Tim Berne and Steve Bryam — Spare (Screwgun*, 2015)
My first real foray into avant-garde jazz was Low Life by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and part of the adventure was the late-night atmosphere of the CD booklet’s artwork — not just the cover, but Steve Byram’s odd scribblings and abstract collages, and Robert Lewis’ obscure black-and-white portraits of the band.
Berne and Byram have collaborated for nearly 30 years now. They met during Berne’s brief tenure as a major-label recording artist, with Columbia, and have been inseparable since.
Now they’ve released a small coffee-table book together, an objet d’art, as NY Times critic Nate Chinen aptly calls it. True to its name, Spare comes in a brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of Berne’s first DIY CDs with his Screwgun Records label.
The illustrations inside the 100-page book live up to the name as well. Byram’s scribbles, hand-drawn or computer-generated, are etched onto blank backgrounds, or occasionally onto stark pages of color or texture. (I’m showing black-and-white pages here, but the book does have plenty of color.)
Berne’s photos — a surreal travelogue — favor dark shadows, and a common theme is rain or fog seen through windows of cars, trains, and planes. Many of them seem to be long-exposure pictures taken on a phone or a point-and-shoot camera, with the inevitable hand wiggles adding a touch of surreal narrative. If you’ve seen the covers to his albums Snakeoil and Shadow Man, you know what you’re getting into. He’s also taken several photos of bandmates, and one of a peeling-paint building that reminds me of the neighborhood near Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris.
The quietude of the photos is set against the sometimes jarring design of Byram’s drawings, which often feature humanoid figures built from crazy shapes, using impulsive scribbling to fill the spaces. Randomly, several of the drawings seem to be of wedding couples.
Here, I should make a horrible confession: I’ve never been that much into Byram’s art. I appreciate it — and as I said, it set the right mood for that first listen to Low Life. But I have to admit, a lot of his drawings have that look of five seconds and a cocktail napkin. I enjoy abstract art, but I’m not immune to that lingering doubt: Could my kids have done this?
And yet, I love having a book full of the stuff. Byram creates an unsettling little universe. Touches of humor and sarcasm are in there, and a sense of playfulness. It all seems to tap a common theme, something busy and baffling, with touchstones of familiarity underneath layers of a language I haven’t deciphered.
Actually, maybe that’s the point. I guess I like Byram’s work more than I knew.
The accompanying CD is a live recording of the Snakeoil quartet, mixed by David Torn. “Spare Parts” and the suite “OC-DC,” from previous Snakeoil albums, get extended treatments here. The new piece “Lamé” gets explosive after a soothing, twisty composition led by sax and vibes. And the CD opens with “Deadbeat Beyoncé,” a new long-form piece that features a sweeping classical-piano display by Matt Mitchell. Elsewhere on that piece, Oscar Noriega takes a quieter, spare solo that sounds like a different kind of classical — a modern piece, with clean lines and unhurried demeanor.
The disc, which I think is titled Arguis Oleum, has that “live” fidelity but is a welcome addition, almost in the vein of the three-CD Unwound set from Bloodcount (which will always be a pinnacle of Berne’s catalogue). It’s a nice collector’s item.
(* This is the spot where I normally put the “record label” or book publisher. There kind of isn’t one here, this being a one-time project, but you can order the book through Screwgun.)
Glorious Ravage is Lisa Mezzacappa’s “panoramic song cycle,” a set of ambitious tunes inspired by the writings of pioneer women — scientists, explorers, and adventurers.
It might sound incongruous, pitting modern jazz styles against words written a century ago. But with an ace 15-piece band; some thoughtful video from four artists; and Fay Victor on vocals, Mezzacappa has created an exciting an uplifting production.
It really is a production, as I saw on Thursday night. Mezzacappa developed the song cycle during the course of this year, a process that included not only writing and rehearsals, but live previews at the de Young Museum and a research visit to the Louise Arner Boyd archives in Marin. She blogged about it all, and it sounds like it’s been quite a rush for her.
The band combines top-notch musicians from northern and southern California. Alongside a team of Bay Area favorites, it includes Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, and Vinny Golia, along with Nicole Mitchell, a stalwart of Chicago’s AACM scene who now teaches at U.C. Irvine.
Then there’s Fay Victor, who inspired the project after impressing Mezzacappa during a 2011 performance together. Based in New York, Victor sings with a voice like Betty Carter’s but also has a penchant for experimenting. Her albums in the mid-2000s includes elements of psych rock and free improv, and she’s more than willing to experiment with sounds.
The lyrics she’s singing are taken from the writings of women who broke with the customs of the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore, whether for science, for adventure, or “for anything but awaited them in their suffocating Victorian parlors,” as Mezzacappa writes in the show program:
“The fact that there was no contemporary precedent for how they chose to live their lives, and the great lengths they went to live so fully off-script, resonated with me enormously.”
The show got its official debut Sept. 25 at U.C. Irvine, followed by a performance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. The Oct. 1 and 2 shows at Brava Theater might sound a little less prestigious, but it’s a lovely theater with an expansive stage that suits the video projections well.
Some highlights of the music:
“Heat and Hurry” displayed a quick-stepping, sophisticated kind of jazz. It was one of a few songs backed by the cut-out animations of Kathleen Quillian — think Terry Gilliam with less silliness and with varying landscapes in the background (jungle, mountains, Hawaiian lava bed). The song was inspired by world traveler Isabella Bird, who “literally fell ill whenever she returned home to the British Isles of her birth,” as Mezzacappa’s program reads.
“Taxonomical” made use of Victor’s creative use of sounds and inflections, because the lyrics are just scientific names of plants in Greenland. It’s from the journal of Louise Arner Boyd, a biologist who lived in Marin and developed a fascination for the Arctic Circle. Her list made for some creative vocal babbling, after an introductory duet that contrasted eerie laptop sounds by Tim Perkis with some brisk vibraphone statements by Kjell Nordeson.
Boyd and Bird showed up again in “Shut Out the Sun,” which set one of Bird’s poems against actual video footage that Boyd took in the Arctic Circle. The song featured swaying horn harmonies and attractive piano chords — and later, a sublime flute solo from Mitchell to go with the ice floes and glaciers of Boyd’s journey.
“Soroche” drew from the weird rivalry of Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman, mountain women who were intent on setting world records and got into some heated arguments in the Scientific American letters-to-the-editor column. Victor read just a few phrases, repeating them and twisting them all about with her voice. Later, Mezzacappa and Dresser got into a brief duet, the two basses battling in a frenzy as if to replicate the argument. That was a fun moment, and Dresser continued playing for an equally fun duet with Victor.
“City of Wonders” closed the show with some upbeat music and somber thoughts. The writings, by Ida Pfeiffer and Marianne North, reflected on the negative aspects of the California gold rush and the carving up of redwood forests, respectively — two subjects familiar to anyone who grew up around here. The bouncy and brisk piano/vibraphone lines soon cut away to a swinging, old-timey jazz theme with some cool solos from John Finkbeiner (guitar) and Dina Maccabee (violin).
With professional lighting by Allen Willner and with Bay Area musician Suki O’Kane controlling the video, Glorious Ravage had the look that a major work deserves. There’s one more chance to catch it. And check out Mezzacappa’s interview with KALW-FM to learn more about the show’s historical aspects.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing — Mauch Chunk (Hot Cup, 2015)
Now that Mostly Other People Do the Killing has a pianist, I’m glad to see that he’s not just there to play the role of the straight man. But I’m also glad he’s not there to plunge into 100% free jazz.
For 12 years, MOPDTK has mixed swing and bebop with smart-alecky, off-the-rails playing. Bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott has found a formula that injects humor and way-outside soloing into straight-laced compositions.
For Mauch Chunk, the band’s eighth album, trumpeter Peter Evans is gone, with pianist Ron Stabinsky filling the void. The addition of a chord instrument, and one with so much potential to be cheesy and loungy, means a noticeable change of sound, so I was very curious to hear this album. We technically heard Stabinksy on the band’s previous studio album, Blue — the Kind of Blue replica — but how much of that was him, really? (That’s part of the debate.)
Left with one horn soloist, MOPDTK could settle into a formula: Jon Irabagon gets all nutty on sax while the piano maintains the swing and the chords. And that’s how the opening track, “Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe,” starts out, with Stabinsky laying down a straight jazz-club sound behind the theme, played in attitude-laden curls by Irabagon. And Stabinsky continues with straight comping while Irabagon’s solo increasingly warbles further and further off the rails.
But eventually, Stabinsky joins in, too. It’s around the time Irabagon pulls out a “happy as a kitten up a tree” quote that you notice Stabinsky has gone into a frenzied pounding. The pianist is in on the joke, too.
Something similar happens on “Obelisk.” Listen as Stabinsky and Elliott hold the center while Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea surf the astral plane. It’s followed by a new phase where the piano goes into staccato jackhammering mode.
But often, the piano is a jazz anchor for the band’s wanderings, and that’s a good thing. MOPDTK isn’t just about free jazz and crazy solos; its foundation is a deep knowledge of the past and the application of old ideas in new settings. So when Stabinsky goes through a long stretch of straight chording, that’s all right. It fits, and the band is richer for it.
Irabagon is great, as ever, his bebop-gone-mad solos packed with hard-fought surprises. He doesn’t just play the tune; he plays the whole attitude of the band. Elliott on bass and Shea on drums stoke the fire, pushing the mostly hard tempos of Elliott’s smart, snappy compositions.
The band in a nutshell can be experienced on “Townville.” It goes zero-to-sixty right away, the band members pushing one another hard. But the bright-burning solos are followed by an avant-garde intrusion: Irabagon reduces down to whispers and subliminal moans on sax, behind some perky free playing from the rest of the band. Then they pull back into hard-swing mode. It’s a workout.
As usual, the songs are named after obscure Pennsylvania towns — with the caveat that Mauch Chunk is now named Jim Thorpe, as the song title says. There’s a poignant story behind that, which I leave you to discover in Elliott’s CD notes.
Here’s “Mauch Chunk Is Jim Thorpe.”
It promises to be a great sampling of local artists and a full celebratory evening, from 4:00 p.m. to whenever. Don’t sleep on the Jon Raskin set that concludes the festival. Raskin is a member of ROVA Saxophone Quartet and certainly has lots to say with his horn.
Here’s the program, as copied from BayImproviser.com:
MiniWatt String Trio:
Myles Boisen – guitar
Jon Preuss – guitar
Joh Ettinger – violin
Steven Lugerner Quartet:
Steven Lugerner – Saxophone
Danny Lubin-Laden – Trombone
Matthew Wohl – Bass
Britt Ciampa – Drums
Rob Ewing/ Jason Levis Duo:
Rob Ewing – trombone
Jason Levis – drums
Jon Raskin – solo sax.
Aram Shelton, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank Rosaly — Resounder (Singlespeed, 2015)
Resounder is a bustling trio improv session with electronic enhancements added by saxophonist Aram Shelton after-the-fact. But the effect can be subtle. In fact, the players are so adept at wringing sounds from their instruments that you have to wonder if some of the exotic sounds are coming from the original session.
I say that because I first listened to Resounder blind, not knowing about Shelton’s post-processing. Once I knew it was there, my ears started playing tricks on me, particularly on “Bring Focus.” That buzzing tinge in the sax — is it acoustic or electronic? Did the sax just echo a few notes artificially, or was that my imagination? Now there, that was definitely a sax looped back into the mix … you get the idea.
“Fading Memory,” with Fred Lonberg-Holm‘s cello altered to spit ribbons of metal — that’s a more obvious example. Drummer Frank Rosaly gets his turns too, I think. One segment (which I now can’t find) has his toms and bass drum melted together into a low-flying tonal hum. Or was that just my imagination again?
Some of the electronics are more overt, which is good fun. Longberg-Holm gets plenty of electronics treatment to create dull roars and guitar-hero antics. There’s a passage later on “Bring Focus” that’s a long ramp to a crescendo, a nice slow burn of rumbling with a buzzy edge to the cello. And when it’s done, the band drops out, leaving behind a tinny sine wave — it’s a good dramatic moment.
Shelton had planned this to be a regular trio recording, just three good friends getting together in Chicago, and they turned in a crackling set. It’s only afterward that Shelton started considering enhancing the sounds, and it adds depth to what was already a densely packed session. Sometimes there’s some playback that literally adds another voice to the group. More often, though, it just sounds like more than three people, as Shelton’s processing creates new surfaces for the ear to cling to.
Listen to an excerpt of “Hope of Symbioses” on YouTube:
… Or to “Fading Memory” on Soundcloud:
Lacy is the band’s collective hero and was also a friend. And for them, Saxophone Special stands out in Lacy’s catalogue because it’s a saxophone quartet album, recorded from a one-time concert with three other sax players, guitar, and synthesizer. The “three others” aren’t just others — they’re giants of the improvised music genre: Evan Parker, Steve Potts, and Trevor Watts.
The Sept. 16 concert, with Kyle Bruckmann on electronics and Henry Kaiser on electric guitar, serves as both an encore and a warm-up, because ROVA performed Saxophone Special once already, in July, and is scheduled to record its own version of the album next week.
Saxophone Special is out of print — both the orignal LP and Emanem’s expanded CD version. Close to its orbit, however, is the newly reissued ROVA album Favorite Street, a 1984 collection of Lacy tunes. Here’s a link to that album on eMusic.
I can’t claim to be an elite-level Robert Pollard obsessive, but I enjoy his music quite a lot. I was drawn into the circle when a friend introduced me to Guided by Voices sometime around 2000. There are some close communities of GbV fans out there, and I was lucky enough to be welcomed into one. Several years of really fun concerts and surprising, warm friendships ensued.
GbV is best known as an indie-rock band, but Pollard has a taste for weird, noisy music. Producer Todd Tobias has added plenty of noisy shimmer to GbV and Pollard solo albums. The weirdest stuff seemed to be saved for Circus Devils, a collaboration between Pollard, Tobias, and Tobias’ brother Tim (who played bass for GbV for a short spell). There’s some seriously crazy stuff on those records.
Her reasoning isn’t necessarily tied to noise music; instead, she cites Pollard’s volume of work, with I think averages about an album per month. I’m just happy to see Pollard mentioned in a jazz interview. These worlds intersect, they really do.
Gentile’s list also includes Tim Berne‘s Paris Concert trilogy (the albums that got me into creative music in the first place) and two albums close to the Berne orbit: the debut from Jim Black‘s Alas No Axis (which, for me, has its own backstory), and Marc Ducret‘s recent Tower Two.
I’d never encountered Gentile before. Turns out, her music has a Berne-like tilt to it — or at least it does in this track that she’s posted to Soundcloud:
That’s Jeremy Viner on sax, channeling a bit of Berne during the theme before going off into his own mode for the solo. On piano is Matt Mitchell, who of course is in Berne’s Snakeoil band. Adam Hopkins on bass and Gentile on drums round out the sound.
h/t: Avant Music News.