From the Lab of Andy Haas

Andy HaasParadise of Ashes (Resonant, 2010)

Paradise of Ashes pits Andy Haas’ sax against prepared backgrounds of drum machines and strange synthesized rhythms, crunchy and thick. It verges on a late-night tiki bar feel, with the warm loneliness of the sax and the primitive percussive sounds in the background — but there’s something darker afoot.

You could say it’s more of an electronics album than a sax album. The backgrounds really are backgrounds, as opposed to backing rhythms, built from drum machines, electronic treatments, and all manner of strange samples. On many tracks, it’s all looped into a rhythm that doesn’t march in step with the sax.

Haas didn’t just hit “on” on a drum machine; these backgrounds took work, and they defiine each track’s mood. “Khalliha Allallah (Leave It To G-d),” is driven by a drum/didjderidoo hybrid from the Tron universe. Haas’ composition “New Maladies of the Soul” bubbles up like something from a sparse alien lounge, with a saucy percussive backdrop against the sax’s lonely lead melody.

The setting also creates some opportunities for goofing around. Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is played straight in terms of melody, but it’s backed by a cluttering hailstorm of clunky percussion, like a Polynesian war council. “My Life Would Suck Without You” (which is apparently a pop tune with ties to Glee or American Idol or something else I don’t watch) becomes a reverent funeral march, backed by a slow bass-drum pulse.

Many tracks’ melodies are ballads or folk songs, but Haas does add some free-jazz jumping and skipping on “The Devil Is Loose in the World,” a rather upbeat traditional song backed by the sound of slowed-down, backwards singing (or speaking), a warbly, like Gregorian chants sung by some alien blobular race. I also like “Bonjour Tristesse,” which is almost hip and electronica-like with its background (drum machine with occasional falling rubble?) and blippy, carefree sax.

Haas has Martha and the Muffins on his resume, but I know him from the CDs he’s sent to KZSU every now and again. They’re all quite different, bound together by a few common themes, such as an affinity for Eastern religions and musics. On Death Don’t Have No Mercy (KZSU review here), he and Don Fiorino painted cowboy Western landscapes populated by  modern sax sounds. Radio I Ching had more of a world-fusion feel. Hanuman Sextet played around with the motifs of Eastern religions (with Fiorino adding some cowboy twang again).

Even with his solo stuff, Haas’ ideas branch out; in fact, I think each of his solo albums has taken a different direction. The Ruins of America, from 2007, uses electronic treatments to twist his sax notes into eerie forms — but it’s got a similar edge. (You can find out more about Ruins in this Canadian interview — the last question of which is priceless — and on CD Baby.) And Humanitarian War, a 2006 response to the Bush administration, is a stark, angry scream. The politics are still there on Paradise of Ashes — I’m sensing a cynical smirk in that title — but the album seems to be coming from a happier place.

Emergency String (X)tet

Rent Romus and Bob Marsh (sax, cello) perform Sunday, Jan. 9 at 7:30, at Musicians’ Union Hall (116 9th St., San Francisco).

The Emergency String (X)tet Meet Rent RomusEmergency Rental (Edgetone, 2010)

Off and on for 15+ years, cellist Bob Marsh has convened what used to be called the Emergency String Quartet, an improvising all-strings band. The results, although based in the same camp as sax-heavy “jazz improv,” come across like experimental classical music. The strings tend to converge into a nervous chatter, with some long bowed notes or sudden trills adding to the “classical” feel.

The transient nature of improv groups (and of impovisation itself) prompted Marsh to recently adopt the (X)tet name, which is not only flexible but pretty darned cool sounding. On Emergency Rental, we get a particularly dense version: three violins, two cellos, bass and bass koto, plus special guest Rent Romus on saxophone.

It would be easy for Romus to play the lead role over the needlepoint of the string sounds, but the group makes this choice only in spots.He grabs the reins for a jazzy vibe on “6th Street” (an ode to the Luggage Store Gallery), pulling the string ensemble into a busy, upbeat fluttering. He also tends towards a soloist’s role on “Something Wonderful,” where he’s a melodic tonic above the Morse code flutterings of the bowed and plucked strings.

But it’s a group effort, not a spotlight. Later, “Something Wonderful” sees the strings work their way into a sour-toned drone of rising tension, a voice Romus eventually joins — a nice example of how like-minded musicians can spontaneously create form. And frequently throughout the album, Romus drops into periods of quiet, short tones, blending into the underbrush.

There’s a patience and maturity to the group’s sound. Rarely do you hear all seven strings going at it at once; contributions are plotted and placed with care.

A good example is “Waiting by the Window,” which opens with some strong violin tones in a sparse setting, very classical. This develops into a creeping phase, with spare violin scratches and an occasional plucked bass note as grounding. Romus eventually breaks the spell like a small bubbling fountain, joined by tiny extended-technique sounds (creaks, clacks, scrapes).

Further reading: See the East Bay Express review of an earlier (X)tet album, Meridians, on the Italian label Setola di Maiale. Here’s a link to that CD’s page.

Photo by Michaelz1 on Flickr. It’s taken from a live show that might have been the source for Emergency Rental.

Graham Connah Rides Again

Adm. Ted Brinkley’s Hornblower Cruise plays the Jazzschool (Berkeley) Sunday, Jan. 2, at 8:30 p.m. No cover; $5-$15 donation suggested.

To most of you, Trevor Dunn (now part of The Nels Cline Singers) will always be the guy who played bass for Mr. Bungle.

To me, he’ll always be the guy who did this:

That’s the intro to “More of the Same but Not So Different,” a track on the 1994 album Snaps Erupt at Pure Spans by the Graham Connah Group. It’s not just that the solo is cool, inventive, and arresting (which it is). It’s the snappy, jazzy riff that starts and ends it, becoming the backing rhythm for the piano theme. That bass part made this tune one of my favorites from any Connah album.

Connah, a keyboardist and composer, has been a fixture in Bay Area jazz ever since those early ’90s days. He’s less visible these days — “assiduously avoiding publicity” is how Andrew Gilbert puts it in this SFGate calendar item — but he’s still around, performing rather regularly at Revolution Cafe in the Mission District under the name Admiral Ted Brinkley (semi-ret.).

He’s playing at Berkeley’s Jazzschool on Sunday night, Jan. 2 — a free show, technically, though they’re welcoming donations at the door. Gilbert’s writeup indicates this is a bimonthly happening, which would be great news. Assuming he also keeps up the Revolution Cafe appearances, Connah’s band(s) might be on stage at least once a month.

His music’s evolved considerably. Around 1994, he was fronting small combos playing twisty, smart-alecky jazz — it was like being handed a road map drawn on a mobius strip, and yet, it was still jazzy enough to envision being played by guys in suits at Yoshi’s. (They didn’t actually wear suits, but they did play at Yoshi’s.) In subsequent years, the formula mutated: larger bands; complicated female vocal parts; occasional electric piano or organ creating a bubbly psych/fusion stew. By 2000, Connah’s music was spilling heavily into the space between jazz and rock.

Around that time, Connah’s groups were playing weekly at Bruno’s, a Mission District restaurant that saw potential in out-jazz. Those sessions led to a terrific 3-CD recording, Because of Wayne/The Only Song We Know (Evander Music). My recollection is that Connah gave it away to basically anybody who asked.

Based on the Jazzschool writeup and the Evander blurb for Adm. Ted Brinkley’s CD (you’ll find it here), the Brinkley bands expands the vocal parts to a chorus, promising an even grander punch. I’ve been remiss about keeping up with Connah’s music, and that’s a shame; he’s been a treasure of local jazz. The Revolution Cafe is nice enough, but a chance to see this band in the comfort of the Jazzschool theater sounds awfully enticing.