Improv from Buenos Aires

Agustí Fernandez and Pablo LedesmaEn vivo en el Festival de Jazz de Buenos Aires (Discos ICM, 2018)

fernandez-ledesmaPiano-sax improvisations recorded live, giving us a real-time peek into the mutual circling that goes on in a duo improv format.

In two of the five improvisations here — four mid-length pieces and a three-minute encore — Pablo Ledesma (sax) and Agustí Fernandez (piano) work from traditional playing techniques. Each one has a tentative start, with both players testing the waters, and builds into flurries of activity.”Improvisación #1″ opens with bright, painterly arcs, gently capturing your attention. It’s a good start to the album and, presumably, the concert.

Here’s a video of that piece:

I particularly like the narrative traced by “Improvisación #4.” It starts as a low-key conversation, painting in muted colors even as both players pick up speed. After a sustained dark tunnel of quavering sax and piano, they settle into a long stretch of quiet sound exploration.

Fernandez uses prepared piano and manual string-scraping to sometimes build a palette of abstract sounds, particularly on “Improvisación #2” and #3. Both feature stretches of more noise-based improvising, with Ledesma speaking in small shards of sound. “Improvisación #2” gets into a buzzing industsrial mode, a nice tension that’s sustained as ringing open notes start appearing from the piano.

This album comes from an Argentinian label called Discos ICM, which focuses on more mainstream jazz styles but welcomes an experimental excursion here and there. On the mainstream side, I’m liking the track “Ida y vuelta” from drummer René Gatica and his quintet; I’m also exploring the Naturaleza Práctica EPs from the (I’m guessing) drummer-led guitar trio Conjunto de Lassaletta.

March 18, 2018 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

Air and Light: The Chamber Music of Portrait Maker

Portrait Maker — Portrait Maker (Self-released, 2018)

rogerkim-portraitGuitarist Roger Kim has created an uplifting style of experimental chamber music with the group Portrait Maker. An eponymous 30-minute EP, officially coming out on March 24, features a group anchored by Kim’s acoustic guitar (and a bit of banjo) and adorned with flute, glassy strings, and light, wordless female vocals — but Portrait Maker has been around for a few years in permutations that have included a varying cast of instruments and sometimes dancers, an appropriate touch given the visual possibilities in the music.

A track like “Franny and Zooey in the Snow” feels pastoral and quiet, with a gentle intensity added by Kim’s guitar solo. But that doesn’t mean the melodies on Portrait Maker follow predictable, pretty paths. “I Knew This Would End Badly” is built around a guitar in tumbling meters — you can hear it at the start of Kim’s promotional video, at bottom. (It includes some “studio footage” that he had fun editing.)

Songs like “Believe Me” and “A Coleman in Every Home,” add touches of abstraction and improvisation to the mix. The latter still feels feathery, but with a heavier melody tracked by one vocalist and violin in unison, followed by a quavering flute backed by what might be the clacking of violin bows.

Here’s the buildup to that flute segment:

One superficial comparison that comes to mind is Eberhard Weber’s Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), specifically the side-long suite, “Quiet Departures.” Both have “nice” music and a dual female vocal — I’m thinking of this segment in particular. But Weber’s piece is a drifting suite, meant to evoke an atmosphere. It’s like an outline, whereas Kim’s music tells a story, each piece evoking purpose and direction.

The 10-minute “Life According to Andrea Wang” is the trickiest composition here. There’s an airy chamber passage for a clarinet solo, backed by a spare bass clarinet line that’s repetitious but doesn’t seem to stick to a strict timing. The song flicks back into a more regular rhythm (though not a strictly 4/4 one) for Kim’s crisp, articulate guitar solo, backed by a series of short phrases, not always in even rhythm, that keep the walls shifting like a maze.

Portrait Maker will have two CD release shows this month — one in Los Angeles on March 24, and another on March 29 back in San Francisco, at the Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St. at 23rd St.).

March 14, 2018 at 7:39 am Leave a comment

‘World’ Jazz in Bloom

Yazz AhmedLa Saboteuse (Naim, 2017)

yazzahmedIt might sound like cheesy marketing, but the Bandcamp Daily can be a good tipsheet for the music available on the site. Recent posts have included a master class on Buckethead and a tour through the Sun Ra treasure trove that’s now available on multiple online services.

Better still, the monthly jazz column, written by Dave Sumner, turns out to be quite thorough. He doesn’t shy away from the avant-garde, happily reviewing the likes of Matt Mitchell, Steve Coleman, and Brooklyn Raga Massive.

It’s through Sumner’s column that I discovered British trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and La Saboteuse, only the second album she’s released as a leader. I’ve had it on rotation in the car for a few months now, and I was glad to see that Wire magazine columnist Phil Freeman put it at the top of his Best of 2017 list for jazz and improv.

The composing and overall atmosphere here will please mainstream ears, but the album is chock full of creative touches: odd time signatures, tasteful electronic frills, and a middle-eastern tinge drawn from Ahmed’s Bahraini heritage. It’s a wistful journey, with Ahmed giving ample spotlight time to ace bandmates including Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet, who turns in a fantastic solo on “Jamil Jamal,” and vibraphonist Lewis Wright, who is integral to “Organ Eternal” and to the gentle moodiness of “The Space Between the Fish and the Moon.”

The track I’ve been enjoying the most is “Bloom,” which turns out to be a Radiohead cover that’s surprisingly close to the original — surprising to me, that is, because I’d never heard the original and did not expect to discover that Ahmed actually plays on it. I think she’s also in this live version.

Here’s the Saboteuse take on “Bloom:”

I go through periods of seeking out more “normal” jazz, but I still prefer to hear something that’s forward-looking: thoughtful compositions, creative intricacy, exploratory sounds. The Australian jazz trio Trichotomy is the latest band to scratch that itch, but it’s La Saboteuse that’s still top-of-mind in this category, even a year after its release. Ahmed’s creation has staying power.

Here’s a live version of “Organ Eternal,” prefaced by a BBC interview.

March 6, 2018 at 9:34 pm Leave a comment

Echoes of a Lost Civilization, and Kazoos

Brett CarsonMysterious Descent (self-released, 2017)

carson-descentMysterious Descent does indeed feel like a descent, as it starts in a dream space, slowly drawing you in to its disorienting flow. The first scene has the four musicians acting a scripted dialogue that slowly unravels out of normal conversation and into trancelike dialogue, and out of English into a language imagined by composer Brett Carson.

So begins a song cycle drawn from the only surviving texts of the lost (fictitious) Koktimô civilization. With piano, violin, and percussion, Carson mixes modern classical music, traditional song form, and old-timey melodrama. It’s all presented with a sense of high drama but there are also touches of silliness and absurdity, such as a final processional of kazoos, or repeated mentions of elephants. (Carson has a previous project called Quattuor Elephantis — you can sense a theme here.)

Over the course of the album, small shimmers of a plotline emerge like an anthropological puzzle, guided by long stretches of English lyrics suggesting ancient mysticism and lost sciences. “Song of Anori” presents elements of courtly ritual in formalized, theatrical form. “Song of Vurvmôprinka” starts with long, twining lines of melody before shifting into surreal lyrics.

The tale of “The Fisherman” seems to be a dramatic turning point. Less obscure than the other tracks, it’s a spoken fable about a proud fisherman who goes to woo the queen of the lake. The song cycle hits a dramatic high point with the grand, sweeping piano chords of “Song of Dzochanibralk.”

Below is the performance of Mysterious Descent at last year’s Outsound Music Festival, with the same ensemble as on the album: Carson on piano, Nava Dunkelman on percussion, and Mia Bella D’Augelli on violin, with David Katz doing the narration and singing. I’m especially fond of this key passage from “The Fisherman.” You can also view a November performance at the Center for New Music.

You can hear the studio version of Mysterious Descent on Bandcamp. Among Carson’s next project is an opera scheduled to premiere in Oakland in August.

February 25, 2018 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

KZSU Day of Noise: This Saturday, Feb. 10


The Day of Noise us upon us! Or, it will be, in a few days! Click the image above to go straight to to see the musicians who will be playing live, on-air, from midnight to midnight Pacific time on Saturday, Feb. 10.

Tune in at 90.1 FM if you’re in the Bay Area, or online at

Don’t sleep on the Day of Noise archives, either. The past two years’ installments include audio recordings of the entire event. Check it out.

February 9, 2018 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

Animals & Giraffes, Text & Music

Animals & GiraffesJuly (Edgetone, 2017)

animals-july.jpgAnimals & Giraffes is a project combining the poetry of Claudia La Rocco with sound-based improvisations by Bay Area musicians. It’s music for thinking, with La Rocco’s deadpan delivery as a central point, orbited by the stillness of the music.

That’s music in an abstract, sound-based vein most of the time. There are some tones, such as Evelyn Davis’ prepared piano on “Night Harbor,” but most tracks are closer to the slaps, scrapes, and clacking of John Shiurba’s guitar on “Grammar.”

The project is the brainchild of saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, who was looking for an avenue for mixing text and music. He appears two tracks, and he was at the remixing board for a few others, but his real contribution is the shaping of the overall project, recruiting Bay Area musicians to contribute — different players and different sounds for just about every track.

Tim Perkis was a inspired choice. His electronics create the perfect punctuation around two shorts: “A Partial Philosophy of the World” and “Instruction Manual.”

He also appears on “The Ferry Is Turning Course Now, Away From the Sun,” pitting small scribbles against Karen Stackpole’s muted bells and gongs. At the song’s peak, the music builds patiently against La Rocco’s traffic jam of run-on sentences and tiny bits of repetition.

Public Access” is an interesting departure. It appears to be a straight conversation between David Boyce and La Rocco, couched as a two-way interview. The backing of Boyce’s saxophone and electronics starts at an innocuous level but intensifies as Greenlief, at the mixing board, warps it into more sinister shape by the end of the 7-minute piece.

The poetry itself is inscrutable to me, a patchwork of mostly immediate images: settings and actions taking place now or in recent memory. But it doesn’t follow a linear flow, feeling more like stream-of-consciousness. Jennifer Krasinski summarized it well for Bomb magazine:

“One of the many things I love about her writing is how it records the particular flicker of her synapses, swerving between subjects, veering in many directions in order to find the sharpest views, no matter if fractured or fleeting.”

For me, Animals & Giraffes works better as an experience than as a document. The lingering atmosphere could be captivating in a live performance, as in the video above. The text’s shifting landscape takes a kind of concentration that I’m having trouble latching onto in CD form — but I do enjoy the variety of musicians on the disc, and the “Public Access” experiment works well.

January 28, 2018 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

Schoenberg and an Art Journey


Intrigued by a review in BBC Music magazine, I gave this album a try: Schoenberg’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, by the Gringolts Quartet (Bis, 2017).

The quartets were written 30 years apart and document different phases in Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing. The Art Music Lounge blog provides a good review with historical context.

Both BBC Music and Art Music Lounge describe the Second quartet as more accessible than the Fourth. But to me, it’s the opposite. That’s partly because the Second quartet includes two movements with a soprano — in this case, Malin Hartelius — singing lines of poetry by Stefan George. I’ve yet to develop a good ear for classical art-singing; to me, it sounds wandering and aimless. By contrast, the jumpy twelve-tone lines of the Fourth quartet sound fun and even catchy — even though an ordinary listener might call them “aimless” too. It’s probably the result of all the post-Schoenberg modern jazz and improv I’ve listened to.

So my mind wandered during the Second, and I started getting curious about that album cover art. Where did it come from?

schoenberg-2-4I could have made a good guess if I’d thought about it. In fact, as I discovered in a web search, this piece has been used as cover art a few different times — such as the album Signs, Games & Messages: Works for Solo Violin by Bartók and Kurtág (Resonus, 2016) by violinist Simon Smith.

It’s also on the cover of a book: Poetics in a New Key — essays by, and interviews with, poet Marjorie Perloff.

It’s hard for me to resist a connection like this, so later, I got curious about Kurtág’s Signs and started listening to samples of Simon’s interpretation. I didn’t recognize the music, but after a while, I began to remember I already owned something else of Kurtág’s. I riffled through my digital collection and found Kim Kashkashian’s viola version of Signs.

That’s when I remembered. I don’t like Signs.

Several listens to Kashkashian’s version left me cold — which I hate to say, because I’m a fan of hers, and because Kurtág is still living and, charmingly, records and performs piano duets with his wife. How can you not love that?

Still, Signs doesn’t click with me. It’s a set of miniatures — an evolving set that Kurtág is still adding to, so recordings vary depending on which handful of pieces the soloist picks. That aspect is intriguing. But the miniatures themselves feel like incomplete doodles. I’m not able to channel them together into a “story.” Maybe it’s just that Kurtág and I just aren’t on the same wavelength.

My dislike of Signs matters to me, though.

In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Christopher Fox makes an interesting point about Schoenberg’s legacy. The Second string quartet was powered by Schoenberg’s emotional state, as his marriage was falling apart. That doesn’t mean every geometric arrangement of 12 tones is going to produce something great, as Fox writes:

The subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness … Atonal harmony and fragmented melody are still powerful expressive tools, as film composers demonstrate whenever their directors need a musical equivalent for psychological distress, but as the habitual texture of contemporary classical music their routine use has stripped them of meaning.


Gringolts Quartet.

Even though he has a point, I can honestly say I enjoy some of those gray expanses. For example, I went to explore Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3, just because it isn’t on the Gringolts album. Art Music Lounge describes the Fourth quartet as “much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time” — so I couldn’t resist diving into the potential incohesion of the Third quartet.

But you know what? I liked it. It’s engaging — bouncy and rhythmic, with small spurts of repetition to help ground the listener and create a sense of progression. And I’m confident that this isn’t just me being pretentious, because — as with Signs — I’ve discovered that it’s possible for me to not like modern music.

(What about the First quartet, you ask? Apparently it’s tonal — in D major. Eh, maybe some other time.)

Oh, as for that minimalist, curvy-pointy cover art … it’s by Wassily Kandinsky. Yeah, I shoulda known.

Kandinsky is credited in the album’s liner notes, which I own in digital form but didn’t think to consult until later. There’s even a connection to Schoenberg:

“In January 1911 in Munich, Kandinsky attended a concert with music by Schoenberg, including String Quartet No. 2. Much taken by the experience, he wrote to the composer later the same month: ‘You have realized in your work that which I, admittedly in imprecise form, have so long sought from music. The self-sufficient following of its own path, the independent life of individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I seek to find in painterly form.”

January 15, 2018 at 9:52 am 1 comment

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