Ochs-Robinson Duo

Drummer Donald Robinson will be playing on Thursday, April 2, in a duo with saxophonist Marco Eneidi at the Luggage Store Gallery (998 Market St., San Francisco).

Ochs-Robinson DuoThe Throne (Not Two, 2014)

Ochs-Robinson Duo: The Throne (Not Two, 2014)In purely physical terms, this sax/drums duo is a stripped-down version of Larry OchsSax and Drumming Core, a trio that included Scott Amendola as a second drummer. But there’s a special element to a duo. It becomes a straight dialogue, a two-way interview, and when the players have known each other as long as Ochs and Donald Robinson have, you end up sitting in on an enlightened conversation.

Ochs is well known for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, not to mention his solo work. Robinson, a fixture of the Bay Area scene, is a free-jazz drummer well steeped in the sound of the ’60s, and he deserves a lot more recognition for his work. His sound is characterized by a deliciously light touch — tight, delicate rolls on the snare and small but effective touches on the toms. It’s a subtle approach that can build to a blistering attack when the moment warrants.

A great example is “Red Tail,” which opens with a Robinson blast and a fast groove, Ochs providing a floating, warbly statement on the sax.

 
“Breakout,” starts with a funky, catchy snap and builds into a frenzied attack. “The Throne” is another high-energy track, opening with Ochs ping-ponging some riffs, digging deep while Robinson frames the choppy melody.

Much of the album is characterized by Ochs’ tart and aggressive sound on tenor sax and some sopranino. On the quieter side, “Failure” has a very calm, processional feel — an elegant exercise in restraint — while “Song 2″ has a touch of Mississippi blues in its casually sparse step.

 
“Open to the Light” is worth a special mention, as it’s dedicated to Glenn Spearman, the late tenor saxophonist who helped drive the Bay Area scene in the ’90s. Ochs and Robinson both played in Spearman’s Double Trio, and Spearman and Robinson were a duo themselves back in the day. “Open to the Light” is brisk and hopeful, an uplifting nod to a kindred spirit, with a touch of the kind of soaring, heavy tumult that Spearman was so good at building.

 
Robinson will be playing in a duo format with Marco Eneidi, a close friend of Spearman’s, on April 2 in San Francisco, as noted above. Robinson and Eneidi have played together quite often, including in a session called Straight Lines Skewed — which is, to my knowledge, the only album that has Robinson listed as the leader. It’s a trio session with Lisle Ellis on bass, an improvised jazz session that reveres silence as much as energy. Worth seeking out; Downtown Music Gallery seems to still have copies, as does Klompfoot (the former Cadence Jazz store).

March 29, 2015 at 5:36 pm Leave a comment

Screaming in Color

HypercolorHypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)

Hypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)It’s easy to categorize Hypercolor as a prog power trio, one with metal leanings in the blistering guitar. But drummer Lukas Ligeti (yes, the classical percussionist; all of these guys have roots in jazz/classical) describes the band’s style as something looser. It’s about “learning complex arrangements and playing them back completely wrong,” he states in the press flier.

The music still has a proggy feel and a sense of structure; this isn’t the kind of free-form quasi-rock you’ll find on Mirakle, the Tzadik album that pitted Derek Bailey’s alien syntax with the grooves of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. But as Ligeti promises, Hypercolor breaks from the prog mold by foregoing pinpoint complexity for jamming and discovery.

The music still retains a rhythm and a spiky, edgy rock/jazz sound with, as bassist James Ilgenfritz explains it, a dash of no-wave attitude. Here, for example, is the ending of “Squeaks:”

 
The structures aren’t hidden. You can hear the bluesy roots in “Transit” and the pop-song flow behind “Chen,” at least before Eyal Maoz‘s guitar shifts into noisy hyperdrive. The relatively mellow “Ernesto, Do You Have a Cotton Box?” works from something resembling a country/roots framework, chopped up into incorrect measures and backed by Ligeti’s indifferent torrent of snare and hi-hat; it has the sound of a song falling apart.

“Palace” even opens in an outright punk/rockabilly spasm. Fun!

 
Hypercolor, the album, has its quiet side too. “Forget” is a pretty tune, although it bursts into an anthemic, thundering solo, and “Quixotic” is a slice of jazz introspection, liquidy and patient.

Then there’s the powerful 11-minute epic, “Little Brother.” Abandoning the abandon of other tracks, it digs into some reverent guitar riffing. The tone is serious but aggressive:

 
This is an album with a lot of facets and some blurred boundaries. Hypercolor, the band, has many more facets than just ear-splitting rock — but the ear-splitting is a lot of fun on its own.

If you’re in NYC, catch Hypercolor at The Stone on April 3, part of Lukas Ligeti’s week-long residency.

March 24, 2015 at 4:48 pm Leave a comment

Oh By the Way

A side-effect of this blog’s longevity is the way it reflects changes in my personal life. As the kids have gotten older, and their activities (school and otherwise) have become more serious, it’s left me with less time for music. My radio gig was the first thing to go, and lately, I’ve cut down on listening to music and, especially, going out to shows.

I don’t like blogs that are about themselves, which is why I’m burying this entry amid a small flurry of activity — the point being, the day job has eased up a bit, allowing me to get to a backlog of reviewing and listening. Seemed like a good juncture to speak up and say, “I’m still here.”

This is a normal aspect of online life, one that people are discovering slowly as we all get older. I’m thinking in particular of Real Life Comics, which began posting daily at the end of 1999 but had to slow down as the artist’s real real life got more complicated (and that was before he and his wife had a kid.) He still manages to soldier on, and so will I.

March 24, 2015 at 4:43 pm 1 comment

XYQuartet: Jazz and Classical Intersect in Italy

XYQuartetXY (Nusica, 2014)

XY Quartet: XY (Nusica, 2014)The combination of vibraphone and sax gives XYQuartet an airy feel, tracing geometric lines with a modern shade of swing.

That’s the idea, of course; the name represents the axes of classical and jazz. It also brings to mind the cross-currents of Nicola Fazzini’s saxophone and Saverio Tasca’s vibes, representing the lead voices (although it’s Fazzini and bass guitarist Alessandro Fedrigo who founded the band).

It’s an enjoyable set of cleanly modern tunes, mostly upbeat. You’ll hear touches of minimalism and the complexity of serialism, but on most tracks, there’s always somebody — often, drummer Luca Colussi — infusing some healthy jazz abandon into the music. A good example is “Spazio Angusto,” with its stark 11/8 briff backed by light, swingy drumming.


On the more classical side, you’ve got “H2O,” which opens as a nearly academic exercise in rhythm but quickly veers into a jazzy phase, and “Tatami,” an exercise in futuristic minimalism with a dose of wide-open free improv.

Overall, though, the jazz axis tends to win out.  “Futuritmi” is a pumping straight-jazz tune built around an odd time signature, which seems appropriately quirky. “Doppio Sogno” likewise falls far to the jazz side of the chart:


XY and a previous album, Idea F, are available for free download at nusica.org. Nusica is a nonprofit, so a tip or even a CD purchase would be a nice gesture. You can also hear the band on Soundcloud.

March 23, 2015 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Look Who Likes Sun Ra and Nels Cline

With a hat tip to music critic Richard Scheinin via Twitter some weeks ago, here’s Marshall Crenshaw with his shopping finds at Amoeba Records:

I like Crenshaw. Like many fans my age, I remember his self-titled album well, but I also own and really enjoy Jaggedland, from 2009. That purchase was the eventual result of being reintroduced to Crenshaw by, of all things, the DKT version of MC5. I happened to catch their tour circa 2004 and had not known, until then, how well Crenshaw can bring it on lead guitar.

You also have to like anyone who titles a live album, I’ve Suffered for My Art, Now It’s Your Turn.

To give away the surprises in the above video: Crenshaw pulls a Sun Ra album first, followed shortly by the Nels Cline Singers‘ latest, Macroscopic.

Lots of rock musicians have tastes much deeper than we get to see, but it’s still fun to find out someone from that sphere enjoys some flavors of creative music. That made my day. To return the favor, I’ve gone and checked out the west-coast jazz of Buddy Collette, another of Crenshaw’s picks.

March 22, 2015 at 3:50 pm Leave a comment

Trance Mission Rides Again

DSCN7540-trance-mission-cut

A side note to that Fred Frith Trio show back in January …

While I missed Jack o’ the Clock, I did catch the show’s other opening act, a longtime Bay Area favorite called Trance Mission. It’s a world-music kind of trio whose grooves combine a droney sound with danceable beats — insistent music with a relaxed vibe.

Sometimes a quartet, Trance Mission has always featured Stephen Kent on didjeridu and percussion and Beth Custer on clarinets, vocals, and sundry (a bit of trumpet for this particular show, surprisingly enough). The latest version also included Peter Valsamis on the drum kit.

Of course, Kent and Custer have been involved in myriad other projects over the years. Trance Mission was a ’90s thing for both of them, but they still convene the group every now and again. I’d never seen them before that show at Slim’s, where I got a taste of what I’d missed all these years.

The didjeridoo allows for vocals and tongue slaps, so Kent often became the rhythm as well as the backing bass drone, freeing Valsamis to sprinkle the brighter colors of the drum kit. Kent also used a baby cello as an ersatz guitar on a couple of songs, for a different sound and a fun effect.

It was a really good time. I’m glad I finally caught up with them.

Trance Mission Duo (Kent and Custer) will be performing on March 21 at Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St, San Francisco).

Kent will be performing with the Del Sol String Quartet at the Other Minds Festival on March 6, at the SF Jazz Center (201 Franklin Street, San Francisco).

February 22, 2015 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Ken Thomson’s Slow/Fast

Ken Thomson and Slow/FastSettle (NCM East, 2014)

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

I’m familiar with Ken Thomson because of Gutbucket, the sharp-attitude quartet that uses his sax as an offensive weapon. Their shows are full of exciting, pinpoint jazz, but they’re also raucous events, more rocking than a lot of rock shows, with Thomson drenched in sweat before the set is half over.

Slow/Fast isn’t like that — and yet, it’s still got Thomson’s personality and presence. The group, shaped like a jazz quintet, is a showcase for Thomson’s compositions, which occupy that zone straddling jazz and modern music. The writing is full of elegant and complex melodies, sometimes seasoned with a warm, jazzy solo.

Some pieces almost feel like games, built up from an exacting geometry. I want to say “minimalism,” but it’s closer to proggy jazz; in either case, the hallmark is a not-quite-regular construct of time signatures.

As an example, “Welding for Freedom” starts off with a scripted dialogue of sax and trumpet statements, short blips like a puzzle. Then it bursts into this pretty, flowing theme — a not-quite-waltz — and gives way to a warm and blossoming trumpet solo from Russ Johnson.

“We Are Not All in This Together” likewise pairs bass clarinet and single-note guitar in unison stop/start lines, tracing a winding path accompanied by slow, earthy bass from Adam Armstrong.

That gives way to a spider-fingered guitar solo by Fender, backed only by Armstrong’s bass and Fred Kennedy’s drums — a sublimely jazzy segment.

“Settle,” the bright and forceful title track, is the only one that reminds me of Gutbucket. It features Thomson in a darting solo against a hyperactive rhythm section: Armstrong’s brisk walking bass and Kennedy’s light, fast cymbal taps. It’s got fuzzed-out guitar and an aggressive stance overall, and the Spanish-tinged, two-horn theme is bold and dramatic. (The whole track is up on Soundcloud — be warned that the audio starts automatically.)

Finally, one of my favorite moments of zen on Settle comes during “Spring,” where a long bass solo gives way to the butterfly-flapping theme as played by Thomson and Johnson. The fingerwork is quick and sounds difficult, but the mood is airy and slow, very much evoking the feeling of a sleepy spring meadow.

February 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

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