’s “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life).” It measures 12 feet high by 85 feet long. Source: walkerart.org; click to go there.

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.

July 7, 2014 at 12:20 am Leave a comment

A Big Sound from Klaxon Mutant Allstars

Klaxon Mutant Allstars performs Thursday, May 22, at Duende.

Klaxon Mutant AllstarsRobot Invasion (self-released, 2014)

Robot Invasion. Source: Bandcamp; click to go there.A former pickup band that, frankly, I thought I’d never see again, the Klaxon Mutant Allstars have not only stuck together but have also produced an album — a slice of enjoyable modern jazz with clean horn lines, pop sensibility, and layered writing that sends the five-piece group in unexpected directions of syncopation.

There’s definitely a “new musical terrain between jazz, electronica, pop, and indie rock,” as the Klaxons’ web site proclaims. It’s a quasi-genre I loosely called “indie jazz” in the early ’00s. I had aggressive bands like the DIY trio, Birth, in mind, but others have emerged with a stronger nod to the jazz tradition, and with electronica more deeply embedded in their psyches. Kneebody occupies this space.

So do the Klaxons, now, with Henry Hung’s trumpet and Kasey Knudsen’s sax up front, putting up the jazz lines that might have been transported from a ’60s combo but presenting music that those audiences would consider alien. On a track line “Klaxon Tom Bomb,” the “jazz” gets put behind a heavy, infectious pulsing. It’s aggressive and fun.

“Desaparecere” starts out with a grooving, relaxing bass solo from George Ban-Weiss, gracefully backed with Colin Hogan’s electric piano. But later, Knudsen ignites the band into a fiery groove fueled by twisting, growling sax solo.

This kind of idea-mixing is all over the album. The almost too-smiley funk of “Riled Up” makes you tap your toes, but it gives way to a stretch of free improvisation against a skipping beat that all the players ignore. “Dear 70% (We Are Being Ruled by the 15%),” which features a deceptively simple, poppy theme that builds into some nice syncopation and, eventually, another searing Knudsen solo.

There’s one near-straightahead track, “Taxi Driver Blues,” that’s heavy with swing and funk, replete with walking bass and very — I don’t know the term, but Eric Garland sticks to conventionally jazzy drumming. It’s plain jazz, in a sense, but it’s fun.

I’m happy to see that Robot Invasion includes the Klaxons’ most memorable song, “Jamie Moyer,” an initially pretty tune that — like its namesake baseball pitcher — messes with your mind by changing speeds. Stretched here to a glorious 12 minutes, the song was a highlight (for me, anyway) of their appearance at the SF Offside Festival back in 2012; here, it becomes a showcase for Garland as the band “trades fours” between normal speed and way-too-slow speed.

You can find the album at Bandcamp and CD Baby, among other places.

May 20, 2014 at 10:51 pm Leave a comment

Aram Shelton Convenes the Octet

Aram SheltonOctet (self-released, 2014)

Aram Shelton: Octet. Source: Bandcamp; click to go thereIn 2002, jazzman Aram Shelton wrote “Octet,” a straight chamber piece for four horns, two cellos, and two basses. It’s a departure from his usual work with bands such as Ton Trio II.

He’ll be performing with a Bay Area version of the octet on Friday, May 16, at Le Qui Vive (1525 Webster St., Oakland), a show starting at 9:00 p.m. You can preview the music by listening to “Octet” and a companion piece, “Spring Time,” on Bandcamp. (You can also buy them there; just $5 for a 43-minute digital album.)

“Octet” is framed in minimalist tones, patient and bright. It builds on small, repeated motifs that gradually shift during the course of about 27 minutes. The steady cadence gets a break about midway, when it shifts into slower, looser playing — then it picks up the thread again, bouncing and bobbing its way along.

Minimalist pieces are meant to be a bit hypnotic (that’s always been my impression, anyway) and part of the magic is in zooming in on the details. In this case, you’ve got eight players to provide plenty of counterpoint, like lots of side conversations adding up to a whole. I’m reminded of a ROVA piece where many players were spread around a large room, and the audience was invited to sit in the middle. “Octet” would sound really good that way, with small sounds patiently prodding at you from all directions.

“Summer Time” carries a similar mood but eases up on the strict rhythm. The horns, in particular, play breathy jazz motifs that might even be improvised (or composed but with a more casual sense of rhythm applied). It’s an airy 17-minute piece that breezes past more quickly than you realize.

I’d recommend checking out the Octet at Le Qui Vive. It’s not an act that seems likely to be repeated much in the future. (And the opening act, featuring longtime jazzman Idris Ackamoor of The Pyramids, should be a treat, too.)

And if you’re more inclined to check out Shelton’s jazz work, Ton Trio II is playing at Duende (Oakland) on the following Friday, May 23.

May 15, 2014 at 9:09 pm Leave a comment

Clarinet Attack

Double Trio des ClarinettesItinéraire Bis (Between the Lines, 2014)

Source: eMusic; click to go there

Source: eMusic; click to go there

It’s an all-clarinet sextet! And the results are anything but monochrome, with the players darting and weaving around one another, building up sound in criss-crossing orbits.

You get a taste of the group’s playfulness with “Almost Twenty-Eight,” which opens with all six men chanting in scripted, syncopated lines before launching into a bouncy, swooping clarinet piece. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but it sure sounds fun.

The album combines two European groups: The Clarinet Trio (Jürgen Kupke, Michael Thieke, and Gebhard Ullmann) and Le Trio des Clarinettes (Jean-Marc Foltz, Armand Angster, and Sylvain Kassap). They’re all expert in that European jazz sound: classical technique adapted to a polished mix of jazz, modern composition, and free improvisation, with a touch of silliness.

On many of the tracks, you’ve got the group playing a serious (or semi-serious) composition while one member solos intensely, showing off jazz chops and joyous abandon. On this segment of “Bizarre,” you can hear the buildup of polytonal parts for each member, finally giving way to a solo:

Many elements of the Double Trio’s approach also apply to Clarinet Thing, the all-clarinet quintet led by Beth Custer. But Clarinet thing feels more tune-oriented to me, with a vocabulary rich in traditional jazz forms — although Jimmy Guiffre is also a heavy influence. (It’s great stuff, by the way, and I compared Clarinet Thing to even more sax/clarinet types of groups in a 2009 writeup.)

Hat tip: I got tuned into this album by the March 24 edition of Taran’s Free Jazz Hour.

April 20, 2014 at 12:05 am Leave a comment

Comeuppance: Still Baiting and Switching

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & SwitchComeuppance (Not Two, 2013)

Lisa Mezzacappa -- Comeuppance. Click to go to Not Two Records.There’s no Captain Beefheart cover tune on Comeuppance, the second album from the Bait & Switch quartet, but the influence lives on. John Finkbeiner colors the session with crackly guitar freakouts, and Aaron Bennett’s sax breaks orbit with slashing, free improvisations.

Bait & Switch is about Mezzacappa’s compositions delivered with serious attitude. Since the release of the debut CD What Is Known, they’ve had a few years to let that formula steep, playing their swingy themes, hard-driven free jazz, and spaces of free improvisation at gigs that have included the Monterey Jazz Festival.

“Le Crabe” opens with a characteristically scribbly theme that opens up into a free-blowing sax solo, Finkbeiner’s guitar chopping and chugging behind him. “Cruciferous” features a hard, scrambling guitar reminscent of Beefheart (whom they covered on What Is Known). Later in that song, Finkbeiner repeats a wacko glissando while Aaron Bennett solos on sax — the glissando becoming, in essence, the “composed” part of the song.

Each of those tracks is a mini-suite that includes a slower or more sublime phase, a chance to hear the band’s different personalities. “Old” plays that way too, contrasting a tart swing wrung from the jazz tradition with small interludes of spare and playful improvising.

“X Marks the Question” starts out like it’s going to be a slow, thoughtful piece — and it is, including a pleasant sax/bass interlude, until Finkbeiner’s guitar solo, egged on by Vijay Anderson’s insistent drumming, draws the band into a fiery blur. “Las Hormigas Rojas” plays around with a straightforward march beat, hinting at Mexican folk music while Bennett and Finkbeiner play scrambled mutterings, like kids in class talking behind the teacher’s back. And “Luna” is a slower track with an uneasy, foreboding air throughout. Finkbeiner plays a sublime guitar solo there, after some buzzy, high-energy sax from Bennett.

April 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm Leave a comment

Catharsis and the Drums

Mike PrideDrummer’s Corpse (AUM Fidelity, 2013)

Source: AUM Fidelity; click to go there. “My ‘Ascension,'” drummer Mike Pride calls the track “Drummer’s Corpse.” It’s a 33-minute catharsis, a sustained blast of energy delivered by seven top-notch drummers.

Anchoring the whole thing, in a sense, is a wall of electric-guitar sound by Chris Welcome, a succession of fiercely chiming chords that stubbornly guide the music forward. “Drummer’s Corpse” starts with a few minutes of cymbal and gong splashes, a statement of entry — and then the guitar blasts into the frame, and we’re off to the races.

Little vocal shrieks and cries emit from the seven-drummer tumult, like people being swept away by a violent current. Where “Ascension” divided into episodes defined by soloists, “Drummer’s Corpse” uses the guitar chords — but really, they’re just curves in the rushing river of noise. It’s quite a ride.

You can sample “Drummer’s Corpse” in this trippy video:

In addition to Pride, the drummers involved are Oran Canfield, Russell Greenberg,
John McClellan, Bobby Previte, Ches Smith, and Tyshawn Sorey, with Marissa Perel and Fritz Welch contributing vocals and percussion. Yes, it’s a corps of drummers, and the title might be a play-on-words, but I’m thinking of the piece more as a serious statement.

The album is rounded out by a track that’s completely different. “Some Will Die Animals” is an avant-garde elegy for drummer Gen Mikano, who took his own life in 2012. Two lengthy instrumental trio passages, slow and tense, are each followed by two segments of “recitations,” which is where the real madness comes in.

Four overlapping voices reading the same text passage from different starting points, creating a surreal journey of short paths that keep tracking back on to themselves. The texts are odd, meant to represent a news broadcast that includes “global sex-terrorism, suicide, and scientific descriptions of imaginary future-animals,” as Pride describes it in the CD’s promo materials.

I don’t know the details of Mikano’s passing, so I don’t know if the piece is meant to evoke the feeling of voices in your head, beating relentlessly on the same notes — but that’s the sensation, especially with headphones. It’s not scary (and in fact, the text is a bit silly), just very interesting (or grating, if you’re not in the mood).

March 9, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Aram Shelton’s Art of the (Next) Trio

Aram Shelton‘s Ton Trio II plays Sat. Feb. 1, at Duende (Oakland), with the Cory Wright Outfit.

Ton Trio IIOn and On (Singlespeed, 2014)

Source: Singlespeed Music; click to go thereThis is the second version of Aram Shelton‘s sax/bass/drums unit, exploring Shelton’s compositions with a healthy respect for the jazz tradition and an appetite for the freedom of direction offered by free jazz.

Shelton founded Ton Trio shortly after coming to the Bay Area from Chicago. The second edition, with new rhythm section Scott Brown on bass and Alex Vittum on drums, was created late in 2012 and built itself into shape through regular gigs at The Layover for the first part of last year. Now they’ve put out their first album, on Shelton’s Singlespeed label.

The trio is very much a jazz exercise, presenting melodic heads followed by some robust jazz improvising. In tracks like “Turncoats,” there’s a touch of Ayler-style marching, something I thought I’d heard in the first Ton Trio album, The Way.

“Freshly Pressed” is one of the faster tracks (and the longest, at eight minutes), with Shelton digging hard in to post-bebop soloing but also adding small touches of swing or traditional melody. This is a track where Shelton goes particularly far outside the lines, egged on by Vittum, who also turns in a snappy drum solo.

I think my favorite track is the speedy “Orange Poppies,” which opens with a theme that harkens back to maybe early ’60s jazz, followed by a terrific, rolling jam where Shelton savors one cascading run of notes after another.

I’m writing this one up a bit late — the band’s show at Duende starts in just a few hours — but hopefully the band will get plenty of other chances to perform live and continue pushing this music forward.

February 1, 2014 at 3:58 pm Leave a comment

Reconnaissance Fly Turns Spam Into Prog Rock

Reconnaissance FlyFlower Futures (Edgetone, 2014)

Source: Bandcamp; click to go therePolly Moller’s experiements with spoetry — poetry made from the babble of spam emails — has come to a fruition in the band Reconnaissance Fly, which adds prog-rock and avant-garde musical backings for a new kind of songwriting.

Now they’ve got their newest album out, called Flower Futures (Edgetone, 2014), and they’ll be promoting it with a show at the Berkeley Arts Festival space (2133 University Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, Feb. 1.

It’s full of Canterbury sounds: electric piano, jazzy chords, and stumbling time signatures. Snatches of free improvisation crop up here and there. And flute! In addition to fronting the band with operatic alto vocals, Moller plays flute alongside the band’s woodwind or guitar leads.

Much of the music does feel patterned after the lyrics, which transforms the nonsense into something more ably amusing or even pretty. The musical passages never settle into verse/chorus patterns, but they occasionally lock in on particularly funny or strange phrases for some songlike repetition. Free improv segments on “The Party Constraint” and “Seemed to be Divided in Twain” form around controlled bursts, so that the abstract music actually makes more “sense” than the lyrics do — or, maybe the music helps create more meaning for the words.

The songwriting did start with the lyrics. Moller says she assigned spoems to band members who then wrote the music. “Tim [Walters, bassist]‘s tunes reflect his love for Rock in Opposition and progressive rock, Amanda [Chaudhary, keyboards] gave us our graphic scores for improvisation, and mine are kind of all over the place,” she writes in an email.

The album was more than four years in the making and survived a couple of band shifts — notably, saxophonist Chris Broderick departing, with Rich Lesnik taking his place. The band’s history makes for a pretty good read, actually. (By the way, these same folks formed the bulk of the Cardiacs tribute band founded by Moe! Staiano.)

You can hear parts of the album (and of course buy the whole thing) on Bandcamp. Try the ’70s prog sound of “Sanse Is Crede nza” or the Henry Cow chamber-funk of “An Empty Rectangle” for songs that’ll grab the ear quickly. I’m also partial to the proggy “One Should Never.”

January 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm Leave a comment

Nathan Clevenger Strikes Again

The Nathan Clevenger Group plays Monday, January 6, at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco at 8:30 p.m., the opening act in the venue’s monthly jazz program.

Nathan Clevenger GroupObservatory (Apoplectics, 2013)

Source: NathanClevengerMusic.com; click to go thereBay Area guitarist Nathan Clevenger has a pretty good formula down, using the tight, silky harmonies of conventional jazz charts and applying those sounds to modern composing ideas. Building from a sextet format with two saxes and a clarinet (Evan Francis occasionally provides flute as well), the songs are recorded with a quilted, gentle sound but create space for some spirited soloing.

Observatory is more a jazz sextet album than a guitar album, and it seems like it would be great music for late summer evenings, especially with tracks like “The Letting Down” and its gentle, bluesy air.

That track is also one of the few to feature Clevenger’s guitar, in a patient, gossamer solo. As on his previous album, The Evening Earth, Clevenger’s jazz guitar is in the background, shaping the music while the spotlight goes to the horns. They’re at the heart of the melodies and they get the bulk of the solos. (OK, yes, the horns outnumber Clevenger 3-to-1, so of course they’d get the bulk of the solos. The point is, Clevenger’s role is more as composer, bandleader, and accompanist.)

The overall mood is soft. If I were to play you the first 30 seconds of each song, you’d get the impression of an album of pretty and mellow songs, and that’s not inaccurate. But the music is set up to let the solos really cook. An example is the opener, “The Irreconcilables.” Here’s a touch of the catchy main theme and of Kasey Knudsen‘s alto sax solo toward the end:

I especially liked the opening of “Sleepwalker’s Anecdote,” where Clevenger’s guitar plays a kind of counter-melody that adds a scrambling feel to the pleasant horn lines. (The polyrhythmic drumming of Jon Arkin helps, too.)

And I should probably note the quirky track “Equinauts,” which adds Jason Levis on marimba for an extra touch of whimsy. You also get to hear Clevenger set his guitar on stun.

January 5, 2014 at 2:15 pm 1 comment

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