Stoning Out with Lou Reed

Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn — The Stone, Issue Three (Tzadik, 2008)

Everybody loves Lou Reed, sure.  But how would he be as an improviser?

I know, I know, he did Metal Machine Music.  He also hung out in the right parts of NYC in the right decades to be tuned into things like Philip Glass music and the old Knitting Factory.  He’s done interesting non-rock projects lately, like the ambient Metal Machine Trio. But how would he fare in a free improv context?

The third benefit CD for The Stone, John Zorn’s spare and elegant not-for-profit music space on the Lower East Side, documents an improvised set from Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Zorn.  And I’m picking on Reed just because of his rock reputation — although Anderson, come to think of it, is better known for her voice, her composing, and her performance than for her violin playing.

I’m actually being disingenuous here — I was pretty excited about this CD and didn’t have any doubts that it would be good.  But at the same time, I didn’t expect to hear the usual, Euro-modeled free improvisation.

Reed’s playing here lacks the fleetness of a Derek Bailey or a Henry Kaiser.  He’s not crafting new language or splaying dizzying runs of notes, and that’s fine. He’s relying on conventional techniques with unconventional choices of notes and chords.  Heavy distortion/fuzz comes into play too, for that good Metal Machine backdrop.

Rhythmically, he gets into short periods of march-like strumming, a bit of rock influence, but he never wants that phase to “stick.”  Rather, he’s tossing it out there as an element of his own vocabulary, a short phrase that’s part of a longer paragraph. It works, as the music falls into and out of small rhythms.

Reed plays solo to start the first of three long pieces, and he shows off a lot of what’s to come from him: Quiet, sinewy lines, alongside brief rocking-out phases.

Zorn actually responds in kind.  His first entrance on sax is just a blare at first but then dips into a rollicking bluesy motif (that’s how you can tell this is high art; I use words like “motif”) backed by a guitar buzz that develops into a crunchy rhythm.

It’s different — and shouldn’t that be the point of improvisation?  Reed doesn’t go immediately for the white-noise bluster that Pat Metheny couldn’t resist on The Sign of Four, his ear-splitting 3-CD set with Derek Bailey.  (I liked that album, by the way.) But he and Zorn get there soon enough, turning their duet moment into a screamfest.

The 13-minute second track gets even noisier. Anderson and Reed put up a glorious, shimmering wall of sound against Zorn’s rhythmic, tuneful sax ostinato. That collapses into an all-out attack from the three, Reed digging hard on guitar whil Zorn, well Zorns out on sax.

I’m giving Laurie Anderson short shrift here, but she adds some terrific work.  Sometimes it’s in the form of subtle electronics or synths in the background — she’s the shimmer in that wall-of-sound segment — but she’s also got several moments of splashy violin playing, beefed up by electronics for a doubled-up sound.

On the third track (the last and quietest), Anderson shows off a more “regular” violin sound that includes Glass-like arpeggios and light, glowing lines. It’s a nice antidote to the bombast of the prior track — but it develops into dark menace soon enough.

Overall, it’s a loud and crunchy performance, often unsubtle, but it’s fun. And your money goes straight towards paying expenses for The Stone, which operates entirely on donations.

Playlist: January 15, 2010

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Jan. 15, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

Very odd feeling being on at this time.  I’ve done 6 a.m. before but not a post-sunrise show.  And being on on Friday again took some adjustment (it feels like Tuesday!)

For the Winter quarter (through April 8), I’ll be following DJ Fo‘s show, “No Cover, No Minimum,” which spins blues, world music, and especially jazz.  My goal is to make a smooth transition between the two, since our shows do overlap.  That didn’t quite work out this time, as noted below, but in the future, it should make for a good 4-hour block combined.


* Jim Black/Alas No Axis — “Inkionos” — Houseplant (Winter & Winter, 2009) … As noted here, this is a catchy, relaxed little groove of a track, the one I’ve been thinking of as the hit single, so to speak.  Made for a nice transition from Fo’s show (which ended with a short track from that terrific White Rocket CD).  (Btw, more on Alas No Axis here.)  This track is what started the show, followed by:

* Tony Passarell 5tet — “Points Out” — The Path (self-released, 2008) … A quintet from Sacramento, influenced by the more progressive side of the giants (Monk, Coltrane, Dolphy, etc.)  This track went a bit further out than expected, though: It’s a thoughtful and fairly slow exercise led by shards of piano chords. Great track, actually, but it too quickly shifted the show into a quieter mode.

* Monroe Golden — “Montevallo” — Alabama Places (Innova, 2009)It’s microtonal, and it’s weird.  Sometimes microtonal music can sound pretty darned normal (Harry Partch comes to mind, especially that snippet of “Modesto” that Dr. Demento would use for the Funny 5 countdown).  And sometimes it can sound spooky and motion-sickness-inducing, as on this album. It’s a forest of keyboard sounds in microtonal mode; this track, in particular, uses a sound somewhere between an oboe and a harpsichord, for a particularly odd feeling. Atmospheric and eerie.

* Nellie McKay — “Do Do Do” — Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day … And it’s just that, a package of Doris Day songs sung by McKay in her pretty, airy voice.  Lots of old-timey jazz/pop touches, and lots of photos of McKay in sunny Doris Day-like dress doing album-cover poses.  It’s nice, but I do miss McKay’s lyrical cynicism.  Of particular note: She did this album not just because she likes old jazz or for the surface vocal similarities, but because of Day’s work for animal rights, a pet project (oof) of McKay’s.  (Whether you agree with McKay or not, her song “Columbia Is Bleeding” just plain kicks butt.)

* Miriodor — “Bolide Debile” (“Daredevil”) — Avanti! (Cuneiform, 2009) … I can’t express how much I’m loving this album. It’s prog rock with crunchy, mathy guitars, but fleet of foot, not prog/metal but more like a grumpier Gentle Giant with a goofy sense of humor.

Viola Preview

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players have been doing something interesting: On the day before certain concerts, they have a special show that focuses on just one piece. After it’s performed, the audience gets to hear the piece, ask questions of the composer and musicians, and sip some wine.

The next one of these sessions comes on Saturday, Jan. 24, in anticipation of a Jan 25 concert.  The featured piece happens to be a viola one, which is how this show caught my eye on the Bay Improviser/Transbay Calendar sites.

The featured piece is “… more leaves …” for viola, ensemble, and electronics. The viola takes the starring role, with the SF Symphony’s Nanci Severance at the strings.

It’s by Michael Jarrell, a Swiss composer, and the piece is described thusly:

“The electronics in the piece are a resonant shadow in the background, augmenting the depth and richness of the instruments.” [The instruments being clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, contrabass.]


Seriously, it sounds interesting.  “… more leaves …” is the opening piece of a larger program being performed Jan. 25 at Herbst Theater … but again, you can hear it played and explained the day before. That’s at the ODC Theater, a setting that will be more intimate but is still a theater, so you’ll get the acoustics of the room enhancing the piece.

I can’t point a link directly to all the details, because the SFCMP site uses Flash to display each concert’s contents.  But go to and you’ll find the Jan. 24/25 program easily; it’s titled “Natural Phenomena,” and the preview session its part of the “Contemporary Insights” series.

UPDATE 1:15 p.m. — I lied; I do have a direct link.  Click here for the press release about the whole thing.

“The electronics in the piece are a resonant shadow in the background, augmenting the depth and richness of the instruments.”

New Time: Friday 8-10 a.m.

I should mention: Starting this week, my radio show has moved again.  I’ll be on Fridays now, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.

The show follows DJ Fo and his excellent “No Cover, No Minimum,” a mix of jazz (old and new), world music, and blues.  Maybe one of these weeks, I’ll play tracks from the exact same albums he does, but in reverse order. (Not kidding!)

The KZSU schedule is viewable here.  We’re listenable at or, of course, on the actual radio at 90.1 FM in most of the Bay Area.

Go, Go, Go-Go! (The Sequel)

It’s the time of delayed CD release concerts.

Remember that Go-Go Fightmaster show I wrote about last month?  What I found out the next day (but neglected to mention) was that saxophonist Aaron Bennett got felled by a cold or flu.  Bottom line, they had to back out of that show.

So, Round 2.  The band is playing at The Uptown in Oakland tonight, opening for the Oakland Active Orchestra.   And it should be a great, live (as in living, breathing, writhing) show that presses the boundaries of free jazz.

Everything I said before still holds true here, so I won’t repeat it.  Should be a really great show.

Playlist: January 5, 2010

To see the full KZSU playlist for Tuesday, Jan. 5, 5:40 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., click here.

Items of note:

* Mats Gustafsson — “Untitled (Just Say No)” — The Vilnius Explosion (NoBusiness, 2008) … From an exciting new record label out of Lithuania, which is apparently run by folks who also organize jazz/improv shows out there. This was their debut CD, matching Gustafsson with a quartet of Lithuanian improvisers for some impressive results. This track is the centerpiece, a 30-minute ride that includes lots of sax bluster from Gustaffson and Liudas Mockunas, but also some sublime passages that quiet down to fast patters that let the bass and drums shine.

* Jliat produces intense noise by linking effects pedals together.  Lots of folks do that, but Jliat makes it particularly piercing and harsh. It’s always a fun challenge to insert Jliat into a “jazz” show.

* William Hooker — “Ghost Dance” — Armageddon (Homestead, 1995) … For some reason, I was in the mood to start sets with something harsh (like Jliat), then amp downwards.  This track combines a firestorm of Hooker’s drums with David First on guitar.  First’s playing is noisy but at a low volume, like an understated accompaniment.

* Jonathon Haffner — “Formigas” — Life on Wednesday (Cachuma, 2009) … Here’s an interesting one, a modern/contemporary jazz quintet that includes Craig Taborn adding some electronics.  They’re often in an accessible mode but aren’t afraid of a free-jazz freakout, as on “Western Wren (The Bird Call).”  This track is a 10-minute excursion that starts with about four minutes of a quiet patter, a combination of electronics, bass/drums, and possibly some percussively played guitar.  The sax breaks in for an improv section that heats up to a boil by the end.

* Etienne Jaumet — “At the Crack of Dawn” — Night Music (Versatile, 2009)Planetarium music.  That is, it’s dance/electronica but with a sit-down feel, lots of springy beats played out on Jean-Michel-Jarre kinds of synthesizers for an upbeat but cerebral sound.  This track is centered on a saxophone sample that makes it sound “jazzy,” even though the sample is looped to form a one-note drone. It’s also got a deliciously low low bass tone at the start. Separately: Don’t know if it’s just kismet or what, but this CD was one of our most popular last week, its first week in rotation. It might be one of those albums with enough of a common denominator to attract a wide swath of DJs. We’ll see.

A Further Word About Adm. Ted Brinkley

I could have appended this to the last entry, but I was wary of getting into unfocused blog blathering mode…

… but apparently, Admiral Ted Brinkley (semi-ret.) is going through an active phase. He’s got some gigs lined up at places like the Revolution Cafe (nice but cramped open-aired booze-and-dessert spot in San Francisco’s Mission District) and El Valenciano (Spanish/Basque restaurant also in the Mission, Yelp page here). These include something called the “ULTRA-Large Ensemble” at El Valenciano on Feb. 3.

As of this writing, the dates are all listed on Lisa Mezzacappa’s MySpace page. (Obviously, your results will differ if you’re checking this in, say, April 2010.)

(And because I don’t say it enough here, I’ll add that anybody looking for this kind of music in the SF Bay Area should be checking the Bay Area Improvisers’ Network or the Transbay Calendar often — and “often” means OFTEN, not in the sense that you “often” floss or clean the garage. They use the same data source, so take your pick.)

Mezzacappa’s calendar also lists a couple of upcoming dates for Marco Eneidi, who’s coming back this way in late February. He’s got a more dates lined up than he did during last year’s visit.

Which reminds me.  It’s apparently been a year since I started this blog.  Doesn’t seem that long, and it’s nice to see I managed to post at an average rate of nearly every other day. And I can feel another blather phase coming on, so I’d better stop there.