Discovering Joe Harriot

I didn’t give Joe Harriott enough credit when I first encountered his brand of free jazz. That’s partly because Harriott’s “free” albums also include lots of straight bebop, sometimes with complex themes, sometimes not. But I also got snobby. Harriott’s concept of freedom doesn’t come with the splatter factor of Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman.

Harriott deserves better. Playing in the early ’60s, he had visions of abandoning the reliance on chord changes, using composed themes not as a backbone but as a springboard into unguided improvisation. Such ideas are the norm in my listening world, but for musicians accustomed to bebop, it required a deeper type of listening, and of course, an open mind, which is why two of his band members left when Harriott proposed the idea.

My introduction to Harriott was Ken Vandermark’s Straight Lines (Atavistic, 1999), an album of Harriott covers, but it wasn’t until this year that I took the time to delve into that chapter of history. I did some side-by-side comparisons between Harriott’s originals and Vandermark’s versions — an empty gesture, considering the bands came from different background, but still fun. Vandermark, playing with most of the Vandermark 5, holds back the skronk to re-create Harriott’s milieu.

vandermark-harriott-400Harriott’s free-jazz didn’t dominate his early albums, so a track like “Straight Lines” comes across a little staid. But it’s a nifty, jumping composition. Harriott and trumpeter Shake Keane are terrific at playing that stuff, and they add lots of frills — little blasts across one another’s solos and the drum solo — that make for an exciting number.

Harriott’s free ideas are more fully realized on “Shadows,” which uses a short composed line but is otherwise freely improvised. It’s an exercise in restraint, played at a brisk pace but with a consistent feeling of stretched time. I especially like the contributions from Keane (who, according to bassist Coleridge Goode in the video trailer above, was vital in bringing Harriott’s vision to life) and drummer Bobby Orr, both of whom seem to really “get” the vibe, contributing small segments to help build the overall sound.

 
Vandermark’s version is more creeping, with quiet bass featuring heavily. Jeb Bishop’s trombone and Vandermark’s clarinet paint sparse hints of swing, emulating Harriott’s methods.

 
Compared with Harriott’s band, Vandermark’s players are a lot more practiced at group improvising — they’ve grown up doing it. But Harriott’s band produced some solid results. Sometimes they were still grasping for the right wavelengths, but passages like the six minutes of “Shadows” channel the future of this music.

Jimmy Giuffre did it better, I have to admit. He was brilliantly executing ideas of freedom and abstraction, with results that went largely unheralded at the time. (I’ve been listening to his live stuff circa 1961 — astounding to think that it’s from 1961.) Not many years later, the liner notes for Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue would extoll the composer’s “no solo” idea for the improvised title track. It’s a good track, but I’m glad to know that Joe Harriott planted a flag there a few years earlier.

One last word, about instrumentation. Vandermark’s band doesn’t include a pianist. Harriott’s quintet did, and in some ways, the piano was the weak link, still tied to chords. It feels like Pat Smythe and the band were still fleshing out the piano’s role — how could the instrument fit into this world of freedom without causing chaos? Can the pianist find a new way to “comp?”

I don’t think Smythe fully worked out the formula, but he was trying. I’ll point to his work on “Idioms.” The song gave him a chord progression to follow, and while that creates a sense of rigidity, it also seems to inspire some abstract ideas in his brief solo. Here’s the relevant excerpt; the full track is here.

 

bg49

Smythe, Harriott, Keane, Orr, Goode. From http://henrybebop.co.uk.

September 9, 2018 at 12:14 pm Leave a comment

Fractured Chamber Music

Vinny GoliaMusic for Woodwinds, Strings, Piano, and Percussion (pfMentum, 2017)

golia-woodwinds“Don’t make a mess in my brand new Edgar suit!” is one of the more normal titles in this collection of modern chamber music. One of the less normal titles is “Mr. Pisaro, are all your papers in order? (and his lovely wife too…).”

The psychologically scattered phrases seem like warnings not to take this music too seriously — but it feels like serious music, albeit with a prankster’s touch. Strings set the mood, while composer/bandleader Vinny Golia’s woodwinds furnish the attitude in the form of soloing — sometimes in frenzied free-jazz mode, sometimes with placid flute that could pass for “straight” modern chamber music. Some tracks add piano for elegant depth (“Fish is Fish but that’s another matter”) or artfully jazzy splashes (“Something about a Carnival?”), and Golia occasionally does double duty by adding percussion or sound effects.

My guess is that Golia wrote many, if not all, of these tracks as exercises in improvising over a complicated, through-composed background (although I think the strings get some improv moments as well). On “Edgar suit,” that background is a tense pulsing, egged on by some dissonant piano chords. Here’s a passage where the pulse starts freeing up, and Golia flourishes nicely when the strings glide into a set of unison chords.

 
In another direction, “‘they look like monkeys, yes!’ (the zeegoes…)” feels steeped in chamber music, with its dense strings and a flute lead that’s mostly choppy and abrasive in this clip, although elsewhere it gets mellifluous and oh-so-chamber-sounding.

 
The album is part of a chamber-music series Golia is releasing on pfMentum. Syncquistic Linear Expositions and their Geopolitical Outcomes (…we are all still here…) is a standard-looking jazz quartet playing songs with another set of wordy, phase-shifting titles, while Intercommunications matches Golia’s woodwind arsenal with percussion. (pfMentum, 2018).

September 3, 2018 at 6:28 pm Leave a comment

Jazz and the Beginning of the Universe

Something interesting has been happening this year at Bird & Beckett, a bookstore in San Francisco’s tranquil Excelsior neighborhood. Lisa Mezzacappa‘s latest sextet has been running an extended workshop, putting on jazz salons every couple of months around a new set of material. It’s going to culminate in a two-set performance of the polished pieces on Nov. 3.

The songs are based on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a clutch of stories reimagining cosmology in Calvino’s fantastical way. Based on Mezzacappa’s descriptions and one passage she read aloud, the stories are both philosophical and whimsical, sometimes knowingly absurd.

It’s the latest in a series of terrific theme-based projects by Mezzacappa. In 2017, she released avantNOIR (Clean Feed), cool and jazzy pieces inspired by Dashiell Hammett. Glorious Ravage, based on the journals of 19th-century female explorers, was a spellbinding live performance that was eventually captured on CD (New World, 2017).

The sextet for Cosmicomics is a crew who have worked with Mezzacappa and one another for years: Aaron Bennett (sax), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums), Tim Perkis (electronics), Mark Clifford (vibes), and Mezzacappa on bass. These are springy, dancing free-jazz compositions with strong themes and plenty of room for exploration. The vibes add shimmering atmosphere, and Perkis’ laptop sounds slide into the music naturally, whether as accompaniment or soloing.

There’s an abstract element to setting written-word “moods” to music, but Calvino’s stories gave Mezzacappa some hooks to follow literally. “All at One Point” (and you’ll have to forgive me if I’m getting the story titles or plots mixed up) supposes that before the big bang, when all of the universe was condensed into a zero-dimensional dot, all of the people were living together in that one point. Don’t worry about the physics; this is a fairy tale! Anyway, it’s a crowded place, but one popular, beautiful woman comes up with the idea of spreading out, to create space. And they do — hence the big bang — but no one ever sees the woman again.

Musically, this gets realized with a single note played by band members in unison. Then they gradually diverge, matching the concept of the universe separating, creating freedom while losing the comfortable order of the single point.

Another of the stories concerns three particles endlessly falling in the pre-matter void of the universe. Mezzacappa read a passage that pointed out the particles could, in fact, be rising instead of falling — who’s to say, considering there’s no universe? The story is a love triangle, with the narrator particle dreading that he might be falling away from his would-be mistress. Mezzacappa turned this into a trio improv game of pursuit and pursuers.

Other songs follow a more conventional jazzy flow, as with “The Soft Moon” in the video above. It’s a bit light, a bit swingy, a bit off-center. If I remember it right, the namesake story is based on the “theory” that the moon is a thick semifluid, and portions of it occasionally glop down onto Earth to form things like the continents.

The only Calvino I’ve managed to read is Invisible Cities, but that gave me a good feel for his imagination. He’s way out there, but with a matter-of-fact voice that’s almost folksy, miles away from the usual tones of sci-fi or fantasy. I’d sought out Calvino because so many musicians seemed to be dedicating pieces to him — Ken Vandermark, among them — and I can see why his voice, like an Alexander Calder sculpture, would be inspiring to artists of any stripe.

Mezzacappa’s next Bird & Beckett performance will be on Thursday, Sept. 13.

August 18, 2018 at 9:44 am Leave a comment

Death of a Piano

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 8.57.47 AMMoe! Staiano is reviving “Piece No. 1: Death of a Piano,” a piece that really does culminate in the destruction of a piano, via sledgehammer. He’ll be talking about it on the radio Thursday night, Aug. 9, in a interview on KFJC sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Pacific time, during Max Level’s show.

As the name implies, “Death of a Piano” was Moe!’s first long-form composition for a large ensemble. I can’t remember if he was calling the group Moekestra at the time, but that’s the name that eventually stuck. Incarnations of the piece that I’ve seen have featured lots of electric guitars, along with a smorgasbord of other instruments — horns, strings, drums. The upcoming performance sounds like it could be different, as it features The San Francisco Third Eye Orchestra Long Tone Choir using pitched percussion.

The performance will be on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8:00 p.m. at First Church of the Buzzard (2601 Adeline St., Oakland).

The piano above looks small, but other performances have included grand pianos or upright pianos. It all depends on what kind of decrepit, disposable piano is available.

Regardless of size, these pianos are pretty darned resilient and take longer than you’d expect to dismantle. The soundboard, in particular, doesn’t always come apart. And surprisingly, the orchestra can overwhelm the sound of the sledgehammer. But there’s always some fun destruction to be had. I still have a light piece of wood that I keep at my desk — a piano-key hammer from a past performance.

The first time I saw Moe! perform, he took a sledgehammer to a TV set, sending powdered glass all over the stage to end his show. Afterward, he thanked the audience and noted, “I always clean up after myself” — which he did, diligently tidying up the stage. Likewise, Moe! wears safety goggles while attacking a piano. It’s a responsible kind of destruction. I like that.

August 8, 2018 at 9:33 pm 3 comments

Visual Art Interlude

molnar-frag1

There’s a YouTube post of Pauline Oliveros’ “Bye Bye Butterfly” that’s illustrated with a piece by Vera Molnar.

I liked the art, so I went to find out more about Molnar. She began her career as a traditional artist, and in 1968 she brought her fascination with geometry and shapes into the world of computers and plotters. Even back then, there were rich possibilities to be had, especially if you toss pseudorandom numbers into the mix.

I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of art. I tried my hand at very primitive visual ideas in BASIC on an old IBM PC, toying with random lines and colors, honing the rules to make them fit an idea rather than just displaying chaos. (The results were not nearly as artistic as I’m making them sound.)

As computers, screens, and interfaces have progressed, so has the art. I saw one piece a few years ago — can’t recall the artist’s name, sadly — that consisted of a crowd of circles moving on a custom-sized video screen. The circles were packed tightly, rebounding off one another, and every circle had a radius drawn, like the hour hand of a watch, indicating the movement of direction at that particular moment. It was dynamic and unpredictable, and fascinating — not just for the way it looked, but for the concept, the process.

Anyway. The Molnar piece that started this train of thought is titled “Interruptions.” And if you don’t know “Bye Bye Butterfly,” it’s an early example of Oliveros’ electronic music, one that I hadn’t heard until after she died in 2016.

On a further tangent, learning about Molnar led me to the work of Aurélie Nemours. I find I’m particularly fond of her piece, “N et H 3292,” pictured here.

July 19, 2018 at 1:46 pm 1 comment

When Music on the Airplane Is Surprisingly Good

Emile Parisien Quartet with Joachim KühnSfumato (ACT Music, 2016)

I can’t believe I discovered this album on an airplane.

Sfumato_teaser_550xIt was one of those longer flights with the personalized video screens for each passenger. Which is a nice way to catch up on movies, but I like it more when there’s a handful of short films to watch. It’s stuff I wouldn’t otherwise discover, and my propensity to fall asleep on planes doesn’t get in the way so much.

I’m also one of the few passengers who checks out the audio programs. Classical music is out of the question (too much dynamic variation — the long quiet stretches are inaudible) but something tolerable usually shows up in the jazz section. That’s how Sfumato came up. Recognizing the ACT Music cover-art style, I figured it was worth a listen.

Turns out Sfumato covers a lot of ground. The music is led by Emile Parisien’s soprano sax and the steadfast piano of veteran Joachim Kühn … and if you don’t know what’s coming (as I didn’t), the appearances of accordion, not-so-placid electric guitar, and even electric bass are welcome delights, little surprise bonbons spread throughout the tracks. Mostly, the territory is European jazz, steeped with hints of classical and old-world folk — but it’s got an edge. I was ready to enjoy this album but still got more than I was expecting.

Accordion shows some virtuosity and even some free-jazzy moments during the suite, “Le Clown Tueur de la Fete Foraine.” The suite opens with sad nostalgia, evoking images of a big-top era gone by … but the title translates to “The Killer Clown of the Fair.” It doesn’t get outright sinister, but Part 2 includes a fuzzy electric-guitar solo, and Part 3 gets into some fast-paced jazz with a light dramatic tinge.

“Le Clown” doesn’t get too dark, but if that’s your thing, “Brainmachine” goes there, swaying between two heavy chords. In a brighter mode, “Arome de l’Air” lets Manu Codjia chop away on guitar and gives Parisien a nifty solo as well, sometimes almost buzzing like a harmonica.

Sfumato won an Album of the Year award in France, and the band has since released a live album that includes a Wynton Marsalis appearance. I’m going to have to check that out.

July 14, 2018 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment

Beat Kitchen

Back in May, I found time in Chicago to check out the weekly music happening at Beat Kitchen, a friendly dive restaurant well northwest of the tiresome Magnificent Mile area. A singer-songwriter type with a decent following was playing in the basement. But I was there for the upstairs jazz show — with Jim Baker (piano/electronics), Ed Wilkerson (sax), Brian Sandstrom (bass), and Steve Hunt (drums).

The group is called Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and it’s a rotating-cast show that Baker brings to Beat Kitchen every Monday night. Here’s an example of them in a mellower moment, with Mars Williams on sax:

 
There’s a slightly more intense video available with better sound, but it’s filmed in what I assume is the Beat Kitchen’s basement space. I wanted to provide a taste of what the upstairs is like. It appears to be a kitchen and small restaurant space — maybe even a former studio apartment — with stools and chairs scattered about. Only a handful of us were in the audience, and the waitress downstairs seemed pretty happy when I said I was there for the jazz show.

IMG_3840 beat kitchen cutExtraordinary Popular Delusions released at least one CD on Okka Disk (2007), based on compositions, but the M.O. for these shows appears to be long-form improvisation. I got upstairs just as the band was reaching a crescendo — not a super frenzy but definitely a high energy point. Wilkerson was dealing on sax, Baker splashing with abandon at the digital piano.

They ended up playing one long piece. One of the cooldown phases dropped into a piano-drums duet, with chording from Baker that could have been mistaken for a jazz ballad. Sandstrom’s acoustic bass work was something to savor, but soon he switched to electronic guitar effects while Baker moved over to his analog synthesizer and its impossible tangle of cables. Hunt’s drums kept the pace brisk throughout.

Wilkerson later contributed some popping, clicking acoustic guitar, and Sandstrom moved to an amplified toy guitar (or possible a ukelele; it was hard to tell in the dark).

Even though it’s predictable that the energy would rise up to a climax, they did it in a way that was miraculous and beautiful. Piano and drums were cooking — and then the acoustic bass came back in, pushing the intensity up several notches. Hunt locked into an almost swingy non-groove, egging the others to ratchet it up even more. Wilkerson let the energy build and build, then made his grand entrance with passionate overblown wails on the tenor sax, a clarion call, before launching into big, throaty tenor-sax riffs and calls.

beat kitchen IMG_3844

Long notes from Wilkerson signaled the end, and as the sound settled back into silence, Baker started choosing chords in sympathy with Wilkerson — and the music came to a peaceful stop, as if it were meant to do that all along.

The players agreed that was a perfect ending, and opted not to play another piece. That was the right call — everything clicked, in a way that doesn’t always happen, not even for a band of this caliber.

Finding this kind of music is always a challenge. Avant Music News is a good resource, as it reprints some of the local calendars around the world. And in the Bay Area, we still have the Bayimproviser site and accompanying Transbay Calendar app.

July 4, 2018 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Older Posts


Categories

  • Blogroll

  • Feeds