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.

Oakland Active Turns 1

The Oakland Active Orchestra will celebrate 1 year together on Tuesday, Oct. 13, in their monthly concert at The Uptown. And Henry Grimes, who happens to be passing through town, will be performing with them.

Normally a rock club alongside a polished, dark-wood bar, The Uptown has been opening its doors to a more avant-garde crowd at least once a month for a couple of years now, hosting the likes of Weasel Walter and Moe! Staiano. (Round of applause.)

For the past year, the Uptown’s jazz/improv nod has gone to the OAO with a free Tuesday concert. To celebrate, the group will perform 12 short pieces by different members.

Saxophonist Aram Shelton convened the OAO after coming to the Bay Area from Chicago. The idea, as he told me during a radio interview, was to provide a way to present composers’ works for a large group. The whole effort, though, hinges on a large group that’s willing to show up, rehearse, and stick to it after the novelty is gone.  The OAO certainly seems to have done all that.

Shelton uses the “Active Music” banner for a variety of shows done in different milieus (is that a word?)  More about all that, and the OAO anniversary show, at activemusic.wordpress.com.

This might be good sly moment to note that Grimes and Roscoe Mitchell are playing in Berkeley on Friday, Oct. 15, at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT).  Grimes turns 75 this month, so a packed hall would be a nice way to help him celebrate.

The Cooper-Moore Files

Cooper-Moore is a captivating performer. When his 2008 solo tour brought him to California, the show inspired me enough to wish I had … well, a blog, basically.

I never did write that entry, but suffice to say: Cooper-Moore’s musicianship was superb, playing bluesy and roots-driven pieces on his homemade instruments. But the highlight was his storytelling. His voice, his stage presence, and his fascinating family history — it’s a rich brew. If he ever does this solo trek again, you really have to see it.

My memories of that show got triggered upon reading this review of a duo show with Cooper-Moore and William Parker. (Hat tip: Avant Music News.)

Two more links of note:

His autobiographical blurb on the Hopscotch Records site is a terrific read. It’s in plain text, well written (albeit with some unpolished grammar), and conveys the heart of his storytelling. It also doesn’t give away any of the best stories he’d told us, about his grandfather’s life during the depression, or his childhood encounter with well-meant racism.

And at FreeMusicArchive.org, Cooper-Moore has posted a clutch of unreleased recordings for free downloading. Lots of solo stuff, especially on flute and the diddley-bow (homemade, one-stringed bass). Lots of duets (including one with Elliott Sharp). Some compositions for theatrical or dance productions. Great stuff. You can conveniently get to the whole archive and the track notes at this link.  Big thanks to WFMU for hosting/posting the archive.

Cooper-Moore is still active; he’s on the William Parker Organ Quartet album recently out on AUM Fidelity, for instance. He’s worth seeking out.

Ches Smith at the Helm

Ches Smith, the drummer who’s become a downtown NYC fixture (and who earlier made his Bay Area name as co-leader of Good for Cows and founder of the one-man Congs for Brums) is coming out with his first album leading a band-sized band. It’s called Finally Out of My Hands, and it’s due to arrive on Skirl on Nov. 16.

It’s a document of These Arches, Smith’s first band-sized band.  And you can tell what pull he has by the people he’s gotten to play for him: Mary Halvorson (guitar), Tony Malaby (sax), and Andrea Parkins (accordion, maybe keyboards).

Some reactions: Check out Parkins on accordion, really getting into it … That’s an interesting composition; good to see that side of Smith reflected in this band … and from the “Well, duh” department: Oh, so that’s what Tony Malaby looks like.

It appears you can pre-order Finally Out of My Hands at Squidco, and I’d wager they’ll take a pre-order at Downtown Music Gallery if you call ’em.