Gone Fishin’

I’m taking a week off from the show, so … no Feb. 19 show.

And the following week, I’ll be doing an earlier shift:  Feb. 26, 6:00 to 8:30 a.m.  All the morning DJs are shifting that day to absorb DJ Fo’s shift (it’s his turn for a week off) and accommodate an early-afternoon baseball game.

Keep seeking out good music!  Marco Eneidi is in town again for the next week or so, playing more shows than he did last time.  Plenty to choose from — check bayimproviser.com or transbaycalendar.org for times and places.

Grosse Abfahrt

Grosse Abfahrt — Vanity (Emanem, 2009)

Performing live on Weds., Feb. 17, at 21 Grand in Oakland.  Guest musicians Birgit Ulher (trumpet) and Kyle Bruckmann (oboe).

I’ve been fighting a cold, getting lots of rest — which robs me of my usual late-night music listening time. Haven’t been able to give this album a good listen. Luckily, you can read the review in the East Bay Express!

The band’s name means “great departure” in German, but given Tom Djll‘s penchant for wordplay, you’re allowed to giggle. It’s an electroacoustic improvising group with a rotating cast of characters that usually has an ear for the power of subtle, silent passages.

A Grosse Abfahrt session can have plenty of loud segments but there are usually some stretches, or some entire pieces, built of tiny electronics whistles and small creaks and whispers from the acoustic instruments.  Their first album, Erstes Luftschiff Zu Kalifornien on Creative Sources, had a lot of moments along those lines, hearing-test electronics tones matched by small, indiscernible sounds.

G.A. consists of a five-player core that never varies, complemented by a handful of other players (just two in this case; up to seven in others) who haven’t performed with the group before. Usually one or two of those players comes from Europe; in fact, my impression had always been that G.A. was a blanket name for a series of Euro-U.S. meetups.

This Wednesday’s session will include German trumpeter Birgit Ulher and local oboist Kyle Bruckmann joining the core team of five: John Shiurba (guitar), Matt Ingalls (clarinet), Gino Robair (percussion/theremin/whatever), Tim Perkis (laptop electronics), and leader Djll (trumpet).

The core five are quite used to Bruckmann and Ulher, so it should be a solid evening of improvising.

As for Vanity — the name refers to vanity license plates, which is where the tracks get their titles — it brings G.A. into new territory, as the added musicians are Matthieu Werchowski (viola/violin), David Chiesa (double bass), and Theresa Wong (cello). Strings, in other words, and it’s hard not to notice their presence; on a surface listen, they give the band a new texture and a bit more of a classical edge. It’s a nice departure.

Playlist: February 12, 2010

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Friday, Feb. 12, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.

The first half hour was dominated by free improv from Grosse Abfahrt (more info in a post to come, or read the review in the East Bay Express, *or* go see them live on Wednesday at 21 Grand).

Other notes:

* Jerry Granelli V16 — “Unnamed” — Vancouver ’08 (Songlines, 2009) … Had to play something from Vancouver to commemorate the Olympics opening, and this one did the trick nicely.  The album is another set of what you might call avant-blues, a rock-influenced jazz with rock/blues guitars up front but a penchant for jazzlike composing.  Some tracks, like this one, even get pretty far out there in terms of free soloing, but the guitars stick to blues-club sounds, as opposed to jazz guitar. It’s got punch. Plenty of grooves and sweat involved here.

* Matthew Welch — “Bagpipe Quintet” — Luminosity (Porter, 2009) As threatened, I played the five-bagpipe composition from Welch, warning listeners ahead of time that the sound can get shrill.  See, when we, the DJs,  preview the next sets of music we’re going to play, we can listen to it on “cue” speakers — which, in our case, happen to be cheap but resilient little things. The sound is tinny. When you’ve got five bagpipes hitting those high notes, it’s really tinny.  Anyway, the piece is only four minutes long and turns out to be less grating when heard through decent speakers.  It’s in a droney mode, with some interesting slow ostinato patterns that crop up.

* Helmut Lachemann — “Grido” [excerpt] — Streichquartette (Kairos, 2009) … I followed Welch with some harshness from the Arditti String Quartet, although this piece quickly settles into a busy and low-volume level of activity. Lachemann, we’re told, is very highly for his post-tonal work.  The CD consists of three quartet pieces, all about 20 minutes long.

That Low Droney Feeling

Stuart Dempster, Tom Heasley, Eric Glick Reiman — Echoes of Syros (Full Bleed, 2009)

What the heck is “prepared electric piano?”

The sound, as played by Eric Glick Rieman, is analogous to a prepared piano: lots of percussive clacking, the sound of a wood block or similar object sitting atop the strings.  Except a Rhodes has no strings. Hm.

However it’s done — a simple matter of programming new sounds, maybe? — Rieman uses it to interesting effect on Echoes of Syros.  He’s got that wood-block sound down, and also produces metallic, ringing tones — the tapping of a Buddhist metal bowl at the start of “Celestial,” or chattery, tuneless wood chimes on “The Chimaera,” or elsewhere, a ringing metallic clanging with fading reverb.

Echoes of Syros came out of a 72-minute improvisation at 21 Grand, which the trio thought was solid enough to be presented on CD.  They’ve excerpted about 54 minutes of the best slices.

It starts with the expansive, 34-minute title track — and this is where Tom Heasley really does his thing. Heasley plays tuba enhanced with electronics, creating ambient washes of sound, colorful clouds passing over at sunrise.  Here, he kicks things off with a drone of several minutes, setting up the loops that will be the foundation of this whole segment.  It starts off dark and a bit stormy, but by the halfway point, the background tuba drone has lightened up to a relaxing multitone.

It’s in the second half that Stuart Dempster and Rieman really make themselves known, Dempster trying a variety of instruments including didgeridoo and possibly his signature trombone.  But it’s Heasley’s sound that frames the whole piece.

The other three tracks are shorter excursions that feature the players’ individuality more.  “The Chimaera” pits Dempster on conch shell against Heasley’s tuba.  “Celestial,” as mentioned before, gives more weight to Rieman’s percussive sounds.

It’s mostly mesmerizing stuff.  “Interzone” takes a break for a noisier, more clattery interlude.  and late in “The Chimaera,” as Heasley’s tuba echoes beging building up, Dempster starts going nuts with some kind of squeaky, high-pitched toy that he’s breathing through (possibly the garden hose mentioned in the credits?)

For another look: Read Caleb Deupree‘s  review in furthernoise.org.

Skatch It Up II

Tom Nunn/David Michalak –T.D. Skatchit & Co. (Edgetone, 2009)

Appearing at Studio 1510 on Saturday, Feb. 13, 8:00 p.m.

Instrument builder Tom Nunn has come up with a portable, easily reproduceable percussion device called the skatchbox, which I’d written about in August.  Now the skatchbox has an album to show off what it can do.

Quick review: The skatchbox consists of metal and hard plastic doodads affixed to a stiff cardboard box — the kind that computer keyboards come in. They can be played acoustically, by grazing a comb or a thin metal stick against the ladderlike elements for a cool percussive sound … or, the skatchbox can be amplified, for noisier effects. Each one is handmade, and there’s no set template — one can have a skatchbox that’s unique.

It’s cool, and here’s the video to prove it.

I would imagine that Nunn simply had access to lots of discarded boxes at his day job.  Cardboard can be a wonderfully resonant material, and the stiffness and thickness of these boxes — not to mention their perfect laptop size — would seem ideal for a musical instrument.  The idea is far from crazy.

The album teams up two skatchboxes with a third instrument. The results are colorful, unique (Nunn appears to have no set template for placing elements onto the boxes), and probably loads of fun to play with.

I tended to favor the more sound-exploratory tracks, with Aurora‘s voice or electronics by Chris Brown, over those with acoustic instruments. Leif Shakelford does some fine work on viola, but the sound clashes too much with the skatchboxes, to my ear.  I’ll probably warm up to it on future listens.

Then again, Jon Raskin turned in some sax work that creates some nice pieces, in three different moods.  “Popcorn Skatch” features the baritone sax making small popping noises, like a tube. “I Told You So” involves perky and tuneful alto sax against the grumpy skatching.  And the best of the three, “Twilight Skatch,” has Raskin playing a meditative, ritualistic melody on baritone sax, a calmness overlaid with the squiggly little skatchbox sounds.

One of the skatchbox’s earliest appearances last year was in a workshop where Nunn taught people to make their own — it’s assembled from household items and playable with a plain old comb, so the only trick is to get hold of a keyboard box, which in Silicon Valley shouldn’t be so hard. So, while I’d love to buy a skatchbox or two for the kids, I think Nunn’s answer might be: Have them go make one. Which isn’t a bad idea.

Pat Metheny’s Dark Side

Consider this a sequel to the Lou Reed post.  I mention Pat Metheny and The Sign of Four there, and it got me thinking back to that album, and to another one …

There’s an interloper’s factor when “commercial” musicians step into the improv world.  Free improv, despite what a lot of people think, isn’t thoughtless flailing. Try playing along with an Evan Parker or Derek Bailey CD; it’s not as easy as you’d think.

So, on the one hand, you have the sentiment of, “How dare they think they can just step right into this world!”  On the other hand, free improv today sounds pretty darned similar to the free improv circa 1969, when Derek Bailey and The Company were first working it out. Maybe some new voices couldn’t hurt.

Metheny’s music has gained popularity for being pretty and airy and cinematic — that’s the word the critics love, and it’s apt.  But Metheny has always insisted that his music isn’t meant to be played softly or quietly. It’s not just mood music. And jazz in general, he says, ought to be loud.

To that end, The Sign of Four, a 3-CD set recorded in 1997, opens with disquiet: a 62-minute marquee piece called “A Study in Scarlet.”  It was performed live at the Knitting Factory, and it marked Metheny and Bailey’s first meeting, each bringing along a drummer as well (Paul Wertico and Gregg Bendian).  They didn’t know much about one another beyond reputation, but it seems understood that they were going to do something improvised and not-nice.  And so it was: Metheny soon cranks it to 11 and never looks back.

Some people complain that this froze the entire piece, limiting the choices of Bailey and the drummers, and obliterating any chance to hear Bailey’s sublime, scribbly language. True. But again: Different isn’t bad.  What came out was more than acceptable, IMHO.  It’s interesting hearing Derek Bailey really shred, heavy distortion and all, and the drummers occasionally back off to create the illusion of calm. A second live disk of shorter pieces, and a studio disc, include moments of exploring other territory (i.e. quieter stuff), where silence gets to play its role.

Does Sign of Four work? I’d say yes, absolutely. But it’s not for everybody, and I can see why even a fan of abstract music might snub it.  What’s of interest here is that Metheney tried something outside his usual bounds — and, to an extent, so did Bailey.

In 1994, Metheny had gone on a solo excursion into similar territory. Zero Tolerance for Silence came out with zero fanfare on Geffen, his then-current label. In a Rolling Stone interview, Metheny described it as an exercise in “filling space” rather than creating space — the latter being his usual M.O. in those cinematic, open-sky pieces he’s famous for.

As I’ve mentioned before, you can often judge a CD by its cover. That harsh, stark, almost evil fluorescent light.  Yes, this won’t be another “Phase Dance.”

For my money, the 18-minute “Part One” is “Zero Tolerance for Silence.”  Meaning, that’s the piece I think Metheny really set out to do.  The track consists of four overdubbed electric guitars, intentionally out of tune by the sound of it, manically hammering away at blurry white-noise chords. Metheny takes occasional breaks for solos, where all four guitars, now sounding even more out of tune, plunge into criss-crossing, grunting, atonal lines of single notes before returning to the blur.

My guess is that Metheny recorded one guitar track with no schematic, just a general plan of what he wanted to do.  Each subsequent track was recorded while listening to the first one and following its cues, so that the solos and the chordal blurs would be in sync.

It’s harsh and grating — and oddly relaxing, due to the long stretches of near white noise. I’ve literally fallen asleep listening to it.  And you know what? I honestly like “Part One.”

Parts Two through Five, though, feel like B-sides. Metheny seems to be using the same approach — four overdubs in sequence — but doesn’t have another grand idea to back up the execution. He draws some sour-toned, off-key melodies that you could say are experimental, or microtonal, or bold … but really, they’re just annoying.

I’m glad Metheny had the interest to give this type of music a whirl, and that he got the support to put the results out on disc.  The differences in Zero Tolerance and Sign of Four show how enriching it is for a musician to be pushed by others in a group, and the latter shows that Metheny does have an aptitude for this stuff. He could enrich his mad improv skillz if he wanted to concentrate on this music, I’m sure — but of course, that’s not his thing, and that’s fine.

Playlist: February 5, 2010

(I haven’t been putting “2009” in these headlines, have I…?)

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Friday, Feb. 5, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

* Alex Jenkins Sound Immersion — “All Them Cows” — Generosity (Prescott, 2009)Out of Sacramento, a quartet fronted by two horns and led by drummer Jenkins.  They do some great hard-bop grooving but also color outside the lines quite a bit — as on this track, which is an etheral improvisation.  But it’s great when they turn up the straight-jazz heat as well, as on “Power Outage,” a track that opens with a bright, aggressive drum solo.  Hope to catch them live someday.

* Aperiodic — “Louder” [7″] (Generate, 2009)The last of the three seven-inches that we got from Generate, this time a trio of guitar, bass, and (piano or drums).  Side A, “Air Below Mountains,” is actually the louder track, a noisy and inorganic brew of electronically tweaked sounds.  “Louder” starts off quieter and includes some uncomfortable pauses before shifting into some busy group work. Nice stuff.

They’ve got a full-length in the works, their first in 11 years of playing together, according to drummer Matt Schulz.

* Aarktica — The album is called In Sea, and I’m not sure whether that’s an “In C” play on words or not.  It could be.  These are electric-guitar washes, heavy in amplified treatment to create walls of ambient sound, loud but cushy. On the title track, you can hear the pick slow-strumming the opening chord that triggers a big, Eno-like wave of sound, a pretty effect.  Given the harmonic statsis of this kind of music, an “In C” reference wouldn’t be surprising.

Why Does Matthew Shipp Want To Hurt Me?

Matthew Shipp — 4D (Thirsty Ear, 2010)

It’s like an assault sometimes, like being showered in pebbles. Like losing a snowball fight.

Shipp’s latest solo piano album is full of stormy moments. Lots of low-register rumblings that he loves.  And when he gets into it, he starts just hurling chords and notes at you.  Even when his playing isn’t fast, it’s got force, and even the slow tracks can feel relentless.

There are even standards on here, like “Autumn Leaves” or “What Is This Thing Called Love,” done big and stormy, attack mode. It’s a bull-in-a-china-shop effect: Stomping jazz that’s too big for its surroundings, causing earth shaking and property damage when all it’s really doing is having a good time.

Some of what he does is just plain punk; an ADD-blizzard rendering of “Frere Jacques” seems to hammer that point home.

And yet so many tracks on here I’d describe as “jazzy.”  They’ve got the right four-note harmonies and, on “Blue Web in Space,” even a generous helping of blue notes. Some even swing. But they’re densely packed. Ideas flicker by like hummingbirds, stopping in one place, abruptly buzzing to the next.  Shipp’s left hand carves out chords while the right hand responds in kind with clusters of single notes, densely packed and rapidly executed.

4D is as cerebral as Shipp has ever been, but he’s still not above having moments of wild abandon.  Oh, and there’s also “Greensleeves.” I won’t spoil that one for you.

Tuneful Tones of Drum Machines

Matt Davignon — Living Things (Edgetone, 2010)

Performing live on Friday, Feb. 5 at Studio 1510 … 1510 8th St., Oakland
… Along with Reconnaissance Fly; more about them here.

Matt Davignon makes strange, elastic sounds out of a drum machine.  It’s an interesting transformation — instead of dry clicks and snaps, you get long, gloopy tunes, a more liquidy and organic sound than I’d associate with the phrase “drum machine.”

I’d never even seen a drum machine before getting a hands-on demonstration from Davignon.  It was at the first “Touch the Gear” exhibition (held as part of the annual event now called the Outsound New Music Summit), the idea being that you could talk to artists about the computers, pedals, and blinky-light machines that make all these abstract sounds.

(Very highly recommended event, btw; I’m really hoping to bring my kids if they do it again.)

And YOU can get a hands-on demo, virtually, thanks to YouTube. Davignon has set up a video series called “Rigs!” that’s well worth checking out. Here’s his Drum Machine demo, part 1.

The gist: He starts with drum machines, including some that produce tuned beats, runs them through reverb, looping, sampling, and other effects, and comes out with odd new sounds.  It’s a process that allows for lots of spontaneous adapting, as you might imagine; Davignon even talks about adjusting pitches on the fly to match the keys of other instruments.

The results are interesting little soundscapes, as shown on his earlier albums Bwoo and SoftWetFish. But on the new Living Things, the idea takes a new turn.

It’s not pop at all, but Davignon builds some of these pieces around overt melody and rhythm that you’d associate with pop.

Take the six-minute “Mold.”  It follows a stompy little beat with a rattly sound that’s got a trace of melody to it — something The Residents would be proud to play.  Then he gets into some soloing — a murky, swampy path of synthlike tunes that keeps up the mysterious mood that’s developed.

“Markhor” is more of a wanderer, presenting a melody of slow, sliding tones. “Saguaro” builds a steady, slowish riff, then undocks for a solo of spacey, floating tones.

There’s plenty of abstract territory covered here, too. “Blind Cave Tetra” is a series of rattly, echoing sounds like — well, like a cave, at least a radio-theater version of one.

Should I admit I’m an old D&D geek?  Davignon’s creations have always made me thing of gelatinous cubes and similarly blobby, formless creatures.  (Or — wait — jellyfish. Next time, I’m gonna be less geeky and just say “jellyfish.”) That trend doesn’t stop with Living Things, but the heavier concentration on melody adds a relaxing touch and gives the music a stamp that’s different from the previous albums.

Tim Berne’s Latest

New tracks by Tim Berne, posted online! This time with Los Totopos: Tim Berne (reeds), Oscar Noriega (clarinet), Ches Smith (percussion), Matt Mitchell (keys). You’ll find them at the top of the news section on Screwgun Records‘ main page.

The mellow group improvisation on “Roulette Two” is just sublime, lent a chamber-music air by Matt Mitchell’s keyboards and Oscar Noriega’s clarinet. It builds up to a gorgeous surge (and seems to be cut off during the climax).

“Roulette Three” gradually builds into something bouncy, confusing, and just delightful. From there, it’s into some stern moods, with the piano adding a nice formalism to the unison lines.

“The Mini Bar Incident” has a windup of a finish, with a very Berne-like theme that lurches along in an odd-time rocking manner.

Check them out while they’re available; I would guess they’re being featured only temporarily.