Domes in SF: Charming Hostess & The Bowls Project

I’m reading about wood, steel, and earthquake reinforcements.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is building an installation called The Bowls Project, which will house some musical events but will otherwise sit out in the open, just there near Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, for several weeks this summer. Charming Hostess is involved, which automatically makes this cool. Trio singing, Jewish history, and steel, together at last.

Now, The Bowls Project also happens to be the title of a new Charming Hostess album on Tzadik. But the Bowls Project at Yerba Buena is much more: an art installation and a venue for some music shows.

Here’s the explanation at the Yerba Buena Web site:

Housed within a stunning double-vaulted masonry dome created by celebrated architect Michael Ramage and featuring videography by multi-media artist Shezad Dawood, The Bowls Project creates an intimate, powerful and satisfying intersection between the ancient and modern worlds. The dome is a private place to share secrets and public forum to hear live music on Thursdays, participate in rituals on Fridays and encounter embodied text on Sundays.

Charming Hostess is Jewlia Eisenberg’s band, and while its size, shape, and sound have varied, its core has always been a core trio of female vocalists capable of stunning, intertwining harmonies.  (Past singers have included Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt.)  In the past, the band was fleshed out by members of what’s now Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, putting an aggressive rock stance on the sound. Their live shows were parties, featuring lock-step musicianship and a dash of punk abandon.

As for the music itself, it drew from Balkan and Jewish traditions, but also from modern sources, even country music, all of it driven by Eisenberg’s propulsive musical direction. Some songs are bright and bouncy (“Ferret Said” was always a favorite of mine) but others draw from a deep emotional well. Their version of “Long Black Veil” was energetic, rocking, and also a tear-jerker.

Charming Hostess and guests will be performing at the Bowls Project on Thursday evenings from July 15 to Aug. 19, and it’s all going to kick off with Eisenberg leading a musical procession and dedication ceremony at noon on Tuesday, July 6. You can read more of the schedule, including non-musical events at the Bowls, here.

That link also includes a few songs from the new Charming Hostess album.  Two rocking tracks, two serious ones — it sounds terrific.

Homework: Muhal Richard Abrams

As Destination: Out so aptly implies, it’s always time to celebrate the living jazz masters. The message gets emphasized when someone like Bill Dixon leaves us, or someone like Fred Anderson falls ill.

Muhal Richard Abrams gets a turn in the spotlight tonight, as a featured artist at NYC’s Vision Festival and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Someday I’ll splurge and take the trip out there for the festival, but for now… I figure I’ll do my part by digging into Abrams’ catalog and sending appreciative thoughts into the ether.

I’m starting with Saying Something for All (Just a Memory, 1998), recorded in 1977 at New York’s The Environ.  It’s a duo album with Hamiet Bluiett, and the title-track improvisation shows them off at their stormy, blustery best. I think there’s even a part where Abrams takes a boogie-woogie turn on piano, a fun touch.

Much of the album, though, is devoted to compositions, including two of Abrams’ to start things off. “Dual Reflections” isn’t the slow, pretty track I’d envisioned. It starts pensively but at a quick jog of a pace, eventually getting into spiky improvising.

The fast and loud stuff is exciting, of course, but as Greg Osby so aptly puts it, one has to appreciate the quieter, delicate side of the music, too. (See Music and More.) The Bluiett album alctually puts some of that element front-and-center, with the opening “Nightdreams for Daytime Viewing,” which puts some slow, reflective playing near the end, just before wrapping up with a short, spiraling riff.

Destination: Out also points to a Jason Moran piece for, where he lists some essential Abrams tracks.  I already have 1-Oqa+19, which kicks off with the tricky, convoluted jazz of “Charlie in the Parker.”  I’ll also have to check out Sightsong, which lands on Moran’s list a couple of times.  (Luckily, the classic Black Saint/Soul Note catalog is available on eMusic, keeping alive a trove of vital ’70s and ’80s jazz work.)

Mike Olson: Far from Incidental

Mike OlsonIncidental (Henceforth, 2009)

For all its spare demeanor on the outside, Incidental starts with a bang: a snappy, composed line for strings and a strong backbeat on the drums. It’s exciting and dynamic and … nothing like you’d expect after reading the description in the liner notes.

Olson provided some notated string parts, but the rest of the performance was improvised by the 18 players, mostly one at a time, based on graphical scores or outright suggestions by Olson. Olson then cut up those recordings, using the computer to painstakingly manufacture the six movements that make up Incidental. It’s a deliberate plunderphonics, and a radical way to create a composition.

I was expecting a high-art atmosphere, but really, Olson draws from disciplines including jazz, funk, and new age — as well as, yes, high-art classical and abstract improvising. Each track has its own personality, and Washington’s drums, always crisp and upbeat, thread some continuity though the piece.

As noted above, “Incidental 1” starts out like more of a funk jam with strings; in mood, it reminds me of the free but danceable improvisations on Christian McBride‘s terrific, 3-CD Live at Tonic. This track doesn’t stay danceable for long, but the drums, bass, and guitar keep that same fusiony popping sound going.

Of course, that’s not to last. “Incidental 2” opens with a fiery drum solo by Kevin Washington that gives way to a long dark corridor of eerie sounds. It’s like a soundtrack to the corridor/descent scenes in House of Leaves.

“Incidental 3” is swampy and slow, but Washington’s snappy drums bring a ghost reflection of funk into the mix. Springy guitar and spacey moog kick the tempo up a bit later on, a loungy avant-garde occasionally interrupted by swirls of horns. The piece feels built, like a well conducted improvisation, or even a composition with high degrees of freedom. Instruments enter and exit in phases that help the piece shift moods; the music tenses up, relaxes, tenses again.

“Incidental 4” is more what you’d expect from plunderphonic improv: lots of small, sharp-turn snippets held together by some some post-apocalyptic synth sounds. Large chaos built from smaller chaos.  But then, another mood shift: “Incidental 5” is a polished sheet of glass: Ethereal vocals and shimmering droned tones forming an ambient lullaby. Acoustic guitar splashes put a tuneful face on the ending.

“Incidental 6” is a fusiony peek into the future, with far-horizon synths, bubbly electric bass, and some of that snappy, drum-machine-like drumming. There are moments where the guitar noodling and electric piano might give you ’70s flashbacks.

I don’t know how many more times Olson can use this composing method — mainly, I’m wondering what would keep it from sounding the same. (Alternatively, couldn’t he create a wholly new piece from this same pool of fragments?) But I’m glad he did it at least once. The final album sounds like a well put-together group effort.

Damon Smith, Leaving

Bassist Damon Smith is apparently leaving the Bay Area for Texas.

It’s on the Internet, so it must be true.

The July performance by the Oakland Active Orchestra will include a Smith composition and is being billed on Facebook as your chance to wish him bon voyage.

Smith has been instrumental (oooh, pun alert) in the local music scene not just for playing, but for presenting some music series in the late ’90s. Weekly concerts at one particular, very comfortable, fringe theater gave me a great introduction to creative music.

He’s continued to champion a particular brand of free improvisation rich in extended technique and careful listening, much of it released on his own Balance Point Acoustics label.

I can’t pretend to remember exactly how someone played their music 10 years ago (or even 10 weeks ago), but I do recall this.  At some point, I went more than a year without seeing Smith perform — no reason, just luck of the draw. And then I saw him do a solo set at the Luggage Store Gallery.  I remember being struck by the changes in his playing — I don’t want to use the word “improvement,” but he was presenting a broader palette of sounds, ideas, and techniques. It seemed like a richer mix. Was that Smith’s evolution as a musician, or me forgetting his music after so many months?

Improv bass wasn’t always Smith’s path. He was, apparently, a teenage punk-rocker and a very serious BMX bike trick performer. Check him out on Noisy People, an excellent documentary where Tim Perkis profiles eight Bay Area improv musicians. Smith even tries out his old bike moves.

The music took over when he heard Peter Kowald, the famed German bass improviser, sadly now deceased. Smith abandoned the bass guitar he’d been playing and took up the double bass. And in 2000, he got a chance to record with Kowald, his idol, on what would be the first Balance Point Acoustics CD, Mirrors — Broken but No Dust.

Which I’m going to have to give a listen to, now.

Bill Dixon, Fred Anderson, and the Music We’ve Missed

Bill Dixon has passed away at 84, yet another jazz master I’d never seen perform.

Fred Anderson has suffered a heart attack at 81. His family has asked that the Internet stop obsessing on this so much; Twitter mentions, in particular, add up to a morbid countdown, as one news report pointed out.  I’ve never seen Anderson perform, but I’ve frequented his Velvet Lounge (old and new locations) multiple times and bought drinks for the cause.

Every year brings more reminders of the holes in my jazz education, of the musical heroes that I never managed to see live. Geography plays a role (i.e., I’m not in New York). But often, I’ve got no good excuse. Max Roach was always my safety, the one “old cat” I’d someday go and see. Why didn’t I, when the chance came? How about McCoy Tyner, who’d spent two weeks at a time at Yoshi’s?

But wait.  I’ve seen any number of contemporary masters: Tim Berne, John Zorn, Myra Melford, Vijay Iyer, Eric Bogosian (yeah, he counts), Matthew Shipp. Beyond that, I’ve watched scores of local musicians, many of whom belong on those same pages. That’s been tremendously rewarding.

And yes, I really have managed to catch a couple of the old cats. Marshall Allen, playing with Shipp and Joe Morris. Cecil Taylor in Grace Cathedral, in a solo performance that included some of his poetry. Sam Rivers, playing heart-stopping stuff with a powerhouse of a trio. Henry Threadgill, if I can get my act together in October.

So, yes, let’s pay proper homage to those who’ve passed, and let’s double the efforts to appreciate those who haven’t. But the broader lesson is to experience the music that’s around you, because that’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff, too. Get out and support your local artists. Music, to be nurtured, has to be heard, and an audience matters to your local scene as much as it does to the venerated few who still shine.

Sperryfest Wrap-Up

I didn’t make it to either of the concerts for this year’s Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival (blog notices here and here). But other folks, who write other fine blogs that track Bay Area creative music, did.

On the CatSynth blog, Amar Chaudhary offers a description and photos of the trio improv night,which sounds like it had a sublime and touching ending.

On HurdAudio, Devin Hurd reviews the modern classical (a.k.a. new music) night, which culminated in a one-hour Anthony Braxton ghost trance piece. Sounds awesome.

Heavy gratitude to those folks, and to photog extraordinaire michaelz1, who’s documented lots of great local shows on Flickr.  That’s a photo of his, above, taken during the trio improv show.

ROVA: The Sax Cloud

The latest ROVA Saxophone Quartet invention is the Sax Cloud: four quartets of saxophonists encircling the audience. They performed two long pieces last night at ODC theater, and it was a pretty cool experience.

I wasn’t able to get a photograph that conveys the whole setup, but picture this: 16 saxophonists arranged in four arcs of four players apiece (the assigned quartets), with one ROVA member as the leader of each team.  Chairs in the middle are arranged to face each of the quartets, about four rows of chairs per section. So, much of the audience is facing back-to-back, and there’s a blank square in the center. Gino Robair conducted the first piece from there, and for the second piece, he kept his spot as a listener — best seat in the house.

The setup created a panoramic effect that you won’t get on an MP3 download. Sounds came from all sides, and for those in “front” rows, closer to the players, the quartet to the back was fainter than those to the sides or front, a really interesting disbalance.

The second piece, by ROVA’s Steve Adams, played around with the 4×4 format, although it took a while to notice.  It cycled through segments, with the players taking turns in different roles.

Some segments consisted of ad hoc, split quartets, made of one designated player from each of the four teams. The result was a sax quartet with the sound coming in from 90-degree intervals: north, west, south, and east — a really interesting effect.

That would be followed by a true solo: One player going at it, with the other three ensembles poking into the sound as accompaniment, playing set motifs. During a Dan Plonsey baritone sax solo (off to my right, in Bruce Ackley’s team), Steve Adams’s quartet (front and center, for me) was playing — and then, behind me, I could hear Larry Ochs’ quartet occasionally nosing in. I pictured it as an adversarial contest — who gets to ‘comp Dan Plonsey? It was wild, and fun.

Another of the solos was Vinny Golia on the tubax, a bass sax with a tuba-like shape. Each quartet had one member take a solo at some point, while the other three members were parts of these ad hoc N-W-S-E quartets at one point or another.

The structure of the piece made it feel almost participatory, especially as people kept twisting in their chairs to watch as the action shifted from one zone to another. I tried to keep facing forward as much as possible, because I liked the “bias” towards the Adams quartet, and the effect of having some of the music behind me. But I did look around every now and then — watching the musicians and the audience. If you ever get a chance to see a Sax Cloud performance, don’t be afraid to do the same.

The first piece, which I think was written by Jon Raskin, was more of an improvised game piece, with Robair standing in the center of the room (and the center of the audience) conducting.  Every player had a set of graphical scores to work from — little pictures that can be interpreted however the player wants — and some written instructions specific to their quartet. ROVA members used hand cues to conduct their quartets, and Robair, in the center, would give cues to the leaders or to individual players, acting as a central point of control.

I missed much of that first piece, actually, having arrived late. Due to the way the chairs were set up, there was supposed to be no late seating — but the ODC staff took pity on me and let me sneak in, taking an empty chair off to the side.

That meant I didn’t get the panoramic effect of the music — but I did get an experience the rest of the audience missed, namely: watching the audience. Many of them had eyes closed, to better feel the effect of the directional sounds, especially during quieter moments where slow tones were emerging and vanishing from different points of the circle. I also had a continual view of Robair. It was a fair trade-off.

In addition to being a groundbreaking sax quartet, ROVA arranges these kinds of group events, drawing from the deep pool of improvisers around the Bay Area. This edition featured out-of-town guests, too: Golia, from L.A., and  Frank Gratkowski, who’s in town for a few weeks’ worth of shows. The Sax Cloud practically sold out, which was nice to see; the four-way audience setup would have worked even with a sparse crowd, but somehow, having more listeners around helped enhance the experience.

Below is a YouTube video taken from the Adams piece. I’m not sure it displays the structures I was talking about (it might be starting during the solo from a Larry Ochs team member), but it does give you a feel for some of the full-group work that took place during the piece.

Amy X. Neuburg After-Hours

Any show by Amy X. Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet is a treat, but seeing them play Davies Symphony Hall was irresistible.

They weren’t in the symphony pit, but upstairs, in the second-tier lounge as part of the Davies After Hours series.  There’s a resemblance to an after-hours jazz club: People milling around, buying drinks, and talking over the music.

The motivation for the series, apparently, is the fact that a few hundred people stick around after the symphony for a drink. The crowd was thick, and once the band started playing, the sound drew everyone to that end of the lounge for a look. Click the picture at right, and you can baaarely see Neuburg’s head next to the speaker.

It’s well known that the classical-music crowd is aging, so of the few hundred who started the night, only several dozen were still around after the half-hour mark.  By the end of the band’s 70-minute set, maybe 10 or 20 diehards were still there, including those of us who’d come to the symphony to see Neuburg.

The ChiXtet was created for Neuburg’s song cycle, The Secret Language of Subways.  The songs captivated me back in 2006, as I’d written here and was thrilled when a CD of the songs (including a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis cover they’d been using as an encore) came out last year.

The songs follow the avant-pop formula of Neuburg’s past work, maybe with a dash more intensity given that some of the songs come from staying in New York circa 2001.  The serious songs, like the amazing “One Lie” that opens the cycle, are deeply powerful.  Happier ones, like “Hey” (which opened last night’s set) and “The Gooseneck” are poppy fun. And “Someone Else’s Sleep” has rapidly become one of my favorite songs, possibly of all time. After four years, it still bowls me over.

The CD is great, but you have to see the ChiXtet performing live.  They’re truly enjoying the music, and the visual cues among them help you appreciate the precision in these songs and the work that’s gone into them.  Davies was a high-profile gig for them, and I’m glad for that, but it wasn’t ideal due to the noise.  A lot of the songs’ depth comes from the live looping Neuburg does, of her voice and the cellos, and that was sometimes difficult to hear. And the wordplay in the lyrics — like the similar vowel patterns on different verses in “Shrapnel,” was lost in the din.

It was still a fun set, though, and we even got to hear two newly commissioned songs. Both were based on that night’s symphony program.  One called “Soundproof” took from the main theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1, making for a more somber sound than the group usually has.  Another patterned itself after Berg’s “Lulu Suite,” using a lot of 12-tone rows and some samples from a recorded performance of the suite. And because the “Lulu” opera that Berg was writing has a palindromic structure to the plot, Neuburg wrote this song as a palindrome, including the lyrics. The overall sound was interesting and complicated.

The symphony, by the way, was good.  Guest violinist James Ehnes nailed the violin concerto, not just the fast part sbut the pillowy, soft trilled notes that seemed to come up a lot. His first-movement cadenza was a showcase, as Ehnes played both the main theme and a bass line, creating the illusion of two or even three violinists playing at once. Lots of fireworks, and the music was easy on the ears — the audience loved it.

Here’s Neuburg and the ChiXtet performing “The Gooseneck,” a video taken from the 2006 premiere of the complete song cycle.

Dawn of Dawn of Midi

Dawn of MidiFirst (Accretions, 2010)

It’s a piano/bass/drums trio, but it’s different even for a “different” piano trio. The music is adrift, patiently rippling its way through dark moods.

I want to call it zenlike, for all the spaciousness and depth revealed on tracks like “The Floor.”  But the music is often churning underneath, either with dark piano notes, as on “One,” or with stormy drums and bass. The opener, “Phases in Blue,” comes out swinging with clipped, staggered piano phrases over a slow tumble of rhythm section sounds.

There are some superficial similarities to Axis Trio, the young group I’d raved about last year. In fact, Dawn of Midi drummer Qasim Naqvi is from Axis Trio (which has its own new album, Anthem, due out any day now, also on Accretions). And like Axis Trio, Dawn of Midi has a cosmopolitan makeup: pianist Amino Belyamani is Moroccan, and bassist Aakaash Israni is Indian, and Naqvi is Pakistani.

Dawn of Midi seems to be fully improvised music, though, with a sound that’s consciously skewed away from the usual avant-garde improv path. Pianist

This is all going to draw inevitable comparisons to ECM, and the piano frequently has “that” sound, atmospheric and ringing, and even pretty, as on “Laura Lee.”  The darkness quotient is mostly heavier for Dawn of Midi, though, with lots of dissonant piano chords and a rocky, moonscape feel to the clattering drums and bass.

Some tracks like “Hindu Pedagogy” take a more aggressive approach, full of stormy dissonance. The 11-minute “In Between,” which ends the album, has Belyamani riding one chiming piano octave for some time, rattling like a dinner bell over a shattering drum segment by Naqvi. The dulcimer chiming keeps going for more than half the piece’s length before fading down, a calm finale.

But what sticks in my mind are the more drifting tracks, because they define the overall mood of the album. The music is eerie and, in its own thoughtful way, noisy and chaotic.

Sperryfest Preview II

A reminder that the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival is upon us:

* Thursday June 3 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale (i.e., pay what you want within that range): Tag Team Trio Shift: Improvsations with 3 musicians at any given time, refereed by John Shiurba.
… At the Luggage Store Gallery: 1007 Market St., San Francisco

* Saturday June 5 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale … Chamber ensemble sfSound plays two Sperry Compositions: “Wadadaism” (1991) and “Veins” (1995). Also compositions by Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney, and sfSoundGroup.
… At 21 Grand, 416 25th Street, Oakland

Sperry, killed in a traffic accident in 2003, didn’t leave behind a huge output of recordings or finished compositions. For these festivals, his friends have been taking ideas from his music notebooks.

The full program of the June 5 show is listed on Facebook, and it opens with two pieces out of those notebooks.  I don’t know what to expect from either one, other than noting the obvious humorous reference to Wadada Leo Smith in the “Wadadaism” title. Those pieces will be followed by one of Anthony Braxton’s — I’d noted the connection here — and pieces by Cornelius Cardew and James Tenney.

Expect good modern classical stuff, at least some of it played by a large ensemble of great local musicians.

On June 3, it’s probably going to be a series of free improvised pieces, but here’s the trick. I think it’s going to be game-like, with Shiurba shuttling people on and off stage to keep a perpetual trio going. That’s just a guess, but I think it’s a good one. The Luggage Store is right downtown in San Francisco, so there’s no harm in stopping in for a minute to check it out, is there?

Shiurba and others have worked to put some of Sperry’s live recordings on CD, giving Sperry more of a recorded legacy.  Click here for a list.  CDs will probably be on sale at both shows, proceeds going to Sperry’s wife and daughter. The music is abstract free improvisation — some terrific lively performances.

Click the Ghost Bike picture, above, for a short blog essay by Dara Kerr about ghost bikes and their significance.