Tender Buttons


From a YouTube video by Ann O’Roarke

From the “need to get out more” file: Two of the local musicans whom I’ve known the longest have been part of an interesting electronics trio for quite some time, and I never noticed.

Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.

I’ve seen Gino Robair and Tom Djll play in many contexts, including electronics. I’m not as familiar with Tania Chen, but she’s a KZSU Day of Noise veteran.

Here’s the trio in action:

Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.

There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.

Tender Buttons is playing a show on Friday, Oct. 28, at Turquoise Yantra Grotto (32 Turquoise Way, San Francisco), and they’re performing live on KFJC-FM on Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m.

October 27, 2016 at 11:40 pm Leave a comment

Aram Shelton’s Last Bay Area Shows

Gold Age performs at the Woods Bar & Brewery (1701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Friday, Oct. 28.

Gold AgeGold Age (Singlespeed, 2016)

goldageFor the past several years, the Bay Area has been graced with the presence of Aram Shelton, a saxophonist out of the Chicago scene who came here to study at Mills College. He’s moving to Copenhagen in November, so the past few weeks have seen him perform one last spate of shows, kind of a victory lap.

His musical work spans from free improvisation to nearly straight jazz, as a leader and as a sideman. His final shows here have toured different parts of that history, including Wiener Kids, the trio led by drummer Jordan Glenn (it was standing room only, reportedly) and Tonal Masher, Shelton’s experimental project based on saxophone feedback and computer-generated sound.

Gold Age is up next, with a show at the Woods Bar & Brewery this Friday. The band, whose debut album came out in July, is a free-jazz quartet with all four members contributing compositions and showing off plenty of improvisational prowess.

Their easy, liquid sound is colored by the cool hand of Mark Clifford on vibraphone. But it’s also a product of the expert work of Safa Shokrai on bass and Britt Ciampa on drums, holding that balance between a straight groove and outright anarchy.

A good example is “The Docks,” where the solos fly over a rhythm that’s bustling and full of sparkling details.

That track and Clifford’s “Levity Faction,” with its broken-swing melody, might be the album’s closest examples to conventional jazz. One of the more swerving departures is “The Hand That Might Mend Itself,” written by Ciampa, which breaks into full-on group improv that intensifies until it’s coalesced into the song’s final theme. It’s a nice display of creative energy honed toward a purpose.

“Show Jumping” is a nice chance to hear Shelton’s bass clarinet in a bouncy, lively setting. “Peach Orchard,” written by Shokrai, opens with sour-toned fluttered notes that slowly build a melodic line; it’s the jumping-off point for a lively midtempo vibraphone solo, followed by Shelton doing some of his most adventurous playing on the record.

You can sample the entire Gold Age album at Bandcamp. Here’s the itinerary for Shelton’s final three shows — until he comes back for a visit, of course.

October 28: Gold Age. Woods Brewery, Oakland. 9pm
October 30: Shelton/Ochs/Walton/Nordeson. The Back Room, Berkeley, 8pm.
November 1: Aram Shelton, Chris Brown, Jordan Glenn. Tom’s Place, Berkeley, 8pm.

October 24, 2016 at 11:09 pm Leave a comment

Counting Narayana’s Cows

Tom Johnson composes pieces that are mathematical almost to the point of parody. The most extreme example is The Chord Catalogue, consisting of literally every possible chord in a particular octave. As I’ve noted before, he plays the chords in order, and the result, depending on your mood, is either amusing or maddening.

“Narayana’s Crows” tilts more toward the amusing side. It’s still a math piece, but it can be presented with some humor, and it builds a melody that’s dynamic and engaging.

I found this one on the Soundcloud page of Splinter Reeds, the all-reed quintet I wrote about a little while ago. The composition is based on an algebra problem credited to 14th-century Indian mathematician Narayana, and it has to do with the number of cows in a herd after successive generations of breeding. It’s a modified Fibonacci series, essentially.

The piece itself consists of a narrative (a little hard to hear in this recording) explaining the setup of the problem. The music itself consists of long and short notes representing each adult and calf in the herd — Morse code for cows. You get the idea pretty quickly.

As with all of Johnson’s compositions, the structure is clever and is a big part of the fun. I love his ideas, even the simple ones like The Chord Catalogue. In this case, though, there’s enough rhythmic and tonal variety to produce some interesting music as well — although I’m glad they didn’t do the 20 generations of Narayana’s original problem. The 17th generation alone consists of 872 notes and takes 3 minutes to play.

October 22, 2016 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

Shipwreck 4

Bennett / Johnston / Mezzacappa / RosalyShipwreck 4 (NoBusiness, 2016)

shipwreck4-stOakland’s Shipwreck Studios was devoured in a fire two months after this recording session, but its name will live on through this improvising quartet, featuring three ace Bay Area performers along with Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly.

In an improv context, familiarity can be productive, and you can hear it in the way this group just clicks. Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) are all integral to the Bay Area scene, and they’ve played together in many combinations, including the bands Bait & Switch and Go-Go Fightmaster (which are actually the same quartet under different contexts).

With Rosaly, they spin up some terrific jazz-influenced structures, from the gospel-tinged sunset mood of “The Face Consented, at Last” to the alternating muted/unmuted trumpet melody that Johnston develops at the end of “Bloom.”

“The Storm We See, the Storm We Saw” demonstrates the easy interaction the quartet enjoys. Rosaly lays down an easy, free groove, and the others jump on board — Mezzacappa laying down the mood of the rhythm, with Bennett and Johnston fitting tightly together with congenial thought lines. It all comes together so naturally.

There’s a tunefulness to many of the pieces.”Everything’s Coming Up Rosaly” builds from a quiet drum solo into a brief tumult that knits together like a tight composition, with the two horns following one another’s leads.

Intertwining, sleepy melodies characterize the first part of “When Not Night,” supported by appropriately sparse bass and drum parts. The track retains its quiet atmosphere as Bennett lifts off into a long circular-breathing run, burbling and babbling as part of the undertow, with Johnston gradually increasing the intensity in his trumpet phrases.

These kinds of rich musical conversations make Shipwreck 4 a strong album and (apologies to Rosaly) another nice document of the Bay Area scene.

October 21, 2016 at 6:44 am Leave a comment

Frantz Loriot and the Big Picture

Frantz Loriot Systematic Distortion OrchestraThe Assembly (OutNow, 2016)

loriot-assemblyThese are big-concept pieces executed by an 11-piece band including some stars of the Brooklyn out-jazz scene. They go through long stretches of improvising, and as you’d expect, they can produce quite a bit of sound.

But there’s organization: Each of the four mid-length tracks seems to focus on executing a central idea, a particular mood. Violist Frantz Loriot sends his group on an improvisatory mission every time, with volume and cluttery chaos applied to a purpose.

For example, I think of “Echo” as the “blare” piece. Starting from the rudiments of silence, it builds in the form of unison horn notes, serious and slow, backed by clattering percussion (produced by three drummers) and an ominous bass drone. It all builds to a violent climax, but for me, there’s a sense of stillness that pervades the piece.

“The Assembly,” on the other hand, is built to produce a dense rustle. Again starting from practically nothing, it builds up into a jumble of scraped and plucked strings, eventually adding up to an abrasive buzz almost like a noise piece, even though the Systematic Distortion Orchestra is an all-acoustic group.

“… Maybe … Still …” is an exercise in quietude, a poem spoken in dramatic tones by bassist Sean Ali against a backdrop of small, sound-based improvisation — a minimalist industrial vibe that continues in lower-case fashion after Ali has had his say.

And then there’s “Le Relais,” a percussive forest that gives way to the full orchestra, with plenty of emphasis on strings. An octave chord on Loriot’s viola signals the change to the new landscape of quiet rustles and night sounds.

The Assembly nicely pairs planned structure and the glorious chaotic blur of large-group improvising. Thanks to saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer and his OutNow label for giving it an outlet.

October 8, 2016 at 4:07 pm Leave a comment

Reconnaissance Fly Flies Again

Reconnaissance FlyOff by One (self-released, 2016)

reconfly-offby2The lighthearted and consciously nerdy prog group Reconnaissance Fly is back with an EP (available at Bandcamp) and a couple of shows: Oct. 15 at the Berkeley Arts Festival space and Oct. 26 at the the Octopus literary salon in Oakland.

The core elements are still there: Polly Moller’s operatic vocals (and occasional flute), Amanda Chaudhary’s jazzy electric piano, and bassist Tim Walters’ brainy, Canterbury-inspired prog compositions. He wrote four of the songs on Off by One, with Chaudhary contributing the fifth.

Some changes have been afoot. Some of it is in the personnel — since recording the EP, Chaudhary has left the band, replaced by Brett Carson on keys — and some in the songwriting.  Not all the lyrics are “poetry” taken from spam emails; “Everyone Sang” is a poem by British WWI solder and antiwar activist Sigfried Sassoon, set to a pensive, artsy melody.

And while prog is still at the band’s core, other musical styles are poking out. “Itzirktna” uses a mix of loungy jazz and a funky break to get its musical point across. “Dressed for Yesterday’s Weather” is an instrumental that opens with a pastoral Canterbury feel that includes Moller on flute, but it builds into a segment with a guitar line that’s a cross between surf jazz and courtly Renaissance melodies.

“Undeciphered” has a snappy, jazzy feel as it plays around with time signatures. The title apparently comes from the lyrics, which seem to be truly undeciphered jibberish that Moller happily chirps through.

Reconnaissance Fly certainly has a sense of humor and a touch of goofiness. But they produce seriously good prog rock with a side of jazzy swing. Great to see them back.

October 7, 2016 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

Plate o’ Shrimp: Wu Fei

Generally, it’s not surprising when I stumble across an artist’s name in multiple contexts. Musicians play in one another’s bands and on one another’s CDs, and they have musical interests that you and I might not associate them with. (Extreme example: Darrell Hall singing on Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure.)

Sometimes, though, a connection comes out of nowhere. It’s the cosmic unconsciousness at work.

I mentioned recently that I’d stumbled onto the music of Abigail Washburn, a banjo player whose music mixes Americana with a basket of Asian influences.

Back in 2010, I’d taken a chance on an sharp-looking CD by Wu Fei, who plays the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument similar to the Japanese koto. The cover caught my eye; the presence of Carla Kihlstedt and Fred Frith is what really sold me.

Not only have these two played together, but they also know one another going quite a ways back. They’re even reuniting for a one-off concert on Oct. 17 in New York.

Yes, it’s all part of the cosmic unconsciousness. By the way, it turns out Wu Fei is quite the bluegrass picker.

September 28, 2016 at 9:46 pm Leave a comment

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