Kris Davis’ New Symmetry

Maybe it’s because I was a math major, but I do love to geek out about things like this:

Pianist Kris Davis‘ new album — Duopoly, due out on Sept. 30 — consists of duets with eight different musicians. Sixteen tracks: one apiece with each partner, followed by eight more with the same players in reverse order. It’s a palindrome.

The album’s front cover helps you visualize it all. The tracks start with guitarist Bill Frisell (upper left) and, I’m guessing, work their way “down” the left column, through Craig Taborn, Billy Drummond and Tim Berne. Then they go back up the right-hand column to guitarist Julian Lage. The next eight tracks reverse that sequence.

duopoly

Oh, but it gets better. The first eight tracks are based on compositions, while the last eight are improvisations. And you might notice that the the eight duo partners consist of two players representing each of four instruments: guitar (Frisell, Lage), Other Piano (Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), drums (Drummond, Marcus Gilmore), and woodwinds (Berne, Don Byron). It’s symmetries upon symmetries.

There are times when I’ll buy the physical form of an album — vinyl or CD — because it feels like the packaging is part of the whole experience. In this case, I’m counting geeking out on the overall concept as part of the experience. It’s a good one so far.

To top it all off, they filmed these sessions, so Duopoly is a DVD as well.

To help promote the album, Davis and Taborn are hitting the road for a series of two-piano showcases, including a stop in Los Angeles for the Angel City Jazz Festival and a show at Oakland’s Mills College. I’ve reviewed solo albums from each of them (here and here), and a duet performance seems like it would be something to savor.

Here’s the itinerary for those duo shows:

September 30 — Firehouse 12 – New Haven, CT
October 1 — Music Center at Washington University – St. Louis, MO
October 2 — Roulette – Brooklyn, NY
October 3 — Kennedy Center – Washington DC
October 5 — Constellation – Chicago, IL
October 6 — Britton Recital Hall – Ann Arbor, MI
October 7 — Wexner Center – Columbus, OH
October 8 — Zipper Hall presented by Angel City Jazz Festival – Los Angeles, CA
October 9 — Mills College – Oakland, CA
October 10 — UC San Diego – San Diego, CA
October 11 — Poncho Concert Hall presented by Earshot Jazz Festival – Seattle, WA
October 13 — Bucknell University – Lewisburg, PA

August 26, 2016 at 5:11 pm Leave a comment

Yoni Kretzmer Five

Yoni KretzmerFive (OutNow, 2016)

kretzmer-fiveLike a lot of musicians, saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer spans a range of styles, including some intriguing free improv and the strings-laden jazz of his New Dilemma band.

But it’s nice to hear him in a good old free jazz format. With Five, he’s assembled an all-star quintet that delivers brisk, exciting music across five tracks.

A taste of ’60s influence runs throughout the compositions. “Quintet I” launches you right into it, as drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Max Johnson kick off a fast-patter attack, quickly followed by a pulsing lead line from the horns. From there, it’s off to the races, with solos backed by bits of composed riffs and long passages of Johnson and Taylor delivering the heat.

Most of the compositions consist of a few riffs played as demarcation points that define a mood and a context, but the rest is left to the players, a nicely brewing stew of improvisation.Kretzmer himself is in fine form, with blazing, burning solos full of expression and variety. He’s an expert storyteller on his horn — tenor sax throughout this album. And he’s recruited top-notch bandmates in Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet).

“Feb 23” is another quick-paced study: Kretzmer dealing a raspy, buzzing solo over Taylor and Johnson, the brass entering with a sneaky, simple whisper and a nod to spy jazz. It also includes a nice mental break, with the two brass horns and Johnson scribbling happily, occasionally accented by small sounds from Taylor. That leads into a Johnson solo and a serious, surging, slowish theme for a big, big ending.

Rounding out the five tracks: “July 19” opens the album with nearly five (!) minutes of criss-crossed group improvising. “Quintet II” starts with a quiet experimental crouch before launching into a boisterous free-jazz tumult. The theme comes at the end, a playfully halting back-and-forth swing.

And “For DC” ends the album with a slow, ritualistic composition, against which Kretzmer monologues fiercely. Swell’s trombone solo, late in the piece, plays up the drama — a big climactic scene before the piece winds down.

I’m particularly taken by Kretzmer’s solo in “Quintet II.” He’s pumped full of energy and builds up to an appropriately dramatic ending. You also get a little bit of a feel for the quintet’s full interaction. Have a listen.

 

August 23, 2016 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

Back to Roots

logoWe visited the Monterey Aquarium last weekend, and it wasn’t until we were nearly in Monterey that I remembered one reason why I love that drive so much. It isn’t the thick tourist traffic or the trucks on two-lane roads. It’s the chance to tune in KPIG.

Based near Santa Cruz, at 107.5-FM on the dial, KPIG doesn’t play avant-garde music, but its style might be considered shocking by today’s standards: Actual DJs select the music without regard to marketing data. As the station’s website puts it:

We’re an anachronism – a throwback to the days when real DJs picked out the music, and listeners expected something more from a radio station than just a couple of hundred songs repeated over and over, with some “big voice” guy yelling about how great it all is.

I’ve noted before that I’ve backed away from the classic rock of my younger days. KPIG is different. The programming has roots music as a base — country-rock and bluegrass, you might say — but with liberal doses of blues, funk, jam bands, and lots of obscurities or corner-case artists that you wouldn’t find on mainstream radio of any stripe. And when an overly familiar tune shows up, it’s the exception, not the rule. Check out a playlist and see what you think.

KPIG is a rare gem. Even college radio is losing this spirit, this willingness to challenge the listener and serve as a gateway for musical discoveries. KPIG charges a nominal amount to listen online — $5 per month or $50 per year — and it’s so worth it, just to know that radio like this can still survive in this cold cruel world.

As for the drive to Monterey, I caught wind of two songs that have become new favorites of the moment — John Fullbright’s “All the Time in the World” and Abigail Washburn’s “Chains.” Neither one is brand new, sure. But KPIG was there to tell me about them.

August 22, 2016 at 8:27 pm Leave a comment

Thumbscrew Anew

ThumbscrewConvallaria (Cuneiform, 2016)

thumbscr-convMary Halvorson’s chiming, calculating guitar; Michael Formanek’s earthy, free-grooving bass; Tomas Fujiwara’s colorful, almost melodic drumming. It’s not that Convallaria is predictable. It’s more that the result is. You know this mix of colors is going to be vibrant and creative.

Which makes it good to see this trio of veterans reconvene as Thumbscrew to follow up their 2014 group debut. Convallaria is a creative panorama centered on compositions contributed by each group member. Graced with a two-week residency to hone the material, they’ve come up with a solid album and a collective voice that flows smoothly.

“Sampsonian Rhythms” lives up to its name with a burly, melodic foundation laid by Formanek. It’s an upbeat track with a peppy sense of swing — in terms of attitude, rather than formal rhythm. Definitely a highlight.

On the title track, Halvorson delivers long runs of fingerwork, complete with the glitchy note-bending that’s become a hallmark of hers. That gives way to a rich Formanek solo nicely grounded in a jazz sound, enhanced by Halvorson’s faint chording. Then it’s Fujiwara‘s turn, with a solo that starts with feather-light, rapid-fire snare and builds into a tumult of toms and cymbals.

Just as you’re getting used to the trio’s upbeat demeanor, Halvorson pulls out the effects for a shadowy mood on “Trigger” and “Screaming Piha.” The latter turns into almost an industrial improv piece, a gray sheen of guitar noise with Fujiwara’s drumming furiously coloring the scene. He keeps up the ferocious pace as the piece suddnly shifts into a calm guitar-and-bass conclusion.

Even with moments like that, the album does have a welcoming feel to it, an overarching sound full of controlled intensity and camaraderie. In terms of other bag-of-tricks moments, Halvorson turns on a bit of echo box to add to the tumbling chaos of “Tail of the Sad Dog.” And “Danse Insense” includes a fun percussion solo with Fujiwara testing out what seems to be a kit full of bowls and blocks.

Thumbscrew will be on the west coast on Oct. 16 for an appearance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. According to Formanek’s website, they might pop around for a few other west coast dates as well.

August 21, 2016 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Chambers

With Bobby Hutcherson having passed away at age 75, jazz fans everywhere might be spinning Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch or turning toward Hutcherson’s 2014 Blue Note swan song, Enjoy the View. Me, I’m remembering his first Blue Note album and, coincidentally, the first Hutcherson album I ever bought: 1965’s Dialogue.

This was early in my explorations of the freer side of jazz, when I was hesitantly dipping my toe in Cecil Taylor waters. Hutcherson seemed like an alternative that was safer but still deep enough, but Dialogue‘s title track, written by Joe Chambers, turned out to be a full-on plunge into highly improvised jazz. It’s composed, but in a way that allows free association among the players, with no particular lead instrument, something that was new to me.

 
(Actually, there is a notable lead-instrument moment. Around 7:14, bassist Richard Davis moves from avant-garde twanging into a robust little duet with Andrew Hill’s ocean-waves piano behind him. Very nice.)

While we’re at it, though, let’s pay some respects to a living musician as well: Chambers, who was a consistent presence on Hutcherson’s late-’60s Blue Note records.

As a composer, Chambers was quite interested in this kind of openness and freedom, and he got to display his ideas on Hutcherson’s next album, Components. Every song on Side 2 is a Chambers composition, starting with “Movement,” which is “like a six-part theme constantly in motion, held together by a pulse,” as Chambers told liner-notist Nat Hentoff.

“Air” is the most adventurous of the pieces, almost entirely improvised. And “Juba Dance” has a catchy, 22-bar theme but also slides into a long stretch of spare, untethered improv.

Chambers would go on to release albums such as New World (Finite, 1976; rereleased by Porter, 2008), a mostly fusion-based date that also includes prog-like experimentalism (“Chung Dynasty”) and a pretty Wayne Shorter tune (“Rio”).

chambers-landscapesNot only is Chambers still with us, but he’s even released a new album: Landscapes, on the Savant label. It’s a faux-quartet date, with Chambers overdubbing drums and vibraphone, supported by Rick Germanson (piano) and Ira Coleman (bass). The overdubbing is eye-opening on tracks like “Samba de Maracatu,” with its rapidly tumbling drums and the tight unison of the piano/vibes lead. Neither part sounds like an easy after-the-fact addition.

Landscapes might not be particularly avant-garde, but who said it had to be? It’s a fine album and a nice display of Chambers’ skills, and it’s great that he’s still swinging at age 74.

Yes, I just morphed a Hutcherson obit into a Chambers celebration. Living musicians matter. We expend so much energy, rightfully so, on the jazz masters who are departing this world one by one, marking the passing of a great era. But the cats who are still around deserve their due, too. I think Bobby would understand.

August 17, 2016 at 11:56 pm Leave a comment

Splinter Reeds

Splinter Reeds performs at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.

Splinter ReedsGot Stung (self-released, 2015)

splinter-stungThe five members of Splinter Reeds are classical musicians who can play the heck out of their instruments. But “3 Songs, 3 Interludes,” a small suite on their debut album Got Stung, shows their irreverent side.

The first of the songs, “Bee,” opens a capella, all five members chanting a somber melody that begins with the line, “Got stung by a bee in the heart.” One by one, each voice drops out, replaced by a woodwind playing the backing chords. Eventually, you’re left with nothing but reeds, which then shoot off into countermelodies like vines entangling a wall.

It’s a fun effect, although the song isn’t necessarily cheery, and the band is certainly no novelty act. Claiming the title of the Bay Area’s first professional reed quintet, Splinter Reeds has been performing for three years around Northern California and spent a week-long residency at Stanford.

Their focus is on newly commissioned compositions, so everything on Got Stung is freshly written; it’s no stodgy “repertoire” album. You can get a taste when the quintet opens their 2016-17 season on Aug. 16 with a concert at San Francisco’s Center for New Music.

Oboist Kyle Bruckmann plays frequently in jazzy and experimental contexts, and his major project Wrack recently recorded his homage to Thomas Pynchon, titled … Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire. The other band member I’m most familiar with is Jeff Anderle, who’s been part of the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet.

So, you could say the usual things about the blending of genres and all that, but Got Stung is a modern-classical album at heart, presenting the compositions with focus and verve. Elements of scenic melody and mood pervade the album, along with lots of fun, choppy bottom lines from bass clarinets and bassoon.

The instrumental “interludes” of “3 Songs, 3 Interludes” (composed by Erik DeLuca) show off different uses of the quintet — an ambient metallic sheen; a softly poking and curious quasi-melody; a study of long, sparse tones. It’s a fan-out of musical strategies. In fact, the last of the songs, “Want,” follows the opposite path of “Bee,” starting off instrumental with vocal parts joining gradually.

The eight-movement suite “Splinter” (Mark Mellits) is a highlight of the album, often florid and downright beautiful, played with intense focus and verve throughout. It feels like storytelling, in moods ranging from the brisk hocketing and bright, jazzy chording of “Scarlet Oak” to the beautiful, florid calm of “Weeping Willow.” The bass clarinet sounds especially nice on the fast-paced movements such as “Cherry” and “Red Pine.”

“Splinter” is the most classical-sounding of the pieces on Got Stung. Elsewhere, the band lets its avant-garde side show. Bruckmann’s piece, “Mitigating Factors,” is a slow-moving exploration of that territory, with touches of electronics shadowing the organic grumbles and air-rushes of the horns.

You might call “Wood Burn” (Ned McGowan) an active form of minimalism. Against a hard-digging bass clarinet line, the other reeds spin Morse-code pops and twirling riffs of melody. Jordan Glenn’s composition “My Bike” is peaceful at heart — it even has bird songs in the background — but halfway through, the piece starts adding some stern and shrill harmonies for a dose of attitude and even belligerence.

As a statement of purpose, Got Stung shows off a strong variety of Splinter Reeds’ interests. It’s exciting to see a group intent on bringing new works to life. Let’s hope they can continue building on this great start.

August 13, 2016 at 2:49 pm Leave a comment

Outsound Summit: IMA and Big City Orchestra

DSCN2555-cropThe concluding night of the recent Outsound New Music Summit started with a full stage. No people, and not much apparent room for people — but lots of instruments, some draped in cloths evoking images of Persian finery.

It turns out the instruments around the edges were meant for the five members of Big City Orchestra. Squeezed near center stage were the keyboards, effects, and percussion instruments for the duo of IMA, who started the evening. Two very different groups with different approaches.

Combining percussion with electronics and live sound manipulation, IMA worked together like a well-oiled machine, with a shared sense of dynamics and the timing of a Swiss watch.

The pieces built mostly ominous and dark atmospheres sprinkled with occasional elements of bright melody. A few pre-staged samples came up but the overall structure was improvised, to impressive effect.

Amma Ateria (aka Jeanie Aprille Tang) laid down a base of dark, crunchy sounds and occasional chords, while percussionist Nava Dunkelman flickered seamlessly from one implement to another: snare drum, cymbals, xylophone, plexiglass table. Her sounds, full of snap and command, got manipulated or echoed through the mic — I’m guessing Ateria had some say in that — and were sometimes sampled back for additional effect. Both players added vocal tones and breaths, often heavily distorted, adding an extra blanket of storm clouds overhead.

During a pre-concert talk, they mentioned that the use of melody was a relatively new addition to their work after years of noisy collaborations. This included plenty of xylophone improvising from Dunkelman, as well as a pre-recorded melody against which she improvised or played a counter-melody.

Big City Orchestra is the long-running improv/experimental project of Das and Ninah Pixie, always varying in the number of players and the concepts being presented. They were the styrofoam-playing act that I engineered on KZSU’s Day of Noise a couple of years ago.

This edition of BCO was a quintet performing a set-long reworking of “In a Persian Market,” a popular music piece from 1921. Written by a Londoner, it’s sort of a white man’s image of an exotic Orient that he’s never seen, as people pointed out during the pre-concert talk. It’s also apparently a pretty famous piece of music.

The general concept was that the band played each movement of the piece interspersed with some improvisational ideas. The song’s primary melody came first, played by various lead instruments — flute or bass flute by Polly Moller; vibraphone by Suki O’Kane — over and over with a dull noise background between iterations. Each cycle of the melody got introduced by Andy Cowitt playing the intro on bass guitar, a two-note pulse that was so supremely simple, it started to get humorous (intentionally, I think) after the fourth or fifth time around.

BCO’s ever-shifting nature comes at the cost of working with a new band nearly every gig. This one hit some rough patches early, with a few hand cues that seemed to get missed or misinterpreted. The segments of the opening melody were nice, but the noisy spaces in between seemed to just be in the way.

A more successful movement featured Pixie and Moller on harmoniums (or similar accordion-like instruments) creating a bright drone, a space-filling wall of sound. Cowitt added some long clarion tones on electric guitar — a Frippertronic touch. This worked well with the quasi-Persian spirit of the whole piece and set up some composed elements quite nicely.

The piece began and ended with the sound of sand, a contribution of Das’. He first poured it onto a contact mic. Then he rolled a spherical stone over the pile of sand, creating a crunching sound, like listening to a passing caravan from deep beneath the surface of the desert. That same sound brought the piece to a calm ending.

August 8, 2016 at 11:34 pm Leave a comment

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