Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’
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.
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.
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).
This 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.
Polly 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.”
Bay 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.
“Spontaneous compositions,” Adam Lane calls them, rather than group improvisations, and the way these pieces build, the term seems to fit. Some of these improv-jazz pieces feel like they’ve got the blueprint of a composition behind them.
Take the very gradual buildup at the start of “Absolute Horizon.” When Darius Jones enters with his trademark sax wailing (the microtone-packed faltering that comes close to a human voice), he parses out the melody obeying bars-of-four patterns from bassist Lane and drummer Vijay Anderson. The group stops for a Lane bass solo that eventually becomes the intro to a slower, more tense group segment — a nicely planned trajectory that wasn’t formally planned.
Here’s a bit of that weepy Jones sax:
“Run to Infinity” could been a monumental ’60s free-jazz classic, if you hadn’t told me who was playing. The early improvising builds up to a fast bass/drums rhythm, over which Jones chooses to play a slow, serious melody — shades of free speech and radical ideas coming up through the ages — sounding meaningful even as he starts digging and swinging hard. This is free jazz getting down to business, picking a spot to groove and letting the music ride from there.
I’ve always used the word “fluidity” to describe Lane’s bass playing, and you get plenty of that effect here. On the cautiously quiet start to “Apparent Horizon,” you can really savor Lane’s bass against Jones’ sax. He plays in faster modes — both improvising and really fast bebop-bass walking — during the breezy, fast first half of “Light.” He also gets to play rock star in spots; “Stars” pulls out some electric effects that turn the bass into a staticky maelstrom battling the other two players.
Jones himself — who’s previously included Lane in his band — is at home on this album with his storytelling style of sax improvising, freely flowing and emoting in solos that seem more like conversations. Anderson is his usual hyperkinetic self, hammering out blindingly fast, precise rhythms, even when playing with abandon.
“Apparent Horizon,” after its quiet intro, dives into a serious groove around a Lane bass riff. Here you get Jones soloing in a more traditional free-jazz role, with Anderson clattering away on sturdy toms and tapped cymbals.
On “Light,” Anderson and Lane mess with playful beats, letting a couple of upbeat, rhythms (one that’s almost silly) develop into toe-tapping segments. It’s nice material for Jones to work with, and it makes for a bright closer to the album.
Henry Plotnick — Fields (Holy Mountain, 2013)
A mini-sensation at KZSU and KFJC in the Bay Area, and probably other college stations nationwide, Henry Plotnick has released an album-length keyboard suite that combines minimalist influences such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It’s compelling and bright, an admirable work. And Plotnick recorded it at the age of 11.
Piano/synth themes, washes of “strings,” and various sound effects combine to form what might seem, on the sruface, to be a new-agey symphony. Which by itself would be an accomplishment for an 11-year-old, but what sets it apart from the Mannheim Steamroller crowd is the insistent pulsing repetition that’s woven into most segments (hence the Glass/Reich comparisons) — it’s layers upon layers that build up slowly in each track, with counterpoint themes piling up to create the feel of a bustling department store at Christmas.
The melody can be a little cloying sometimes. “Field 1″ opens with some straightforward major-key anthems, like a warmup (although it quickly shifts into more interesting keyboard patterns). The video-game-sounding melody on “Field 8″ struck me as a bit trite, too — but as the counterpoint layers come in, the track becomes more wondrous.
Yes, I might be giving Plotnick extra points for his age. (And I hesitated to write about this at all, because I felt bad saying anything critical about an 11-year-old’s work. When I was 11, I barely knew how to program the TV remote. He’s writing symphonies. I don’t want to sap any of the joy he gets out of it. I honestly hope he doesn’t read his reviews, and I’m glad to find that he doesn’t seem to have a web site, although you can find a lot of him on YouTube, including this impressive hour-long piano improvisation.)
Whether he’s 11, 12, or 121, Plotnick has put together a professional album that works as one long concept. I like his sense of timing and drama in the transitions between the “Field” tracks. They don’t blend into each other either; it’s more that one idea stops and the next one starts without pause, and he’s engineered those spots well. Maybe it’s just something a radio DJ appreciates.
Plotnick can play, too. I liked the soloing of bells on “Field 3,” although they seem to fall behind the beat occasionally — which might be intentional, for all I know. “Field 5″ puts analog/Moog-sounding synth in the lead voice, soloing in a rubbery, taffy-pulling way:
For a segment with a more challenging sense of harmony, there’s the intro to “Field 4,” where the strings and bass move at funny angles for a tense, foreboding framework:
Fields did quite well at KZSU in August and topped the station’s overall chart for one week in October. (That’s the overall weekly chart; Plotnick beat out Neko Case.) I had nothing to do with any of that; it was mostly the proselytizing of DJ Miss Information. I hope Plotnick isn’t in a hurry to do another album — he has to spend time being a kid, after all — but I’m more than happy to spread the word about what he’s done on here.
(Unrelated aside: Anybody remember a duo album with Harold Budd and Andy Partridge called Through the Hill? It’s got surface similarities to Fields, down to the geographic album titles and the pervasive use of keyboards. They’re very different projects, though. Fields is more dense and expansive — a wider field of vision, you might say, courtesy of the technological advances of the last 20 years.)
It wasn’t until about 1995 that I really tapped into avant-garde music, so I have a romanticized image of the 1980s “downtown” scene. I arrived for the tail end of that era. The Knitting Factory was feeling the decay that would eventually transform it into a rock club. John Zorn and other avant-jazz stars were starting to become accepted by the critics (if not the general jazz public). Still, with lots of recent history to catch up on, I had a terrific adventure backtracking the careers of folks like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, and Jim Black.
Bang on a Can emerged from that era as well, but not quite from the same direction. Liner notes to Industry (Sony Classical, 1995) describe the 1987 debut of the Bang on a Can festival as an attempt to create a polyglot musical direction, one that bridged the tuxedos of uptown new-classical with the black T-shirts of the downtown scene.
It must have been an exciting time. I’ve certainly heard of Bang on a Can, and I’ve played the music on KZSU, but I’ve never really listened to much of their output. I recently amended that by cozying up with two earlier Bang on a Can All Stars CDs: Industry and Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Sony Classical, 1996)
Those recordings come from an intermediate stage, when the Bang on a Can Festival was lesser-known to the wider world but accepted enough to drive a recording deal with Sony. For me, the CDs were a good lesson in the group’s aesthetics and goals. In the past decade, I’ve heard a lot of new-classical music that seems to fit the Bang on a Can mold, where minimalism, virtuosity, and even improvisation collide, and now I know at least one force that helped get that message out.
Pounding It Out
In particular, a lot of new music is loaded up with percussion, sometimes to lend a rock-like heartbeat, sometimes to just plain bash and thrill. Industry shows how strong that trend already was prior to the ’90s. “Lick,” by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe, opens the album with strident blips that build into something like a rock rhythm (Mark Stewart’s electric guitar certainly helps push that suggestion). Built of various types of pounding that eventually emerge in melodic forms, it’s an engaging piece that grabs me like a good jazz track would. “The Anvil Chorus” is simply all percussion. David Lang composed the piece, then left Steven Schick to pick just which junk-percussion items would be making the sounds — a nice idea that acknowledges the importance of percussion and the wide flea market of sounds waiting to be tapped.
Two compositions take some inspiration from the early Soviet practice of trying to replicate pounding, steaming factory sounds in music. One is “Industry,” a somber Michael Gordon piece performed by cellist Maya Beiser. But the one that’s particularly effective is Annie Gosfield’s “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory.” It uses a sampling keyboard where some notes are “tuned” to industrial clangs or to muffled, prepared-piano clacking. That lends a percussive sound to the keyboard solo that starts the piece — and then, when the ensemble kicks in like a fast conveyer belt, the percussive piano, guitar, and bass sounds augment the outright percussion for what, indeed, comes across like the sound of a factory.
Pianist Lisa Moore gets another percussive turn on Frederic Rzewski‘s “Piano Piece No. IV.” While it’s got some rich melody and some serious classical-music flutters and runs, it’s also full of pecking, poking, and two-handed jackhammering. A regally lyrical passage might give way to a sudden near-tuneless pounding — followed by a very tuneful pounding in the higher registers, like a small spoon delicately cracking an egg.
Another element often found in modern classical music, and even in improvisation, is process. Louis Andriessen‘s “Hocketus” has two identical sextets playing one chord at a time in strict alternating patterns: Team A plays, then holds silent as Team B plays. On the CD, one sextet is in each speaker, so you get the ping-pong effect of the music bouncing back and forth, eventually in rapid patter that creates long rhythmic phrases. After several minutes, the music feels purely percussive. The exact notes being hit become secondary to their timing; by altering which instruments’ sounds dominate, Andriessen creates different sounds, but you’re not trying to follow any melodic thread, not until the saxophones start building one in the end.
I’ve seen Andriessen’s name but never realized he was such a patron saint for Bang on a Can’s cause, a composer “versed in the European modernist tradition but [who] recognized that rock ‘n’ roll existed,” as Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang (Bang on a Can’s founders) write in the Industry liner notes. To me, as a latecomer, Bang on a Can itself has always been a touchstone for new-classical music; it’s strangely refreshing to think of the outfit as the spunky new kid looking for sympathetic ears out in the classical world.
Just Rock, Dammit
At the root of it all is a desire to just plain rock out, as the Bang on a Can founders state on Cheating, Lying, Stealing:
In classical music, you’ll have this amazing musician, but he sits in a chair or stands still. There’s no visual element, no show. In rock bands, it’s all show. Since we began the Bang on a Can festivals in 1987, we have merged and synthesized these worlds, putting together programs of seemingly contradictory pieces: gutsy, funky, highly energetic, sound-world stretching music that takes in influences from rock, jazz, folk, world music, and technology.
The track where those principles particularly shine is “Arapua,” by Hermeto Pascoal — an exciting, screeching free-jazz tumult that lets the band really tear it up while never fully giving way to abandon. It’s driven by big piano chords and some searing electric guitar, including a whole patch of chord strumming that plays out like a solo. Evan Ziporyn goes nuts on bass clarinet above the tumult. That’s how it’s done!
It’s a comfort to listen to this music and read these liner notes knowing that Bang on a Can’s ideas and experiments won out in the end. Artists have embraced the idea of letting classical music absorb modern influences rather than the other way around, and the resulting works are rich and plentiful — you just have to find the right places to look. The Bay Area’s Switchboard Music Festival, which I’ve mentioned here but never actually attended, would be a perfect example. Now I can’t wait to go.
Battlehooch plays at Slim’s on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Battlehooch — Hot Lungs (Timberline, 2013)
Last year, the rock band Battlehooch talked about making their next full-length album their biggest effort yet, and they weren’t kidding. Hot Lungs is a terrific rock album packed with sonic surprises out of all the instruments, a polished take on the sextet’s usual avant-garde take on pop-rock. It’s catchy, driven, funky music that does indeed rock — in fact, it represents the directions I wish classic rock had taken.
As a band, Battlehooch is full of bouncing-off-walls craziness and twisted creativity. Even the simpler songs, such as the good ol’ rock rhythm of “Hope,” are full of creative tricks — a random sitar riff, or jangly rapid-fire guitar playing the chords, or a sudden shift into a minor key. It’s just a two-and-a-half minute song, but there’s a lot packed into it; that’s typical of this band, and they took special pride in loading up these kinds of production goodies on the album.
“Joke” is the standout song here — snappy and catchy, set up around three not-so-standard chords for a mildly sinister sound. I love the way the sax, keyboard, and bass peck out simple, stabbing octaves to outline the melody. “Pickin’ Fields” is another highlight, with its spaghetti-western guitar line set to a fast beat. (That song also has a video that they showed during a Slim’s concert a year ago.)
They turn up the drama for a more cerebral kind of rocking-out on tracks like “Yea, That,” which features a colossal break led by fast, heavy-thumping drums and “Calisteniks,” which comes across as a soaring, serious-rock-anthem kind of song.
On the more pop side, “Seraphim” uses tight harmony vocals, flute, and old-timey piano to produce an upbeat yet serious piece of post-Beatles pop. And funk attitude crops up on “This Patience” and “Organic,” which fill the sound with gloopy bass and spastic synth effects, respectively.
Battlehooch is a find. They’re good musicians and creative songwriters who want to rock out but don’t want to fit into any convenient mold. Hopefully, Hot Lungs, which came out in February, is getting them some well deserved attention.