The DTM Gallery Haul

My definition of “splurge” won’t change the economics for Downtown Music Gallery, but I certainly spent enough to feel a little guilty.  Start thinking community college, kids.

Seriously, I coordinated my recent NYC trip to have a good couple of hours to browse the stacks at DTM Gallery’s new, sub-basement digs in Chinatown, near the Manhattan Bridge.  I wanted to buy some things that would be difficult to find at home, things I could save some shipping charges on — and one item that’s  probably at Amoeba but that I wanted right away (and had learned about through the store’s excellent but way-too-tempting mailings).

But most of all, Bruce Lee Gallanter & co. have given adventurous music a cozy home with their store, and I wanted to drop them a few dimes as a thank you.  Here’s what I came out with. Many of these will probably end up as reviews on the site, as I get around to giving them good listens.

Ben Perowsky Quartet — Esopus Opus (Skirl) … You know, it’s simple: I wanted to buy something from Skirl. It’s Chris Speed‘s label, and the discs come in handsome DVD cases (hard to store, nice to look at). Perowsky’s gotten some good reviews lately, and I have a fond memory of an early NYC trip, enjoying the free band at the basement bar at the then-meaningful Knitting Factory.  It was a Perowsky-led quartet, with Chris Speed, and I loved it. I’ll never know if this is the same music.  Doesn’t really matter.

Ambitious Lovers — Lust (Elektra, 1991) … These guys blew my mind, in good ways and bad, on Jools Holland and David Sanborn’s Night Music, during its short NBC run.  I glanced at the used bins, saw this, and decided it was time to hear it.

Yoni Kretzmer‘s New Dilemma — s/t (Earsay, 2009) … I do occasional news searches for Tim Berne, just to see what’s up and see who’s claiming to be influenced by him. Kretzmer’s name came up a few months ago, and I found out DTM Gallery had a copy of his latest CD. (Bruce Lee Gallanter graciously searched the back stacks for it.) Score!

Tom Rainey Trio — Pool School (Clean Feed, 2010) … Brand spanking new and a pick off of a DTM newsletter.  It’s got Rainey’s name up front, but Mary Halvorson and Ingrid Laubrock are equal partners here. There’s a unique sound here; I’ll be writing it up soon.

Denis Charles Triangle — Queen Mary (Silkheart) … From a box of old Silkheart CDs.  I’d discovered Denis Charles shortly before his death, so I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for him, considering his limited output.

Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band — Celestial Green Monster (MutableMusic, 2010) … This one was lying out on the new-music rack, out of order. I like Fred. I want to hear more of his music. I grabbed it.

Henry GrimesSolo (Ilk, 2009) … More than 2 hours of solo bass and violin. I’ve been debating for months as to whether I’ve got the time, patience, and guts for this one, since I’d want to listen to it in as close to a solid chunk as possible.  Figured I’d give it a go.

Jessica PavoneSongs of Synastry and Solitude (Tzadik, 2009) … I very much wanted to come away with a few Tzadik releases (prices are better than anywhere else), but surprised myself by coming away with only this one. I chose it because I was not able to attend the ESP-Disk concert held at the Bowery Poetry Club, where Pavone and Jason Kao Hwong were presenting bands.

Cosa Brava — Ragged Atlas (Intakt, 2010) … Fred Frith‘s return to pop songs, with Carla Kihlstedt (violin), Zeena Parkins (accordion, keys), Matthias Bossi (drums), and “The Norman Conquest” (sound manipulation).  Been anticipating this one for some time.

Andrew d’Angelo Trio — Morthana with Pride!! (Doubt, 2005) … If you haven’t been to d’Angelo’s Web site to read about his triumph over cancer, you’re missing out.  D’Angelo was also part of Human Feel, a band I got into after discovering Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. DTM Gallery didn’t have any of his Skirl album handy, but this one, which I’d never heard of, seemed a plum find in its place.

I’m not sure there’s anything in this list for anybody to learn except me. But there it is.

Yes, It’s a Harp

I have to admit, the first time I looked up The Stone‘s listings for Tuesday and saw “harp” on the bill, I moved on.  Plenty else to do on Tuesday.

But I recanted later.  It’s The Stone, after all, where bookings are hand-picked.  And harp can be an interesting instrument. It’s got pedals that can change the tone of strings up or down by two half-steps — all the Fs can become F#, for instance, or all the strings can be set up in a pentatonic scale (just like playing all black notes on the piano) for that classic “harp” sound. And the bio for the musician noted she’d played composers like Elliott Carter. I like Elliott Carter.

So on a rainy Tuesday, after splurging at Downtown Music Gallery and dining at Boca Chica, the only Lower East Side eatery I know, I decided: What the heck. It was just after 8:00 p.m., and I was blocks away. When else am I going to even consider a harp recital? Let’s see what solo harp can do.

Bridget Kibbey was in the middle of some richly chromatic, modern-classical piece when I arrived. Not the pillowy, heaven-sent cloud music you normally hear. This had lots of color, lots of rich tones. A great start.

Most of the program was not solo harp, in fact; Kibbey used the opportunity to bring in some friends and to play some new pieces (with the composers in the audience).  The next number, called “Crossfade,” actually used two harps, Kibbey and a friend, with one or the other taking the lead in, of course, a kind of crossfading pattern. This was really enjoyable — again, lots of modern chromatic tones, and a good technical showcase. Any classical recital can be described as having pinpoint accuracy, but something about the harp makes “pinpoint” seem more appropriate, more tangible.  It’s a delight to watch the notes get plucked out, right there in the open.

I learned something new about the harp: Harmonics. They’re all over the place in some of these compositions.  They’re played with one hand — I assume the thumb sits atop the string at just the right spot while another finger plucks the note, so there’s a high degree of accuracy involved (same is true for any fretless instrument, I suppose, but it was a lot more surprising on the harp).

Kibbey then brought up a flautist for a succession of several Bartok songs based on folk music. This had more of a “classical” classical feel to it, with jaunty rhythms.  The pieces were written for flute and piano, with Kibbey having transcribed the piano part for harp.  As you’d imagine, it works quite well.

Two pieces for guitar and harp closed the evening. One was an original, written by the guitarist (I’d written names down on scratch paper & will fill them in if I can find that paper), an pleasant piece that was based on a folk tale about an object that creates such an obsession, it absorbs the owner’s entire reality.  That was followed by some Celtic reels, made folky and rocking by the addition of occasional guitar-chord strumming.

Given the rain that night, and the stigma of the harp, there wasn’t much of a crowd — maybe five of us who weren’t players, composers, or personal friends.  But I’m glad I went. Saxophone after saxophone can only teach you so much, after all.

NYC Part II: Lou Grassi

After checking out Ellery Eskelin’s show Monday night, I hopped the subway to the Lower East Side to catch the tail end of a free-jazz night at a little dive bar, Local 269. Located at 269 E. Houston, it’s just a stone’s throw from The Stone. An NYC organization called RUCMA has been booking Monday night shows there.

I was sorry to miss most of the bill, including the Katie Bull Group, which had Joe Fonda on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. But — well, read the previous entry; Eskelin, even though he’s apparently playing at 55 Bar on Wednesday, was a ticket I couldn’t pass up.

What I did get to see was a rollicking set of ecstatic free jazz from drummer Lou Grassi and his quartet.  I’m pretty sure the whole set was improvised, although the horns (Lewis “Flip” Barnes on trumpet and Will Connell on sax/bass clarinet) would sometimes settle on a riff that became the head of a piece.  This made for some terrific endings, as they’d ride their way back into the head, play it four times, then stop.  Great stuff.

Barnes and Connell took some breathtaking, high-energy solos, as did bassist Max Johnson (looking really happy to be there the entire time) and Grassi himself, of course.  During one solo, Barnes also tried a few moments of quieter, extended-technique improvising, which didn’t get the same level of cheers but was a welcome change of pace.

The crowd had thinned, this being the fourth set of the night, but they were really into it.  Lots of whooping and hollering during the show. This also happened to be going on during the final innings of the Red Sox-Yankees game — which was playing on the bar’s tiny TVs near the ceiling. It was during one of Connell’s particularly cutting solos that Marcus Thames smacked the two-run homer to win it in the bottom of the ninth. I’m sure everyone in the audience saw it, as did Barnes, who was standing to the side of the stage at the time. “You sent it over the wall!” he told Connell after the song ended. Then, cocking his ear to the crowd: “Any Red Sox fans out there?”

The hipster bartender didn’t seem to be too much into it, but everyone else was having a great time.  The band clearly had a lot of fun with this gig. The Local 269 is small and dark, and probably really hot in the summertime, but in some ways that’s the right setting for an ebullient, interactive set of hard-blowing jazz.

Ellery Eskelin in Times Square

Monday night was a rare chance for me: some downtime in New York City. The choices for music shows are overwhelming. But once I discovered there was some actual free jazz in a Times Square venue, I had to show up, just to show some support.

Well, that, and to see Ellery Eskelin for the first time in about a decade.

It was the debut of a new series, whereby Roberto’s Winds will be bringing jazz to the Limerick Bar, the upstairs room at Rosey O’Grady’s 46th-Street restaurant. Most of the music will be on the straighter side, but they took a nice chance by kicking off the series with Eskelin. Or, maybe it wasn’t such a chance — Eskelin is a well known name by now (heck, it brought me to the place, didn’t it?). He brought in a new trio with Gary Versace on organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

I got there early enough to eavesdrop on Eskelin talking strategy with the band. “If you hear a tune, just go with it,” and “So, this is basically an improv gig.”  I wasn’t trying to listen in, but it’s a small and cozy area, and very few people had arrived at the time.

As expected, then, the show stuck mostly to jazzy motifs but coloring outside the lines quite a bit.  Eskelin opened things by soloing himself, going a few minutes before Sorey joined tentatively. Versace really got things going by pulsing out some bass notes on the organ, setting up a kind of rhythmless groove that the group could ride for a good long time.

With the parameters set, the trio locked in for the rest of the show. That first long piece hit some energetic highs and turned out very successfully. They started a second piece in a mellower tone, veering into a kind of improvised ballad that built up in intensity and volume. Sorey went absolutely nuts for one long stretch, snapping at the drums and cymbals with impossibly fast arms. He can be an inferno when he wants to.

The crowd was sympathetic, but you didn’t get many outbursts of applause or whooping, even though many, many moments deserved it. Chalk it up to the venue — friendly place, but plush. With people eating dinner, it seemed more polite to save the applause for the ends of pieces. The one exception was during the closing piece, a straight-jazz improvisation where Eskelin turned in a crowd-pleasing, crescendoing solo. Big applause there, some of it pent up from not applauding at key points of other pieces, I’d think.

Eskelin will be appearing with Sorey and guitarist Mary Halvorson at The Stone on June 17. That should be a treat.

As for Rosie O’Grady’s itself, the food is the usual Irish/British fare you’d expect, in a serious restaurant setting. You can get fish and chips, of course, but it’s mostly a traditional meat-and-potatoes place: shepherd’s pie, beef stew, and the like. Hardy food for absorbing those Guinesses you’ve been knocking down.

The night had a second set, with saxophonist Hayes Greenfield, but I didn’t stick around.  The chance to catch something more “outside” on the Lower East Side beckoned.  I’ll be writing that up separately.

Dana Street, Mountain View

Kudos to the folks at Dana Street Roasting Co. in downtown Mountain View. They’re trying to host jazz and even avant-garde events every couple of months, it turns out.

The owner was talking about it after tonight’s show with the improv/jazz/noise trio Brotulid, which I’d mentioned yesterday. Bassist Steuart Liebig happens to know the guy, which is how they’d set up the gig.  Apparently something with Nels Cline in the fall is a possibility too.

Dana Street is a regular host to acoustic or folky acts, but they’re getting jazz into the mix too — Scott Amendola and Wil Blades are apparently set to perform in June, and on the very straightahead side, Hammond B-3 player Tony Monaco recently did a show there.  It’s a friendly place right near the downtown restaurant corridor, and they didn’t charge a cover to the folks who stepped in just for a cup of coffee.

The show was loud: electric guitar, electric bass, and sax, with all three players adding laptop electronics and a matrix of pedals.  Long stretches of ambient (but loud) synthy tones would emerge, eventually broken up by hard, forceful beat loops from a laptop. The band would then improvise over those beats.

The aesthetic was closer to noise than to jam bands, but Liebig would sometimes settle on a riff on his 6-stringed fretless bass. Even better were the passages where he took long, blistering solos on the instrument.  G.E. Stinson‘s guitar added plenty of fireworks, too, and Andrew Pask’s occasional saxophone kept things close to the legitimate borders of jazz.

Pask’s monome, a multi-buttoned and tilt-sensitive interface for the laptop, attracted the most audience questions between sets  (each set being an uninterrupted 30- or 40-minute piece). Pask mentioned one trick he’d used it for. Apparently, playing a clarinet in this ensemble is just hopeless; it can’t compete in volume. So he sampled his clarinet and used the monome to play it from the computer, nice and loud (and bendy and cartoony, too).

The music was audible out on the sidewalk, through the closed door, so it attracted a lot of stares from passers-by.  Some seemed impressed or even interested, which was a nice surprise. At any rate, it was a bit of added entertainment watching people get caught in music’s effective radius.

It’s hard to promote this kind of music in what’s essentially the suburbs. Dana Street’s owner knows that but still wants to soldier on with it.  If you live anywhere on or near the peninsula, keep an eye on the place.  Hopefully they’ll continue packing the occasional surprise for some time to come.

Strange Music in Mountain View

It’s true — bassist Steuart Liebig is swinging through town, up from L.A. with some friends, and he’s got a gig:  Friday, May 14, 7:00 p.m., at the Dana Street Roasting Company (744 W. Dana St., Mountain View).

The gig that will get more attention is tonight (May 13), when Nels Cline shows up. He and G.E. Stinson (guitars) and Scott Amendola (drums), plus Liebig, are/were the improv group L. Stinkbug back in the ’90s. They’ve all continued playing together in all sorts of combinations, but they’re reviving L. Stinkbug for a show at 21 Grand in Oakland.

There will be a second L. Stinkbug show in Sacramento, at Beatnik Studios as part of “Flow Fest.”

But the surprise bonus gig is the Dana Street one.  I can’t imagine they host free improv very often — or maybe the group that night is something more structured?  It will be a trio Brotulid: Liebig (bass and “technology”), Andrew Pask (woodwinds and more technology), and G.E. Stinson (guitars, technology, and beats).

I’m guessing Brotulid will play improv, but you never know. Liebig has done serious chamber music, and he’s also done a rocking type of free jazz with his band The Mentones (think Ornette Coleman played with blues guitar and a harmonica). Either way, it’s nice to see Dana Street giving some interesting music a haven, even if only for one night.

Going for the ‘One’

Shuffle Mode brought on an Eric Dolphy track this morning: “Epistrophy,” from the album Last Date. It reminded me of the “puzzle” aspect of some music that got me interested in jazz to begin with.

I enjoy freely improvised music as well, but I still listen to normal jazz and archival free jazz, including Ornette Coleman, Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor.  Something entices me about a tangled, complex piece that’s also rooted in a composition.

“Epistrophy” opens up with Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing Monk’s swingy, jerky theme, and Misha Mengelberg on piano laying down triplet chords. “Triplet” is the wrong word; he’s playing in 3-over-4 time that creates a slow-motion feel to the background.

I love tracks like this, where there’s a little something extra to discover in the pre-arranged theme. And the soloing in a theme-based jazz piece adds the extra fun of finding the “one,” of keeping track of the beat even as the entire band slips away from the original composition. It’s an old, old jazz paradigm — drop the needle in the middle of a Preservation Hall Jazz Band track, and you’ll find chaos. Everyone’s sticking to the beat and possibly the changes as well, but no one is playing the actual song. It’s a glorious mess.

Post-bop and modal styles, if I’m using those terms correctly, muddied the middle of the song even further, as musicians dropped the changes and just created their own momentum.

Anyway, if you sought this blog out at all, you already know all of this. But it’s Sunday, and it’s raining outside, and I’m in the mood to think aloud.

“Epistrophy” follows a usual pattern: Dolphy solos, then Mengelberg. Then Han Bennink takes two quick drum solos, four or eight bars apiece, separated by Dolphy going nuts on the bass clarinet.  Dolphy closes it out by doing some bass clarinet warbling, hovering over one pair of notes, then another — then the theme returns.

Nothing too extraordinary in the structure there. But I found myself getting absorbed in that structure, in tracking the piece through the changes (whether real or just imagined by my half-asleep brain) and in the small surprises of that Bennink solo.  Consider it the musical equivalent of smelling the roses, or of examining the things I take for granted.