If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.
But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from Meanwhile, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.
It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.
The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.
The band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.
Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.
I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).
Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.
Here’s a new Bay Area duo in the “lower-case” vein of quiet improvisation. Quoting directly from the Bay Improviser calendar:
microspoke is a new duo project from Phillip Greenlief and Tim Perkis that uses quiet, microscopic noise as a landscape to explore highly detailed electro-acoustic improvisation. the duo made their west coast premiere at this year’s KZSU’s Day of Noise.
… Here’s the awesome part: KZSU recorded the 2015 Day of Noise and posted all 24 hours to archive.org. So you can get a preview of microspoke. They’re No. 28 on the program, listed under Greenlief and Perkis’ names.
It’s a half-hour set, sometimes prickly and abrasive, especially from the saxophone side, and sometimes calm and ambient. Actually, “ambient” might be the wrong word, considering the music changes character and direction readily — this is a dynamic set of improvisation, using the light touch of restraint to keep the mood spectrum on the contemplative side.
Skip to around 13:20 for a nice passage that surges to a high point, then retreats back into small sounds. When Greenlief moves into small scribbles, Perkis responds with some rubber-band sine-wave noises — a nice choice that displays his ability to wring musicality out of his laptop sounds.
Go have a listen to microspoke and more: https://archive.org/details/kzsudayofnoise2015.
And yes, the duo will be playing on May 21 in Oakland, as noted above. Also on the bill is the trio of Amy Reed (electric guitar), Phillip Greenlief (woodwinds), and Shanna Sordahl (cello and electronics).
Bouncing, off-kilter bop meets avant- garde smarm in the world of guitarist Jon Lundbom’s Big Five Chord. Led by guitarist Lundbom and featuring Jon Rabagon (soprano sax) and Moppa Elliott (bass) of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the band mixes up styles nicely on Jeremiah, their fifth studio album.
It comes to an extreme on “Lick Skillet,” where the opening solo by guest trombonist Sam Kulik consists of a helicopter impersonation — a growl that starts low and quiet, then buzzes over your head. It’ll send jazzheads off the rails, but it’s followed by a pleasant faux-somber theme and a flute solo (Justin Wood, another addition to the core five) against an odd bass rhythm and some hip guitar comping. It turns into real jazz, if you want to put it that way.
Overall, the album displays a coherent, modern take on traditional jazz ideas, from the faux-bebop swagger of “The Bottle” to the gentle swing and soulful sax solo of “First Harvest.” The dichotomy between toe-tapping jazz and out-there improvisation sometimes has an oil-and-water quality, but the surprises aren’t so out-of-bounds as to be absurd, and the blending of styles sometimes works magic. “Scratch Ankle” is a pleasant and pretty song with a fairly fast swing to it, but when it comes time for the solo, multiple horns start pecking and end up in a free-improv free-for-all — and it all fits together.
The album ends with one live track, “Screamer,” where Dan Monaghan’s drumming turns Lundbom’s guitar solo into a high-speed chase.
Here’s a split-personality passage from the initially calm “Frog Eye.” Irabagon goes nuts on sax, accompanied by some patient chording from Lundbom (whose own solo heats up later on, after this excerpt ends).
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.