About Year-End Polls

One thing Pi Recordings has going for it is exposure. They send CDs out to radio stations, college radio in particular, and manage to snag reviews in most jazz publications, it seems. The investment has paid off, making the label an NPR darling.

So, it’s getting less and less surprising to see Pi stuffing year-end Top 10 lists, such as the recently released Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a big-deal poll that’s often stacked on the side of creative music.

I’m not trying to say Pi’s only trick is to get in people’s faces. The music is good, and no amount of promotion could gain Pi its following otherwise. Plus, Pi’s artist list includes innovative and noticed new artists (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer) alongside venerable free-jazzers (Henry Threadgill, whose name graced Pi’s first two albums, and Steve Coleman). It adds up to that intangible quality that helps make a label stand out: a sound. Maybe I’m cheating by picking related artists (note especially the Coleman influence on Iyer and Mahanthappa), but I do think Pi has come to stand for a new type of jazz structure, one that swings with an intricate logic. That identity has led to a devotion among critics, making Pi a bit of a starmaker.

Another year-end poll regular, Clean Feed, does not service college radio, but they do seem to send out enough review copies to stay on the radar. Good thing, too, because as the Village Voice‘s Francis Davis puts it, Clean Feed is becoming the 2000s equivalent of Black Saint/Soul Note: a European label doing yeoman’s work at documenting American jazz. Again, you could argue that it’s all about the numbers game of exposure. But as with Pi, it’s the high quality of the music that keeps ’em coming back and primes critics’ attention for a CD from a new voice such as Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, which won Best Debut among the pollsters. (That category’s voting was sparse, but it’s still one for the “W” column. Congratulations!)

Two dozen Clean Feed CDs received votes in the Village Voice‘s poll. Smaller labels like Pi pick their targets carefully, but Clean Feed releases music in big chunks. That 24 of its albums were poll-worthy speaks to a consistency of quality.

Keep in mind, we’re talking about a poll among critics — people whose ears perk up at the news of a new Mary Halvorson release or who tear open a Threadgill package with eager anticipation. As history repeatedly proves, scoring high on the critics’ list doesn’t always pay the bills. Still, the recognition has to be nice — and it’s gratifying for us listeners to see these names get their deserved accolades and to have their work submitted into the debates about the year’s achievements. That’s why we like end-of-year lists, or critics’ polls, or all-star games.

Artwork lifted from azwaldo on Flickr.

Some previous Lisa Mezzacappa/Bait & Switch mentions:

  • A Farewell to the Good Captain
  • Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch
    • Summing Up Joel Harrison

      Joel Harrison3+3=7 (9 Winds, 1996)

      Here’s a neat little promo video  for guitarist Joel Harrison, yet another former Bay Area musician now plying his trade in New York. As you’ll see, he’s worked in music that includes (relatively) straight jazz, through-composed chamber music, and “world” music — and he also works on mixing those elements, putting violins, Indian instruments, and jazz ensembles into a box together and shaking vigorously.

      Harrison definitely sits on the jazz side of the jazz/improv continuum, but he succeeds at pushing jazz into new shapes. I got to hear some of his ideas — admittedly less chamber- or Indian-music oriented, back then — in live shows circa 1999.

      One of the projects he’d worked on back then — a time period too old to for inclusion in that video — was 3+3=7, a band tilted towards the improv side of things. The idea was to pair three electric guitarists with three percussionists (almost always on drum kits and surrounded with other percussion). All these moving parts added to an “ephemeral 7th presence,” as Harrison puts it in the liner notes.

      The album features northern and southern California versions of the band, with Nels Cline included on either side (he’s versatile not only in music, but in geography!). I got to see the northern version live, with Cline and John Schott on guitar, and drummers Scott Amendola and Garth Powell for sure. The third drummer was named Russ, I think, replacing Glen Cronkite, who appears on the CD. I remember Russ being really good, for what it’s worth.

      (UPDATE: Russ Gold. I’m 90% sure that third drummer was Russ Gold.)

      “Kali” is one track that particularly stuck with me, both live and on CD. It starts with drums in some polyrhythm I’m not good enough to decode, a perpetual motion machine rolling downhill. The guitars join with long, ecstatic bursts, slow and monumental. The guitars eventually take over with a tangled march rhythm, playing offset lines of the same melody taken from an east Asian flavor of psychedelia.

      As far as the CD goes, I’m drawn towards the rougher-edged jangle of “Broderick Crawford’s Throat,” or the artsy industrial blueprint of “Cold Day in New York,” which includes lines of “America the Beautiful” followed by unison noodling licks and a general devolution in to chaos. “Ratrace” takes a choppy, no-wave hack at jazz but also dips into an afrofusion jam for a few moments.

      On the more romantic side, “Skin Frontier” is outright pretty. So is “Lovingkindness,” but in a more expansive way, filling a rich seven minutes. Both bring the guitars to the spotlight, with the drummers keeping to a placid mood.

      Listen for yourself: “Someday Earth (for Don Cherry)” is included in this 2003 WNYC show. It’s sort of the northern California band’s hit single, spinning a bluesy main theme over a tribal thumping, presaging the Native American influence that would be Harrison’s focus on the album Transcience (Spirit Nectar, 2001). (Hit singles can be 9-and-a-half minutes long, right?)

      You can also hear a few track samples at Harrison’s website.

      Indiejazz Shuts Down

      I’m mentioning this with very few days left (possibly zero), but: The Indiejazz retail site is closing in a few days, if not already.

      It’s run by the folks at Cryptogramophone, Jeff Gauthier’s record label that’s put out some strong work in the past decade, largely from the L.A. scene. I have the deepest admiration for the people who put the effort into running a creative-music record label — especially one as well crafted as Cryptogramophone, which specializes in attractive CD packaging and surpassed itself with the artwork for Intiate by the Nels Cline Singers. (See also here.)

      A record label is a lot of money-losing work, but I’d imagine it’s a picnic compared to running a store, even an online one. So: Thank you, to the folks at Indiejazz, for being an outlet for this music for six years. It’s not always obvious where to find these discs, and even though it’s possible to buy from many labels directly, having a storefront — a place to browse, even virtually — is a crucial aspect to sustaining a community of fans and listeners.

      Much as I liked Indiejazz, it’s not leaving the biggest of voids. Plenty of competing sites specialize in creative jazz and improv: Jazzloft, Squidco, Forced Exposure, Cadence, and Downtown Music Gallery all come to mind. (And in the Bay Area, there’s Aquarius Records — lots of freak-folk and noise/metal-style improv there — not to mention the physical storefronts of Amoeba.)

      I did stop by Indiejazz’s site for a final purchase, an admittedly modest one. On a whim, I added Cryptogramophone’s first CD, which I’d not yet heard (see previous post). It seemed fitting.

      Finnish Roots

      Jeanette Wrate & Northern Lights EnsembleEchoes of a Northern Sky (Cryptogramophone, 1999)

      I came into this one expecting something “world” music-like or new-agey, but the first instants of “Entelli” have drummer Wrate tapping away at the cymbals in a classically jazz fashion. It’s refreshing, like a first whiff of coffee that tells you you’re going to like this cafe.

      Finnish folk songs translated into jazz syntax are the root of the album, and it’s full of the bumpy time signatures associated with some European folk musics. Jeff Gauthier‘s violin usually leads the spritely melodies with a clean, airy sound, reminding me in spots of the album Darol Anger and Barbara Higbie did for Windham Hill. So, I suppose there’s a touch of the new-agey sound I expected, emphasized by some of Craig Ochikubo‘s synths, but it’s still a jazz-rooted and acoustically driven album.

      It’s certainly easy on the ears (Gauthier’s own albums track a similarly breezy, airy melodicism) but the album packs a lot of non-traditional touches, both in the jazz and Finnish senses. Group improvisation is a big part of “Kantele” (a fun, jabbing tune dedicated to Wrate’s mischevious father), where Wrate ends up adding squeaky toys to the mix, and “Hopsis,” a Wrate composition that opens up for some nice acoustic piano from Ochikubo.

      “Sofia’s Flykt” is one of my favorite tracks on here. Written by Maria Kalaniemi (a Finnish accordionist), it’s an uplifting jig with an impish quality. The mood slows down a bit for a nearly bluesy violin solo, Gauthier’s bow dragging over electronically enhanced strings to produce a sound close to an electric guitar. Ochikubo turns more toward an accordion sound on that track and Wrate’s original, “The Shadow of My Tango,” giving those songs a bit more of a folky, traditional sound.

      Jazz is the dominant force here, though, as emphasized by the sweetly straight-jazzy track, “Evening Prayer,” ending the album. It’s neither new-agey nor prayerful, with a touch of New Orleans in its attitude.

      This was Cryptogramophone’s first release, and one I hadn’t heard until this month. It was a nice start for a really good record label.

      Good For Cows: The Metal Side

      Good for CowsAudumla (Web of Mimicry, 2010)
      Lucifer the Lightbearer [a.k.a. Devin Hoff] — Lucifer the Lightbearer (self-released, 2010)

      Wait, that sounds like something electric.  Wait, that’s a keyboard. Wait, now some guy screaming -?

      If you’ve wondered how many albums Good For Cows could squeeze out of the acoustic bass/drums format, you’ll want to give this a listen. After years of stripped-down instrumental pop (usually filed in the jazz bins), the duo has downshifted into a slow-blaze kind of metal, with gravity-well electric bass (deployed like a fuzzy lead guitar, really) and deliberate, icy-stare drums. Within a few notes of Audumla, the black-on-black album cover makes sense.

      It’s a new voice that doesn’t necessarily accommodate their prior approach to writing. “Fafnir” recalls Good For Cows’ earlier pop, albeit done up in fuzzy aggression. But that somehow seems to call attention to the song’s slow pace; it feels incomplete (but redeems itself with an awesome bass/drums double-soloing stretch).  Other tracks feel more like they’re written with the grinding heat of metal in mind — “Lenore,” for instance, uses a snappy midtempo bass riff to set up a mood of power and dread, later popping into a stomping hard rhythm. That’s more like it.

      “Invisible Goth” rocks out with a hammering beat and some ringing, guitar-like electronics triggered by Ches Smith‘s drums. The extra sound adds a nice dimension. But my favorite on the album is probably “Solfell (Mountains on the Sun),” where Devin Hoff adds some noodling prog-rock bass patches and Smith gets a spacey electronics break.

      Now, if I’d actually known something about Hoff and Smith, Audumla might not have surprised me. It turns out Hoff has an “undying love for metal,” which is how he explains his newest solo project, Lucifer the Lightbearer.

      It’s a solo excursion into multiple basses and vocals, creating heavy, dark landscapes (as if the album art, at right, wasn’t clue enough). “The Fallen” opens the album with a heavy, slow chanting of electric bass, eventually adding a treble voice in the form of bass played with (I think) the edge of the bow, for a springy and — in the literal sense — metallic squealing.

      The album starts to really rock out with “Son of the Morning,” which stacks up a sinister chiming electric bass with grimaced vocals done in an oversaturated whisper/groan, followed by squealy bass-guitar soloing. Overall, Lucifer is heavier than Audumla and doesn’t have the latter’s pop roots. It’s a fascinating little world of evil, built by Hoff in shimmering layers.

      The album wraps up with the acoustic “Light Bearer,” a peaceful and even mournful ending, perhaps showing — I can’t believe I’m about to type this — some sympathy for the devil.

      Lucifer the Lightbearer is being released by Hoff on Bandcamp on a name-your-price basis — find it here. You can also find his other solo works there; be sure to check out The Redressers.

      Hoff is in the process of putting Good For Cows’ older albums on Bandcamp as well — follow this link. Or, you could also see if Mike at Asian Man Records has any more copies of Good For Cows’ Bebop Fantasy CD.

      A Touch of Iceland

      On Twitter recently, Sigurdór Guðmundsson (@siggidori) occasionally mentions the band Amalgam.

      “How about some 5/8 groove to get you going?” he asked recently. Who’s going to say no to that?

      Grindli,” the song in question, is a bright, perky 5/8 with a blazing, fluid sax solo atop some chirpy rhythm jazz guitar and ecstatic drumming.  I heard that, and wanted to explore more.

      It’s part of a demo album the band shared for free on Last.fm back in 2004. Alas, Amalgam might be no more; the blog that Guðmundsson had organized hasn’t been updated since 2006. At least their sound gets to live on.

      Amalgam is/was a Danish/Icelandic mix of a band, with a colorful front line of guitar, sax, and trumpet, backed by bass and drums. They’re very much a jazz group, as evidenced by the velvety sound on ballads like “Fyrir Svefnin.” And the heart flutters at the very ’60s horns opening the gentle “You Turn.”

      They’ve got modern ambition in their composing and arranging, though, and it really comes through on the cautiously paced “Lómurinn.” It opens with quiet improv before dropping into a nice jazz groove with electric bass. Early on, there’s a guitar solo with electric bass and drums, kind of a prog power trio moving along casually, not in a hurry to spell out the logic they’re trying to convey.

      I’ll admit I haven’t listened to every track yet, but “Dance of the Drunken Pixie” (because, come on, you’re going to go straight for that title first, aren’t you?) is probably as far-out as they get, with a breakdown segment that has one sax blaring abrasively before dropping into a quiet drum solo, like arriving at the bottom of a pit.

      This is sharp stuff. Take a few minutes, give it a listen.

      New Page: Bay Area Venues

      In trying to make this blog a resource for folks new to the creative-music scene, I’ve added a page titled Bay Area Venues. You should see a clickable spot for it up top, next to the “About/FAQ” one.

      It’s my subjective appraisal of the places that most frequently host free jazz, improvised music, new classical music, experiemental music/noise, and so on.

      This was something that a fellow named Clay Glad did on his old, old Web page that inspired me to become a DJ and start going to shows in the first place. Please don’t take everything on the page as gospel, and of course, let me know if anything there is outright wrong.

      Thanks for reading. Happy holidays and all that.

      Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel

      The Dec. 18 concert of Polly Moller‘s works was terrific fun. Most of the pieces were based on instructions and improvisation, and many took their concepts from nature, pagan mythos, and… for lack of a better word, I’ll say “magic.”

      Pictures taken during the show came out rather fuzzy, since I was sitting in the back. Amar, over at the Catsynth blog, has a better camera and knows how to use it; he might eventually post some pics beyond what I could do.

      I’d previously mentioned the show here. And here, now, is a rundown of the program:

      The Flip Quartet (2006). The first piece happens to be the hardest to describe. Four improvisers stand at four tables, each representing a compass direction (N,E,S,W) and an element (earth, fire, air, water, not necessarily in that order). Each table is ornamented with various objects for soundmaking — among them: glass, whistles, metal, books to read from, and even a guitar. All four players perform for a set amount of time, then they pause and rotate. (Photo below by Michael Zelner, michaelz1 on Flickr, taken from a 2009 “Flip Quartet” performance.)

      I wish I’d taken notes on how the five movements differed (they played a second time at their original positions, making for five movements). The first seemed quietest and more tentative — in fact, the piece is supposed to be amplified so that the performers can focus on quiet sounds. Some of that did come into effect — the fire table had a book of matches, and the act of striking a match and shaking out the flame sounded interesting over the amplifier. In the third movement, the guy at table 3 tried snapping matches in half. He stopped after only two, probably thinking he wasn’t being heard — but the second match’s snap came through clearly. Nice idea.

      Part of the exercise, I think, is to see how different improvisers react to the same sets of materials. It’s almost like the piece is challenging them to produce their own sounds out of, say, metal chains and bowls, or innocuous pitchers of water.

      Duo No. 1 (2008, premiere). Written for Gino Robair, who played all manner of objects, this duo traces the life cycle of a moth, and the score consists of a diagram of that life cycle, with some dynamic markings (basically showing that the piece is meant to be very, very quiet in the middle). Robair was accompanied by Krystyna Bobrowski on sliding speaker instrument: a tube, the length of which she varied for different sound timbres, altering and accentuating the sounds Robair was feeding into the mic. The piece was quiet but propulsive, and you really could trace events from the breaking of the chrysalis to the final flight into a flame.

      Penelope (2010, premiere). Solo piccolo piece for Amy Likar, and possibly the program’s only through-composed piece. It combines sparse piccolo flurries, timed foot stomps, and a breathy “yes” frequently blown into the mouthpiece, all representing Penelope’s monologue that ends Ulysses. There was no set meter, so the piece was unpredictable and the foot stomps irregular: just one continuing flow, much like stream-of-consciousness writing. Very nice.

      Three of Swords (2009). The most difficult of the pieces, for both performer and audience. It’s solo performance art, with the performer (Sarah Elena Palmer) alternately emitting improvised vocal sounds, conducting a tarot reading, and tuning up what sounded like a shortwave radio. Long pauses, particularly for the tarot-card turning, made this one hard to pull off, but the audience stayed reverently quiet. I liked the effect but came away feeling like I didn’t “get” this one.

      Alcyone (2010, premiere). By contrast, this piece told a straightforward story: the Greek legend of Alcyone, who calms the winter seas for seven days while incubating her eggs on the waves. A quartet (two saxes, bass, percussion) played tumultuously as Alcyone (mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning, darkly costumed and carrying a nest of Xmas ornaments) arrived and, with a touch, quieted each player in succession, the overall sound slowly receding. Alcyone then got a long monologue/aria, stern and dramatic — I’d be curious if it was actually in Greek, or some language, or whether the syntax was improvised. She ended the piece by cueing each player to return to noisy tossing and turning. A nicely theatrical piece, and the liner notes say Moller is planning seven more, based on Neo-Pagan holidays.

      Genesis (2006-2010). A piece for 12 improvisers (with Moller, as conductor, included in that count) and a 13th player: Matt Davignon on electronics, representing the new universe. The concept is clever: the 12 players were arranged in a spiral, with Davignon at the center. Moller walked the spiral, cueing each instrument to play, dronelike, according to scored parts that suggested patterns but didn’t give specifics. Davignon eventually joined in and took over. The sum was a powerful and almost calm sound, surging and receding. (UPDATE: Polly notifies me I’m off by a number: It really is a piece for 12 improvisers, including the conductor and the New Universe person. And, in fact, they were missing a person for this performance — I hadn’t bothered to count them all, I’ll admit.)

      What’s it mean? The latest models in string theory and M theory, at least according to the PBS shows I’ve seen, say the universe is 11-dimensional and occupies a cosmic membrane, called “brane” for short. A further-out postulate is that multiple branes might exist, with their collisions causing the Big Bangs that create universes like ours. Cool, huh? So, Davignon represented the new universe birthed by the actions of these 11 other dimensions (and the role of the conductor is, I presume, an exercise left to the listener).

      Again, it was a visual piece, theatrical. Unlike “Alcyone,” the music here tells only a fraction of the story; you have to experience this one live. Davignon’s new universe wasn’t the obvious, ferocious outpouring of a big bang, but more of an audio primoridal ooze, feeling its way outwards into newfound, unfilled dimensions. That was an interesting choice, one that wouldn’t have occurred to me but set the perfect mood.

      All told, a wonderful evening of thought-provoking music. Great to see all these musicians in action together, too.

      The scores were available for sale, and quite nicely packaged and presented. “Alcyone” comes in black binding; “Duo” is an elegantly rolled-up scroll. The picture below doesn’t do them as much justice as I’d hoped.

      Now Batting for the Nels Cline Singers

      Bassist Devin Hoff has left the Nels Cline Singers and will be replaced by Trevor Dunn, according to Cline’s latest email newsletter to fans.

      (I feel like such the sportswriter here. It’s like the Giants signing Miguel Tejada, and then the Padres trading to get Bartlett from the Rays to fill the shortstop void. Totally the same thing, right? Right?)

      Hoff moved to Chicago from the Bay Area and probably wants to concentrate on establishing himself there. He’s also been doing some projects of his own, including a solo metal-influenced album that I’d been meaning to mention here.

      The more relevant news is that the ‘Singers will be playing California in February — specifically, at The Independent on Thurs., Feb. 3, and near Santa Cruz at Don Quixote’s on Fri., Feb. 4. They’ll be adding Yuka Honda on keyboards and sundry. For a glimpse of how that sounds, check out their Honda-infused appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk series, from September 2010. The band kind of tones down for the small setting; their performance has a spacey jam in the middle — slow, mind-expanding sounds — and ends with straight jazz guitar that gets bent up.

      A Farewell to the Good Captain

      Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch (not shown at left) played Friday night in Berkeley and closed out their show appropriately, paying tribute to Don Van Vliet — Captain Beefheart — one of Mezzacappa’s musical heroes.  He’d died that day at the young age of 69.

      They did their cover of “Lick My Decals Off Baby,” which also appears on the Bait & Switch album, What Is Known. They prefaced it with … you know, I should have asked what it was. It was like a sustained wail of joy, with Aaron Bennett pushing the Coltrane buttons on his sax, and the whole band conjuring up that McCoy Tyner swirling-sea feel. (Note that Bait & Switch has no pianist). It was a reverant and celebratory gesture. Then they dived into the sharp-angled dancing rhythm of “Decals,” where John Finkbeiner played some of his most spastic, slashing guitar of the set.

      One of their newer songs started the set,  opening with Vijay Anderson quietly hammering the drums with soft mallets, slowly joined by the small, spare phrases played by Mezzacappa (on bass) and Bennett. Eventually, the whole thing blossomed into a full free jam. The set also included a couple of the catchier songs from What Is Known — the upbeat “Ponzi” and the catchy (even though it’s in 11 time) “The Aquarist.”

      Bait & Switch just came off of an east-coast tour, getting the rare chance to play almost every night for a solid week. They’d also gotten a spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival — see the video on Vimeo, from which I lifted a band photo — so it’s been a good, productive year.

      They’d been preceded by guitarist Nathan Clevenger‘s band, which I’d missed. I did hear someone comment about Kind of Blue and a lots of horns, so — maybe that sums it up. I’m curious to hear that band’s new CD on Evander Music.

      Previous mentions on this blog: CD review of What Is Known Live show at the Ivy Room.

      Photo of Beefheart in 1980 is by Ebet Roberts, lifted from today’s New York Times obituary.