Zeena Parkins Gets Back to Basics

Zeena ParkinsThree Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics (Good Child, 2017)

zeenaparkins-threeharpsI tend to encounter Zeena Parkins primarily as a composer and electronics performer, including electronically enhanced harp. But of course, her base instrument is the harp itself, so it’s a change of pace to hear so much of the unadorned acoustic harp on Three Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics.

Harps are good for spinning a sense of wonder and calm, and you get plenty of that on Three Harps. But you also get lots of creative, non-traditional playing, even before the electronic enhancements and tuning forks come in. The simple plinking of harps, played aggressively by Kristen Theriault, Megan Conley, and principal harpist Nuiko Wadden, plus Parkins herself on occasion, yields some engaging results with an overarching tunefulness built by minimalist, abstract strings of melody.

“Muted” starts with a lively, tickling pulse. What keeps it rather quiet is the nature of the harps themselves, but the track is still full of moments such as a sudden run of notes from one harp, or small strumming motions — musically percussive slaps — coloring one short segment.

On “Determined,” Parkins (or possibly Ikue Mori) adds splashes of electronics consisting of sampled harps compacted into small splashes of gibberish. “Mouse” then introduces a truly new array of sounds: Vibrato, percussive scraping, and a gray electronic roar join a backdrop of scurrying, minimalist flickers on the untreated harps.

The contemplative “Tuning Forks” is, of course, where the tuning forks come in, played by Mori. They’re played straight, creating shimmering tones that are so abstract as to feel almost tuneless at times. The overtones linger, creating a contemplative backdrop for Parkins’ swampy array of electronics.

Based on music written for a 2008 dance projectThree Harps is a nice showcase for technique and compositional approach, and it works as a single, coherent piece — it has that narrative thread to it.

May 27, 2017 at 11:20 am Leave a comment

My Inner Prog Geek

76This blog was never supposed to have much prog-rock content, as I’d left that phase of life behind. But I’m starting to listen again, just a little.

What I’m finding is that the things that ultimately turned me away from prog — the pretentious air and melodrama; the worship of bombastic musicianship; the lyrical posing or the smug “I’m such a misfit” self-pity or (worst of all) outright misogyny — are still there. I didn’t imagine them. But some of the musicianship is honestly good, and some of the chording, particularly in the Canterbury styles, is still attractive and nostalgic to me.

I’ve been exploring in fits and starts, inspired by the terrific output of the band Knifeworld. A genre search on Bandcamp turned up Thieves’ Kitchen, with an appropriately British sound and an honest-to-goodness mellotron in their arsenal. I’ve always disliked mellotron, I have to admit, but Thieves’ Kitchen does a great job re-creating that keyboard-heavy style that’s all airy and pretty and melodic. I’ve been enjoying their Clockwork Universe album quite a lot.

 
The real tipping point, though, was Ready Player One. In parallel with revisiting my prog roots, I’ve been rediscovering my sci-fi fandom.

I’ve avoided sci-fi for a lot of the same reasons as prog, and in both cases I’ve gravitated toward things that are more ambitious and, for my taste, better (jazz and literary fiction, respectively). The sci-fi tide returned two Christmases ago, when I was under duress to fill out a wish list (I have relatives who are way into Christmas gifting) and started throwing books onto it. I’d just seen William Gibson’s The Peripheral at a bookstore, so — what the heck.

rpoThat book turned out to be a fun ride. So, knowing that I liked in Gibson’s writing in general, I finally picked up a copy of Neuromancer, more than 30 years late. And it blew me away.

I’d be lying if I said I voraciously dived into sci-fi at that point, but I began considering it more and ended up reading Ready Player One at the behest of friends. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure I got to it before the movie came out.

Ready Player One is by no means deep or even well plotted. But it’s fun, and it leans heavy on nostalgia from the mid-1980s of my high school years. The way the book serves up references to TV, movies, music, and video games is almost pandering — but I didn’t care. I devoured it greedily.

And after reading the second half of the book in one sitting, I stayed up all night listening to Rush.

You know what? Rush holds up, all these years later.

 
Now, if you have a problem with Neil Peart’s over-cerebral lyrics or Geddy Lee’s voice, I can’t help you. They’re part of the package. But Lee’s bass, now that I’m actually listening, is phenomenal. Peart’s drumming is still over-the-top, but it’s awe-inspiring in a Cirque-du-Soliel way and richly creative. Alex Lifeson’s guitar chords are still dense and a little brain-bending (check out his patient dissection of “Tom Sawyer,” spelling out exactly what those chords are) and his solos still excite me. And I’m relishing the experimental touches that I used to ignore — like the patient synths and drums stretches on “The Weapon,” or the entire song “Red Lenses,” which sounded so weird back then but so perfectly normal today.

Now I’m playing Rush during car trips. The kids don’t seem impressed.

412And so it continues. Last week, I found myself in Austin. There wasn’t time to visit Waterloo, but my hotel was within walking distance of a spot called Encore Records, a store specializing in metal, with racks devoted to other genres including prog. (It also has the obligatory Used CD rack. It occurred to me the “used” section of every CD store has essentially become a 1990s time capsule.)

I had to buy something, so arbitrarily, I dipped back into the world of Porcupine Tree. Specifically, I bought Steven Wilson’s “4 1/2.” Lyrically, I have a lot of problems with it. “Don’t hate me / I’m not special like you” is that particular breed of wannabe-poetical that turned me off on prog in the first place. But the music tickles that latent prog center of my brain. Like a visit to an old neighborhood, it feels a little bit retrograde, a little bit nourishing, and a little bit like rediscovering a piece of who I’ve always been.

May 21, 2017 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment

Oki

Itaru Oki, Nobuyoshi Ino, Coi Sun BaeKami Fusen (NoBusiness, 2017)

oki-kamiFor the past year, I’ve felt like my visit to Japan should have included a deeper investigation into Japanese free jazz. I spent a lot of time in mainstream stores, and my time at Disk Union, the grand dame of Japanese underground records, was spent on the prog rock floor, not in the jazz/improv area.

I found an opening with Kami Fusen, newly out on the NoBusiness label. Recorded in 1996 at Café Amores in Yamaguchi, the album features two trumpets and a bassist, all three being veterans dating back to the ’70s. And while I was at it, I used Squidco to track down a 1975 album by one of the three.

Recorded in 1996 at Cafe Amores in Yamaguchi, Kami Fusen features compositions and a few standards that branch out into improvised abstractness. It’s not ecstatic jazz — more a cool flame than a bonfire, with harmonized themes and long stretches where one trumpet sits out.

The backstory is that when trumpeter Itaru Oki and bassist Nobuyoshi Ino were touring as a duo in 1996, promoter Takeo Suetomi invited Korean trumpeter Choi Sun Bae to sit in with them for this gig and recorded the results on DAT. The resulting CD is part of a collaborative series between NoBusiness and Japan’s Chap Chap Music.

Japanese music tends toward a sweetness, manifested even in their metal and rap (but not in noise, as Merzbow can attest). There are traces of that here, such as a pop-sounding progression ad the end of “Yawning Baku” or the slow, sentimental melody of the title track.

This certainly counts as a free-jazz session, though. That title track eventually splits into ragged screams of passion from one trumpet while the other trumpet (the smoother tone that I’m guessing is Bae) continues improvising melodically over the chords. “Ikiru” opens with a jagged free improvisation, with Oki on high-pitched bamboo flute against Bae’s supremely high-register trumpet squeaks.

The album closes with a standards melody, including a solo trumpet take on “I Remember Clifford” and a swingy take on “Old Folks” that builds into a playfully bouncing improvisation.

The DAT-recorded sound is pretty good. Ino’s bass — the crucial energy source that really does drive the session — is easy to hear albeit not very deep. On “Pon Pon Tea,” Ino is the one who propels the freely improvised segment. The two trumpeters follow, intertwining aggressively but leaving enough space to absorb what’s happening.

oki-phantomWhile I was at it, I wanted a taste of what these guys had done back in the ’70s, so I looked up Oki on Squidco and took a chance on Phantom Note (Offbeat, 1975). It’s a crisp free-jazz quartet date with Oki’s trumpet sounding sparkling and clear, ably matched by Yoshiaki Fujikawa on alto sax and a sharp rhythm section of Keiki Midorikawa (bass, cello) and Hozumi Tanaka (drums). Poet Gozou Yoshimasou delivers a dramatic, desperate screed amid the harsh cosmic storm of “Kodai-tenmondai (Ancient Observatory).” The album ends with the outright brutality of “Caesar and Capone.”

May 13, 2017 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

Anthony Braxton, Dixieland-Style

Here’s an old-timey-jazz-style cover of Anthony Braxton:

It’s “Composition 23 J,” an earlier Braxton piece with a melody even my ear can recognize. The trumpeter is Bobby Spellman, who put on this show last year for Record Store Day.

Note To Self #1: If I’m ever in that Maine/New Hampshire coastal area, there’s a record store just over the state line in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Note To Self #2: I should check out what else Bobby Spellman has going on. The Revenge of the Cool nonet sounds like it’s got a good attitude. And here’s an album from Cryptozoology, a five-piece with a tuba.

And for good measure, here’s Braxton himself on “Composition 23 J.” Correlating the instrumentation with the discography, I’m thinking this is from Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 (hatArt, 1991) with George Lewis on trombone, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on drums.

 
h/t Tri-Centric Foundation: @tricentricfdn on Twitter.

May 1, 2017 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Billy Drummond

I felt bad about questioning Billy Drummond’s work on Kris Davis’ Duopoly album yesterday. I’m not deeply familiar with Drummond’s playing but of course I know and respect the name. And while I have the right to like or not like any given piece of music, I’m starting to think I could better appreciate Drummond’s contributions to the album given different expectations.

While I wonder if Drummond held back too much on Duopoly, I’m not saying he should have gone for fireworks. One possibility is that he didn’t want to overshadow Davis; another is that he had set his mind toward focusing on subtleties rather than fire, which is certainly a valid goal. There’s no way to know. (And I’m trying not to judge by the video. Discerning a person’s thoughts by watching them on video is not as easy as you think, especially if they know they’re being filmed.)

Philosophical questions aside, I felt I owed it to the music gods to seek out a dose of full-strength Drummond. I’ve certainly heard of him but don’t happen to own any of his output. I wanted something fairly recent, as opposed to his ’90s straightahead albums on Criss Cross, and maybe something a little off-kilter too. I didn’t expect to find anything flat-out avant-garde in his catalogue, but that was part of the point: to applaud Drummond’s willingness to step into that world for the sake of the Duopoly project.

What I found was the track “Hydrogen Atom” by pianist Burak Bedikyan, from Leap of Faith (Steeplechase, 2015). It has a relatively disjointed opening, with lots of free space, and gives Drummond some explosive moments. He has a solo as well, which tends toward the understated side — much as his work on Duopoly did. That might partly be because his solo on “Hydrogen Atom” is also the gateway into the cooldown theme at the end of the song.

Witness:

 
It’s nice work. Maybe I’ll also take in one of those Criss Cross albums as well, before I give the Duopoly tracks another listen.

April 30, 2017 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

The Art of Process

Kris DavisDuopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016)

duopolyI wanted my first listen to Kris Davis‘ Duopoly to be an uninterrupted viewing of the 80-minute video of the performances (available online or as a DVD sold with the physical CD). It’s not as if the act of filming these studio duets altered the music. It’s more that I wanted to get into the spirit of the project.

Duopoly comprises 16 duets with eight musicians. Some Davis knows well, but none have previously recorded with her. Each musician took three hours in the studio to record one composition (most often one of Davis’) and one improvisation. Topping it off is the mirror symmetry of the track order, which I was so pleased to hear about last summer — the album features each of the eight musicians playing a composition, then the same eight, in reverse order, doing improvisations.

To me, that whole structure is part of the art here. It isn’t just that Davis recorded 16 duets (the partners being two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, two reedists). What I wanted to savor was the whole “shape” of the project — the constraints, the spontaneity, and the trajectory of the overall process. Certainly I enjoyed the music, too, but what I savored was the overall experiment.

The recordings are pure, with no rehearsals, overdubs, or mixing — although, sensibly, multiple takes were allowed. On the video side, the amount of camera movement is minimal. Davis is recorded by a fixed camera, while the guest musician is filmed by videographer Mimi Chakarova, using a handheld. Not every track works for me, but I think that fit the spirit of the rules.

One of the most fascinating visuals is “Eronel,” the Monk composition, played in duet with Billy Drummond. Davis starts off with an improvisation, and it’s up to Drummond to trust his ears, decide when to come in, and listen for the composition. The same is true of their improvisation, but with one constraint fewer. Being able to watch Drummond’s facial expressions, seeing him tease out his process, is a treat.

davis drummond cutAt times, though, he seems to have psyched himself out. I found myself aching for him to cut loose in a few spots. His improv duet takes time to get going but really cooks when it does, when he settles on an all-toms groove.

It’s possible that Drummond did cut loose, on alternate takes — or, maybe restraint was his strategy all along. Or, maybe it’s my burden to warm up to that strategy. The quiet tapping at the start of “Eronel” really clicked with me on a second listen, without the video (opening a whole other realm of discussion), and provides a healthy contrast to Marcus Gilmore’s hard asphalt swing on “Dig and Dump.”

The dual-piano tracks likewise complement one another. Davis’ composed duet with Craig Taborn, pensive and abstract, is followed by the direct jazz attack of Angelica Sanchez. I like that the Taborn track comes first in the album’s sequencing. It does get fiery but builds slowly and abstractly to that point; its introduction would have been an odd full stop had it followed Sanchez’s piece.

Sometimes, the only way to tell which parts are composed is to watch Davis’ eyes on the video. Even then, you can’t always tell, but based on that cue, “Trip Dance for Tim” has her playing an intricate theme filled with insane intervallic leaps. Tim Berne’s alto sax soloing is a delight during that phase, and eventually both are playing a layered composition that does resemble some of Berne’s two-horn work with bands like Snakeoil or Bloodcount.

berneThe Tim Berne improvisation comprises two phases: Berne madly screeching against stony chords, and Berne playing a tumult of notes against Davis’ rapid-fire blips, sounding like an acoustic sci-fi computer.

How about the guitars? Davis’ composition “Prairie Eyes” seems very much tailored for Bill Frisell, with Davis laying down scrabbling minimal riff against his sparse notes, or putting big-sky chords behind a very Frisellian melody. It’s an attractive piece with a haunting coda. “Surf Curl,” for Julian Lage, starts out percussive and skittery, building into a steady drizzle.

Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” played with Don Byron, is the halfway point, the last of the compositions. The piece ends sublimely, making for a satisfying transition into the improv half of the album/video. That Moebius twist of a transition, as Davis’ producer calls it, is equally sublime, opening quietly with Byron’s clarinet like a flowing brook and Davis playing gentle dewdrop notes.

Davis has posted the entire video online: http://krisdavis.net/duopoly-full-video … and you can catch it segment-by-segment on Vimeo.

April 29, 2017 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

Moe Staiano & the Switchboard Music Festival

Moe Staiano has something interesting in the works: a 40-minute composition for nine electric guitars, bass, and drums. It’s called “Away Towards the Light,” and he’s presenting it on May 28 as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, at Gallery 308 in Fort Mason.

Moe is a percussionist, and lately he’s been active with his rock band Surplus 1980 (see here), but he’s also led some intriguing projects with the large group Moe!kestra. Some of those pieces have a performance-art element — the most obvious one being “Death of a Piano,” in which Moe would demolish an old piano while the orchestra “accompanied” him.

While his music tends to favor big, loud sounds, he’s dabbled in chamber music, too. Here’s a nifty piece written for Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle:

That performance was part of the Switchboard Music Festival, an annual, day-long series of concerts. I’ve never managed to attend, but the lineup is always intriguing, sitting loosely in the realm of new chamber music with shades of pop. Part of the idea is to present music that’s not easy to categorize.

Switchboard is gearing up for a 10th anniversary festival on June 10 at Z Space (450 Florida St., San Francisco). Kronos Quartet is going to headline, and the organizers are hoping to crowdsource some of the costs — you can find the campaign at generosity.com.

In past years, Switchboard has used Soundcloud to post short interviews with the musicians. I liked that idea, and I’m hoping they do it again this year:

 
To close out, here’s a set of random Switchboard links I collected a couple of years ago, a mix of previews and reviews:

New Music Box:
http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/sfs-annual-switchboard-music-festival-celebrates-the-eclectic/

I Care If You Listen:
http://www.icareifyoulisten.com/2013/04/distinctive-sounds-at-sixth-annual-switchboard-music-festival/

SF Civic Center:
http://sfciviccenter.blogspot.com/2013/04/switchboard-music-festival-notes.html

SF Classical Voice:
http://www.sfcv.org/preview/switchboard-music-festival/switchboard-music-festival-turns-it-on

April 28, 2017 at 6:55 am Leave a comment

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