Larry Ochs and Aram Shelton

Larry Ochs & Aram Shelton QuartetContinental Drift (Clean Feed, 2020)

Aram Shelton was a fixture on the Bay Area scene before moving overseas, first to Copenhagen and more recently to Budapest. He teams up with ROVA stalwart Larry Ochs on Continental Drift, a free-jazz session where we get to listen in on distant friends enjoying one another’s company. The album has a bright, flowing energy, aided by drummer Kjell Nordeson, another familiar face on the local scene, and two bassists — Mark Dresser or Scott Walton — who rounded out the quartet during the two separate recording sessions, five years apart, that make up the album.

Ochs and Shelton alternate composing duties track-by-track, emphasizing their contrasting styles — Ochs tending toward rougher textures and abstract territory, Shelton often starting closer to traditional jazz forms but bending them to his taste. Ochs’ “Slat” delves into more abstract territory and a freer improvisation — some terrific sparring here between the two horns — whereas Shelton’s “Switch” shows off his trademark blend of modern composing and aggressively swingy rhythm.

Shelton puts a sweet composure into “Anita.” But even that track goes off the melodic rails after a while; it’s far from sappy. Ochs shows off his snappy sense of rhythm on the outright catchy “Strand,” which starts innocuously but builds into a furious group jam that eventually stops on a dime, a nice dramatic moment.

Shelton and Ochs mix well and it’s often hard to tell who has played or even composed which pieces. (For me, anyway. My ear for different musical styles is still a work in progress.) They combine for a tremendous, hard-digging double solo during “The Others Dream,” Ochs’ 19-minute closer. That one feels epic, opening with somber drumming and Ochs’ ecstatic sopranino solo, then later getting into a hard-driven segment that also feels wide open, a broad landscape unrolling.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve met most of these players in person, but the whole set just feels friendly, with an optimistic outlook. Composition-led free jazz is alive and well, and it’s a soothing balm against stressful times. Shelton and Ochs execute well on Continental Drift, but more importantly, it feels like everyone is having fun. That kind of thing comes across on a record.

I Miss Live Shows (But You Knew That)

Craig Taborn New Trio, at Roulette. From left: Ches Smith, Mary Halvorson, Taborn.

There’s no ignoring the devastation COVID-19 has laid on musicians’ livelihoods. On a more selfish note, it’s also put a pause on live music. I’m trying to buy more recordings, but I do miss live shows. Not just seeing them, which I was doing less frequently anyway — I miss reading about shows, even just looking at tour schedules of all the shows I wouldn’t be able to see anyway. It all gave me a sense of activity, of Things Going On Out There, that I found inspiring.

Virtual concerts are not the same, but there are some good sincere efforts happening. Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia of Grex have organized a few Lockdown Festivals. I caught the third installment recently, which included a Grex set featuring their terrifically cool new album, Everything You Said Was Wrong, and an archival concert recording of Jordan Glenn’s sax/drums trio Wiener Kids. The three Lockdown Festivals are archived on YouTube. Each set was broadcast to the performers’ own channels, but you can find links here and here.

Noise is one musical form that works rather well in social isolation, given that so many acts are solos or duos anyway. You don’t get to feel the noise, but it still works. The Godwaffle Noise Pancakes series (“pancakes” is literal; they do live brunch shows, as I understand it) is continuing on Twitch. Bran(Pos), aka Jake Rodriguez, has been broadcasting shows at soundcrack.net and archives them in podcast form.

Virtual shows do have an upside. I couldn’t have traveled to Brooklyn to see Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson, and Ches Smith playing at Roulette. It was part of JazzFest Berlin, which split between Germany and New York and included pre-recorded clips of some of the acts. Had this festival not gone virtual, I would never have found the Philipp Schiepek Quartett, whose set I enjoyed quite a bit.

Still, it’s not the same. This issue has come up in my day job, where real-life conferences have been replaced by virtual ones, or even pre-recorded talks. It’s stupefying. At least with a concert, experiencing it at a distance isn’t a far cry from catching the video a couple of years after the fact. I’d previously enjoyed a lot of Tim Berne’s work from the 2010s that way. It’s a diluted experience, but the music is there.

Humans thrive on shared experience, whether it’s in a movie theater or at a music show, whether it’s a World Series crowd or just a few of us at an improv show in an art gallery. We all miss it. That’s no reason to get impatient with lockdown — please don’t go out of your way to make things worse, like they’ve done in other parts of the United States! — but the sadness is understandable. Just look back at 1918 and realize we’ve been here before (it’s never been correct to call this “unprecedented”) and that we’ll all be back together at shows, eventually. For now, I’ll get ready to check out Kyle Bruckmann’s CNMAT solo online recital in a few hours.

Back Pages #7: Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Banner for the Knit in its second home, the one I visited. Photo: Alicia Bay Laurel, aliciab4.com

On my first visit to the Knitting Factory, I needed a souvenir. This was the late ’90s, after the club had become famous as New York’s avant-jazz nexus, and I was quick to fall in love with it — the multiple performance stages, the free music at the basement bar, the (to me) gritty feel of TriBeCa. Oh, and the fliers stacked on tables and posted on walls, DIY photocopies advertising midweek gigs in unknown lofts and art spaces. This was my first exposure to a live-music scene. Shortly after, I would be tapping the Bay Area’s own scene heavily, but this was my first glimpse of this whole new universe. I needed a souvenir.

So I stared at the shelves of CDs for sale. Tim Berne was my touchstone, so maybe something different — something away from the saxophone direction. Piano, maybe, especially once the cover of Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) caught my eye. It promised the kind of abstract language that I wanted to explore. That’s the one that I took home. 

Symbol Systems has been rereleased on Hatology, but for me, this minimal abstract album cover will always be the “real” one.

On first listen, I remember Symbol Systems feeling truly alien, brimming with this rich new vocabulary. From the clipped chords that open “Clocks,” to the wandering lines later in the piece, to the machine-like hammering in “Harmonic Oscillator,” to the fluid babble of the title track.

I think it helped that Shipp’s instrument is piano, because that meant no microtones. The album doesn’t even feature extended techniques or prepared piano, as I recall. That made it easier to explore. All these years later, the “alien” feeling has worn off — I’m accustomed to the idiom’s of Shipp’s unique language, like the heavy notes matched with the sustain pedal, and the dialects of avant-garde and free improv aren’t as alien to me. But back then, the album was an exciting trip into the unknown.

Excerpt from “Clocks”

I don’t remember the exact timing of all this. This visit must have happened in 1996 or 1997, when my new job led to a week in New York, my first trip on my own, and I took advantage of the summer evenings as much as possible. I might have already heard David S. Ware’s Cryptology by then, as it was the lead album review in a Rolling Stone issue circa 1995, and I’d eventually been intrigued enough to eventually try it out (but too green to really digest it). If that’s the case, maybe I bought Symbol Systems because I recognized Shipp’s name.

Of course, my memories of the Knitting Factory are romanticized. I arrived on the downside of its peak. And while I loved the idea of a club built to foster the avant-jazz scene, it turns out to have all been a happy accident that we have Wayne Horvitz to thank for. Check out the oral history that Jazz Times ran in May.

A Vast Collage Curated by Laura Jurd

Laura JurdStepping Back, Jumping In (Edition, 2019)

Trumpeter Laura Jurd might be best known for her quartet Dinosaur, which mixes creative jazz with a pop aesthetic. It’s decent stuff, quite hip. But Stepping Back, Jumping In is a different animal: a tumult of ideas from Jurd and four other composers, drawing from a rich pool of creativity.

Commissioned by King’s Place in London and featuring 15 musicians in various combinations, Stepping Back does have a cohesive sound, a brainy jazz approach with a sense of humor. Jurd opens the album with her composition “Jumping In,” a multi-paneled mural full of swirling colors, complete with banjo. The hyperactive opening really does jump in, and the piece doesn’t let go from there, seemingly piling on with ideas from every corner of Jurd’s brain.

Strings feature heavily. The Ligeti Quartet, who worked with Jurd on Landing Ground (Edition, 2012), contribute a variety of textures, including elements of circus-y classical, the folk-tinged whimsy common in European jazz. The Ligetis are not just an adornment, but the core fiber of some pieces.

“Ishtar” builds a spare but bustling landscape where crooked and/or whimsical denizens pass by — it’s almost like surreal people-watching. Elliott Galvin composed that one (he and the other Dinosaur members appear in various spots on the album) and contributes and a lush piano solo. “Companion Species,” composed by Anja Lauvdal and Heida K. Johannesdottir, starts with a hailstorm of prepared piano and a Bitches Brew-style flash mob jam, before jumping into a funky groove that gets fusion-proggy toward the end.

The album is not all frantic. “I Am the Spring, You Are the Earth,” composed by Soosan Lolavar, is more about a feeling than any specific melody. Jurd’s trumpet joins the strings and a percussionist for what feels like a guided improvisation, with the sound blooming like the gradual, gentle ending of a long winter. Jurd displays a more conventional type of composing on “Jump Cut Shuffle,” a straight string quartet (by modern standards) based on a catchy recurring melody — but it’s neither staid nor straightforward.

For more about Jurd: All About Jazz ran an interview in May, discussing composition, the formation of Dinosaur, and influences from Stravinsky to Deerhoof.

Evaporation: Sketching With Silence

Eli Wallace and Ben CohenEvaporation (Eschatology, 2020)

“Noise” music doesn’t have to be loud. It can be contemplative, as Pauline Oliveros showed us with her work in deep listening. On Evaporation, pianist Eli Wallace and Ben Cohen follow that aesthetic, creating bundles of action while leaving the blank canvas mostly blank. It’s a wide-angle landscape contrasting rapid motion and stillness.

The 33-minute “Saturation” is the main event. Wallace tests out all manner of prepared piano — a passage of tightly percussive strings against a fluttering of sax from Cohen, or a ringing strum of the stringboard. Cohen produces long streams of non-tonal monologue but also works in the almost subliminal language of long buzzes and breaths.

Informally, “Saturation” could be divided in sections according to the loud/quiet transitions. The early stages feature bursts of noise that couldn’t be called quiet, but the overall effect is spare.

The quietude is not for the faint of heart. Midway through, “Saturation” becomes a hearing test, with distant clatter — a metallic resonance out of the piano, whispery air through the saxophone — nestled between thick silences. That sets us up for the stretch of light metallic hail that ends the piece, not a “grand” finale so much as a satisfying bit of punctuation to close things out.

The 10-minute title track similarly stretches out across its time. Midway through, the sound truly evaporates, leaving a near-silent percussive chatter that gradually dissolves into nothingness. As a listening experience, it requires the right mindset, and that’s true of the whole album. If you come in expecting “free jazz,” the stubborn quietude could feel abrasive. Taken on its own terms, as that expansive canvas, it can be satisfying and thought-provoking.

Journey to Manala

Rent Romus, Heikki Koskinen, Life’s Blood EnsembleManala (Edgetone, 2020)

Manala thinks big. It brings an 11-piece jazz mini-orchestra to celebrate Rent Romus’ Finnish heritage, and while the theme is related to folklore about the underworld, the mood is bright and welcoming. It feels like a joyous personal statement from someone who has made a journey and discovered wonderful things along the way.

The song cycle blends traditional jazz ensemble writing, scribbly free-improv solos, enjoyable moments of melodrama, and sounds of natural instruments that harken back to the times of legends and bold heroes.

Saxophonist Romus shares composing duties here with Heikki Koskinen, a frequent collaborator in recent years whose e-trumpet cuts bright soloing lines through tracks like the opener, “Maahinen (Gnome).” They draw a big sound out of the band’s four horns.

Sometimes, though, a rustic mood prevails, anchored by Cheryl E. Leonard, well known in the Bay Area for her musical instruments derived from natural objects (bones, sand, shells) and David Samas, whose instruments include song stones and waterphone. There’s also the reverent flute trio that opens “Loitsun lukema (Casting the Spell)” to introduce a cool theme mixing jazz and ceremonial music, a sound relying heavily on Gabby Fluke-Mogel on violin and Mark Clifford on vibraphone.

Romus has been passionate about researching Finnish mythology, and it’s wonderful that his documentation of that work comes in the form of music. The “Journey to Manala” suite later in the album is based on the legend of Vainamoinen, “the most powerful adventurer shaman of the Kalevala” (quoting the liner notes), “who builds a boat out of song, only to find he is missing the words to complete the task. The story follows him into Manala to find those words.” During the suite, David Samas gets to break into a splendidly dramatic monologue — I think it’s the character of Vainamoinen himself — against a grooving backdrop.

That idea of using song to influence the physical world — I think every musician must sometimes feel like they are on verge of completing that quest, like a journey to the infinite horizon. Manala feels like that kind of exploration.

Manala is the second album based on Romus’ research into blending jazz and his Finnish heritage, the first being The Otherworld Cycle, and it has a live followup, Return to Manala. Romus has tapped a rich creative thread that hopefully will continue.

RIP, Dr. Tim Smith

I was saddened last month to hear that Tim Smith, the brain and heart of the band Cardiacs, had died.

Rhodri Marsden wrote a touching and succinct tribute for The Guardian. Cardiacs’ stage persona was built around a tyrannical Tim who himself was a slave of the shadowy Alphabet Business Concern, but as Marsden writes:

His bandmates speak of a generous hippy, a man who made everyone feel good about themselves. He was no extrovert, but was certainly a magnet. He ran an open house, welcomed you in, and offered limitless reserves of enthusiasm and support. He always said that his favourite music was his friends’ music. He’d go to your gigs, and he’d stand at the front.

I owe local musicians Amy X. Neuburg and Polly Moller for introducing me to Cardiacs, on separate occasions. I believe they also indoctrinated Moe Staiano, and his social media posts helped get me hooked, too.

I could link to any number of Cardiacs songs (R.E.S., Tarred and Feathered, Come Back Clammy Lammy, Flap Off You Beak, Is This the Life) or recount the cover band called ReCardiacs Fly.

But here’s something I didn’t know, and perhaps you didn’t either: Tim Smith received an honorary doctorate from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in late 2018. He was honored in person, in Scotland, at a ceremony that included speeches and lots of music — and they captured it on film, thankfully:

Tim went through an inconceivable ordeal with dystonia — a condition involving, among other things, continual involuntary muscle contractions — for something like 12 years following a stroke. His mind was still sharp, by all accounts, leaving him a prisoner in his body that entire time. In a 2017 interview, he described it as: “Imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you, with electrical pulses going all the time.”

He could only communicate by pointing to letters on a board, and yet he was still thinking in sentences like that. Imagine.

In contrast to his stage persona, Tim was apparently a kindly soul, making it all the more sad that so many people outright loathed the band. Their catalog has been available online for some time, and it’s now on Bandcamp as well. It’s not too late to drop them a little love.

An Italy-Canada Connection

ITACA 4tetVortex (Nusica, 2020)

Springy and optimistic, the ITACA 4tet is a smiling bundle of Eurojazz, even if half its members are Canadian. (The name comes from the Italy-Canada connection.)

The quartet thrives on the interplay of clarinetist François Houle and alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini. A track like “Sketch 26” uses a brief composed line to launch a fast flow of musical doodles, both horns tossing out ideas, propelled by Alessandro Fedrigo on bass guitar (a nice choice that creates a fluid low end throughout the album) and Nick Fraser leaning heavily on the snare drum.

The group explores in a welcoming way, tracing pleasantly zig-zagging paths. Faster numbers are always enjoyable, but it’s during the slower passages that the two-horn interplay can get especially rich, as on the playfully warbling “Saturno.” Houle has a knack for merging the serious and lighthearted sides of improvising, and the rest of ITACA has the same mindset. Even “The Third Murder,” which opens with discontented hive buzzing, slips into bubbly tunefulness.

“‘Nette,” composed by Carlos Ward, does indeed echo Ornette Coleman with its sunny, melody-driven theme. When the solos start, Fraser’s drumming pull back abruptly to signify the newly opened space, while Fedrigo keeps the mood and tempo uplifted.

“‘Nette”

Eddie Gale Memorial Livestream: Saturday, August 8

I think I saw Eddie Gale perform only once or twice, which is sad. I did get to interview him on the radio, however, and while I don’t remember the details, the impression in my head is that he was engaging and entertaining, and that we ran long.

It’s always been a point of pride for me that Eddie was from the South Bay, and that he carried the title of San Jose’s Official Ambassador of Jazz, bestowed for real by then-mayor Norm Mineta. Eddie Gale passed away on July 10, and as you can see from the tributes posted to forevermissed.com, he was generous with his time and energy and was a mentor to many a Bay Area musician. (WARNING: That link might launch with audio playing.)

Do yourself a favor and check out his albums. He might be best known for having appeared on Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, but Eddie also blazed his own path as a leader. His albums Ghetto Music and Black Rhythm Happening take free jazz in a spiritual direction heavy in civil rights activism, with lots of revolutionary choral vocals. Around the turn of the century, he frequently played with the funky jam band Mushroom. His recurring band in modern years was called the Inner Peace Jazz Orchestra, a reflection of the kind of world Eddie was striving for.

There will be a memorial livestream for Eddie on Saturday, August 8, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. The forevermissed link above will have the link.

Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.