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 Leave a 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 onf “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

John Lundbom: Big Five’s Big Fifth

Jon Lundbom & Big Five ChordJeremiah (Hot Cup, 2014)

jeremiahBouncing, off-kilter bop meets avant- garde smarm in the world of guitarist Jon Lundbom’s Big Five Chord. Led by guitarist Lundbom and featuring Jon Rabagon (soprano sax) and Moppa Elliott (bass) of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the band mixes up styles nicely on Jeremiah, their fifth studio album.

It comes to an extreme on “Lick Skillet,” where the opening solo by guest trombonist Sam Kulik consists of a helicopter impersonation — a growl that starts low and quiet, then buzzes over your head. It’ll send jazzheads off the rails, but it’s followed by a pleasant faux-somber theme and a flute solo (Justin Wood, another addition to the core five) against an odd bass rhythm and some hip guitar comping. It turns into real jazz, if you want to put it that way.

Overall, the album displays a coherent, modern take on traditional jazz ideas, from the faux-bebop swagger of “The Bottle” to the gentle swing and soulful sax solo of “First Harvest.” The dichotomy between toe-tapping jazz and out-there improvisation sometimes has an oil-and-water quality, but the surprises aren’t so out-of-bounds as to be absurd, and the blending of styles sometimes works magic. “Scratch Ankle” is a pleasant and pretty song with a fairly fast swing to it, but when it comes time for the solo, multiple horns start pecking and end up in a free-improv free-for-all — and it all fits together.

The album ends with one live track, “Screamer,” where Dan Monaghan’s drumming turns Lundbom’s guitar solo into a high-speed chase.

Here’s a split-personality passage from the initially calm “Frog Eye.” Irabagon goes nuts on sax, accompanied by some patient chording from Lundbom (whose own solo heats up later on, after this excerpt ends).


May 3, 2015 at 9:39 am Leave a comment

Some Overlooked ESP-Disk Gems (RIP Bernard Stollman)

esp-front-cropWith the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.

During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.

You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.

The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.

zitro-cropJames ZitroZitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.

Sonny SimmonsMusic from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.

New Ghost: Live Upstairs at Nick's (ESP-Disk, 2006)New GhostLive Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.

Ellis MarsalisRuminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.

April 26, 2015 at 9:01 am 1 comment

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