Double Dose of Frith

Fred Frith and Barry GuyBackscatter Bright Blue (Intakt, 2015)
Lotte Anker and Fred FrithEdge of the Light (Intakt, 2015)


Listening to these sets of duo improvisation, I was struck by how often Fred Frith plays the role of background instigator, putting colors and scrim behind his partner. This makes sense — Frith, in both cases, is the one with the rhythm instrument and the electronic gizmos. He’s got more options for painting the scenery.

Of course, I’m generalizing; Frith often takes a front-line role too. And in general, duo sessions such as these are meant to be meetings of equals.

But alongside Lotte Anker (sax) on Edge of the Light, Frith often does feel like the one focusing on the shading and toning to craft the mood behind Anker’s aggressive, choppy style. It’s easy for a listener’s ear to gravitate toward Anker’s sax as the “lead” line, as on the short “Non-Precision Approach Procedure,” where she carves crooked trails accompanied by Frith in noisemaker mode, rattling and bashing.

She and Frith seem more balanced on “Run Don’t Hide,” where Anker and Frith combine to create a sustained buzzing tension. “Anchor Point” even has Frith doing some traditional strumming, albeit to an irregular rhythm, coaxing Anker’s solo forward into faster and buoyant territory.

The Ankur album ends with “Hallucinating Angels,” a high-stress shimmer where Frith is laying down ghostly waves against Anker’s slow, jagged tones on sax. It’s an unsettling faux peacefulness that builds into a slowly maddening chatter.

As you’d expect, Backscatter Bright Blue has a different sound, a strings-on-strings tussle where the “nearness” of the instruments — the fact that they’re close relatives — makes for a more equitable pairing. As with Edge of the Light, the sound aims for cragged improvisation, with Guy’s bass often voicing a percussive crunch or high-strung bowed tones. I still sometimes feel as if Guy is doing the “main” solo with Frith adding the depth and color, but their sounds intertwine substantially.

The combination of effects, guitar loops, and extended playing sometimes make it hard to tell who’s doing what. Here’s a patch of “Moments of Many Lives” where Frith takes a lead voice, but overall, you can hear the roles blending into one another.

“Moments” is one of two epic, roughly 20-minute constructions on Backscatter Bright Blue. Later on, it includes a passage where Fright and Guy combine in a manic, minimalist babble. The piece culminates in stacks of chattering guitar loops with Guy’s fierce bowing and Frith’s guitar hammering soaring overhead.

“Where the Cities Gleam in Darkness” is a fascinating study in, well, darkness: Guy goes into attack mode with thumping, clattering bass made more abrasive by Frith’s guitar treatments. Later, Guy uses the bow for a slower but equally dark passage backed by crunching, desolate guitar effects.

Finally, there’s a special place in my heart of “The Circus Is a Song of Praise,” which enters as a mutually destructive jackhammering but ends with this faux-music-box chiming and an eerie aftertaste.

back frith x2 2

July 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

Myra Melford: Videos from The Stone

Berkeley-based pianist Myra Melford is uploading a series of professionally produced videos from her March 2015 residency at The Stone in New York. They’ll feature one song from each of the 12 concerts, spanning 10 different bands that represent most of her career.

“I’ve just gone from the next thing to the next thing, and I’ve never really looked back,” Melford says in the introductory video. That’s what makes The Stone’s residencies so special. An artist has the option to re-present a spectrum of work that might otherwise never resurface.

I think about the rows and rows of CDs we have at KZSU, and how many will never be played again. Some artists don’t want to rehash old ground, which is fine, but others have back catalogues that deserve another chance on stage. It always felt good to give some air time to an album that I knew hadn’t been played in years. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to this series of videos.

Melford’s career has been tremendous: bouncy and edgy jazz from her Chicago days; Indian influence and harmonium with the Be Bread band; sensitive duets with Marty Ehrlich and more recently Ben Goldberg; and the spiritual and soaring beauty of her recent solo album, Life Carries Me This Way. The dozen-or-so videos from The Stone won’t cover it all, but there’s already a rich variety painted in the first few installments.

Here’s a snappy duet with drummer Allison Miller:

And here, a trio performance for departed violinist Leroy Jenkins, played not in mourning tones, but with verve and crackle. Nicole Mitchell is on flute and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

This one is Dialogue, Melford’s duo with clarinetist Ben Goldberg. They perform Melford’s thoughtful “Chorale” followed by Goldberg’s swinging “9 + 5.”

The videos present one song per concert and seem to be arriving in the order performed. So the next installment should be Melford’s trio with Miya Masaoka (koto) and Mary Halvorson (guitar), and the twelfth and final one will feature that sparkling Chicago trio with Lindsay Horner (bass) and Reggie Nicholson (drums). Can’t wait for that one.

July 9, 2015 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Yes, I’m the Guy Who Likes Tales from Topographic Oceans

Tales_From_Topographic_OceansI didn’t realize Chris Squire had been diagnosed with cancer, so his death this week took me completely by surprise. He really was my favorite member of Yes. His thundering, mile-a-minute bass lines, sometimes indistinguishable from a guitar, were a hallmark of the band’s sound. As has been noted elsewhere, he’ll be missed.

Jason Crane — who’s interviewed literally hundreds of musicians for his podcast, The Jazz Session — decided to celebrate Squire’s life by listening to Yes’ entire studio catalogue. Brave man; Tormato is in there, after all. He tweeted the whole experience, which apparently clocked in at something like 17 hours.

But that got me to thinking about what I ought to listen to, because I suddenly realized it’s been years since I really listened to any Yes. Fragile and The Yes Album are obvious touchstones, but I’ve got a soft spot for Going for the One (which included “Parallels,” which I think was the first Yes song credited solely to Squire) and even Relayer (maybe just because it seems so obscure an album).

I settled for a YouTube spin of “Close to the Edge,” live from 1977. Difficult to hear Squire’s bass parts, but it was good to hear after all these years.

Then I remembered Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Even though Tormato, like, exists, I get the feeling Topographic Oceans is the band’s most reviled album. It’s a double album with four tracks — one song per side — and it’s a concept album, where the concept comes from a footnote in an eastern-religion book Jon Anderson was reading. Granted, it’s a “lengthy” footnote about shastric scriptures that cover vast expanses of life: religion, art, music, architecture, social living. It’s probably pages long.

The pretentiousness of it all is what turns people off, I think. But to me, this album sings. “The Revealing Science of God” (a.k.a. Side One) stands up to any of the band’s other side-long pieces. It’s got a dramatic intro buildup that really works, and it’s even got a catchy riff to hang onto. Side Three, “The Ancient,” is where things get a little weird, with a chaotic rustle of a jam interrupted by Anderson speak-singing what appear to be various ancient names for the sun. But even that part works for me.

I’ll admit to some outside influence. Topographic Oceans is best enjoyed on vinyl, because of that gorgeous Roger Dean cover art and the gatefold packaging with all the lyrics splayed out. It’s a beautiful album.

Then there’s the way that old songs unlock memories. I bought Topographic Oceans during a particuarly good summer at home during my college years, when our high school clique was spending a lot of time together. The hot weather made it hard to sleep, so I’d open the bedroom window and listen to records in the moonlight.

So… yeah. I’m going to give that one a spin.

squire-fishoutOf course, the more direct way to fete Squire is to play Fish out of Water, his excellent 1975 solo album. It stands up well against Yes’ own catalogue; if you’re a fan, you owe it to yourself to hear this one for its mix of songwriting and instrumental rigor. “Hold Out Your Hand” is a solid, tough-handed song with prog shadings, and “Lucky Seven” is a catchy, low-key 7/8 jam (try not to think of The Who’s “Eminence Front”). And I really enjoy the proggy jam on “Silently Falling.”

Squire would probably prefer that people remember some of his more recent work, too, but I didn’t keep up with any of it, other than hearing bits of Squackett, his band with Steve Hackett. As you might expect, it’s got an AOR sheen rather than any prog magic.

So, those would be my picks. Squire deserves a more thorough tribute than just spinning “The Fish” again. And if you must investigate Tormato, I’ll admit that I like “Release Release,” and Squire’s own “Onward” is a pretty little lullabye of a song.

June 30, 2015 at 11:53 pm 1 comment

Wisdom, Balance, Purity, Peace: A Choral Harmony in Biggi Vinkeloe’s Jade

Biggi Vinkeloe New Spiritual Music (Futura, 2015)

Biggi Vinkeloe -- Jade (Futura, 2015)Jade is an ambitious blend of jazz, abstract improvisation, and classical sacred music. Recorded at the Organ Studio at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, the album features sax and trombone echoing regally against a backdrop of honest-to-goodness choral hymns, performed by a church organ and the 10-woman Volcanic Choir, led by mezzo-soprano Maria Forsström.

In slow movements, as if to cherish the sounds and moods being created, the album blends its influences beautifully, conveying the “wisdom, balance, purity, and peace” that the jade gemstone stands for, as described in Biggi Vinkeloe‘s liner notes.

Vinkeloe (sax/flute) instigated the project, enlisting organist Karin Nelson and trombonist Francois Lemonier as the other two instrumentalists. You get a taste of the project’s “jazz” side right away as Vinkeloe and Lemonnier play a straight duet of Mingus’ “Ecclusiastics.”

The overall mood of Jade is better represented by the title track, though. It’s a slow, comforting tune — gentle clouds in a blue sky. Nelson sets the foundation with some gentle chords as backdrop to solos that include some particularly soaring passages by Vinkeloe.

That piece provides a modern foil to the choral songs such as “Adoro Te,” an anonymously penned composition from the 17th century, drawn from text by Thomas Aquinas. As on most of the tracks drawn from antiquity, the choir does its angelic work, then steps aside while Vinkeloe and Lemonnier improvise against the church organ chords. It’s the same song structure as a jazz tune. The effect is particularly nice on “Vidi Aquam,” another anonymous piece, where the soloing remains reverently slow but strikes up a strong sense of interplay and swing.

From “Vidi Aquam,” here’s an idea of how the choir and sax co-exist:

Until now, I’ve only heard Vinkeloe in improv settings. Bits of that world do appear — in the squirrely flute-trombone-organ improv of “Iuxta,” for instance. One of the major pieces is the 9-minute “Slowlyness,” where the choir joins the freely improvised set for some ghostly whooshing. It’s playful at first but, as scripted by Vinkeloe, builds to a dramatic and outright scary climax, dark and gothic.

I worry about bringing up the choir and the early-music references, because some free-jazz listeners might pre-judge the album to be dull. And you do have to absorb the music on its own reflective terms.

But there’s also a sense of play, in the jazz/blues shades that permeate the album and occasionally get to take over.

Lemonnier’s “Escargoiseau Blues” is indeed a blues, with the church organ playing the chords in long tones, as if elevating the blues themselves to sacred status. It’s a fine soloing platform for the two horns. Another Lemonnier song, “Heavenly Blues,” puts a jazzy spin on the choir, with an intro of bell-ringing vocals spinning little seventh-chord arpeggios. The singers then go all Andrews Sisters to back up some straight jazz soloing. It’s fun.

Then there are the bigger, heavier choral pieces, which end each of Jade‘s two CDs. “Hemlig stod jag en morgon,” a Swedish folk song by Pers Karin Andersdotter (1834-1912), becomes a solemn call-and-response between mezzo-soprano Forsström and The Volcanic Choir. It carries a regal air with that sound of medieval cathedrals. “Den Iyssnande Maria” is a heavy song by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, lent a touch of peaceful melodicism by Lemonnier’s trombone at the end.

Jade is a revelation. It’s given me a new perspective on the beauty of sacred music, showing me that those sounds aren’t necessarily so far away from the modern world.

June 14, 2015 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

RIP Ornette

Ornette_ColemanWKCR is playing one full week of Ornette Coleman music, right now. It ends Wednesday, June 17, at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time.

The Columbia radio station is known for playing day-long tributes to artists on their birthdays — and for this kind of massive marathon when one of the greats leaves us.

So, now’s the time to tune in WKCR, and listen, and remember (or learn). They’re playing things from all over Ornette’s career. A few minutes, it was the familiar crooked-line non-bop partying of Ornette’s familiar alto sax. Right now, there are some dense, symphonic strings that might be part of Skies of America.

Here’s a snippet of the station’s blog entry about the marathon:

Join us as we honor the life, the genius, and the work of Ornette Coleman, who passed away Thursday, June 11th at the age of 85 in Manhattan. Born on March 9th 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman would become an important voice and major innovator in the avant-garde jazz movement, with a career that spanned over 55 years. It is with a heavy heart that we announce the Ornette Coleman Memorial Broadcast. The Broadcast will be continuous from Thursday, June 11th until Wednesday, June 17th at 9:30 AM. All regular programming will be preempted during this time.

Coleman shaped the future of jazz. He questioned preconceived notions of what jazz was and what it could be. It is important not only to recognize Coleman for his music, but to acknowledge the abstract and theoretical of the philosopher and avant-gardist that was Ornette Coleman. He is a beacon of light in history symbolizing pure originality. 

… Ornette Coleman, the pioneering alto saxophonist and composer, will forever be remembered and the waves he made will never cease to ripple.

The photo, by the way, comes from the web site of musician Sam Newsome, where he’s posted a 1997 interview of Ornette conducted by Jacques Derrida.

June 13, 2015 at 12:37 am Leave a comment

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.

But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from Meanwhile, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.

It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.

The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.

Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell.

Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.

I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).

Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.

May 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

microspoke and the Day of Noise Archive

Here’s a new Bay Area duo in the “lower-case” vein of quiet improvisation. Quoting directly from the Bay Improviser calendar:

Thu 5/21 9:30 PM Studio Grand [3234 Grand Ave, Oakland]

microspoke is a new duo project from Phillip Greenlief and Tim Perkis that uses quiet, microscopic noise as a landscape to explore highly detailed electro-acoustic improvisation. the duo made their west coast premiere at this year’s KZSU’s Day of Noise.

… Here’s the awesome part: KZSU recorded the 2015 Day of Noise and posted all 24 hours to So you can get a preview of microspoke. They’re No. 28 on the program, listed under Greenlief and Perkis’ names.

It’s a half-hour set, sometimes prickly and abrasive, especially from the saxophone side, and sometimes calm and ambient. Actually, “ambient” might be the wrong word, considering the music changes character and direction readily — this is a dynamic set of improvisation, using the light touch of restraint to keep the mood spectrum on the contemplative side.

Skip to around 13:20 for a nice passage that surges to a high point, then retreats back into small sounds. When Greenlief moves into small scribbles, Perkis responds with some rubber-band sine-wave noises — a nice choice that displays his ability to wring musicality out of his laptop sounds.

Go have a listen to microspoke and more:

And yes, the duo will be playing on May 21 in Oakland, as noted above. Also on the bill is the trio of Amy Reed (electric guitar), Phillip Greenlief (woodwinds), and Shanna Sordahl (cello and electronics).

May 6, 2015 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

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