Max Johnson Trio

Max Johnson TrioOrbit of Sound (Unbroken Sounds, 2022)

I pick up a comforting late-night vibe on Orbit of Sound. Maybe it’s the way the improvisations build around a earthy sax-bass-drums conversation, or the rich intensity of Anna Webber’s flute on “Too Much Tuna” (excerpt below) — or maybe it’s just the placement of Max Johnson‘s bass in the mix.

On this 2021 live recording, bandleader and composer Johnson often takes the lead in defining melodies, whether composed or improvised. His bass is up-front with the other instruments, carried with volume (both literal and figurative), delivering propulsion without sounding hurried or heavy-handed. For me, the prevailing image is of an intimate space where the musical creativity is flowing strongly as the city outside winds down.

Orbit of Sound documents a trio that was founded in 2018 and had nearly competed a European tour in 2020 when pandemic restrictions struck. (They got another stab at Europe earlier this year.) Anna Webber, fresh off some successful albums with Pi Recordings and an invigorating big-band release co-led with Angela Morris, plays tenor sax and flute. On drums is Michael Sarin, who’s been on the scene for decades in settings like the Thomas Chapin Trio and Myra Melford’s The Same River Twice. Sarin and Johnson teamed up at least one other time that I know of, backing pianist Simon Nabatov on the crackling album Free Reservoir (Leo Records, 2017).

Combining Johnson’s compositions with well balanced improvising, the band explores broadly while maintaining a loose sense of groove. “Over/Under” features an percolating Johnson solo, backed in a steady rhythm by Sarin, that’s just sublime and becomes stronger when Webber finally joins in. Then there are the experimental stretches — arid expanses that revel in silence and concentration before building back into Johnson’s compositional structure.

You can catch Johnson in other contexts on June 20 at Roulette. The program, which Roulette will livestream for free, consists of Johnson’s classical compositions followed by a performance with a three-sax quintet.

DunkelpeK

DunkelpeK Fire’s Hush (AKP, 2022)

While Fire’s Hush has its noisy points, the duo of Nava Dunkelman (percussion) and Jakob Pek (guitar) spend much of the album building stillness. On tracks like “Unknown Memory” and “Threshold,” Dunkelman’s feathery touches on percussion, whether bowed or delicately ringing, build the foundation. “Unknown Memory” is a relaxing zen haze, whereas “Threshold” lingers tensely.

Dunkelman operates with a gem cutter’s precision. Listen to the quick-handed “Anurakti,” a track built from small motions and generous blank space.

On the noisier side, the track “無” — I think the translation means “nothing” or possibly just “no” — shows off Dunkelman on drum kit, explosively breaking up a passage of rugged industrial grind. Pek’s guitar gets a showcase on “Lila,” a bouncy avant-garde hoedown combining jazzy rhythms and snippets of folky melody.

Finally, there’s “Ode to the Dream,” a dialogue showing off a wide range of percussive taps, chimes, and groans, with occasional blips of piano. It’s busy yet spacious — listen below or watch the abstract video of liquid digital distortion.

Music at MOMA: A lesson about Joan Mitchell

Back in November, I spent an afternoon at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The centerpiece exhibit was a sprawling retrospective of American abstract painter Joan Mitchell, who worked from the 1940s until her death in 1992. The event drawing me there was an evening of music and poetry curated to go along with the exhibit. The unexpected reward was an education in Joan Mitchell’s art and her love of music. I wasn’t familiar with her work before, and now I’m a bit of a fan.

Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1956. Photo: Loomis Dean

Of course, I was really there for the music: Phillip Greenlief and Evelyn Davis, followed by Larry Ochs and Donald Robinson. Two duets sandwiched by three brief poetry recitals. Each duet performing an improvised set to the audience that packed the hallway adjacent to the exhibit. That included families with small kids, many of whom drifted away, predictably, but also came wandering back, which was a pleasant surprise.

Greenlief and Davis (saxophone and keyboard) performed one long piece, opening with slow tonal explorations and lots of extended playing. Their set built gradually, with a good sense of drama and a patient eye toward building a singular shape. Ochs and Robinson took a different approach, playing a few pieces, mostly bright and provocative. I’d seen them perform back in July, outdoors, and it felt good to watch them again in a different setting.

Greenlief and Davis, small silhouettes toward the right. The performance was in a hallway along the periphery of the Mitchell exhibit.

The binding factor that brought us all together, though, was the art. And I rediscovered why art, like music, has to be experienced live. On the web, at first blush, Joan Mitchell’s work didn’t interest me. I like abstract painting, but her squiggles and splatters didn’t feel intriguing.

In person, that all changes. Due to the sizes of the canvases, each individual piece envelops you. The color strategies that separate one painting from another become more important, and seeing several paintings in a row provides the contrast that makes each piece’s personality more evident. Up close, you get a sense for their differences, and sometimes you can feel like you understand why a piece had to exist.

Better still, the exhibit was a chronologically arranged narrative of Mitchell’s career, showing phases from early, less abstract pieces to the grand canvases that she is best known for. The sense of history and of place — Mitchell, an American, worked for years in Paris, and the exhibit included plenty of photos of her studio there — imbue the work with a deeper life.

As for the tie to music and poetry, that wasn’t superficial. Both fed Mitchell’s creativity. “Music poems, landscape, and dogs make me want to paint. … And painting is what allows me to survive,” the exhibit quotes her saying. Jazz was part of her life, as were symphonic music and opera. In 1979, she befriended composer Gisèle Barreau as a creative peer, and one of Mitchell’s major works, a diptych of canvases, is named Two Pianos, after Barreau’s 1982 composition Piano-Piano, “which balances masses of percussive sounds with flourishes of flute and piano melodies,” as the MOMA placard put it.

Music informed Joan Mitchell’s paintings, and on that November evening, her paintings inspired the creation of new music. I like that.

Joan Mitchell, Two Pianos (1980). For a better photo, see https://melaniebiehle.com/2021/12/inspiration-joan-mitchell/

Stiff beats in the dry season

I don’t delve much into Japan’s creative-music scene. It’s the distance, the language, the simple inconvenience. But I try to check in occasionally. Otomo Yoshihide was a pretty obvious touchstone. The recently departed Itaru Oki was a nice discovery (thank you, NoBusiness Records) that is still unfolding for me.

And I take random stabs sometimes. Through Squidco, I found the trio sim and their 2009 album with Otomo. Dry steady beats are the foundation of Monte Alta Estate, not necessarily rocking out so much as following a studious rock aesthetic, with squiggles of life in the background: electronic scratches; backwards speaking or singing; a turntable needle running over a blank record to produce those comforting little curls of static. It’s all brightly lit, more treble than bass. The simplicity sometimes overstays its welcome, as on the opener “5.5mm,” but it’s a good time overall.

The “magic” is all in those background sounds, built by Otomo (turntables and synths) and Sim’s laptop noise performer, Ootani Yoshio. That ongoing chatter against the staccato rhythm helps define the personalities for each track.

There’s a enjoyably stumbling feel to “Am” and “Dig” — everyone is marching in tempo but no single instrument is setting the beat. “Dig” even gets a bit frenzied toward the end. “Freska” feels fresh and alive: Sustained keyboard chords in the back alter the color as the guitar and drums — and a hint of a bass pulse — keep driving forward. It’s mechanical but it’s enjoyable.

Here’s a few seconds of cut-up babble leading into that keyboard sheen. Note the little turntable-vinyl pops deep in the mix.

“Oom” loosens the reins for a freer sound, including quietly jazzy drumming against a “solo” of samples and chopped-up keyboard work, in Burroughs-like cut-up technique A stumbling non-beat turns up the intensity near the end.

Guitarist Oshima Teruyuki was Sim’s composer. On Bandcamp, you can find another 2009 effort of his in the same vein — Signal Extraction, with the trio SNO.

Teruyuki’s more recent output includes two long-form noise pieces released on Bandcamp this year. R1 is built from brash synthesizer sounds, including airy bursts and mechanical rattling. R2, about twice as long, includes the same palette while adding ominous voices (in English) and a more gaunt silences.

non-dweller: Scrapes, scribbles, resonance

gabby fluke-mogul, Jacob Felix Heule, & Kanoko Nishi-Smithnon-dweller (Humbler, 2021)

Two sets of strings and a bass drum: The configuration could be purely percussive, but non-dweller is built more around bowing and scraping, an ongoing chatter. The first of two long-form improvisations on this album starts with a choppy, nervous bustle, like beach crabs in full sprint, and later settles into buzzing and rattling vibrations.

It’s sometimes hard to tell which instrument is making which sound. gabby fluke-mogel‘s violin often stands out easily, tending toward squeaking microtones and extra-musical sounds pulled from the strings. Kanoko Nishi-Smith bows the koto for deep-register rumbling or clicks away like a tightly wound rubber band. Jacob Felix Heule‘s bass drum isn’t about dramatic concussions; he creates resonance in high tones or deep swoops. Just as the strings can play percussively, the drum becomes something of a stringed instrument.

Almost like a drone, the sounds blend into a mesmerizing haze. Unlike a drone, this music wiggles and contorts — there is an undercurrent of activity organized into episodes, like the inner workings of a vast, multi-staged machine.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp.

For a glimpse of the processes involved, here’s a snippet of fluke-mogel and Nishi-Smith performing in 2018 at Temescal Arts Center, Oakland:

Craig Taborn would like 60 seconds of your time, 60 times

60 x Sixty arrived in September with minimal explanation. The main thing to know is that it’s Craig Taborn’s experiment, an online set of sixty 60-second pieces played in random order. It exists at https://60xsixty.com.

I think of 60 x Sixty as a museum installation built to be experienced from afar. In addition to the varying moods and textures of the music, each track is illustrated by one color, possibly selected at random, filling the browser window. You’re suffused in color, which can make the musical journey feel more like participating in an immersive film (albeit one where nothing physically happens). The color does not necessarily complement the sounds — and yet, you can’t help but try to marry the two.

The music is mostly electronic (solo piano makes several appearances), sometimes busy, sometimes sparse, but always conveying that placid “museum installation” feeling, even when an individual piece presents jarring rhythms or tumbling layers of motion. The tone of each musical doodle stays level — no sudden shifts within any given 60 seconds.

The pieces never seem long, for obvious reasons, but some pieces do seem to linger and develop, while others feel like they make a quick statement and then bow out. I think this was mostly a function of whether my attention was diverted — but then again, some of the “shortest” songs were the ones closest to a conventional melody and rhythm. Maybe that because those pieces felt like they offered less room to explore.

It’s tempting here to draw comparisons to The Residents’ Commercial Album, which likewise consisted of 60-second tracks. Some of Taborn’s pure synth creations even feel like they could fit on that album. The Residents, though, were coming from a prankster’s POV, the conceit being that they were reducing pop songs down to the essentials, stripping away repeated verses and choruses. 60 x Sixty is a more serious exploration of time and attention.

I don’t think my notes from my first listen are all that instructive, but here’s a sample:

2. Greenish brown. A stagger of drums and a distorted horn. 27. Powder blue. Very slow piano notes over a distant motor rumbling. 31. A darker pink. The white noise of ocean waves. 33. Light purple. 5/4 keyboard riff against a springy EDM beat. 38. Pale green. Jagged and corrupt. 44. Mustard. A fading chime and the rumble of an eternal subway train, almost musique concrète. 45. Pale blue. Piano with a touch of free-jazz energy (other solo piano pieces have been more ambient). 53. Forest green. Cinematic strings but also crunching, latching sounds; very Halloweeny. 54. Pale green again. Ambient piano with a Harold Budd-esque central chord. 56. Olive green. Piano in a chaotic vein, classical off the leash. 60. Royal blue. Glass insects skittering on a table of water.

House band: An improvisation in nine rooms

Phillip GreenliefBellingham for David Ireland (Edgetone, 2020)

This is a live recording of a “concert” — or, really, more a site-specific audio installation, a “happening.” In October 2017, saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and eight other musicians spread out among the rooms of 500 Capp Street — former residence of artist David Ireland, and now a nonprofit arts space — for an hour of improvised performance. As musicians read from Greenlief’s map-based graphical score, the audience was free to wander the two-story house, hearing different aspects of the sound depending which musicians were nearby or farther away. Every audience member experienced this show differently.

With the CD, you get yet another experience, one delivered by an omniscient narrator, combining the sounds of the nine rooms into one document. No musician and no attendee experienced the sounds the way they are on this recording. (The part of the narrator is played by engineer Phil Perkins, assisted by Sara Thompson; Greenlief had a hand in the mixing a well.)

What we get is an hour’s worth of spirited, reverent improvising, built up in response to the house itself and to the other musicians. Greenlief, positioned in the entryway at the foot of the stairs, had the most central vantage and could probably hear a little of everything. Other musicians caught glimpses of the whole based on what their neighbors were doing, and this chain of communication is what keeps the overall performance cohesive. “Players speculate and swap rumors,” Sam Lefebvre writes in his rich, immersive liner notes.

The mix preserves a sense of distance. I feel like I sometimes hear instruments that are pushed toward the foreground or background, although it’s also possible they were simply playing loudly or quietly. The performance begins with slow, hovering sounds, almost giving the impression of a haunted house. Many sounds aren’t immediately identifiable, considering the amount of extended playing involved, the two electronics musicians included, and Aurora Josephson’s ghostly wordless vocals. The piece builds up a restless energy, often through percussive rustling and the occasional starburst of electronics. But there are also mindful, meditative passages, like the brief violin soliloquy by Gabby Fluke-Mogul at around the 48-minute mark. These are chances for everyone to breathe and, I would imagine, to drink in the atmosphere of the house itself.

We can’t relive the whole experience of the performance — the physical sense of exploration, the dim nighttime lighting, the wood of the stairways and doors. The CD booklet’s photos, by Pamela Z, drop some compelling hints. Still, I’m glad that a document of this special event exists, so the stragglers like me can imagine walking through that house on that evening.

The album is a spiritual successor to Phillip Greenlief Solo at 500 Capp Street (2019), a limited-edition, vinyl-only release in which Greenlief wandered the house alone, improvising in reaction to the spaces he encountered.

Minus Zero

Bandcamp Friday is coming up, the first-Friday-of-the-month sale where the website becomes a nonprofit for a day, donating its cut of all music sales to the artists. It’s a nice gesture on their part, and a great way to support musicians. (Much better than Spotify. I do use Spotify, but independent musicians and creative-music artists lack the “scale of catalog” to earn even couch-cushion change from the platform.)

Bandcamp Friday is fun to support, and it takes on a different, equally glowing feeling when it comes to a nonprofit label that’s giving away its own proceeds already.

Minus Zero, founded in 2017, is an online label that donates its revenues to Planned Parenthood. “Label” might be the wrong word. Minus Zero is more like a community collective, a never-ending bake sale where artists (a combination of Bay Area folks and New Yorkers) can convert some of their work into money to a good cause. 

The catalog is a trove of current and archival recordings, including some live work: 

A lot of Minus Zero’s output takes advantage of the lack of a physical format — no LP sides or CDs to fill:

  • Live at Temescal Arts, by Josh Marshall and Daniel Pearce, is a 22-minute sax/drums improvisation, energetic and thoughtful.
  • Small Cities, by Vinnie Sperrazza and Noa Fort, is an 8-minute handful of percussion miniatures.
  • Drummer Jordan Glenn’s group BEAK put forth a clutch of live tracks.

And there’s plenty more to explore from the likes of Beth Custer, Lisa Mezzacappa, Ava Mendoza, Marco Eneidi (!), John Tchicai, and Robert Dick. The label’s newest releases include For Diane, a multi-artist album of piano solos in tribute to the late Diane Moser. Plenty to explore, and this Friday marks a particularly nice moment to lay down a few dollars in support.

Separately, Minus Zero has forwarded around this group of links pertaining to the political assault on healthcare and women’s reproductive rights. If this isn’t the right time for you to support the cause with your wallet, you can support it in spirit by staying educated:

NPR 
www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/08/02/1022860226/long-drives-costly-flights-and-wearying-waits-what-abortion-requires-in-the-sout

Texas Tribune 
www.texastribune.org/2021/05/18/texas-heartbeat-bill-abortions-law/
www.texastribune.org/2021/07/13/texas-heartbeat-bill-lawsuit/

Democracy Now 
www.democracynow.org/2021/7/13/reproductive_rights_roe_v_wade_scotus

AP (Montana) 
apnews.com/article/health-abortion-laws-montana-planned-parenthood-92274e5af2f373b9a1fae952e2c4367c

Guttmacher Institute 
www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/abortion-policy-absence-roe#

More live music, and a new Ochs-Robinson album

Ochs-Robinson DuoA Civil Right (ESP-Disk, 2021)

I don’t think I saw any live music during all 2020. That includes the 10 weeks before lockdown set in; I really believe I didn’t get out for all of that time. There’s some kind of lesson in there about never making the shots you don’t take.

So my first show in at least 18 months, possibly longer, was something to savor. It came two months ago, in June, to see Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) were playing as a duo, supporting A Civil Right, their new album on ESP-Disk. (So, yes, this predates the Apura! concert I just wrote about.)

It was also my first trip to at The Back Room, a DIY labor of love in downtown Berkeley operated by Sam Rudin. It’s a comfortable space in a brick building right off University Avenue — but with social distancing cautions still in effect, the show was held out on tiny Bonita Avenue, where the stage and audience consumed half the street’s width. On late weekend afternoons, downtown gets pretty quiet, so the street was hardly trafficked. It felt safe in a Covid sense but also in a not-getting-run-over sense.

And they draw a crowd, possibly more than fifty. The Back Room gravitates toward mainstream jazz and world music, but Rudin says he’s developed an affinity for more freely improvised work as well, and that audience was hungry for real-time, in-person music.

One song title I remember from the show is “Yesterday and Tomorrow,” a track from the album, written by Robinson. It opens with pensive cymbals and hi-hat — meditative but hardly quiet, filled with the clashing of metal. On the album, and on stage as well, if I’m remembering correctly, this led into Ochs on sopranino saxophone, tracing a thin-lined whisper through the empty air. I remember the piece making heavy use of silence, and while the street noises nearby were unavoidable, the crowd listened reverently — the kind of shared moment that can’t be replicated online.

Most of the pieces, though, were lively. Ochs and Robinson have played together for decades in many contexts, including the duo, so they have that telepathic link and a shared sense of purpose. Their music is composition-based in the sense that a gazebo is “indoors” — the structure is there, but you’re surrounded by openness and seemingly infinite degrees of freedom. Their unhurried improvising is thoughtful even through passages of bombast, and they’re especially good at using relatively fast motion to set up a reflective mood — “Regret,” on the new album, is a good example of that. Robinson’s drumming is an equal partner to Ochs’ sax, filled with calm precision and fluid rolls on the toms.

“Arise the Poet” is a good opener for the album, grabbing the attention as Ochs plunges quickly into small squalls of sound. Robinson is deceptively serene while keeping the energy strong and flowing.

Ochs is one-fourth of ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and they’ve done a live show as well, in addition to some webcasts. They’ll also have an album coming out on ESP-Disk, the same label as A Civil Right. It’s a slow healing process, but it’s happening.

Karl Evangelista’s Apura! — Online July 31

It’s an online concert, but Karl Evangelista’s Apura! quartet did play it live, recorded two weeks ago. You can see the streamed show starting tonight (Saturday, July 31), and it will remain online for two days.

Tickets and a boatload of info at Brown Paper Tickets.

I was lucky enough to be included in the limited-seating audience, a kind gesture by Karl. And just — just being there was an experience. This was actually my second live show of the summer (I caught Larry Ochs and Donald Robinson playing outdoors next to The Back Room in downtown Berkeley) but the first one where the audience was filled with the musicians I’d been listening to for years. I only talked to a few people, feeling kind of introverted that day, but still … it was like a small reunion. It felt great.

The venue was Oaktown Jazz Workshops, an educational space that looks like it’s a former restaurant, complete with a bar. It has a nice stage and a good-sized seating area for an audience on folding chairs. The event was filmed with multiple cameras and good lighting.

And of course the music cooked. Being there really does matter when it comes to music. There really is a presence that goes both directions. And being able to see the visual cues among the musicians enhances the experience, especially in jazz and improvised music but also in chamber music, even in rock.

Evangelista’s Apura! project began as a cross-cultural, intergenerational look at social upheaval (which is part of Evangelista’s family heritage — more on that here). South African drummer and anti-Apartheid activist Louis Moholo-Moholo was the inspiration, and he and pianist Alexander Hawkins appear on the Apura! album released on Astral Spirits in 2020.

The same group couldn’t reconvene for this concert, but I was thrilled with the lineup that did appear. Evangelista enlisted esteemed drummer Andrew Cyrille, who flew in from the east coast. Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Francis Wong on saxophone rounded out the group, with Evangelista leading on guitar.

The music was composition-based free jazz with plenty of open spaces for improvisation. Evangelista and Wong carved out the melodies, later aided by Rei Scampavia (Evangelista’s partner in Grex) on piano, and Wong frequently brought on the fire and fury as a piece developed. Patrick Wolff joined on sax late in the show to amp things up further. Mezzacappa was a dynamo, often striking an attack pose wile digging into the bass strings — it was good to see her perform again. Cyrille was very quiet, exuding calm from his person, and some of his best moments were in the form of crackling undercurrents, keeping the music moving. And then he’d have his long spans of frenetic energy, spiking the music with accents or shaping the sound with a barrage of cymbals.

It was great to be in a live audience again, and I’m sure it was a joy for these musicians to be back on stage.

Read more about this show at East Wind and East Bay Express.