Death of a Piano

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 8.57.47 AMMoe! Staiano is reviving “Piece No. 1: Death of a Piano,” a piece that really does culminate in the destruction of a piano, via sledgehammer. He’ll be talking about it on the radio Thursday night, Aug. 9, in a interview on KFJC sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Pacific time, during Max Level’s show.

As the name implies, “Death of a Piano” was Moe!’s first long-form composition for a large ensemble. I can’t remember if he was calling the group Moekestra at the time, but that’s the name that eventually stuck. Incarnations of the piece that I’ve seen have featured lots of electric guitars, along with a smorgasbord of other instruments — horns, strings, drums. The upcoming performance sounds like it could be different, as it features The San Francisco Third Eye Orchestra Long Tone Choir using pitched percussion.

The performance will be on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8:00 p.m. at First Church of the Buzzard (2601 Adeline St., Oakland).

The piano above looks small, but other performances have included grand pianos or upright pianos. It all depends on what kind of decrepit, disposable piano is available.

Regardless of size, these pianos are pretty darned resilient and take longer than you’d expect to dismantle. The soundboard, in particular, doesn’t always come apart. And surprisingly, the orchestra can overwhelm the sound of the sledgehammer. But there’s always some fun destruction to be had. I still have a light piece of wood that I keep at my desk — a piano-key hammer from a past performance.

The first time I saw Moe! perform, he took a sledgehammer to a TV set, sending powdered glass all over the stage to end his show. Afterward, he thanked the audience and noted, “I always clean up after myself” — which he did, diligently tidying up the stage. Likewise, Moe! wears safety goggles while attacking a piano. It’s a responsible kind of destruction. I like that.

August 8, 2018 at 9:33 pm 3 comments

Visual Art Interlude

molnar-frag1

There’s a YouTube post of Pauline Oliveros’ “Bye Bye Butterfly” that’s illustrated with a piece by Vera Molnar.

I liked the art, so I went to find out more about Molnar. She began her career as a traditional artist, and in 1968 she brought her fascination with geometry and shapes into the world of computers and plotters. Even back then, there were rich possibilities to be had, especially if you toss pseudorandom numbers into the mix.

I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of art. I tried my hand at very primitive visual ideas in BASIC on an old IBM PC, toying with random lines and colors, honing the rules to make them fit an idea rather than just displaying chaos. (The results were not nearly as artistic as I’m making them sound.)

As computers, screens, and interfaces have progressed, so has the art. I saw one piece a few years ago — can’t recall the artist’s name, sadly — that consisted of a crowd of circles moving on a custom-sized video screen. The circles were packed tightly, rebounding off one another, and every circle had a radius drawn, like the hour hand of a watch, indicating the movement of direction at that particular moment. It was dynamic and unpredictable, and fascinating — not just for the way it looked, but for the concept, the process.

Anyway. The Molnar piece that started this train of thought is titled “Interruptions.” And if you don’t know “Bye Bye Butterfly,” it’s an early example of Oliveros’ electronic music, one that I hadn’t heard until after she died in 2016.

On a further tangent, learning about Molnar led me to the work of Aurélie Nemours. I find I’m particularly fond of her piece, “N et H 3292,” pictured here.

July 19, 2018 at 1:46 pm 1 comment

When Music on the Airplane Is Surprisingly Good

Emile Parisien Quartet with Joachim KühnSfumato (ACT Music, 2016)

I can’t believe I discovered this album on an airplane.

Sfumato_teaser_550xIt was one of those longer flights with the personalized video screens for each passenger. Which is a nice way to catch up on movies, but I like it more when there’s a handful of short films to watch. It’s stuff I wouldn’t otherwise discover, and my propensity to fall asleep on planes doesn’t get in the way so much.

I’m also one of the few passengers who checks out the audio programs. Classical music is out of the question (too much dynamic variation — the long quiet stretches are inaudible) but something tolerable usually shows up in the jazz section. That’s how Sfumato came up. Recognizing the ACT Music cover-art style, I figured it was worth a listen.

Turns out Sfumato covers a lot of ground. The music is led by Emile Parisien’s soprano sax and the steadfast piano of veteran Joachim Kühn … and if you don’t know what’s coming (as I didn’t), the appearances of accordion, not-so-placid electric guitar, and even electric bass are welcome delights, little surprise bonbons spread throughout the tracks. Mostly, the territory is European jazz, steeped with hints of classical and old-world folk — but it’s got an edge. I was ready to enjoy this album but still got more than I was expecting.

Accordion shows some virtuosity and even some free-jazzy moments during the suite, “Le Clown Tueur de la Fete Foraine.” The suite opens with sad nostalgia, evoking images of a big-top era gone by … but the title translates to “The Killer Clown of the Fair.” It doesn’t get outright sinister, but Part 2 includes a fuzzy electric-guitar solo, and Part 3 gets into some fast-paced jazz with a light dramatic tinge.

“Le Clown” doesn’t get too dark, but if that’s your thing, “Brainmachine” goes there, swaying between two heavy chords. In a brighter mode, “Arome de l’Air” lets Manu Codjia chop away on guitar and gives Parisien a nifty solo as well, sometimes almost buzzing like a harmonica.

Sfumato won an Album of the Year award in France, and the band has since released a live album that includes a Wynton Marsalis appearance. I’m going to have to check that out.

July 14, 2018 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment

Beat Kitchen

Back in May, I found time in Chicago to check out the weekly music happening at Beat Kitchen, a friendly dive restaurant well northwest of the tiresome Magnificent Mile area. A singer-songwriter type with a decent following was playing in the basement. But I was there for the upstairs jazz show — with Jim Baker (piano/electronics), Ed Wilkerson (sax), Brian Sandstrom (bass), and Steve Hunt (drums).

The group is called Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and it’s a rotating-cast show that Baker brings to Beat Kitchen every Monday night. Here’s an example of them in a mellower moment, with Mars Williams on sax:

 
There’s a slightly more intense video available with better sound, but it’s filmed in what I assume is the Beat Kitchen’s basement space. I wanted to provide a taste of what the upstairs is like. It appears to be a kitchen and small restaurant space — maybe even a former studio apartment — with stools and chairs scattered about. Only a handful of us were in the audience, and the waitress downstairs seemed pretty happy when I said I was there for the jazz show.

IMG_3840 beat kitchen cutExtraordinary Popular Delusions released at least one CD on Okka Disk (2007), based on compositions, but the M.O. for these shows appears to be long-form improvisation. I got upstairs just as the band was reaching a crescendo — not a super frenzy but definitely a high energy point. Wilkerson was dealing on sax, Baker splashing with abandon at the digital piano.

They ended up playing one long piece. One of the cooldown phases dropped into a piano-drums duet, with chording from Baker that could have been mistaken for a jazz ballad. Sandstrom’s acoustic bass work was something to savor, but soon he switched to electronic guitar effects while Baker moved over to his analog synthesizer and its impossible tangle of cables. Hunt’s drums kept the pace brisk throughout.

Wilkerson later contributed some popping, clicking acoustic guitar, and Sandstrom moved to an amplified toy guitar (or possible a ukelele; it was hard to tell in the dark).

Even though it’s predictable that the energy would rise up to a climax, they did it in a way that was miraculous and beautiful. Piano and drums were cooking — and then the acoustic bass came back in, pushing the intensity up several notches. Hunt locked into an almost swingy non-groove, egging the others to ratchet it up even more. Wilkerson let the energy build and build, then made his grand entrance with passionate overblown wails on the tenor sax, a clarion call, before launching into big, throaty tenor-sax riffs and calls.

beat kitchen IMG_3844

Long notes from Wilkerson signaled the end, and as the sound settled back into silence, Baker started choosing chords in sympathy with Wilkerson — and the music came to a peaceful stop, as if it were meant to do that all along.

The players agreed that was a perfect ending, and opted not to play another piece. That was the right call — everything clicked, in a way that doesn’t always happen, not even for a band of this caliber.

Finding this kind of music is always a challenge. Avant Music News is a good resource, as it reprints some of the local calendars around the world. And in the Bay Area, we still have the Bayimproviser site and accompanying Transbay Calendar app.

July 4, 2018 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Can You Handle This Much Accordion?

One instrument I never even considered getting “into” was the accordion. Not only is it associated with old, corny music, but it also creates chords with a squelchy sound that I don’t find so attractive.

Pauline Oliveros plays accordion, of course, but that’s different. Then again, it also tells you that the accordion can do more than polka.

The turning point for me was classical accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, whose solo album Winter Sketches (Orchid, 2011) got me interested in the instrument’s musical possibilities and emotional range. It’s been a few years, and while I haven’t become an accordion fanatic, I’ve found myself wondering what else Mogensen has done.

So I checked out The Song I’ll Never Sing (Decapo, 2012), a program combining solo pieces with string duets and an accordion duo. The common thread is the pen of Danish composer Kasper Rofelt.

mogensen-thesong.jpg

I don’t know what really counts as virtuoso playing on an according. But the fast, accurate flurries on the “Vivace Corrente” movement of Concert Studies for Classical Accordion, First Book (2008-2009) sound great to me, as do the rapid-fire moments in the “Twilight Toccata” movement of Shadow Pieces. In the latter case, it’s the quiet, spattery passages that impress and thrill the most, not the big-flourish chords.

 
But I wonder if there’s a touch to the slow, gentle playing, as there is with a saxophone or piano. On the list of moments that should impress me, what about the thin, shimmering notes that open the track “Midnight?” What about “Nightsong 2,” played with violinist Christina Åstrand, where Mogensen lays down atmospheric chords, softly painting the background?

What’s kept me interested in Mogensen is his experimental side, which Rofelt indulges on pieces such as “Quasi Statico,” using drones and quavers to move into Oliveros territory, sounding almost like an analog-synth impersonation. In a different vein, “Light Falling,” pairs Mogensen with cellist Toke Møldrup for a tense and often subtle 10-minute piece that sometimes feels like a nighttime chase scene, sometimes like an over-the-top stage drama.

 
Then there’s the sparse, moody “Charybdis, played by MYTHOS, the accordion duo of Morgensen and childhood friend Rasmus Kjøller. It’s tense and aggressive, sometimes feeling like the instruments are chasing each other.

And it made me wonder whether Kjøller had any other output I could find. His career couldn’t just consist of being the “other” accordionist in MYTHOS, right?

alstedI found him on Agnete’s Laughter (Dacapo, 2013), an album of electronics and experimental-vocal pieces by composer Birgitte Alsted.Her liner notes describe him as a newcomer whose “official debut” was in 2013, in which case it makes sense that his resume doesn’t seem as long as Mogensen’s.

Amid the album’s array of ghostly, abstract electro-acoustic work, Alsted added a solo accordion composition: The 12-minute “Melancolia.” It’s full of icy drama and grand, slow emoting — and, in its latter half, soaring crescendos like this one:

 
Kjøller’s playing seems to hit higher and lower notes than I’ve heard on Mogensen’s albums. I don’t know if that’s a function of the type of accordion he’s playing or my own tin ears.

I do find I need a break from the accordion after a long listen. This isn’t going to become an all-consuming obsession. But I’ve enjoyed this little detour — and I haven’t even gotten to the real jazz/improv accordion heroes, Guy Klucevcek and Rüdiger Carl.

June 23, 2018 at 11:46 am 1 comment

Two Sides of Rent Romus

Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood EnsembleRogue Star (Edgetone, 2018)

Rent Romus’ Lords of OutlandIn the Darkness We Speak a Sound Brightness and Life (Edgetone, 2018)

Saxophonist Rent Romus has been more prolific than ever in the last couple of years, or at least it seems that way to me. He has a spate of new material out on his Edgetone Records label, including these two CDs from a couple of longstanding bands.

 
Rogue Star, by Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble, presents his more formalized side — compositions rooted in concert-hall jazz styles, with dynamic multi-horn themes, the cool touch of Mark Clifford on vibraphone, and, of course, plenty of space for group improvisation.

The Life’s Blood Ensemble started in 1999 as a trio including drummer Timothy Orr, and the group was introduced to the world on Blood Motions (Edgetone, 2001), built around compositions from Romus’ time in Copenhagen. The band has since grown in size and ambition, becoming a three-horn septet playing backed by the dual basses of Max Johnson and Safa Shokrai, who get an unaccompanied duet to start “Cassini” and in the middle of “Think!” Tracks like “Emotism” are intelligently plotted, with polished unison lines and crisply energetic solos.

“Think!” operates in bursts of ’60s-feeling energy, interspersed with composed lines shaping cohesive group improvisation. “Space Is Expanding” features big-band-style solos and drumming, possibly a nod to Sun Ra. And I love the way the title track blossoms into a loose multi-horn improvisation with a relaxed, sunny feel.

 
romus-darknessI think of Lords of Outland as Romus’ more gutteral outlet, rooted in jazz but with a contrary streak. This is one of Romus’ earliest bands, created more than 20 years ago and reviewed on this blog multiple times.

In recent years, with the steady rhythm section of Ray Schaeffer (six-string electric bass) and Philip Everett (drums), the Lords have moved into the territory of prog and cosmic rock and, increasingly, electronics played by multiple band members.

The electronics get an even bigger role on In the Darkness, mainly from the hands of Collette McCaslin. She plays trumpet and sax as well, but many of her contributions are in the form of analog blasts and bleeps, an extra touch of aggression and flamboyance. I presume it’s her delivering the solo electronics showcase on the track “Interstellar Deletion.”

The “darkness” of the title often feels like a joyous darkness, as on the nine-minute “Open Your Hand and Walk Away,” with Romus’ tenor sax calmly testifying among the din. That track also includes a good spacey showcase for Schaeffer’s bass and effects.

Many of the tracks are outright bright, really.  “From a Trunk Buried in My Closet” develops into a chaotic, celebratory flow underlaid by squelchy bass and subtle garnishes of electronics. “A Pile of Dust We Emerge” has McCaslin adding soprano sax tones for additional color.

 
“See the Path Before You” adds a touch of mysticism — a spirited sax-and-electronics duo, followed by ceremonial somberness between trumpet (also McCaslin) and sax. “As Water We Emerge Toward Us” is a more disjoint kind of free-jazz, fast-paced but with plenty of white space for a more contemplative mood.

These albums have a lot in common, starting with Romus’ fleet sax work, but they represent different angles on the process of making music. They just happen to have come out at around the same time, and they do make for a nice set.

June 17, 2018 at 10:55 am Leave a comment

This Guy Who Keeps Hanging Out With Matthew Shipp

Toxic [Mat Walerian, Matthew Shipp, and William Parker] — This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People (ESP-Disk, 2017)

walerian-toxicPolish woodwind player Mat Walerian has hit the radar in the last three years, thanks to his association with Matthew Shipp. Walerian and Shipp have appeared together on a clutch of ESP-Disk albums: a duo (calling themselves The Uppercut), a trio with drummer Hamid Drake (called Jungle), and Shipp’s recent quartet album, Sonic Fiction.

My introduction to Walerian was the trio Toxic, with Shipp bassist William Parker. You’d expect the album to excel anyway, but I find myself savoring the sections where Walerian sits out, leaving the Shipp-Parker duo that’s been working together since the ’90s. On “The Breakfast Club, Day 1,” they’re in a particularly casual, unhurried mode, stepping briskly but not urgently. It’s as if the weight of the years is gone, and they can be themselves without having to prove themselves.

But this is supposed to be about Walerian, and ESP-Disk’s seeming determination to make him famous. He’s worth the effort. Playing mostly saxes and clarinets, Walerian adeptly combines the jazz tradition with the new thing, playing with an easy, unforced confidence. He shifts gears smoothly and — with this trio at least — fits comfortably into the flow.

“The Breakfast Club, Day 1” is a good example, where his sax is in an avant-romantic mode: sweet lines of melody that swerve into brief overblown squeals or tiny bits of free rambling. It’s an easy and confident mood that sets up the Shipp-Parker passage that I enjoyed so much.

The title track has more in that vein, on clarinet, with Walerian mixing old-timey motifs and a pensively swingy feel.

I’m making the album sound happy-go-lucky, but of course there’s Shipp, adding ice-block chords and low-register piano rumbles. He also adds a light touch on “Peace and Respect” supporting Walerian’s bass clarinet with jazzy chord blips — and, later, with comping on the organ, apparently Shipp’s first recording on that instrument. Actually, that track gets happy as well, with the organ doing its sustained-chord thing and Parker’s bass providing a cool swing.

For a complete departure, “Lesson” opens with a double-flute duet (Parker on shakuhachi alongside Walerian’s western flute). The meditative space unfolds slowly, colored by Shipp’s careful splashes. Parker’s bass eventually arrives, patiently plucking notes in an unaccompanied zen atmosphere.

And if you’re looking for a full dose of Shipp, “The Breakfast Club, Day 2” has that stern hammering, sustain pedal fully down, as Walerian, dancing a lot more to the outside, still finds ways to carve melody from the wall of sound. But even that one comes to a swingy conclusion.

May 27, 2018 at 9:47 am 2 comments

Older Posts


Categories

  • Blogroll

  • Feeds