Playlist: Sept. 11, 2009

Gino Robair, who stopped by the station for that interview yesterday, also dropped off a few goodies for us to spin on air. I gave them a sampling later in the show.

source: rastascan. yes, i borrowed the exact image.

Full playlist is viewable here… and if you want to see the playlist of items spun during Robair’s interview, that’s here. Highlights/notes:

….. The New Black — [excerpt of, I think, side A] — The White Album (Rastascan, 2008). This is the album pictured above. Lovely, isn’t it! It comes as two black vinyl discs with black center labels inside black sleeves. No words, no art, no documentation.

The music was recorded direct-to-vinyl, and then the record duplicated for a limited 200-copy run. These are quartet improvisations (2 guitars, synth, drums) with a mysterious air. I played one of the more active sides, but there’s another that’s very quiet, built of small sparks of sound. It’s got an intensity to its silences. Side Four, or D, or whatever, consists of locked grooves. It was a full side-long improvisation, as A through C are, and the engineer selected needle-drop points to turn into locked grooves. How cool is that!

….. Gino Robair — I, Norton (Rastascan, 2009). From a demo of the forthcoming CD (Gino expects copies in-hand next week), we heard a variety of performances: Tom Duff as Norton, expounding; an acoustic instrumental passage from an sfSound performance, representing a band that Norton has stumbled upon while wandering; and an electronics piece of shimmering high-toned sounds, representing Norton’s death and his ascent into the light.

While the opera is meant to be disconnected from time and performed in arbitrary non-linear combinations, the CD is arranged to trace Norton’s life forward. It culls from multiple performances of the opera, and the electronics piece at the end wraps up beautifully with a heartbeat sound, something that popped up unexpectedly as Robair was doing live sound manipulation at the concert.

It’s going to be an interesting CD with a variety of sounds.

….. David Sait — “Waist Deep in Saigon” — Postage Paid Duets, Vol. 2 (Apprise, 2008). Sait plays guzheng and similar Asian stringed instruments. He recorded some solo improvisations, then mailed them out to partners such as Robair and LaDonna Smith to add their own sounds to. Volume 1 of the series was done entirely with Eugene Chadbourne.

source:….. John Butcher Group — “2” — Something To Be Said (Weight of Wax, 2009). This is an octet work combining acoustic instruments with analog synth and turntables (used for noise, not for beats), a hybrid of Butcher’s instructions and the group’s improvising.

Track 2 starts with an awesome cluster of percussion, a nice racket, tailing down into an active but quieter improv, a nice sense of action in an easygoing vein.

It’s the second release on Butcher’s Weight of Wax label. Considering the first came in 2005, you could call it a comeback.

Interview Day

Gino Robair stopped by the studio this afternoon to talk about I, Norton, his “opera in real time” that’s being performed fractionally at the SF Electronic Music Festival next week. Saturday the 19th, to be exact, as noted here.

(I’ll upload a picture when I get home retrieve my camera back the radio station. Unbelievable.)

I, Norton is built to be performed in pieces by varying configurations of musicians, singers, and an actor for the part of Emperor Norton. On the 19th, the audience will be treated to Tom Duff as Norton, accompanied by three electronics musicians doing live sound processing. Duff’s voice will be the only sound source they use.

The SFEMF is happening at Brava Theater (2781 24th St., SF) from Weds. Sept. 16 through Sat. Sept. 19.

The results should be really interesting. Robair described the stage setup as rather intimate, with the speakers surrounding Duff. So, rather than get sounds thrown at you from front-stage speakers, as is the norm, you get to hear the voices in Norton’s head, in a sense. Live video processing will be in the mix, too.

Robair also dropped off some recent recordings for the station’s library, including The White Album by The New Black, which is particularly exciting. Guess what color the cover is. More about this one later, when I post the playlist notes.

Later, The Bad Plus came by for an interview as well. Much different vibe; they’ve been doing this a lot, probably notching dozens of radio station stops over the years. After pausing for a coffee, they walked on in and didn’t need any directions before dutifully taking their seats at the interview table. The guys were certainly friendly, just very used to all this, and probably bracing for the same old questions.

We did go over their background: how they knew each other living in the Minneapolis area, how they decided the band would be a way for each member to play with his own voice. How Wendy Lewis does vocals on their latest album.

For a change of pace, I did ask the guys about Buffalo Collision, which led into a discussion of how Ethan Iverson (piano) and David King (drums) had grown up listening to the likes of Tim Berne and Hank Roberts, who were recording together quite often at the time.

Buffalo Collision plays Sept. 20 at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and a trio version, minus Iverson, will be at The Independent in SF on Monday the 21st.

Joe Morris and the Bass

Joe Morris — Wildlife (AUM Fidelity, 2009)
Petr Cancura, Joe Morris, Jason Nazary — Fine Objects (Not Two, 2008)

So, what does it mean for Joe Morris to become a bass player?

He’s been a guitar player for longer, of course, and his A Cloud of Black Birds (AUM Fidelity, 1998) was one of my earliest experiences with free-jazz guitar, and a baffling one. I liked what I heard, but I had trouble processing it.

source: aum fidelity.comPart of the problem is that I’m more aware of the fluidity of notes on a guitar as opposed to saxophone. Maybe it’s because I can play a little guitar. A sheets-of-sound cascade on sax sounds impressive, but a similar run on guitar has the added spike of, “I know where all the notes are, and I still don’t understand what he just did.”

There’s also the matter of chords and harmonies, which spring from a dizzying encyclopedia of possibilities. Ben Monder‘s CD, Flux (Songlines, 1995), astounded me on that front; it was like falling into an alternate dimension of harmony. There’s a touch of naivete in my response, though; listening to a straight-jazz guitar master like John Pizzarelli is enough to show you how deep a guitarist can dig even in the confines of a standard.

Bottom line, I like Joe Morris’ electric guitar work. It’s like hearing a whole new language.

But what about bass? There’s nothing new about a gifted artist playing more than one instrument, but something about Morris’ shift to bass seemed so committed, so consuming. It opened up some tantalizing questions: What’s his style there, and how does it relate to his guitar work?

I didn’t think I’d have the ear to come up with good answers, but I gave it a shot anyway, with two recent releases, Wildlife and Fine Objects. Both are trio discs with Petr Cancura on sax, and both are in a usual jazz trio mode — that is, the sax tends to sound like the lead voice even on fully collaborative tracks where every band member is “soloing” at once. I figured Cancura would cancel himself out, letting me focus more on the bass.

Let me warn you now: I’ve got no deep conclusions here. In fact, I worry that I might glorify Morris for things that other bassists have been easily outdoing, right under my ears. But here goes.

Continue reading “Joe Morris and the Bass”

Nine Redemption

About 10 years ago, my radio show was on Thursday evenings. And so it happened that on 9/9/99, I found myself on the air, doing a microphone break at (according to our clock) 9:09 p.m.

It wasn’t until days later that I realized what song I should have played at that moment. Of course. “Number nine … number nine … number nine …”

I got redemption today, because the station needed a fill-in for the morning hours. So at 9:09 a.m. on 09/09/09, “Revolution 9” got the spin it’s been waiting a decade for. Yes!

(I really am this geeky. Sorry.)

This was a very last-minute thing. I packed the rest of the hour with anything I could conjure off the top of my head that had to do with “9,” and rounded out the show with the colossal Beethoven’s 9th. I do dislike playing such familiar songs on-air — even music-geek favorites like Genesis’ “Apocalypse in 9/8” — but it was for a good cause, namely, my unhealthy numbers obsession. If for some reason you want to see the playlist, it’s here.

A New Prog Vehicle

miRthkon — Vehicle (AltRock, 2009)

mirthkon-vehicleIt’s prog rock. But there’s so much more here that you won’t find in typical prog circles: a rollicking sense of humor, a heavy dose of real jazz (garbled, knotted free jazz, NOT the occasional major-7th chord that rock reviewers call “jazz”), and amusing spoken-word segments like futuristic (yet old-world) radio announcements. The album opens with one of the latter, congratulating you for the ownership of “a miRthkon vehicle.”

Even in the slower songs, changes come at a fast, fluid rate; you glimpse musical moments just in time to realize the band’s moved on, like a subway car streaming past. The fast songs are impossibly packed with ideas, from hard-edged guitars in complex lead parts to jazzy squiggles from the sax and bass clarinet, as on “Flashbulb of Orgasm.”

The guitar work is exquisite, but the horns really flesh out the band for me, either by adding unison lines to color the sound, or in the solos and extra flutter/fill-ins they provide. The easygoing but quick-footed “Bappsciliophuaega” presents a little of both, while a stretch near the end of “Johnny Yen” uses the horns for a cool end-of-song babble.

I love the way they’ve recorded the album (it’s mixed by Dan Rathbun of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). Interludes like the strange insect buzzing at the end of “Trishna” or the alley-cat mewling after “Zhagunk” make for nice palate cleansers as well as interesting headphone trips. It’s like the whole album is telling you a story — something I miss in this shuffle-play MP3 world.

The two songs with lyrics are particularly fun. “Banana” is goofy, but “Honey Key Jamboree” takes the cake: It’s jumping, jazzy, and full of silly backing vocals.

“Camelopardalis” is the longest track, at nine minutes, full of free-jazz babble and impossibly thick, rapid-fire bass lines. Wait — a prog album without any songs longer than 10 minutes? Sure, and it’s no concession to pop. Vehicle is so densely packed, even three minutes feels like a novel’s worth of material.

I’d mentioned miRthkon briefly back in May, and the band briefly included Aram Shelton, who’s gone on to work his own projects.  The band will be playing the Starry Plough again on Oct. 30.

Pathos at the Water Cooler

Jess Rowland — The Problem with the Soda Machine (Edgetone, 2008)

source: edgetone records.comI can’t be the only one who’s had this experience. Sometimes a pop song will stick in my head, and I’ll learn the chorus by heart and sing along every time. But the verses don’t absorb on the first, third, or tenth listens. Then, one day, I look up the lyrics, and — oh my god. The song’s about that??

I’m guessing — hoping, really — that people have a similar experience with Jess Rowland’s songs on The Problem with the Soda Machine.

It opens with “The Future of the Machines,” a pretty and likable bit of ’70s-styled rock, which chimes along, almost like a soda commercial: “We are faced / We are faced / with a choice about the future.” And if you listen a little further, you’ll hear it’s about “the future of the machines.” Sounds deep. But if you caught the first words of the song (or already read the description on the CD cover, no fair!), you realize it’s not about society and mankind, but about the soda machine, and the fact that the soda machine company isn’t making enough money off of this particular office.

Rowland’s concept album uses a chain of real office e-mails for its lyrics — and yes, the concept is the pondering and hand-wringing that went along with the possible changes in the vending machine environment in general. As anyone who’s worked in an office knows, these discussions always end up in self-serious digressions that hit bottom when someone throws in a literary quote. If you’re like me, you’ll feel the occasional urge to reach through the music and punch the e-mail writers.

But you’ll also be amused. You have to love a song that starts with, “If they would take the trouble to put in things that people want, they might make a go of it,” with the words awkwardly crammed together to fit a meter.

The ’70s air sticks throughout the album, a kind of pleasantly poppy prog rock — not “prog” in terms of aggressive complexity, but in the breezy chords favored by Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, for instance. When Rowland adds organ to the piano/bass/drums/guitars mix, it definitely tickles the prog cortex. Other songs carry a friendly, 1973 FM-radio air.

I think the point is to bring a faux haughty seriousness to these dopey words; these are melodies that suggest grand lovey themes (which, back in 1973, were overblown to begin with). “Changing Their Tune” even touches on glam seriousness, and has the highlight of the words “cup o’ noooodles” sung in deadpan seriousness.

In terms of lyrical style, Soda Machine bears some similarity to the puppet opera that Rowland presented at this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. Soda Machine is based on catchier, less “classical”-sounding melody, and it doesn’t have the underlying sinister air (well, sometimes, like when the sitar and electronics come in on the opening track). It’s less overtly absurd, but still absurd. And the songs are fun to sing along with.

While listening, I felt compelled to check out what’s happening at Deadpan Inc. It’s a quasi-animated blog of small office discussions about recent news items. The fact that they’re in an office is mostly irrelevant, but the blog still feels like a soul brother to Soda Machine.

I, Norton Approacheth

As Professor Farnsworth would say: Good news, everyone!

Gino Robair will be on the show Sept. 11, a special 2:00 p.m. start time, to talk about his opera, I, Norton. His CD of past performances is/should be ready to come out, and there’ll be an I, Norton performonce on Sept. 19 at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

(“The Show” is listenable at, or 90.1 FM if you’re in the Bay Area.)

I got to see an excerpt of I, Norton at an sfSound show last year, and it was good stuff. Tom Duff played Norton, strutting around the stage making his hefty proclamations. Aurora Josephson, playing the role of an imaginary First Lady, I think, added wordless, improvised vocals as part of the musical backing. Robair conducted the orchestra.

Here’s the official explanation, from Robair’s Rastascan Records site:

In performance, I, Norton takes the shape of an improvised collage structure that combines conduction (using hand cues), graphic scores, and memory-based improvisational structures. The opera can be performed by a mere handful of people, or with a large ensemble. Although the score includes text-based material for speakers and singers, a realization of the opera can be completely instrumental. The piece does not require staging, sets, lights, or costumes. It is meant to be performed anywhere, anytime: A “mobile guerrilla anti-opera,” if you will.

You can read a little more about the opera, and a lot more about Robair, in this terrific Paris Transatlantic interview.

Now, it so happens The Bad Plus is in town for a stint at Yoshi’s SF next weekend, so the Yoshi’s folks have arranged for them to be interviewed as well. They’ll be on at 3:30. I’m particularly interested in talking with them about the origns of the band and about Ethan Iverson and Dave King’s work with Tim Berne in Buffalo Collision, which plays the Monterey Jazz Festival on the 20th. Nothing against the guys, but I hope their appearance doesn’t overshadow Robair’s.