With the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.
During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.
You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.
The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.
James Zitro — Zitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.
Sonny Simmons — Music from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.
New Ghost — Live Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.
Ellis Marsalis — Ruminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.
Ornette Coleman — Town Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.
Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP — Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and the Holy Ghost (Cuneiform, 2014)
The psychedelic shimmer and haze of Rob Mazurek’s São Paolo Underground takes a deeper, spiritual meaning on Return the Tides, because the album is a tribute to Mazurek’s mother, who died two weeks before the recording session.
Outfitted with a band he calls Black Cube SP — an expanded São Paolo Underground, notably adding Thomas Rohrer, who plays a Brazilian fiddle called the rabeca — Mazurek embarks on an epic cathartic journey.
As a band, São Paolo Underground started out rather jazzy but embraced a fuzzier, noisier sound on its 2013 album, Beija Flors Velho E Sujo. On Return the Tides, that concept reaches a new level, a blast radius of distortion and chaos anchored in some spots by groove rhythms. Rohrer’s added muscle is certainly felt. He and keyboardist Guilherme Granado spout forth with guitar-style distortion while drummer Mauricio Takara bashes away, exorcising demons.
(The full Black Cube SP includes two more players — Rogerio Martins on percussion and voice, and vocalist Rodrigo Brandão — but I don’t get the feeling they’re contributing to the towering aspect of this album. The vocals, to which Mazurek also contributes, consist mostly of shouted proclamations, muffled against the supernova of sound on the title track.)
“Oh Mother (Angel’s Wings)” opens with a pleasant riff that has Mazurek soloing not so much over it as under it, sheltered by the structure created. Later, the track builds to a powerful/terrible brightness, an outpouring for the emotions that lie beyond the reach of words. It’s the album’s most powerful moment.
From there, the suite shifts to the fierce, almost celebratory groove of the title track, heavily rocking out. “Let the Rain Fall Upwards,” filled with reverse-playback noises, is a more abstract track, an abrasive, obstinate twist on ambient music.
For the concluding track, “Reverse the Lightning,” Rohrer picks up the soprano saxophone for a manic solo against a more solid, tempered groove. Mazurek’s cornet follows with a thick, echo-laden burst, a portal to another place. The finale is perforated by a long silence that eventually gives way to a ghostly drone accompanied by wordless singing.
Return the Tides was recorded in one continuous take with the goal of leaving nothing behind. Mazurek says he felt “complete release and stillness” when it was done.
Amid the tumult, Mazurek’s does shine through at times, his horn keenly piercing the dense thicket of sound, clearing the way for his mother’s passage to “the next,” as he refers to it. In that sense, Return the Tides has a honed, ritualistic purpose, and it succeeds.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil has released its third album on ECM and is backing it with a U.S. tour launching this week. There’s only one California stop, at the Berkeley Arts Festival (2133 University Ave, Berkeley) on Sunday, May 3.
It’s too bad Yoshi’s is no longer an option. The club’s plush environs suited the sophistication and silences of the originial Snakeoil, especially the glassy foundation laid down by Matt Mitchell’s piano. The live act is more jagged than the ECM-polished version on disc, but it still worked really well in that club. Alas, in the time since Berne played there in 2012, Yoshi’s has become more of a pop venue.
Berkeley Arts doesn’t have Yoshi’s acoustics, but it will provide a receptive crowd that won’t be talking over the music, and we’ll be physically closer to the band. For Berne, the economics might not be the same (actually, who knows; maybe they’re better) but it’s a good tradeoff for us in the audience.
Released on April 10, You’ve Been Watching Me [WARNING: link launches an audio file] adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the original quartet of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and the versatile Ches Smith on drums and percussion. New York audiences got a taste of the new mix at Roulette and Barbès concerts in 2013. Video evidence was posted online — part 1 of the 5-part Barbès concert seems to have gone missing, but here’s part 2:
Cut-and-pasted directly from Berne’s web site (screwgunrecords.com), here’s the Snakeoil itinerary:
April 21 : New York NY, Jazz standard
April 24 : Philadelphia PA, Barnes Museum
April 25 : Baltimore MD, an Die Musik
April 26 : Washington DC, Bohemian Caverns
April 28 : Buffalo NY, Hallwalls
April 29 : Toronto ON, Music Gallery
May 3 : Berkeley CA, Berkeley Arts Festival
May 4 : Seattle WA, Royal Room
May 5 : Portland OR, Jimmy Mak’s
May 6 : Sante Fe NM, GiG performance Space
May 7 : Albuquerque NM, The Outpost
May 8 : St. Louis MO, New Music Circle
May 9 : Chicago IL, Constellation
May 10 : Detroit MI, Trinosophes
May 11 : Minneapolis MN, Icehouse
Powerhouse saxophonists make good foils for Lords of Outland, the free-jazz group that’s been a vehicle for saxophonist Rent Romus for more than 15 years, possibly 20. Vinny Golia made his contribution on the Lords’ Edge of Dark, and it’s Josh Allen’s big tenor sound that adds a jolt to Lords O Leaping.
Lords of Outland — now without Romus’ name on the cover — has explored the more ominous side of free jazz, often inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and the heavies of old-school sci-fi. Romus’ compositions often conjure images of gruff rebellion, but on many track’s it’s electric bassist Ray Schaeffer adding the dark shading, an ominous, liquid low end.
The title track gives each of the three horns — Allen, Romus on alto, and Collette McCaslin on trumpet — a chance to play over a quick-handed bass/drums backing. It’s a terrific exercise in free jazz. Allen’s composition “Plan 9″ seems to show a bit of the Albert Ayler influence that’s always driven Romus. It launches abruptly, with the three horns grappling in a way that adds up to an Ayleresque marching band filing into the room:
“Miasma” is a slower track with Allen in powerhouse mode, ending his solo with long screaming notes. Allen also gets to show off some raspy volume in “Rhetoric,” a track that starts with some silky group improvisation.
The Lords’ experiments with analog electronics figured heavily on previous albums, but the pedals and wires (probably performed by McCaslin, although Schaeffer gets a credit for them, too) are limited here to the track “Ara.” Amid the song’s gentle, even-handed setting, the retro bloops and buzzing play out as a solo against the bass and drums.
Throughout the album, Phillip Everett’s drums keeps the energy level up, filling space with quick wrist snaps on cymbals and toms. Romus spends long stretches comping alongside Allen, but of course he gets turns showing off his own darting, agile playing as well. McCaslin’s fleet trumpet adds a steely touch to the sound, although she’s often drowned out by the saxophones. It all adds up to another nice entry from a long-standing edition of the Lords.
In addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.
Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.
“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.
Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.
Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.
You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano:
Drummer Donald Robinson will be playing on Thursday, April 2, in a duo with saxophonist Marco Eneidi at the Luggage Store Gallery (998 Market St., San Francisco).
Ochs-Robinson Duo — The Throne (Not Two, 2014)
In purely physical terms, this sax/drums duo is a stripped-down version of Larry Ochs‘ Sax and Drumming Core, a trio that included Scott Amendola as a second drummer. But there’s a special element to a duo. It becomes a straight dialogue, a two-way interview, and when the players have known each other as long as Ochs and Donald Robinson have, you end up sitting in on an enlightened conversation.
Ochs is well known for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, not to mention his solo work. Robinson, a fixture of the Bay Area scene, is a free-jazz drummer well steeped in the sound of the ’60s, and he deserves a lot more recognition for his work. His sound is characterized by a deliciously light touch — tight, delicate rolls on the snare and small but effective touches on the toms. It’s a subtle approach that can build to a blistering attack when the moment warrants.
A great example is “Red Tail,” which opens with a Robinson blast and a fast groove, Ochs providing a floating, warbly statement on the sax.
“Breakout,” starts with a funky, catchy snap and builds into a frenzied attack. “The Throne” is another high-energy track, opening with Ochs ping-ponging some riffs, digging deep while Robinson frames the choppy melody.
Much of the album is characterized by Ochs’ tart and aggressive sound on tenor sax and some sopranino. On the quieter side, “Failure” has a very calm, processional feel — an elegant exercise in restraint — while “Song 2″ has a touch of Mississippi blues in its casually sparse step.
“Open to the Light” is worth a special mention, as it’s dedicated to Glenn Spearman, the late tenor saxophonist who helped drive the Bay Area scene in the ’90s. Ochs and Robinson both played in Spearman’s Double Trio, and Spearman and Robinson were a duo themselves back in the day. “Open to the Light” is brisk and hopeful, an uplifting nod to a kindred spirit, with a touch of the kind of soaring, heavy tumult that Spearman was so good at building.
Robinson will be playing in a duo format with Marco Eneidi, a close friend of Spearman’s, on April 2 in San Francisco, as noted above. Robinson and Eneidi have played together quite often, including in a session called Straight Lines Skewed — which is, to my knowledge, the only album that has Robinson listed as the leader. It’s a trio session with Lisle Ellis on bass, an improvised jazz session that reveres silence as much as energy. Worth seeking out; Downtown Music Gallery seems to still have copies, as does Klompfoot (the former Cadence Jazz store).
Hypercolor — Hypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)
It’s easy to categorize Hypercolor as a prog power trio, one with metal leanings in the blistering guitar. But drummer Lukas Ligeti (yes, the classical percussionist; all of these guys have roots in jazz/classical) describes the band’s style as something looser. It’s about “learning complex arrangements and playing them back completely wrong,” he states in the press flier.
The music still has a proggy feel and a sense of structure; this isn’t the kind of free-form quasi-rock you’ll find on Mirakle, the Tzadik album that pitted Derek Bailey’s alien syntax with the grooves of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. But as Ligeti promises, Hypercolor breaks from the prog mold by foregoing pinpoint complexity for jamming and discovery.
The music still retains a rhythm and a spiky, edgy rock/jazz sound with, as bassist James Ilgenfritz explains it, a dash of no-wave attitude. Here, for example, is the ending of “Squeaks:”
The structures aren’t hidden. You can hear the bluesy roots in “Transit” and the pop-song flow behind “Chen,” at least before Eyal Maoz‘s guitar shifts into noisy hyperdrive. The relatively mellow “Ernesto, Do You Have a Cotton Box?” works from something resembling a country/roots framework, chopped up into incorrect measures and backed by Ligeti’s indifferent torrent of snare and hi-hat; it has the sound of a song falling apart.
“Palace” even opens in an outright punk/rockabilly spasm. Fun!
Hypercolor, the album, has its quiet side too. “Forget” is a pretty tune, although it bursts into an anthemic, thundering solo, and “Quixotic” is a slice of jazz introspection, liquidy and patient.
Then there’s the powerful 11-minute epic, “Little Brother.” Abandoning the abandon of other tracks, it digs into some reverent guitar riffing. The tone is serious but aggressive:
This is an album with a lot of facets and some blurred boundaries. Hypercolor, the band, has many more facets than just ear-splitting rock — but the ear-splitting is a lot of fun on its own.
If you’re in NYC, catch Hypercolor at The Stone on April 3, part of Lukas Ligeti’s week-long residency.