Thanksgiving Day Set

Also known as: KZSU playlist for Thursday, November 26, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

I’ve been at the station for 11 years.  Because my family lives entirely locally, it’s about time I missed a Thanksgiving dinner to help out the station. (In past years, someone’s always beaten me to it.) It felt good to take the time to play a three-hour “miscellaneous” set, focusing on pop with occasional jazz curveballs.

The previous weekend, a relative had asked me about my old Web site, the quasi-blog where I’d been entering my playlists in raw HTML code. I took a visit back there and realized: While this blog is much easier, I really miss that old page. I miss creating the layout, crude as it was, and I really like the look it has.

So, click here for the Nov. 26 playlist, and enjoy my self-indulgent blatherings there. I’ll do things “normally” again for my next regular show, on Dec. 1.

Weasel Walter: Exit, Stage Right

On the site for his ugExplode record label, you can see that Weasel Walter, who’s been a Bay Area resident for the past few years, is up and moving to New York.

Sad news for us.  It was nice having him in town, playing in bands and in pickup improv ensembles, stirring the pot to create regular live gigs at places like The Uptown, releasing CDs that make apartment neighbors call the police at 2:00 a.m.

But like so many other musicians from so many other places, Weasel (I’m using his first name here, as if we’re best buds) hears the call of NYC. He’s leaving next week.

It’s the natural cycle of the Bay Area music scene — and it’s the same in hundreds of other places, I’d imagine. It takes a lot of work to keep a scene going when the economic returns are slim, when alcohol-serving venues are reluctant to host oddball music, and when local authorities are downright hostile to DIY events.

(Sure, the letter of the law requires permits and fire exits, but for some of these shows, you’re talking about 40- and 50-year-olds sitting in chairs listening intently to quiet, crystalline music.  The legal codes set for punk/metal fire-and-brimstone acts shouldn’t have to apply there. Granted, Weasel’s stuff  isn’t exactly quiet most of the time, but his free jazz doesn’t draw a pit-warning crowd either.)

The good news: Weasel will be able to work with NYC artists more regularly, including trumpeter Peter Evans and guitarist Mary Halvorson, both of whom he’s recorded with recently.  As an ongoing, working trio, they’ll be immense. Radio WFMU got a taste of the possibilities earlier this year.

Best of luck, Weasel!

Patrick Cress’ Telepathy

Patrick Cress’ Telepathy — Alive and Teething (Telepathic, 2009)

Telepathy is a longtime hidden gem of the local jazz scene, and it’s too bad more people haven’t checked out the way Patrick Cress and Aaron Novik bounce sax/clarinet lines off one another in this energetic quartet. I got to see them live back in June, and as I’d mentioned then, they’ve got a live album out.

Most tracks feature a hard-punching middle-tempo. Tim Bulkley’s drums lay down solid smacking beats that both horns can play off. This lays the foundation for some terrific group work.

The main theme of “The Workout” is chipper and snippy; I love the snappy attitude in the way the sax clips short the first quick note in that line. For Novik’s solo, the band seems to spread out, offering a nice wide space without necessarily slowing down much — elbow room. “Metal Telepathy” buzzes low to the ground (baritone sax plus bass clarinet?) and rocks out with some raspy soloing in front of a busy rhythm section.

So, you don’t get full-tilt Spy Vs. Spy speedballing, but you do get catchy tunes with a heavy stomp to them (sometimes in an odd time signature) followed by solos that blaze and sear, with Cress and Novik egging each other on. Or, sometimes, they’ll solo together in intertwining lines.

The composing certainly draws from players like Ornette Coleman and Tim Berne, but it’s also got Klezmer and world-music twists to it, for a vaguely Eastern European tinge sometimes.

“Powder Monkey” (track 2) features the kind of sinewy, twisting melody I’ve come to associate with these guys. (And it’s in 10/8, I think.) “Optichism” comes in with a languid snakelike pulsing, a vague touch of Asia. It’s the kind of track that’s slow in spirit but not physically slow in tempo, and the theme serves as a launching pad for what eventually becomes a lurching maelstrom.

“Teething” opens the album on the right foot: a chugging little composition that quickly hits a hiccup, a preplanned bump in the groove as it shifts from 6/8 to 4/4, if I’m counting right. That’s followed by an energetic group-soloing stretch. “Hi Hi Pizza Pie” is a seven-beat rhythm with a swingy melody, richly harmonized between the two horns.

Things close out with “Annika’s Lullabye,” a sweet little melody that leads into a free and open-ended, but still sweetly soulful, improv section. It’s like a gospel-tinged free jazz, not far removed from the free jazz of the ’60s. You can hear the crowd noise during the quieter segments here.

Playlist: November 24, 2009

KZSU playlist for Tuesday, Nov. 24, 6:00 to 9:00 a.m.  Click here for the full playlist.


Harris Eisentstadt — “Keep Casting Rods” — Canada Day (Clean Feed, 2009) ….. As opposed to the trumpet-heavy, African-influenced music on many of his albums, Canada Day is closer to a straight free-jazz group, with a sound defined by vibraphone.  He’s also got a sax and a trumpet in there, of course.

Hailey Niswanger — “Four in One” — Confeddie (self-released, 2009) ….. Straight-up contemporary jazz that includes a fast, fluid, and quick-jumping saxophone in the lead.  Turns out it’s played by a 19-year old woman, Niswanger, who put together this quartet from her Berklee associates.  It’s good, inventive stuff; she shows great sax chops on “Four in One” and a complex compositional sense on “Confeddie.”

Shibolet, Josephson, Baker, Looney, Smith — “Number 12” — Untitled (1959) (Kadima Collective, 2007) ….. Acoustic free improv with local folks and Israeli guest Ariel Shibolet. The titles all come from Mark Rothko paintings, but they’re not all still and silent; this one quickly builds into active, jagged sound work.  I followed up this track with Jacam Manricks’ “Rothko” (mentioned back on Oct. 27), and it was tempting to continue with an all-Rothko set. But the next Rothko-inspired track I found was a string orchestra piece that, while only a couple of minutes long, was soooo still and static.  Wasn’t in the mood for it, so I went with Jen Baker’s trombone album instead (Blue Dreams, mentioned here), which is also rather static but has a colorful tone to it.

Herb Robertson — “Hallucinations” — Shades of Bud Powell (JMT, 1988) ….. Another vinyl gem tucked away in the KZSU library, this is an album of Powell songs performed by a nearly all-horns band (Joey Baron on drums).  Naturally, Robertson leaves plenty of space for improvising, often with the whole group at once (two trumpets, french horn, trombone, and tuba).  The track I picked, “Hallucinations,” has long segments of that group work, the result being a little like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. When you listen carefully to PHJB, you realize that yes, they’re doing old-timey jazz, but the “solo” consists of every band member except the drummer going off in a random direction. Robertson is like that but more distinctly modern/avant-jazz in his sound, of course.

Phil Kline — “Grand Etude for the Elevation” — Around the World in a Daze (Starkland, 2009) ….. This is actually a 65-minute electroacoustic work intended for surroundsound DVD; they’ve provided a CD version for radio.  It’s ambitious.  There are enormous “boombox choirs,” a string quartet (Ethel!), lots of bells, and, for the final track, 15,000 African gray parrots. The whole project goes for bigness; when I say lots of bells, I mean LOTS.  I went for one of the less bombastic tracks, featuring a thumpy “world” drum rhythm and Todd Reynolds on sweet-but-loud violin.

Brian Groder’s Pickup Band

Groder & Greene — s/t (Latham, 2009)

A brisk session of free jazz from some terrific modern players.  I first heard of trumpeter Brian Groder on the album Torque, where his backing band with Sam Rivers‘ trio (with Sam Rivers included).   Here, he’s got another crackerjack band, with pianist Burton Greene up front.

“Landfall” opens things with a late-night feel, between the piano chords and the crisp trumpet.  It passes for a normal modern-jazz composition until things start to break down, getting into a free-jazz rumble as its middle section of “solos.”  Then, like curtains parting, the late-night sound descends back into the foreground.  It’s a nicely organized track, and a standout.

“Nigh” is another fun one, with Ray Sage’s drums setting up a straight grooving rhythm.  Groder and saxophonist Rob Brown bleat out free jazz lines, separately or overlapping, for a few minutes, just enjoying the beat. Greene jumps in on piano a little later to really crack things open.

Then you’ve got the straight-out goofing around of “Hey Pithy, Can You Thropt the Erectus,” which includes someone (Greene?) spitting out disdainful little spoken phrases.

“Separate Being” ends up in more disjoint territory, particularly when Greene goes off on a faux-ragtime piano jaunt during everybody else’s blocky free-jazz-improv phase. On “Amulet,” the band goes all-out abstract (although Greene adds some more old-timey jazz for kicks). It’s a spacious track dominated by prepared piano, plinking along with a stacatto rubber-band sound. Adam Lane‘s thick bass and Sage’s drums add plenty of meat without getting too cluttered.

(A word about Lane on bass — he’s a real treat here, as always. The springing, ever-shifting lines he comes up with in the intro to “Only the Now” are trademark Lane work. Always good to see him added to a session.)

“Cryptic Means” shows off Groder and Greene by themselves, through some brisk, jazzy improvising. It’s a speedy track that still conveys a sense of patience, of letting the music carry its own weight. (I’m probably thinking that just because it’s a sparse track, having only two instruments and all.)

Very nice work, overall.  Groder surrounds himself with good company, and as on his previous CD, it pays off.

Beth Custer’s Clarinet Thing

Clarinet ThingCry, Want (BC, 2009)

Clarinet Thing, Beth Custer‘s all-clarinet group, has existed for 20 years but only has two CDs to its credit (to my knowledge) and plays only rarely.  When a show popped up at Yoshi’s last week, I figured I practically owed it to the band to show up.

Not as long-form or abstract as ROVA, not as ethereal as Chris Speed’s “The Clarinets,” not as metal as Edmund Welles, Clarinet Thing might have a closer analogue in the World Saxophone Quartet. They do get into some freeform improv and some wild free-jazzy soloing, but it’s all unapologeticly jazz at heart, down to the Duke Ellington covers that showed up on their first album.

Cry, Want draws more on Jimmy Guiffre and Carla Bley for inspiration (the title track is a Giuffre cover).  At the Yoshi’s show, billed as the CD release party, we got treated to lots of original compositions from the new disk, some covers, and a couple of tunes that are apparently being prepped for the next CD, which might be out in just six months.

A few of the pieces from Cry, Want that they played:

“Iluku,” Brown’s piece about his father, who was given that nickname while living in Africa as a boy. Lots of old-time jazzy counterpoint, a pleasant tune.

“Who Died and Where I Moved To,” a Ben Goldberg piece with a playfully sneaky beat, bluesy chord changes, and lots of catchy old-jazz borrowings in the individual parts. A highlight of the show and the CD.

“Polestar,” another Goldberg piece, this time gossamer and lovely.

“2300 Skidoo,” a Herbie Nichols composition that shows how he straddled contemporary and future jazz traditions in his time.

And versions of “Night in Tunisia” (stunning) and “Crepuscule with Nellie” (during which Custer lost her place and couldn’t locate the proper sheet music page in her folder — an experience second only to the time she forgot to put a reed in her clarinet, she said).

As for the newer stuff, Custer trotted out two parts of a five-part suite inspired by Buckminster Fuller.  It started out nicely enough but without the abstract or geometric aspect I’d expected, considering this was the guy associated with geodesic domes and buckminsterfullerene.  But then they kicked into some wild improvising and a quirky riff that kept reappearing.  Better.

The group also did a waltz, “Sweeping Staircase,” that comes from one of Custer’s silent-film scores. And the show closed with a bit of Brazilian choro music by Pixinguinha.

As for the lineup of Clarinet Thing: Custer, Sheldon Brown, and Ben Goldberg are still around from the previous quintet formation (which put out the album Agony Pipes and Misery Sticks in 2005).  Peter Josheff and Ralph Carney are out, replaced by longtime local jazzster Harvey Wainapel. The four of them sat in the usual arc formation, like a string quartet would, and they took turns introducing their songs on the mic. It was a casual show, a fun air.

Goldberg spent most of the night on the contra-alto clarinet, which resembles a one-legged tuba (it’s got a stick to help the performer hold it at mouth level). The other players covered nearly every other type of clarinet between them, including a lot of bass clarinets.

Fun concert overall, and a nice CD that of course has a similar sound.

And if you want to hear what they sounded like live on KPFA a couple of weeks ago, click here, but do it fast — that archived show will expire Thursday, Nov. 26.

What Charlie Hunter Says

All About Jazz is running a good interview with guitarist Charlie Hunter, talking about his principles when it comes to playing music; his long-ago brush with the big side of the music industry; and why he doesn’t use the Hammond organ sound on his guitar any more. (“When I hear my old records with that sound, I want to punch that guy in the face. It sounds so cloying to me.”)

Hunter has been on my mind a lot this year because of his association with Go Home. (See earlier posts Ben Goldberg, Charlie Hunter, Go Home; ‘Go Home’ Comes Out; and Subway Series: New York.) It’s a treat to see him live. And it’s great to know that I’m not the only one blown away by Hunter’s trick of playing the bassline and guitar lines, with rich counterpoint, by himself.

They’ve titled the interview “Charlie Hunter: Seven-Stringed Samurai,” and you can find it here.

Hunter also says he’s done with the all-improv Groundtruther, a band featuring himself, Bobby Previte (drums), and a different guest star on each of three albums. That’s OK, because Hunter’s usual funky, rhythm-heavy music is plenty tasty.  His latest album as a leader, Baboon Strength, is well worth a listen.

Playlist: November 17, 2009

KZSU playlist for Tuesday, Nov. 17, 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. … and man, was it nice to get back on the air after two full weeks away.

Click here for the full playlist.  No time to muse much over this one.  Ben Goldberg‘s Go Home album, featuring Charlie Hunter, is in rotation at KZSU now, so you can expect me to spin that quite often.  More about that here.

I also had a DJ trainee, Andy, assisting me — he engineered 90% of the show, actually, and was responsible for an awesome indie-rock set that started with Guided by Voices.


Is it just me, or has the viola suddenly become hot?

Between items in the news and items crossing the KZSU transom, viola seems to be popping up much more than usual.

* Violist Nadia Sirota got quite a few good reviews for her album First Things First, including one in the Mercury News (albeit as part of a classical-CD roundup.)  Kudossource: new amsterdam to the New Amsterdam label for getting her noticed in the first place, let alone reviewed.

* Jessica Pavone turns to the viola for her duo work with Mary Halvorson.

* Szilard Mezei. He’s only got a few albums out, but yeah, he’s a viola-slinging bandleader.

* Mat Maneri‘s viola seems to have become his lead instrument since the early 2000s, with his violin relegated to the bench.

… And then you’ve got viola as a front-line ensemble player in various jazz groups, like Carl Maguire’s Floriculture (Stephanie Griffin) or Sean Noonan’s Brewed By Noon (actually, that’s Maneri again so it might not count.)

What gives? Is it people like me who just like the freshness of a little-used instrument (and if so, is the oboe/bassoon revolution far behind)? Is it a case of musicians hearing, and then wanting to explore, the deeper sonorities and more breathy voice of the viola? Is it dumb plain coincidence?

All this matters to me because I played viola in elementary school. I couldn’t resist the appeal of playing an instrument nobody else did (and I sort of felt sorry for the viola).  As a result, I’ve developed an attachment to the viola in my music listening; it’s been my gateway to a lot of classical music, for instance, as I’ve been introduced to composers by their viola sonatas and concertos.  It’s nice to see the viola getting this kind of attention. But that openes up a bigger question: If the viola becomes cool, does that mean I have to dump it because it’s too trendy? (Kidding.)

Happy Birthday Fred

Fred Anderson Trio — Birthday Live 2000 (Asian Improv, 2009)

anderson-trioPart of the spoils from the Chicago trip.  This is a limited-edition disk that was being sold as a fundraiser for the Velvet Lounge, Anderson’s South Side joint, so it was a tad more expensive than usual.  That’s fine.

There’s not much to the packaging aside from the attractive black-background cover, a photo with enhanced borders for a line-drawing look. The music is the attraction: three fairly long (22-, 13-, and 14-minute) pieces.

The 22-minute opening track is table stakes, the kind of high-energy jazz you’d expect from Anderson’s bands: a straight-up sound with plenty of free attitudes in the soloing. Nice stuff that shows Anderson still has the creative fire burning.

Track 2 starts with a clever, poking bassline from Tatsu Aoki, a minimalist funk patter accompanied by a light tapping beat from Chad Taylor on drums.  It all hints at an exotic African rhythms, particularly once the saxophone starts into a slow, jamming mode and Aoki’s bass lays the foundation in very low, swampy notes and a catchy beat. It’s a wonderful piece, the best of the bunch.

Track 3 sandersonpostertarts with Anderson unaccompanied, first in an upbeat blues mood but later wandering into other jazz territories, of course. He covers a lot of ground in five minutes before the rhythm section kicks in, Taylor with breezy fast drumming and Aoki opting for a bouncy, descending-note bassline. Anderson comes in with sax that’s plenty fast but not abrasive; coupled with the busy drums, it’s a piece with a lot of movement and a warm glow about it.

Great stuff.  But for a real birthday bash, check out the lineups for Anderson’s 2009 celebration, his 80th. You can see a list on Tatsu Aoki’s site, if you scroll down: Six days of artists like Ernest Dawkins, Ari Brown, Kidd Jordan, Henry Grimes, Dee Alexander and Jeff Chan. The Velvet Lounge is still selling promo posters from the event.