A Kickstart for Polly Moller

Polly Moller has a special evening of her compositions coming up in December, and she’s using Kickstarter to help secure a grant to pay the musicians.

That is, she’s applying for a $1,000 grant that will only come through if she puts up a matching $1,000. Kickstarter helped her raise the money (and the project is still open for supplementary donations, through Nov. 3).

Moller’s program will be on Saturday, Dec. 18, at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. The program, which seems to combine directed improvisations and traditional composing, includes a piece for improvising quartet; solos for piccolo and voice; a duo with Gino Robair and someone playing “invented instruments;” and a new piece for quintet.  The evening caps with a conducted improvisation for 12 that dates back to 2006.

As for this Kickstarter thing …

It’s an interesting model for funding the arts (or any other kind of project) and for giving the audience a deeper way to participate. They get an ownership stake, figuratively or even literally. An artist posts a project to the site, challenging supporters to supply the funding. If the project doesn’t make its goal, all the money goes back.

(If you want to get all Web 2.0 pseudoscience-y about it, you can read about how sites like this create an addictively fun aspect to giving.)

In the case of music, Kickstarter seems popular for funding recordings. Free copies, T-shirts, and sheet music are among the common gifts for contributors. Moller is offering CD copies of the concert (which won’t be mass-produced), sheet music, and more.

Her project has already reached its goal. So, anything you pledge will immediately get charged to your credit card or PayPal account. Still, the goal simply means Moller gets a matching grant to help pay the musicians. It’s still not much of a payment, and it would certainly be nice to add a little more to the pool, to help Moller express gratitude to these dedicated musicians who are working hard to make her career milestone happen.

Find out more, here, but do it before Nov. 3  at 10:00 a.m. That’s the deadline.

A Mean, Green Jazz Machine

Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big BandCelestial Green Monster (MutableMusic, 2009)

What a fun album.  Especially considering it was recorded in the face of tragedy, Celestial Green Monster revels in the joy of music making and the glory of big-band jazz. The horn arrangements are tight and jabbing — perfect, pinpoint execution — and the solos are free, exciting, and alive.

And when the album opens with the theme to The Amazing Spider-Man (yes, THAT theme: “Spiderman, spiderman / Does whatever a spider can”), it’s more than just a lark. This band draws heavily from Ho’s pop culture childhood, from the days when TV series like Mission: Impossible and Ironside used theme songs recorded by modern big bands. Lots of dramatic chords, lots of punchy swing.

Ho’s composing dominates the album. Two midsized tracks are apparently his earliest big-band compositions, from the mid-’70s, but the crowning glory is the 38-minute “The Struggle for a New World Suite.”  Its seven movements are given their own CD track numbers, so it can be consumed in bites — but really, the suite flies by like really good storytelling, replete with small-group episodes driven by electric piano and electric bass. You get funky moments, romantic swingy moments, sharply crazed soloing.

With the amount of free and improvised music I listen to, it’s easy to forget just how great a tightly knit big band can sound. Everybody is on course here, careening with the curves, making you want to jump up and dance. It’s a joy.

And when you find out the backstory …

As you can read in detail on Ho’s Web site and Myspace page, he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer a few years ago. The prognosis was grim, and Ho had to endure chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. But he won. He’s a cancer warrior who’s beaten the odds for now and has pledged to devote his remaining life to purpose: to his friends, his music, and his politics.

At the time of his diagnosis, though, it appeared Ho had little time left. So, he convened this big band to be his farewell gesture. After all, the economics of jazz today — let alone jazz with free-form sympathies — make it difficult to keep a big band organized and rehearsed. Facing a deadline on his life’s work, Ho saw the opening to do a go-for-broke project that would surround him with his closest friends.

The marvelous ending to the story is that it isn’t ending. The Green Monster Big Band has convened for a second recording, due out in 2011. And Ho has some exciting project in the works, including one inspired by Muhammad Ali. He’s gonna have a great year.

Marco Eneidi, Peter Brotzmann: Big Sounds

B.E.E.K.Live at Spruce Street Forum (Botticelli, 2004)

Alto saxophonist Marco Eneidi isn’t easy to find on disk these days.  So, it’s exciting that the latest CD on his Botticelli label is available again.

Botticelli was never widely distributed; your main sources were Eneidi himself and the Eremite label, where he had found a sympathetic ear. Downtown Music Gallery was listening, too, and they’ve found an old box of CDs from a quartet that paired Eneidi with Peter Brotzmann for a double-sax attack, with Jackson Krall (drums) and Lisle Ellis (bass). (DMG notes the finding on its latest newsletter.)

When I think of these two saxophonists, I think of high energy levels — Brotzmann in forceful, thundering volume; Eneidi in a more darting, agile strategy.

And the album delivers on that promise. It’s a squall. Even when the saxophonists take a break — exchanging long blaring tones during “No. 1,” for instance — Krall’s drums and Ellis’ bass keep up their relentless blowing. It’s a towering monolith of sound.

The audio quality on this live recording isn’t excellent, but you can still lose yourself in the dizzying attack presented here, especially at the points where the two saxophones join paths — constructive interference — to form a spiraling white hole of energy.

It’s not all bluster. On “No. 4” (fourth of five baically untitled tracks), Eneidi — at least I think it’s him — improvises an easygoing nighttime jazz/blues, backed by calm bass and Krall using his brushes. Soon enough, though, the piece simmers into a more chaotic, freeform jumble. “No. 2” likewise starts with a light touch, in what could be considered some of the best playing on the album, fast and quiet.

It’s an album worth seeking out. Ken Waxman’s Jazz Weekly review, which displays a deeper knowledge of history and saxophones than I’ve got, can be found here. And if you can read Spanish, this page might tell you something.

Yeah, Scott Amendola Was Good

Like you couldn’t predict that.

Dana Street Roasting Company only holds 49 people, and they came close to capacity for this show (which I’d briefly previewed yesterday). The coffeehouse tables were rolled to the back room, replaced by rows of chairs (the only way they could seat so many). It was more a concert vibe than a coffeehouse one; no drink orders were taken during the music.

Quite a few folks seemed to be locals who’d come out by word of mouth. There was a writeup in The Mercury News as well — great to see that kind of support — but only two people raised their hands when the owner asked the crowd who’d come because of the article.

People did seem to enjoy the music. The start of the second set was a particular highlight for me. “A Cry for John Brown” (from Amendola’s album Cry) was a jump start of an opener, with John Shifflett on bass digging hard into that 6/8 riff, providing the foundation for some burning guitar from Jeff Parker. Hard-gripping work. That got followed by “Blues for Istanbul” from Lift, where Shifflett played around mightily with the opening bass solo — great fun, with Shifflett returning again and again to some upper-register work, alternated with low notes.

Bass tends to get overlooked in this trio format, but Shifflett is quite the showman and stood out as an equal third in this arrangement. Amendola‘s usual chatty drums kept the mood and activity level up, and his drum solos got some of the loudest applause — maybe because the audience was a little too aware of the drummer being the bandleader.

Shifflett, after that great “Blues for Istanbul” intro, should have gotten some applause too, but he took one for the team, making a quiet, quiet transition into the bassline that marked the beginning of the actual composition. No one in the audience wanted to break the moment. But I think he knows he kicked butt on that song, and I hope he understands that we appreciated his work there.

“Lift,” the pretty title track, became more open and untethered than it is on the album, with Parker and Shifflet playing the theme slowly in free tempo, drifting past Amendola’s river of drumming, like leaves in the current. That got followed by the earblasting, mess-with-the-audience sounds of “Death by Flower” (or something similar and equally loud). I loved the live rendition of “Cascade,” complete with electronics solo. Hadn’t noticed that the song is in 5/8.

The crowd was sympathetic throughout, but particularly strong applause came out for “The Knife,” the poppy surf tune I’d remarked on yesterday. And why not. It’s a good song that’s easy to like.

Dana Street Roasting is trying to provide a home for interesting music in the peninsula/South Bay (prog rock included), and it’s always good to see a healthy sized crowd supporting that kind of effort. Thanks to Dana Street, but also to anyone who came out for that show. Good music needs your support.

Scott Amendola in Mountain View Tonight

Tonight (Oct. 24) is the night Scott Amendola‘s tour, supporting his album Lift, comes to Mountain View, to the Dana Street Roasting Company.

It’s not your last Bay Area chance to see his trio in action; they’ll be at Yoshi’s and Kuumbwa as well. (See “Amendola Approacheth.”) But for those of us who live closer to the Peninsula than to the cultural hubs of San Francisco and Oakland, it’s a rare chance to support creative music in our own ‘hood.  Dana Street’s owners have been generously offering their storefront for mainstream jazz and other foot-traffic music, but the owner is tuned into the Nels Cline vector of creative music and has welcomed it into the shop — allowing Steuart Liebig to electronically jam on a Saturday night, for instance. Let’s reward them for that.

Besides, there’s no baseball game tonight. What else are you going to do?

Scott Amendola TrioLift (Sazi, 2010)

Now, it’s true that Amendola’s isn’t the most extreme type of creative music. It’s got a downright friendly sound that won’t scare away a coffeehouse crowd.

“Tudo de Bom” opens Lift with a downright friendly vibe, picking up a patient groove with tinges of Afropop, led by Jeff Parker spinning easy-flowing guitar lines. John Shifflett’s catchy bassline on “Blues for Istanbul” introduces a richly slow “world”-music blues. Someone walking in off the street, looking for a double-decaf-half-soy-whatever, could easily be drawn in by these welcoming sounds.

Even the more abstract, electronics-drive opening on “Cascade” gives way to a light-touch guitar line. I said you can’t judge Lift by two tracks, but the two in question turn out to be quite representative of the album.

For rockin’ moments, “Death By Flower” gets loud and Cline-like. “The Knife” has a crunchy beat and surf/spy-movie guitar for one of the catchier themes on the disk.

The trio on Lift is a subset of the quintet that’s played on Amendola’s last album.  The group is missing Jenny Scheinman’s violin and Nels Cline’s guitar, but Amendola partly refills the space with electronics. He’s been trying this direction for some time, finding ways to trigger electronics himself in his live shows. (Cline has taken advantage of this, both in The Nels Cline Singers and with The Celestial Septet — reviews here and here.)

It’s interesting to hear how Amendola wields the smaller band. The first minutes of “Cascade” are a terrific group effort, with colorful electronics taking the lead, Amendola’s drums loud and up-front, and Parker serving as a shimmering backdrop. Shifflett even gets the first solo. But for most of the album, Parker’s guitar holds down the lead and melody roles, as you’d expect in a trio. He presents a mostly light touch on guitar, backed by denser bass lines and bustling drums.

Chamber Demons and Prankster Gods

Edmund Welles (the Bass Clarinet Quartet) and Arrington di Dionyso’s “Malaikat dan Singa,” at The Hotel Utah, Sun. Oct. 17, 2010

One fun thing to do while watching Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet, is to pick out who’s making which sounds. Ah, so that’s where the high squeaking is coming from. That’s the thumping sound. There’s the one doing that awesome riff.

Some of that is visual, based on the fingers and on who’s taking a breath when.  Some of it, though, is your own ears being able to pinpoint the sounds that exactly, even though the four players are so close together, usually facing each other in a boxlike formation. Maybe the bass clarinet’s range helps; it’s easy to pick out the low, low growls from the high screeches.

That’s fun even at a distance, but at a place like front and center at the Hotel Utah, where the band is practically close enough to kick you, it’s a treat.

You’ll hear Edmund Welles described as a “metal” jazz quartet, and that’s technically true. Cornelius Boots draws inspiration from metal bands; he’s arranged covers of bands like Sepultura; and, well, just look at this album cover:

But the music, to me, is a rollicking mix of jazz, classical, rock — and yeah, maybe some metal, not just in the occasional power chords but in the machine-gun notes in some of the arrangements, reminiscent of the relentlessness of metal’s drumming or rhythm guitar. It’s personable and fun. After a particularly rapid-fire, complex piece — like “Synge,” inspired by Melt Banana — you and the band are both left smiling.

I’ve now seen Edmund Welles in concert-hall and bar settings, and either one works. The music is serious and complex enough to get the arthouse treatment. But it also works as a fresh instrumental breather from the indie rock scene. A sense of humor helps.  Boots noted that the band was once accused of not bringing the “party vibe,” so they did their hit single (so to speak) from their first album, Agrippa’s 3 Books.  It’s an ace cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” Definitely a highlight.

Boots is the instigator and arranger for the quartet, and while he’s been fortunate to have some big local names pass through Edmund Welles’ ranks, it’s even better that he’s had a stable lineup for the past few years. The band used sheet music only for the newer songs, which will hopefully see an album release next year.

From Arrington de Dionyso (who also happens to play bass clarinet) I was anticipating something noisy and improvised, but this turned out to be a rock trio, Malaikat dan Singa. It’s a (mostly) guitar/bass/drums lineup providing stomping, trance-inducing rock beats against passionate lyrics sung in Indonesian.

De Dionyso is quite the showman, prancing the stage and declaring the vocals, showing off an impressive range from throat-singing growls to strong baritone wails. For one song, he wore an Indonesian mask and gestured robotically, like a sinister monkey god. And he did break out the bass clarinet for some distorted, guitar-like soloing.

A ragged, psychedelic attitude governed the music, but de Dionyso also sang with a reverence to the language and the text. (I don’t happen to speak Indonesian, but some of the lyrics on the band’s recent album are taken from William Blake or the Zohar.)

It’s an exhilarating band.  Don’t miss them.

Clarinetty Things, Edmund Welles, and sfSound

I did see Edmund Welles last weekend and still need to write it up.

But for the moment, take a look at this story from The Bay Citizen: “The Hot New Sound on the Scene? Oh Yes, It Is the Clarinet.”

It’s about clarinet becoming a hip leading instrument in jazz circles. And it comes to us from : Cornelius Boots, Edmund Welles’ founder; Aaron Novik, another Edmund Welleser who’s led many a band himself; Beth Custer and her Clarinet Thing; Ben Goldberg; and Matt Ingalls, a founder of sfSound.

The story also appears on The New York Timessite. Nice press, folks. Congrats!

Edmund Welles: A Tip

If you’re scouting out the Edmund Welles Myspace site, perhaps because you’re considering seeing this awesome bass clarinet quartet performing at The Hotel Utah in San Francisco tonight…

… then, you’ll want to scroll down the comments to find a douchebag named “Tran Qual.”  He’s inserted a music player that starts automatically and plays his guitar bombast, drowning out any actual Edmund Welles tracks or videos you might try to launch. You have to hit STOP, or the thing will keep going and going.

Myspace has become a surprisingly good tool for bands to spread their music. It’s a great sampler for test-driving a band before making the trek to see them live. Unfortunately, Myspace is also spam heaven, as our buddy Tran proves. Don’t let him deter you. Kill his music, and check out some of Edmund Welles’.

Henry Grimes and Roscoe Mitchell in Berkeley

Henry GrimesBerkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) can squeeze 65, maybe 75 people into the large front parlor of the house it inhabits. It’s at the top of a hill in Berkeley, just blocks (very uphill blocks) from campus, in a quiet, almost wooded neighborhood populated by grad students and associate professor types.

So CNMAT’s David Wessel and his helpers had their hands full as they packed ’em to the rafters Friday for two sets by Roscoe Mitchell and the legendary — now even more legendary — Henry Grimes.

Mitchell comes to the Bay Area every now and again — it’s likely he and Wessel go way back — but Grimes, celebrating his 75th birthday sometime around now, was a rare treat. He’s moved back to New York, and despite a high-profile concert at Los Angeles’ Redcat last weekend, he’s not likely to come back West very often. (If you’re not familiar with Henry’s longshot return to the music world, read the details here. Great story.)

Berkeley at nightThose of us who couldn’t squeeze into the 8:00 set were allowed to buy tickets for 9:30.  I walked back to Shattuck Ave. for a bite to eat and returned to find the first set ending. People were filling the doorway, peeking into the house; I’d later learn that others were in the stairwells and hallways, unable to view the stage but just listening.

I waited with a few others lingering in the outside courtyard. We heard Grimes’ violin and bass painting colorful, darting backdrops for Mitchell’s sax.

The second set probably followed the same format as the first: a 50-minute improvisation, then a sort, energetic capper. No break, and no words from either performer until the “thank you” at the end. Mitchell cycled through four saxophones, while Grimes shifted from one bass technique to another — bowing, different modes of pizzicato — with a short stint on the violin as well.

Mitchell held off the fireworks at first. For one long, early stretch, his alto sax stuck to multiphonics and high, unnatural squeaks, a solo built of extended technique and sculpted sound. I have to admit my attention wandered, but Mitchell’s stamina was admirable.

That stretch set the audience up for a more traditionally jazzy phase, where Mitchell suddenly unloaded a merciless barrage of notes, full sheets-of-sound mode. Crowd-pleasing stuff, in a sense, but it helped give you the sense that, yeah, this guy is a big part of jazz history, and he’s still got it. Definitely a highlight.

Grimes’ playing followed many of the patterns on his solo album: scratchy bowing cycles, fast pizzicato. He added some jazz walking as well, providing a rhythmic step behind some of Mitchell’s excursions. That worked well, with one exception, when the sax mood (I’m remembering it as a plaintive march) just didn’t mesh with an upbeat walking rhythm.  It was a diversion, a pause at a roadside stop that didn’t turn out as interesting as expected.

I couldn’t see much of Mitchell, which is why he’s in no photos here. I could see Grimes’ hands, though. His violin playing was much more deliberate than I’d guessed.  Parts of his solo album sound like wild sawing, but visually, his playing seemed deliberate, fluttering from string to string rapidly, tossing double-stops into the mix occasionally. The violin was a good rapid-fire foil for some of Mitchell’s sax excursions.

Speaking of which — the encore was a brief, fast, upbeat improvisation with violin and soprano sax. Grimes bubbled over with energy, and Mitchell produced wolfing, hongking noises while bobbing up and down, eyes wide, as if he were a muppet playing a horn too big for him. They played it up for laughs, and it was a nice way to end the evening.

Bonus: The bass Grimes played is the one that belonged to Matthew Sperry.  (See this entry.) Phillip Greenlief has been babysitting the instrument, lending it out to his students and supplying it to visiting musicians for concerts. There’s still music in it yet to be played.

A Voice from Mexico

Remi Álvarez and Mark DresserSoul to Soul (Discos Intolerancia, 2010)

It’s through recordings that a musician can find an audience beyond local boundaries. That’s probably true even in New York (one’s resume can be covered in gigs and band appearances there, but the recordings are a more convenient calling card). But it’s especially true if you’re outside the accepted free-jazz capitals.

Remi Álvarez is from Mexico City, and it’s safe to say I never would have found him were it not for this recording, his first in eight years. And he’s a terrific find, a saxophonist with a personable touch and a sharply creative mind.

I love the plain sound of his sax. He’s well miked here, with some echo that might just be the sound of the room. Playing lower registers, fast or slow, he’s got a warm sound, with a light and flexible fluttering to long runs of notes. It’s like a kite being steered through a stiff breeze.

Most of the album, which  includes tracks of up to 15 minutes, follows an improvised-jazz course.  Mark Dresser on bass is the better-known musician, and his variety and creativity hold up to the standard you’d expect. Álvarez is right there with him, building a seemingly effortless, conversational mood, lively and intimate.

“Eternal Present” opens the album with a sensitive, sweet air, but the scene gets tougher later on, both in this track and in the scrabbling, heart-pumping track that follows, ironically titled “Do Nothing.”  On only one track, “True Self,” do they spend lots of time in sound-exploration territory, with lots of buzzes and creaks from Álvarez, and Dresser sticking to high, squeaking bowing.

Álavarez teaches for the Escuela Nacional de Música at Universidad Autónoma de México (ENM – UNAM), and I would guess he gets occastional stateside gigs through connections with trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez and with the Houston creative music scene. Odds of his making it to the Bay Area are pretty darned slim, though.