KihnouaUnauthorized Caprices (Not Two, 2010)

Performs Friday, Sept. 24, at the Community Music Center, San Francisco, along with the Marco Eneidi & Vinny Golia Quartet.

Vocals are a weak area for me, by which I mean, I sometimes have trouble getting into avant-garde vocalizing. The swoops and screeches and groans just don’t click with me sometimes; they’ve got an artificial feel next to the music.

Kihnoua is a trio where you can’t miss Dohee Lee on crazed vocals: babbling, wordless singing, the patter of spoken nonsense syllables. But with this group, the vocal sounds seem to mix well with the whole. That concept of voice-as-instrument works, as Lee does indeed treat her vocal chords as an instrument, often a backing one.

Lee knows when to get subtle and when to solo. And Larry Ochs‘ sax, sticking mostly to conventional playing, becomes a soothing, jazz-infused balm next to Lee’s raspier or pricklier playing.

On top of that, these are some nicely crafted pieces — probably improvisations guided by frameworks provided by Ochs.

For instance: The ending of the 19-minute “Nothing Stopped But a Future” is a glorious long tail, a group work that sustains its dark intensity as a climax, then tails off to make way for a Lee solo — it’s a terrific group effort, if it wasn’t all planned — and an all-out tumult as a finale.

I also like the gray-skied tumble of “Weightless,” which actually carries some of the more extreme vocalizing on the record — starting with whispery, raspy sounds and culminating in a mad babble delivered with froth against Amendola’s intense drums. That’s a well crafted passage — Lee eventually drops out, leaving the drums to continue the solo.

Ochs has convened different versions of Kihnoua over the years for one-off performances, always with a guest instrument added to the usual trio (Ochs on sax, Lee, and Scott Amendola on drums). Cellists Joan Jenrenaud and Okkyung Lee were there for the two performances I’ve seen, one of which was played under rather adverse conditions — I wrote it up back in 2008.

On this record, Kihnoua becomes even more of a party. The trio is joined by Liz Allbee on trumpet most of the time — man, I wish I’d seen her perform with the punk-instrumental Mute Socialite — and adds Jeanrenaud, Fred Frith, and Carla Kihlstedt for the aforementioned “Nothing Stopped.”

Formanek Preview

Speaking of bassists

People in Europe already have their hands on the new Michael Formanek album, The Rub and Spare Change.  (Previous words about this: “Mr. Bother Returns,” from June 1, 2010.)

Those of us in the U.S. have to wait until Oct. 12, or buy imports at today’s disastrous exchange rates.

In the meantime, here’s a promo video that provides a taste of some of the music. Yes, it’s got that ECM sound.

Found via the front page of Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records page. That same site tells you Formanek’s quartet will be performing Oct. 27-29 in NYC (the Jazz Standard!), Philadelphia (Art Alliance), and Baltimore (An Die Musik), and Oct. 31 in Portugal.

The Bass Stands Alone

Henry GrimesSolo (ILK, 2008)

So, can I do it? Can I make it through a two-CD set of solo bass — solo bass! — a set that documents an uninterrupted improvised performance?

Sure sounds daunting. You all know the jazz joke about “when drums stop,” right?

Solo turns out to be an easier listen than it appears. Grimes shows he’s still got not only bass chops, but rhythm and some tunes in him. The atmosphere is more springy than academic. And he alternates between bass and violin, taking the intimidating edge off the “all solo bass” stigma. (Yes, that invalidates this entry’s title. Blogger’s prerogative.)

On top of that, the CD isn’t the single uninterrupted piece I was expecting. Each CD has only one track on it, and the whole thing does appear to have been recorded without interruption. But the performance is filled with long pauses as Grimes switches instruments. You even hear the clacking of a bow being put down, or the sounds of the bass being moved into place. I’m guessing he’s taking some breathing time in there as well, letting the music resettle inside his mind.

So, it’s an easier listen than you might gather. Inside the dauntingly blank, deep-colored packaging is a warm shower of colors.

The music is mostly an exploration of sounds and tones. When using a bow, especially on violin, Grimes tends to stay in one tonal center. This lets him use open strings to put long ringing tones into the mix, letting them blend with a scattering of other notes. Lots of double-stops (moments of playing two strings at once) show up on the violin passages. The result is almost like a drone, but more dynamic and colored. It’s screechy, recalling Leroy Jenkins.

Grimes’ bowed bass goes further out, adding a deeper variety but following similar strategies. It’s the pizzicato bass passages that I like best, though. That’s partly because I love that sound in the first place. But it’s also because these passages are where Grimes really digs deep. The changes in melody, rhythm, speed, and ideas all come more quickly and feel more considered, less instinctual, than the violin or bowed-bass segments.

I appreciate that the session carries the feel of a performance, rather than a practice. Grimes speaks only once or twice, fragments of words to himself, and he makes an effort to get each new segment moving quickly, without tentativeness. As Dusted Magazine notes in its review, the time passes quickly because there’s just so much going on.

Other bass releases that come to mind:

Michael FormanekAm I Bothering You? (Screwgun, 1998) ….. Solo bass, with Formanek playing compositions rather than pure improvisations, a touch that’s a bit different.

Peter Kowald and Damon SmithMirrors: Broken, but No Dust (Balance Point Acoustics, 2001) ….. Kowald was a master improviser and an idol to Smith, who must have been overjoyed at the chance to do this recording. Smith more than holds his own in a set of meaty, tough-fisted improvisations.

Any other suggestions?

Learning from the Drums

In seeing live shows for the past decade and a half, I’ve learned more about drums than any other instrument. Partly because it’s transparent: You see what’s being played. (By contrast, I still have no idea how a saxophone works. And I just don’t believe in trombone. There’s no way an instrument with no keys can make all those sounds. They must be faking it.)

Some of the revelations were small and technical: Gino Robair turning his snare drum upside-down once, to play the metal ball-bearings on the drum’s underside. I’d never known what a snare drum was made of before.  Or seeing the rich bag of tricks most drummer/percussionists bring to the gig — which helped explain the panoply of sounds I was hearing from Jim Black on those Tim Berne albums.

Most of what I learned, though, came gradually, through repeated observation. Here’s what’s possible. Here’s what the instrument can do; here’s how it mixes with others. Here’s what it sounds like outside the boundaries. Here’s what a mistake sounds like.

What counts in percussion?  Speed is a great tool, but there’s so much more. Precision, inventiveness, texture. I suppose that last is a throwaway term; for me, it’s a measure of the drums’ contribution to mood and atmosphere, the fabric they weave.

I’d once heard the comment that to have a good rock band, you need a really good drummer. Most casual rock listeners think of the drummer as the last kid picked, but when you consider that the drums (and bass) usually “write” their own parts, the value of capable band members becomes more obvious.

This struck me once while listening to The Glass Intact, a nice 1998 pop album from the band Sarge (whose songwriter, Elizabeth Elmore, would go on to The Reputation and then a legal career). It was probably around 2003 when I gave the album a re-listen and realized how impressed I was with the drummer, Chad Romanski. He added snap and crackle to the catchy tracks and great subtle choices to the more somber ones, especially his  snare drum on the song “Charms and Feigns.” It coaxes a foreboding, darker mood while keeping a pop-music feel.  Great choices. In a new way, I realized the difference the drums can make.

It’s no exaggeration to say that going to see improvised music helped deepen the way I listen to pop. It comes from broadening my understanding of the instrument, from watching Robair and Moe! Staiano and Donald Robinson and so many others.

So, don’t ever let anybody tell you this avant-garde stuff is an indulgent dead end. It’s the opposite.