Hyper+ Plus ElSaffar

Hyper+ Amir ElSaffarSaadif (nusica, 2016)

09The Italian trio Hyper+ has a bright sound and a loose demeanor that match trumpeter Amir ElSaffar well. The four players combine forces for an intriguing session on Saadif, one of the latest albums from the nonprofit group nusica.org.

ElSaffar has made his name with a couple of well-received albums on the Pi Recordings label, mixing Middle Eastern elements, including chant-like vocals and microtonal scales, into a very New York brand of modern jazz.

Hyper+, meanwhile, favors perky, smart tunes that swing pleasantly. The jazz tradition is never far away — the tune “Futuritmi” includes some trading fours — but they’re thoroughly modern in their approach.

It’s a nice match. The horns of ElSaffar and saxophonist Nicola Fazzini (also of XY Quartet, another band on the nusica label) blend frequently and feed positively off one another. Pieces such as “Hyper Steps” or “13th of November” feature moments of the horns’ improvising intertwining; even when it’s just a fill to augment the other horn’s solo, it’s a warm touch.

The cohesiveness of the music is surprising because the moods of Hyper+’s and ElSaffar’s compositions contrast so starkly. Hyper+’s approach feels direct, even when the composition is a bit complex, as in the irregular hopping of the tune “Hyper Steps.” ElSaffar’s songs, on the other hand, bring solemn traditional elements, including singing, to the introductions of “Kosh Reng” and “13th of November.”

All is good in the end, though, as the ElSaffar songs eventually open up into a jazzy space that the whole group can occupy. The mood might be a little downcast, but the improvising still shines. I’m thinking particularly of “13th of November,” which gets into a sensational, gray-skied group improvisation with the two horns dancing against Alessandro Fedrigo’s acoustic bass guitar. Eventually, drummer Luca Colussi launches into a snappy groove as the song finally turns a little bit sunny for a final theme.

hyper_13gennaio-02ElSaffar’s “Human Tragedy” ends the album on a more upbeat note than you might think. Set at a midtempo gallop, it sets up some fluid soling by Fazzini and a nice but brief bass solo by Fedrigo.

You can hear the entire album at nusica.org — and remember, they’re a nonprofit, so purchasing one of their CDs would be a nice gesture.

December 7, 2016 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

A Pauline Oliveros Walkabout

It wasn’t until days after the fact that I learned Pauline Oliveros had passed. So, I spent part of the past week absorbing random samples of her work.

Oliveros will be remembered as a pioneer of electronic music, a director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now succeeded by the New SFTMC and sfSound’s annual tape music festival), an improviser who crafted the philosophy of Deep Listening, and a female composer and crusader against sexism in classical and new music.

NPR had a nice obituary covering those points. The New York Times ran a good piece as well, penned by Steve Smith, a longtime arts writer with deep roots in jazz, classical, and metal.

I started my Oliveros walkabout by listening to “Bye Bye Butterfly,” her seminal 1965 electronics work, for the first time. Its source material includes a recording of Madama Butterfly, the opera, spun on a turntable and run through “oscillators and a tape delay,” as Smith describes it.

For a dose of Oliveros’ accordion playing, Roulette TV has a 20-minute performance followed by a brief interview. The music is a droney sheen, drawing you in to hear the buzzing harmonies.

Here’s something out of the ordinary: Circa 1993, Oliveros scored a dance-performance piece called “Ghostdance.” Created by Paula Josa-Jones, it’s meant to be performed in an area such as a park, so that the location becomes part of the piece. Oliveros’ score is as ethereal as you’d expect. There’s a lot more info on Josa-Jones’ website.

I also picked up The Roots of the Moment, the 1988 Hatology album, rereleased in 2006, that situates Oliveros’ accordian in the “interactive electronic environment” created by Peter Ward. He adds electronic touches, turning the accordion’s sound into endless shimmering planes of music. At first, I assumed Ward’s contributions were pre-recorded — tape music to guide Oliveros — but it blends together so nicely, I wonder if he was recording and playing back samples, like Robert Fripp does with Frippertronics.

For a deeper “deep listening” experience, I devoted some time to the album that’s actually titled Deep Listening (New Albion, 1989). Oliveros, trombonist Stuart Dempster, and vocalist Panaiotis, along with engineerAlbert Swanson and a didjeridu that one of them played, recorded it in an army cistern 186 feet in diameter, letting the reverberations layer over one another. Gentle waves of sound overlap and dissolve; it’s a different kind of “ambient” music.

December 6, 2016 at 8:19 am Leave a comment

Surplus 1980, Back at the Starry Plough

dscn3540moeMoe Staiano’s brainy punk band Surplus 1980 has been playing gigs again. I finally caught up with one — at the Starry Plough on Saturday night.

The band’s music, documented on the album Relapse in Response and the EP Arterial Ends Here, works from often stomping rhythms, sometimes with tricks like the occasional odd time signature. Math rock and jazz aren’t far removed from Surplus 1980’s explosive punk. In the studio, Moe can bring in guest musicians to flesh out the jazzy ideas, but there’s no substitute for seeing the band live and getting caught up in those infectious rhythms.

Mark Pino plays drums for the band, and Staiano occasionally joins him on a second drumkit. I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to watch Staiano on the drum kit, bashing away in a state of manic control. A couple of songs on Saturday night had the two of them bashing away at unison phrases while the two guitars provided chunky riffs as well as bouts of electric noodling and triggered keyboard sounds.

This was bassist Steve Lew’s last gig with the band. On a sadder note, the whole night was overshadowed by the tragic warehouse fire in Fruitvale, news of which had spread earlier in the day; Surplus 1980 gave their proceeds to the victims and passed out a donation jar as well.

I regret that I missed the previous set, of John Shiurba’s Vegan Butcher. It’s guitar-based slowcore, and I like what I’d heard of it on Bandcamp. Hopefully there’ll be more chances to see both of these bands in the coming year.

(Photo, left to right: Moe Staiano, Melne Twf, Steve Lew.)

December 5, 2016 at 3:28 pm Leave a comment

Another Day With the Fred Frith Trio

Fred Frith Trio performs Dec. 3 at St. Cyprian’s Church (2097 Turk Street, San Francisco) on Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m.

Fred Frith TrioAnother Day in Fucking Paradise (Intakt, 2016)

frith-anotherWith a title like that, you’re not expecting a bucket of sunshine. And indeed, the Fred Frith Trio’s debut album delivers a long-form improvisation that’s often dark and ghostly, with Frith playing plenty of sinister, echoey tones against the deep, nimble bass of Jason Hoopes and the often aggressive drumming of Jordan Glenn.

There’s a happy subtext to all of this. Hoopes and Glenn were students of Frith’s at Mills College. They’re part of a collective of prog/pop/folk-minded musicians Frith had mentored, work that resulted in bands like Jack o’ the Clock, which includes Hoopes and Glenn, and Frith’s own Cosa Brava.

The Fred Frith Trio debuted last year with a show at Slim’s in San Francisco, followed by a tour in Europe. I’m calling Another Day in Fucking Paradise a long-form improvisation, which would match the strategy the band used at the Slim’s show, it appears to really be a set of studio improvisations stitched into one long piece with 13 track divisions. There might be some overdubs involved as well; Frith is keen on the idea of touching up an improvisation for the sake of a recording.

The album generally follows a fast-slow-fast trajectory — meaning, the tracks in the middle cover slower, subtler territory. That’s where some of the trio’s darkest and most intersting music gets made. The 11-minute “Yard With Lunatics” starts with Hoopes and Glenn spewing shards of nighttime glass but quickly levels into a spacious plateau, full of ghostly guitar and bass statements left to linger in the air, backed with swampy electronic squiggles and blips.

Of course, the faster segments are fun, too. Early in the album, “Dance of Delusion” and “La Tempesta” feature lots of Hoopes’ throttling electric bass sound and some rapid-fire clatter by Glenn. Frith is all over the place, as you’d expect — but even when Frith is in a “lead” role, it often feels like he’s tending to the overall tapestry rather than taking center stage.

The last third of the album has Hoopes turning to acoustic bass, strolling melodically through the clutter and cobwebby guitar effects of “Straw Man,” and eventually bowing on “Schelechtes Gewissen,” an incongruously organic sound against Frith’s tight staticky guitar fuzz and Glenn’s aggressive drums.

“Phantoms of Progress” has a jam feel, with droplets of psychedelic guitar echoing against Hoopes’ hopping, jazzy bass melody — it’s a very nice choice for the penultimate track. “The Ride Home” closes it out with a shuffling rhythm and some peaceful electric-bass melody. Frith hovers in the background, spinning near-rhythms and near-melodies to keep things just a little unsettling.

December 2, 2016 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

Berkeley Arts’ Last Stand

dscn3521-greenlief-cutFor five years, Berkeley Arts Festival has hosted a variety of music shows, including a creative-music series curated by Phillip Greenlief. It’s also an art gallery that’s hosted various exhibits and events.

An oasis like this rarely lasts, especially when it’s in an economically desirable spot like downtown Berkeley, one block from the U.C. campus. Berkeley Arts is pulling up stakes in a few days. I’m assuming it’s the usual story of the building being sold. In fact, the hardware store next door has already vacated.

For his final show at the space, Greenlief convened a couple dozen musicians last night to perform one big, sublime, conducted improvisation called “Index.”

“Index” was based on a graphical score, with Greenlief cueing musicians in and out, creating episodes that crested and then shrank back down. After the show, he talked about the “reverence” that permated the piece — no one broke loose and really went nuts. There was a conscious effort to keep within the boundaries of the piece, maybe in deference to the community feel of the concert. This being the final Berkeley Arts show, dozens of people turned out.

For an additional emotional note, this band was considered a convening of OrcheSperry, the improvising orchestra created in honor of bassist Matthew Sperry, whose life was cut short in a traffic accident more than a decade ago.

Each phase of “Index” began with Greenlief picking one or two players to rebuild the sound from silence or near-silence. Most of the entrances were subdued, letting the blanketing air linger around the music. Gradually, Greenlief added more players until an active jam developed. He’d let that ride for a while, then drop out most or all of the musicians at once, flashing a sign with the Ø symbol to queue them to wrap up their statements.

Electronics figured heavily into the piece. Not just laptops, but good old fashioned analog as well — check out Thomas DiMuzio‘s cabling in the photo up top. Even Tom Bickley, who plays recorder, put a mic on his instrument, turning it into a growling nightmare wolfhound. (This was really cool.) The four electronics players each had their solo moments, but their main contribution was to color the periods when the energy began to surge, filling the gaps with crunches and swirls. It was a nice effect of busy-ness that helped spur the music forward.

One thing to understand about Berkeley Arts: It’s divided into two long, thin galleries, which meant the large band and relatively large audience were both arranged in long rows. I sat to one side of the band and didn’t get to see who was on the other end, in the percussion section.

dscn3519-setup-cutThat created some pleasant surprises. I hadn’t realized there was a vibraphone in the house, or that someone would be playing the piano, but boom, there they were. There was a long percussion solo that sounded like sand being poured onto a drum. I didn’t find out who that was, but Suki O’Kane, who’d brought an enormous bass drum, seems like a good suspect.

The point is, some sounds seemed to come out of nowhere. Even people in the band were saying they had that experience.

One thing that made Index work was that Greenlief, as far as I could tell, never felt obligated to get the entire band playing at once, not even for a “grand finale” moment. That kept the sounds focused, with few cases of players drowning one another out. What we essentially heard was a rotating ensemble, ranging from 1 to maybe 10 people at a time. And when violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul and cellist Crystal Pascucci hit the right moment during a duet — with Fluke-Mogel playing a few loud strums on the violin, as if it were a guitar — it was time, and the piece ended.

In all, it was a nice finale for Berkeley Arts. But it was also a chance for all of us, including members of the band, to thank Phillip for curating this series. It’s hard work, but it helps the community so much. Thanks, Phillip.


November 29, 2016 at 11:33 pm Leave a comment

A Crimson Break, 2016

In my bachelor days shortly after college, my day-after-Thanksgiving ritual was to hole up in the apartment, stack up some albums and CDs to listen to, and fire up the Civilization computer game for a day-long session of empire-building, fueled by Stouffer’s and soda.

That was 25 years ago. Today, I have wife and kids — and, this year, a sick pet — to fill the day. The PC that used to run Civilization is long gone, and I can’t afford the time to dive into the likes of Civilization VI (and besides, the game sounds like it’s become too much like an actual job).

DGM5013_booklet_pairs_DGM5001 bookletStill, in a nod to rituals past, I did take some time shortly after midnight (technically the second day after Thanksgiving) to fire up the computer and spin some prog. The game this time was much less epic — I’ve gotten addicted to splix.io in the past week and am hoping to burn out on it before I have to go back to work. And the prog was modern-day, but still appropriate for some nostalgia: I’d finally taken the time to get my hands on King Crimson’s Live in Toronto, recorded in 2015 with the new three-drummer lineup.

I went out of my way to avoid seeing the track listing. And I did my best to try to focus on the drummers from time to time, more so than normal. It was fun.

Live in Toronto is an official bootleg, meaning the sound quality isn’t pristine. The drums, in particular, aren’t miked loudly, which is actually good — the CD delivers the DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS sound at appropriate moments, but the drumming doesn’t overshadow the rest of the music. Tony Levin comes through the mix clearly; you don’t have to struggle much to hear him.

The band has a retro touch, between Jakko Jakszyk’s very “prog” vocals (on the order of Greg Lake but crisper) and the presence of Mel Collins, the sax man who was a fixture of ’70s British prog, including early Crimson. The bluesy accents of “Pictures of a City” and “Vrooom” really come out, between the guitar choices and the sax assisting the melody.

The most obvious drummer spotlights are the all-drums track “Hell Hounds of Krim” and the triple solo during “Meltdown,” but one moment that stood out to me was during “Vrooom,” as the drummers playfully handed off high-hat rhythms. The drummer to the left (Pat Mastelotto, judging from the cover photo) plays a quick rhythm, with the center and right-hand drummer following (it’s Bill Rieflin, then Gavin Harrison, I think).

For me, the drums are particularly enjoyable during the quiet segments, with each drummer providing improvised nibbles of texture. But you can’t beat the excitement when all three furiously pound away.

Even so, live recordings don’t give you the full-body experience of being there. Much of the band’s presence is lost in my cheapo audio setup. “Red,” in particular, didn’t feel like the usual ocean wave of force — although when the three drummers kick into full gear at once, it’s massive.

The big, booming older material was welcome, but it also warmed my heart to hear the “Discipline”-like guitar weaving on “Meltdown,” only because it’s been a while since I’ve listened to that kind of Fripp/Crimson. I could actually do without “Epitaph” in general, but it makes for a powerful ending to the first disc, and being in a mood for some nostalgia, I enjoyed it. Nice place to visit.

And now the horrible confession: Between the late hour and my age, I didn’t have the stamina for Disc 2. Luckily there’s a good long weekend ahead. Long live the Crims!

(Random bonus link: Tony Levin’s tour diary, stuffed with photos, as usual.)

November 26, 2016 at 12:48 pm Leave a comment

ROVA’s Celebration of Butch Morris

ROVA: OrchestrovaNo Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)

rova-noThe beauty of conduction, Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ method for conducted improvisation, is in the silences.

Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.

No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.

In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.

ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.

The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.

“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in

Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”

“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.


Source: ROVA

The instrumental groupings (strings/rock/ROVA) are crucial to “The Double Negative,” which starts with each group giving an opening statement, directed by graphical scores. You get whispery strings, a delicate sax quartet, and as an exclamation point, a guitar-bass-drums segment anchored by Jason Hoopes‘ rattling bass. The piece ends with the three groups merging in a glorious slow crash.

Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.

And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.

November 22, 2016 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

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