Counting Narayana’s Cows

Tom Johnson composes pieces that are mathematical almost to the point of parody. The most extreme example is The Chord Catalogue, consisting of literally every possible chord in a particular octave. As I’ve noted before, he plays the chords in order, and the result, depending on your mood, is either amusing or maddening.

“Narayana’s Crows” tilts more toward the amusing side. It’s still a math piece, but it can be presented with some humor, and it builds a melody that’s dynamic and engaging.

I found this one on the Soundcloud page of Splinter Reeds, the all-reed quintet I wrote about a little while ago. The composition is based on an algebra problem credited to 14th-century Indian mathematician Narayana, and it has to do with the number of cows in a herd after successive generations of breeding. It’s a modified Fibonacci series, essentially.

The piece itself consists of a narrative (a little hard to hear in this recording) explaining the setup of the problem. The music itself consists of long and short notes representing each adult and calf in the herd — Morse code for cows. You get the idea pretty quickly.

As with all of Johnson’s compositions, the structure is clever and is a big part of the fun. I love his ideas, even the simple ones like The Chord Catalogue. In this case, though, there’s enough rhythmic and tonal variety to produce some interesting music as well — although I’m glad they didn’t do the 20 generations of Narayana’s original problem. The 17th generation alone consists of 872 notes and takes 3 minutes to play.

October 22, 2016 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

Shipwreck 4

Bennett / Johnston / Mezzacappa / RosalyShipwreck 4 (NoBusiness, 2016)

shipwreck4-stOakland’s Shipwreck Studios was devoured in a fire two months after this recording session, but its name will live on through this improvising quartet, featuring three ace Bay Area performers along with Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly.

In an improv context, familiarity can be productive, and you can hear it in the way this group just clicks. Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) are all integral to the Bay Area scene, and they’ve played together in many combinations, including the bands Bait & Switch and Go-Go Fightmaster (which are actually the same quartet under different contexts).

With Rosaly, they spin up some terrific jazz-influenced structures, from the gospel-tinged sunset mood of “The Face Consented, at Last” to the alternating muted/unmuted trumpet melody that Johnston develops at the end of “Bloom.”

“The Storm We See, the Storm We Saw” demonstrates the easy interaction the quartet enjoys. Rosaly lays down an easy, free groove, and the others jump on board — Mezzacappa laying down the mood of the rhythm, with Bennett and Johnston fitting tightly together with congenial thought lines. It all comes together so naturally.

There’s a tunefulness to many of the pieces.”Everything’s Coming Up Rosaly” builds from a quiet drum solo into a brief tumult that knits together like a tight composition, with the two horns following one another’s leads.

Intertwining, sleepy melodies characterize the first part of “When Not Night,” supported by appropriately sparse bass and drum parts. The track retains its quiet atmosphere as Bennett lifts off into a long circular-breathing run, burbling and babbling as part of the undertow, with Johnston gradually increasing the intensity in his trumpet phrases.

These kinds of rich musical conversations make Shipwreck 4 a strong album and (apologies to Rosaly) another nice document of the Bay Area scene.

October 21, 2016 at 6:44 am Leave a comment

Frantz Loriot and the Big Picture

Frantz Loriot Systematic Distortion OrchestraThe Assembly (OutNow, 2016)

loriot-assemblyThese are big-concept pieces executed by an 11-piece band including some stars of the Brooklyn out-jazz scene. They go through long stretches of improvising, and as you’d expect, they can produce quite a bit of sound.

But there’s organization: Each of the four mid-length tracks seems to focus on executing a central idea, a particular mood. Violist Frantz Loriot sends his group on an improvisatory mission every time, with volume and cluttery chaos applied to a purpose.

For example, I think of “Echo” as the “blare” piece. Starting from the rudiments of silence, it builds in the form of unison horn notes, serious and slow, backed by clattering percussion (produced by three drummers) and an ominous bass drone. It all builds to a violent climax, but for me, there’s a sense of stillness that pervades the piece.

“The Assembly,” on the other hand, is built to produce a dense rustle. Again starting from practically nothing, it builds up into a jumble of scraped and plucked strings, eventually adding up to an abrasive buzz almost like a noise piece, even though the Systematic Distortion Orchestra is an all-acoustic group.

“… Maybe … Still …” is an exercise in quietude, a poem spoken in dramatic tones by bassist Sean Ali against a backdrop of small, sound-based improvisation — a minimalist industrial vibe that continues in lower-case fashion after Ali has had his say.

And then there’s “Le Relais,” a percussive forest that gives way to the full orchestra, with plenty of emphasis on strings. An octave chord on Loriot’s viola signals the change to the new landscape of quiet rustles and night sounds.

The Assembly nicely pairs planned structure and the glorious chaotic blur of large-group improvising. Thanks to saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer and his OutNow label for giving it an outlet.

October 8, 2016 at 4:07 pm Leave a comment

Reconnaissance Fly Flies Again

Reconnaissance FlyOff by One (self-released, 2016)

reconfly-offby2The lighthearted and consciously nerdy prog group Reconnaissance Fly is back with an EP (available at Bandcamp) and a couple of shows: Oct. 15 at the Berkeley Arts Festival space and Oct. 26 at the the Octopus literary salon in Oakland.

The core elements are still there: Polly Moller’s operatic vocals (and occasional flute), Amanda Chaudhary’s jazzy electric piano, and bassist Tim Walters’ brainy, Canterbury-inspired prog compositions. He wrote four of the songs on Off by One, with Chaudhary contributing the fifth.

Some changes have been afoot. Some of it is in the personnel — since recording the EP, Chaudhary has left the band, replaced by Brett Carson on keys — and some in the songwriting.  Not all the lyrics are “poetry” taken from spam emails; “Everyone Sang” is a poem by British WWI solder and antiwar activist Sigfried Sassoon, set to a pensive, artsy melody.

And while prog is still at the band’s core, other musical styles are poking out. “Itzirktna” uses a mix of loungy jazz and a funky break to get its musical point across. “Dressed for Yesterday’s Weather” is an instrumental that opens with a pastoral Canterbury feel that includes Moller on flute, but it builds into a segment with a guitar line that’s a cross between surf jazz and courtly Renaissance melodies.

“Undeciphered” has a snappy, jazzy feel as it plays around with time signatures. The title apparently comes from the lyrics, which seem to be truly undeciphered jibberish that Moller happily chirps through.

Reconnaissance Fly certainly has a sense of humor and a touch of goofiness. But they produce seriously good prog rock with a side of jazzy swing. Great to see them back.

October 7, 2016 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

Plate o’ Shrimp: Wu Fei

Generally, it’s not surprising when I stumble across an artist’s name in multiple contexts. Musicians play in one another’s bands and on one another’s CDs, and they have musical interests that you and I might not associate them with. (Extreme example: Darrell Hall singing on Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure.)

Sometimes, though, a connection comes out of nowhere. It’s the cosmic unconsciousness at work.

I mentioned recently that I’d stumbled onto the music of Abigail Washburn, a banjo player whose music mixes Americana with a basket of Asian influences.

Back in 2010, I’d taken a chance on an sharp-looking CD by Wu Fei, who plays the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument similar to the Japanese koto. The cover caught my eye; the presence of Carla Kihlstedt and Fred Frith is what really sold me.

Not only have these two played together, but they also know one another going quite a ways back. They’re even reuniting for a one-off concert on Oct. 17 in New York.

Yes, it’s all part of the cosmic unconsciousness. By the way, it turns out Wu Fei is quite the bluegrass picker.

September 28, 2016 at 9:46 pm Leave a comment

A Trio of Many Faces

Rent Romus, Teddy Rankin-Parker, Daniel PearceLiR (Edgetone, 2016)


Early on in “SGLT1,” Teddy Rankin-Parker‘s cello tells you a lot about this improvised trio session. Scraping the bow so hard that it’s sometimes barely able to move, he emits metallic whinnying and teeth-grinding sounds, like industrial machinery being towed across a factory floor.

Rent Romus, meanwhile, chops away at clean, stern saxophone lines, cementing the mood, enhanced by the pockets of time where Rankin-Parker moves into jazzy bass-like work. Drummer Daniel Pearce sustains the energy with soft patters and fills.

Taking its name from both the Irish wind god and the field of genomics, LiR is a 35-minute mini-album or maxi-EP, consisting of five inspired pieces from a live set. Rankin-Parker and Pearce have recorded and performed as a duo and as part of Broken Trap Ensemble. Here, they’re matched with Romus to put a tinge of jazz onto their edgy explorations.

LiR is full of buzzy, noisy improvising, but the trio is also willing to build from elements of melody and swing. “GLUT4” opens with crystalline pinging on cello and some swinging jazz from Romus, played in a choppy, catchy vein. The short, closing “mRNA” is almost like a metal song, with deep cello pulses like power chords and crashing energy all around.

Quiet phases get their turn too, usually after a tumult like the gloriously bubbly opening of “tRNA,” where Romus flutters noisily on what sounds like an exotic reed instrument (but might be just a sax played with extra rasp). That track later settles into a near-trance mode, with a fast cello pulse against slow Romus solo, a somber soliloquy built from rich sax tones.

September 27, 2016 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

SFEMF: Electronic Animals and Painted Deserts

img_2479-tujurikkuja-cropMy daughter and I compared notes after seeing Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, two acts that were helping to close out the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

I felt that Merkey’s piece had more activity, while Tujurikkuja’s was more about drones and walls of sound. In terms of volume, I could deal with Merkey’s piece but wished for earplugs during Tujurikkuja’s.

My daughter had the opposite reaction: Her ears had a harder time with Merkey. And between the two pieces, she found Tujurikkuja’s drones more fascinating, while I’d thought Merkey’s piece was the richer experience. It just goes to show how differently music can be perceived.

Merkey’s piece, “Stained Air,” was a stroll through forests of different individual sounds, a journey tied together by a recurring element of a tone that would rise in pitch gradually — not the same tone every time, but the same concept of a “revving-up” sound. (Since this was the first Sunday of the NFL season, it was hard not to think of kickoffs.)

According to the program notes, the bulk of the piece was built of tones that were changing, according to pre-set rules, during the course of the piece. The music did seem to move in phases, clustering certain “types” of noises while also never overlapping too many at once. One phase I remember in particular had springy, squelching sounds like small electronic animals making their puzzled way around the landscape.

Markey built the piece for a 4.2-speaker setup to create some stereo effects — side-to-side swooshes, for instance. Being over to the side, we lost some of the effect, but we could still catch the sense of an added dimension.

Tujurikkuja (the J’s are pronounced like H’s, Spanish-style) put a descriptive poem in the program described a scorching hot desert (First clue: The opening line, “It is hot.”) But my daughter and I found the music evoking wide, dark caverns and glassy walls of sound — it felt cold, not in an emotional sense but in a literal sense.

Either way, theirs was a more drone-based set, although there was plenty of sound-shifting, with new elements coming and going. They ended it by simply walking off the stage, allowing the final droney buzz to continue on its own, in darkness, until they cut it off remotely.

These were two thoughtful and contrasting pieces and made for a good program. My daughter admitted she wouldn’t seek out this kind of music, but she paid attention through both pieces, and we talked about both of them quite a bit afterwards. Therein lies the real power of music and the arts.

September 17, 2016 at 12:57 pm Leave a comment

Older Posts


  • Blogroll

  • Feeds