Trance Mission Rides Again

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A side note to that Fred Frith Trio show back in January …

While I missed Jack o’ the Clock, I did catch the show’s other opening act, a longtime Bay Area favorite called Trance Mission. It’s a world-music kind of trio whose grooves combine a droney sound with danceable beats — insistent music with a relaxed vibe.

Sometimes a quartet, Trance Mission has always featured Stephen Kent on didjeridu and percussion and Beth Custer on clarinets, vocals, and sundry (a bit of trumpet for this particular show, surprisingly enough). The latest version also included Peter Valsamis on the drum kit.

Of course, Kent and Custer have been involved in myriad other projects over the years. Trance Mission was a ’90s thing for both of them, but they still convene the group every now and again. I’d never seen them before that show at Slim’s, where I got a taste of what I’d missed all these years.

The didjeridoo allows for vocals and tongue slaps, so Kent often became the rhythm as well as the backing bass drone, freeing Valsamis to sprinkle the brighter colors of the drum kit. Kent also used a baby cello as an ersatz guitar on a couple of songs, for a different sound and a fun effect.

It was a really good time. I’m glad I finally caught up with them.

Trance Mission Duo (Kent and Custer) will be performing on March 21 at Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St, San Francisco).

Kent will be performing with the Del Sol String Quartet at the Other Minds Festival on March 6, at the SF Jazz Center (201 Franklin Street, San Francisco).

February 22, 2015 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Ken Thomson’s Slow/Fast

Ken Thomson and Slow/FastSettle (NCM East, 2014)

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

I’m familiar with Ken Thomson because of Gutbucket, the sharp-attitude quartet that uses his sax as an offensive weapon. Their shows are full of exciting, pinpoint jazz, but they’re also raucous events, more rocking than a lot of rock shows, with Thomson drenched in sweat before the set is half over.

Slow/Fast isn’t like that — and yet, it’s still got Thomson’s personality and presence. The group, shaped like a jazz quintet, is a showcase for Thomson’s compositions, which occupy that zone straddling jazz and modern music. The writing is full of elegant and complex melodies, sometimes seasoned with a warm, jazzy solo.

Some pieces almost feel like games, built up from an exacting geometry. I want to say “minimalism,” but it’s closer to proggy jazz; in either case, the hallmark is a not-quite-regular construct of time signatures.

As an example, “Welding for Freedom” starts off with a scripted dialogue of sax and trumpet statements, short blips like a puzzle. Then it bursts into this pretty, flowing theme — a not-quite-waltz — and gives way to a warm and blossoming trumpet solo from Russ Johnson.

“We Are Not All in This Together” likewise pairs bass clarinet and single-note guitar in unison stop/start lines, tracing a winding path accompanied by slow, earthy bass from Adam Armstrong.

That gives way to a spider-fingered guitar solo by Fender, backed only by Armstrong’s bass and Fred Kennedy’s drums — a sublimely jazzy segment.

“Settle,” the bright and forceful title track, is the only one that reminds me of Gutbucket. It features Thomson in a darting solo against a hyperactive rhythm section: Armstrong’s brisk walking bass and Kennedy’s light, fast cymbal taps. It’s got fuzzed-out guitar and an aggressive stance overall, and the Spanish-tinged, two-horn theme is bold and dramatic. (The whole track is up on Soundcloud — be warned that the audio starts automatically.)

Finally, one of my favorite moments of zen on Settle comes during “Spring,” where a long bass solo gives way to the butterfly-flapping theme as played by Thomson and Johnson. The fingerwork is quick and sounds difficult, but the mood is airy and slow, very much evoking the feeling of a sleepy spring meadow.

February 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

Cheers for Henry Threadgill

Threadgill at Yerba Buena. Via fullyaltered on Instagram.

Threadgill at Yerba Buena. Via fullyaltered on Instagram.

Henry Threadgill didn’t play a note at his recent Yerba Buena Center for the Arts performance, but the audience didn’t mind. He was rewarded with enthusiastic applause before and after his performance as he grinned ear-to-ear.

Threadgill can still play, of course. It’s just that his new septet, Double-Up, puts him in he role of composer and director rather than sax player. It’s not much different from the concert I saw with The Dreamers, a John Zorn band where Zorn composes and conducts, rather than playing.

In concept, Double-Up (two pianos, two saxophones, cello, tuba, and drums) is a tribute to Butch Morris, a friend of Threadgill’s who pioneered conduction, the shaping of orchestral improvisations into cohesive, on-the-spot pieces. But as Threadgill pointed out to journalist Andrew Gilbert, Double-Up isn’t meant to be conduction. Threadgill provides composed charts and is on hand more like a base coach than a conductor.

The applause he received was certainly directed at the performance — two long suites full of life — but it was also a pent-up outpouring for a man who plays out here only rarely, if ever. Threadgill was getting a little extra joy from people like me who were just glad he was there.

Threadgill was happy to be there, too. Minute before opening curtain, he was still wandering the lobby, smiling broadly as he spotted and greeted old friends.

He’d been coaxed to San Francisco by former student Myra Melford and Yerba Buena music curator Isabel Yrigoyen to open the New Frequencies Fest, a three-day celebration of creative jazz. The stage would later be occupied by big-name guests such as Matana Roberts and Satoko Fujii, and also by generous cross-sections of Bay Area talent: Karl Evangelista and Grex; Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch; Melford herself, performing with Joëlle Léandre and Nicole Mitchell; and Ben Goldberg’s Orphic Machine.

Source: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Source: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

But opening night was all Threadgill. It was short — I overheard someone commenting they would have enjoyed hearing a third piece, and I have to agree. But it was grand.

The first piece was a colossal jazz suite. The tonalities had that Threadgill flavor to them, partly through the composing and partly through the use of two low-end players steeped in Threadgill’s music: cellist Christopher Hoffman and tuba player Jose Davila.  The two pianists were allowed nearly free reign, however, so David Virelles and a second pianist (who wasn’t listed in the program) sometimes dipped into small stretches of velvety, lush colors you’d associate more with straightahead jazz. They started the piece with a lengthy free improvisation, just the two of them, each keyboard taking the lead for a long stretch to paint an angular, contemplative canvas.

At shows like this, people struggle with the dichotomy between the jazz listener who applauds the solos and the art patron who stays patiently silent while the artists make their statement. The Yerba Buena audience took a while to decide which way to go. So, as the piano segment gave way to the composed piece, and as Davila took the first solo — some rock solid work on tuba — everyone stayed silent. It wasn’t until later in the piece that we all decided we’d applaud the solos, and the theater warmed up considerably from there.

Threadgill dictated the sequence of solos — I think he might have chosen every soloist, in fact. I remember Curtis Macdonald delivering a particularly rowdy alto sax solo, as if to stir the crowd into action, and Hoffman sawing mightily on the cello. Craig Weinrib’s drum solo, played off of the crowd’s early silence, starting with isolated taps and long pauses before very slowly building into a firestorm.

That first piece had plenty of jazz swing in it — of the Threadgill variety, anyway. The second piece added a dose of academia. It was just a bit slower and followed a more deliberate melodic path, calling upon a different set of instincts for players and listeners alike. It wasn’t an overly difficult piece, just different, an exercise of a different muscle.

What’s interesting is that neither piece felt entirely like a Henry Threadgill piece. Or, more specifically: Double-Up sounds distinctively different from Zooid, Threadgill’s ensemble of the past few years. My guess is that by giving the players such free reign, he aims to create a new sound amalgamated from all their ideas. The group’s personality seemed to pull in different directions at times — that uncomfortable feeling that Piece A and Piece B don’t really mesh to form a suite — but maybe that’s part of the formula.

Double-Up, plus Melford and Yrigoyan. Photo posted by David Bryant (@dblaque_MUSIC) on Twitter.

Double-Up, plus Melford and Yrigoyan. Photo posted by David Bryant (@dblaque_MUSIC) on Twitter.

February 19, 2015 at 11:43 pm 4 comments

Phillip Greenlief on KCSM, Friday Morning

The Lost Trio, with Greenlief at left. Source: Evander. Click to go there.

The Lost Trio, with Greenlief at left. Source: Evander. Click to go there.

Every Friday morning at 9:00 a.m. Pacific, radio station KCSM hosts a musician for “Desert Island Jazz,” where the guest plays the game of picking a few albums they’d want if stranded on a deserted island. (The rules, if you’re not familiar with the game, assume you have the resources to play any medium you’ve brought along. You’re also not allowed to obsess about food, water, wild animals, and so on.)

Anyway. I just found out that tomorrow’s guest (Friday, Feb. 13) is going to be Bay Area saxophone legend Phillip Greenlief.

You should tune in. Greenlief, who’s mentioned frequently in these pages, will no doubt talk about the jazz players who’ve influenced him. (I’m thinking Steve Lacy is going to get a mention.) And he’ll hopefully get a chance to play something from The Lost Trio’s new album, Monkwork. This is a group that’s been together for 20+ years, playing jazz that’s deceptively accessible, sometimes using pop or country songs as the basis for rich, open-ended explorations of melody.

The Lost Trio is even kicking off a tour with a Feb. 14 show at Duende.

Greenlief has his avant-garde side, too. He reunited with bassist Joëlle Léandre earlier tonight (Feb. 12) for some improvised duets, a format they’d recorded years ago for That Overt Desire of Object, eventually released on CD by the Relative Pitch label.

And I still remember Seared Circuit Incident, a solo album of sound exploration that collects some of the most extreme sax playing, including some extremely quiet work. It came out in 2006 on his Evander Music record label, a labor of love that started in 1995.

I’m thinking that stuff isn’t going to come up. No matter — I’m going to alter my commute plans so that I’m in the car at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. You can listen via the web, here.

February 12, 2015 at 11:53 pm Leave a comment

Day of Noise 2015 Is Upon Us

dayofnoise2015Don’t say you weren’t warned.  KZSU’s Day of Noise begins a few hours from now, at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time on Feb. 7.

An all-star army of musicians will be handing off the mic, figuratively to produce 24 hours of sounds, tones, clatter, harmony, improvisation, and whatever else may happen. Performances alternate between two studios at KZSU, so that as one act performs, the next one can set up, keeping the music seamless save for introductions by DJ Miss Information — who in past years has MC’ed the entire 24 hours.

Here are my Day of Noise photos from 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s the lineup. Here’s where to go listen. (Or, in the Bay Area, tune in to 90.1 FM.)

In other words, you are out of excuses. Tune in!

February 6, 2015 at 9:00 pm Leave a comment

Fred Frith Warms Up a New Trio

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Glenn, Frith, and Hoopes. Source: jasonhoopes.com.

Fred Frith‘s new trio will be touring around Europe late in February. As a prelude, they’ve played a couple of shows here in the Bay Area, including one at Slim’s that I got to see recently.

It’s a long-form improvising trio — you could certainly call it a power trio — with Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. Electronics and loops help the bass and guitar build a screen of lingering sound, often dark and heavy. Listening to Hoopes in the band Eat the Sun was good preparation, actually.

In front of that curtain of sound, each player adds virtuosity to color the piece. The first of three long pieces they played started with a blast zone created by Frith and especially Hoopes, who was sawing away at one high note on the bass. That put Glenn in the spotlight quickly, with fluid drum rolls and high-precision hammering.

Hoopes stayed in a supporting role for a long while before finally taking a lead voice with a thick, bubbling stew of bass soloing. Hoopes is terrific on electric bass, and it’s always a treat to hear him really cut loose. This trio offers him a lot of space to do that, although you get the sense that he directs more energy toward shaping the overall sound.

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Hoopes, Glenn, Frith

Of course, Frith contributed too, with many of his usual tools, such as bows and other implements against the guitar strings. Recently, I was reading a critic raving about Frith’s detuning of the guitar during solos — about how he was able to make that “wrong” sound fit just right. I hadn’t thought about that too much, but as Frith untuned his low E string during one span, it struck me that it really was just right and in “tune” with the logic of what he was doing. Frith added a lot of conventional playing as well — crisp and chirpy sounds harkening back to his prog days.

It was a terrific set, although I have to admit I lost the thread at times. The drone or roar of the guitar and bass sometimes overwhelmed the sound for me; there was always something going on underneath it, but sometimes my mind had trouble penetrating that roar. That’s not always a bad thing (“drone” is a legitimate musical form, and this was certainly not a sleepy drone) but I could have used some more dividers in the music. It’s possible I was just too worn out on a Thursday night.

Frith’s choice of bandmates is significant. Like Art Blakey, he’s teaming up with younger musicians to infuse fresh ideas into his music. Glenn and Hoopes are part of a wave of accomplished artists he’s inspired while teaching at Mills College, where he was a mentor not only for improvisers but for songwriters pursuing thoughtful, complex pop/prog ideas — Jack o’ the Clock, the local band I’ve been raving about, being a prime example. (They opened the Slim’s show, but I didn’t make it to the city in time for their set, alas.)

The Frith Trio is going to spend a lot of time in Central/Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary) with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a good chance to see Frith, of course, but also to check out some of the strong talent the Bay Area has been nurturing. Here’s the tour schedule, as found on Hoopes‘ and Frith‘s web sites:

Feb. 19Zagreb, Croatia
Feb. 20Göppingen, Germany
Feb. 21Vienna, Austria
Feb. 22Budapest, Hungary
Feb. 23Bolzano, Italy
Feb. 24Middelburg, Netherlands
Feb. 25Brussels, Belgium
Feb. 26Konstanz, Germany
Feb. 27Berlin, Germany
Feb. 28Dortmund, Germany
March 1Wels, Austria

February 1, 2015 at 11:53 am 1 comment

Vicky Chow and the One-Bit Army

Tristan Perich [Vicky Chow, piano] — Surface Image (New Amsterdam, 2014)
Vicky Chow (Tristan Perich) -- Surface Image (New Amsterdam 2014)“One-bit electronics” refers to a speaker that either beeps or doesn’t. Only one tone is possible, and it’s on or off — much like the bell on an Apple II computer or IBM PS/2, if anyone remembers those.

Put a bunch of one-bit speakers in a room, set to different tones, and you’d have a programmable music box. Set those tones to a bright, minimalist major/suspended chord and play them really fast, and you’d have a hyperkinetic, jumpy music box — and a captivating, forceful musical experience, if you did it right.

Now add a pianist who can either augment or cut across the flow — and you’ve got Tristan Perich’s “Surface Image,” where pianist Vicky Chow does battle with (or leads the march of) 40 one-bit speakers all chattering away for a little more than an hour.

As you can see in the preview video, it’s an assault of bright, insistent tones blasting forth.

At its peak, the music is a maximal minimalism. It’s in your face, bouncing you around like a bumper-car ride. I think the piece is best experienced in one sitting — yes, your attention wavers, but as it does, your experience shifts from a pinpoint shower (lots of individual notes hurtling forth) to a shimmering haze (everything blurring together).

That first half really is fun, with Chow and the electronics playing in an upbeat frenzy with a stiff rhythm. It feels light even as Chow bears down on the keyboard, hammering away at marshmallow-puff harmonies or playing impressive runs against the speakers’ pulsing. The inevitable change of mood is a welcome break, though, one that’s key to molding the music into a story. It’s a story with a mostly predictable trajectory (hey guess what: it slows down in the second half), but it’s a good one, and the conclusion was not really what I’d expected.

The one-bit speakers are split between the listener’s left and right stereo speakers, so when they really get going, there’s an odd sensation of the left and right sides blinking on and off in opposite phases. (Fans of Bang on a Can, of which Chow is a member, might recall the Louis Andriessen piece “Hocketus.”) It’s an interesting effect that makes you wonder what the piece would be like in a live performance — especially one like the SF Tape Music Festival, with speakers around the room.

For a more academic yet still captivating example of one-bit electronics, in a venue where your exact location really matters, check out Perich’s 1,500-speaker microtonal wall:

January 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm 1 comment

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