Archive for February, 2011

sfSound Hits The Airwaves

The environment for the arts has turned even more hostile in this country, and creative music is particularly hard-hit. The selloff of college radio frequencies makes it harder and harder to find anything interesting on the airwaves.

The Internet is not an adequate substitute, as I think I’ve said before. At the same time, though, it’s a way to keep an interested audience nourished, whether it’s through podcasts or live presentations.

Enter sfSound Group, the local modern-classical troupe that probably cringes at the term “modern classical.” For some time now, Matt Ingalls and crew (or possibly just Matt) has/have been presenting recorded works through sfSound Radio, an automated shuffle-play Webcast. (Warning: that link automatically launches the audio broadcast).

And now, sfSound Radio is going live on Fridays, presenting a mix of concerts, interviews, and … other things. File this coming Friday, March 4, under “other” or possibly “aleatoric musique concrète,” as they’ll be hanging a microphone out of an Oakland window and broadcasting the results live for 24 hours.

Future broadcasts include interviews with local artists Wobbly and David Slusser … and a March 18 live broadcast of UK saxophonist John Butcher (right) performing with Grosse Abfahrt, the local-plus-Euro-guests improv troupe (see here).

Later on: Tom Duff will be presenting a five-day broadcast of an Alvin Lucier work, and Matthew Goodheart will present an extended interview with Italian saxophonist Gianni Gebbia.

I like this development. It fills a gap that even college and public radio increasingly refuse to acknowledge. Granted, I’ve dropped the ball myself by abandoning my post at KZSU, but the station’s “out-there” quotient is still being kept alive by DJs such as Your Imaginary Friend (Wednesdays, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Pacific time!)

This might be a good moment to rejoice in the wealth of independent radio that’s still broadcasting in the Bay Area:

  • (Save KUSF!)
  • KZSU
  • KFJC
  • KALX
  • KPFA
  • KCSM — Plain jazz, you might call it, but very much a resource to cherish. And they do play the outside stuff, late Thursday nights.

February 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm Leave a comment

Harvesting Steve Coleman

Steve ColemanHarvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi, 2010)

I’ve heard Steve Coleman’s music before, but this is the first time I’ve been aware of a trombone in the mix. Trombone isn’t the first instrument I’d associate with Coleman’s intricate clockwork funk. It’s so rounded, so un-agile.

It’s the opposite of the Henry Threadgill case. Something about Threadgill’s cellular composing seems perfect for tuba, but Coleman’s music seems a strange fit for trombone.

Coleman does have his big-band moments — that is, pieces that draw directly from traditional formats, pairing a group of horns with funky electric bass and drums. The trombone naturally fits that environment. But my first impressions of Coleman from the ’90s still stick with me: interlocked meters; calculated funk from the electric bass; small and twisted chords from piano and/or a springy “very late ’80s” electric guitar. There’s an attractive coldness there that the warm, rounded trombone sound wouldn’t seem to fit.

Or would it? I’m listening to “Day Two” on Coleman’s album Genesis (available for free download), where I think the trombone is played by Tim Albright. For long passages of this track, two or three horns blare madly over a rhythm section of electric bass, drums (a cowbell adding some of that “clockwork” Coleman touch) and keys. The free-flying trombone adds just the right colors, not to mention some agile dancing. Here’s a clip; listen for the moment where the trumpeter follows Albright’s lead.

So, the trombone is no stranger to a Steve Coleman band. But on Harvesting, Coleman drops the chord instruments and builds a band around individual horns and a vocalist. The elements that helped make Genesis familiar to be are gone.

I should be clear that this is a new exercise for me, not for Albright, who’s been in Coleman’s band for some time (I’m guessing he’s on some of Coleman’s Label Bleu CDs of recent years, and I’ll admit I’ve missed some of those). And I do like the way the trombone fits into Harvesting as part of an overall warmer sound. There’s still bass on the album, but it’s acoustic, not popping funky electric, and I have to admit I miss the piano. The horns are simultaneously soloing and weaving a background. You wouldn’t expect a title like “060706-2319 (Middle of Water)” to convey warmth, but there it is, with the trombone contributing quite a bit to that mood.

That warmth also means there’s less of the compellingly icy feel of albums like Black Science. “Beba” has some of the same properties, but again: with acoustic bass, no piano, and a trombone shadowing the scatty vocal line, the sound is more organic, less sci-fi. One constant, at a macro level, is Coleman’s sax, still cutting lines that are at once swingy, analytic, cerebral, and dancing.

Albright delivers a nice sputtering solo on “Atilla 02 (Dawning Ritual)” … and then along comes “Clouds,” a slower track whose determined intro is led by the trombone, as if Coleman had inserted that track just to mock my doubts about the instrument. The writing on “Clouds” — pleasant and floating, yet with a stern chord change or two — is a good fit for the trombone’s quilty brashness.

I already knew Coleman’s music could take shapes that I hadn’t considered — the hovering, darkly angelic vocals of Lucidarium come to mind. And considering music is his art, I shouldn’t be surprised if he tries new directions with it. But while vocals have always been a part of Coleman’s presentation, trombone hasn’t, and that minor surprise led me to listen to the music from an angle I wouldn’t have considered — one that’s possibly too close but that nonetheless offers a point of view I hadn’t considered.

February 26, 2011 at 11:53 am 3 comments

Bobby Previte: Terminals

Drummer/composer Bobby Previte has an interesting new project in the works, being prepped for a March 28 performance. It’s called “Terminals, Part 1: Departures,” and there’s an interesting promo video out about it:

Previte’s inspiration started with the shapes of airport terminal maps, the kind of thing that would strike the mind of a musician who spends so much time traveling. In the video, Previte also discusses his musical directions with the piece — talking, for instance, about the link between classical concertos and improvisation.

And at the end, you get to see him play a building with drumsticks. Very cool.

The “Terminals” performance will feature SO Percussion, John Medeski, Zeena Parkins, Jen Shyu, and DJ Olive. If you’re in NYC, it sounds like something to look out for.

Previte is giving updates on the project via Facebook and also via Twitter: @rankhypocricy.

February 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm Leave a comment

Emily Hay: Video Clips

Emily Hay and Motoko Honda appear Sunday, Feb. 27, at Musician’s Union Hall, 116 9th St. near Mission, San Francisco.

Southern California flutist/vocalist Emily Hay has a new quartet CD out (Polarity Taskmasters) and is coming up this way for a show. Random stuff I know about her:

I liked her self-titled trio album with Brad Dutz and Wayne Peet, on pfMentum.  Dutz, a percussionist, often improvises in a melodic and rhythmic mode, using tuned instruments such as xylophone or marimba. Peet, an organist, often works on building rhythm and groove as well. It’s a different type of improvisation, not quite groove music but less abstract than you often find as well. It’s a mix I enjoyed. You can hear some of the groove element about halfway through this video:

Hay’s improvising can be quite cutting and acidic, which complements Motoko Honda’s piano work quite well. Add in some reverb, and they make a formidable wall of sound, far from the welcoming grooves of the Dutz/Peet trio. Here’s one of their appearances at the Boise Improvised Music Festival.

What I hadn’t noticed in Hay’s bio before now was her turn in art rock, singing for Motor Totemist Guild and U Totem, circa 1990. Via YouTube, I’m getting my first taste of what that music was like, and I’m intrigued.

I guess my only point here is that I spent a lot of time on the Web last weekend. I realize some people would chalk up U Totem/Motor Totemist/5UUs as Art Bears/Henry Cow derivatives, but I’m still curious to hear more from them.

February 23, 2011 at 12:01 am 4 comments

ROVA/Nels Cline Webcast Tonight

The ROVA Saxophone Quartet and The Nels Cline Singers (combined to form The Celestial Septet) will perform tonight (Feb. 22) in Philadelphia, and you can watch it on a live, free webcast: http://arsnova.webillishus.com.  The concert starts at 5:00 p.m. Pacific time.

The concert and webcast are the product of Ars Nova Workshop, an impressive Philly organization that brings free jazz and creative music artists into town for concerts. The group plays host to Philly’s own musical community sometimes, but more often, they draw from the deep pool of NYC talent, probably taking advantage of being within driving distance. I’ve been to one of their shows — Tim Berne’s Bloodcount reunion at the International House in 2008 — and the operation is impressive in its organization and its ability to draw an audience.

I don’t believe that musicians benefit every time they give away their work for free. But here’s one instance where it probably doesn’t hurt. Fans in California certainly can’t attend the Philly show. And those in Philadelphia who are interested in the music have plenty of incentive to see it in person. Key to that second point is that the Ars Technica shows are hand-picked and infrequent — maybe a half-dozen shows per month — which keeps the series fresh in terms of novelty and quality. (But just in case fans don’t realize that, the webcast is being blocked in Philly.)

The value of a webcast is doubled in the case of The Celestial Septet, given that the band isn’t easy to convene; the five shows on this tour might be their last for a long while. That’s why Ars Technica is going through this effort, which sounds like a one-off project. I hope it goes well. Most of the groups in this genre are necessarily ephemeral, and some video documentation would go a long way. And it would help nurture fan bases in remote areas like mine, where it’s just too costly for east-coasters to tour.

My review of The Celestial Septet (the CD) is here.

There’s a similar philosophy — albeit an entirely different purpose and result — in the Telematics concerts that Mark Dresser has been participating in, where groups of musicians in different cities are linked together via Internet2, a high-speed Internet offshoot that links research sites. As Dresser mentions at the end of this All About Jazz essay, Telematics is not a substitute for live, in-person interaction. It’s a good alternative, though, given today’s economic realities. It’s a subject I’m hoping to investigate more in the coming weeks.

February 22, 2011 at 12:01 am 1 comment

Tim Berne’s To-Do List

After a period of relative silence in terms of CD releases, Tim Berne is busting loose. From the e-mail newsletter for his Screwgun Records label, here’s what he says is on the way:

* Insomnia on the Clean Feed label (already out, but it’s a good place to start).

* Old and Unwise, on Clean Feed — duo with bassist Bruno Chevillon. Arriving in May.

* On ECM, a CD from his band Los Totopos, which includes Berne (sax), Oscar Noriega (other sax), Matt Mitchell (keyboards), and Ches Smith (drums). The band has been performing regularly for a couple of years now, it seems, and should be in top form for their upcoming Australian tour.  The Screwgun home page offers some sound clips and a taste of Totopos on video; I’ve embedded the same video below. UPDATE: I should add that the CD is unmixed and not likely to appear this year. That’s what Berne indicates in his e-mail; I’m adding this because I think some folks who’ve seen that e-mail are stumbling on this blog hoping for more info.

* Sons of Champignon, a band originally called The BBC, apparently has a CD arriving this year. It’s the trio of Berne (sax), Nels Cline (guitar), and Jim Black (drums). They, too, are findable on YouTube.

And now, Los Totopos:

February 21, 2011 at 12:18 am Leave a comment

What the Heck Is Prepared Electric Piano?

Eric Glick Rieman plays his prepared electric piano on Friday, Feb. 26, at Meridian Gallery, San Francisco. He’ll play solo and with electronics artist Kristin Miltner.

What the heck is “prepared electric piano?” Eric Glick Rieman actually responded to that question when I’d posed it on this blog a while back, with an answer that told me that 1) the question wasn’t all that dumb, and 2) I had never thought about how electric piano worked.

Knowing that Rieman built the prepared electric piano himself made me feel better about not knowing the answer. And I finally got to see the thing in action earlier this month at the Luggage Store Gallery, where Rieman improvised some duets with cellist Theresa Wong.

Here’s what was throwing me. Prepared acoustic piano is pretty easy to understand: You take an object (wooden blocks work great) and put it onto the strings of a piano. This mutes the strings, creating a clicky percussive sound. Guitarists can do something similar with the palms of their right hands: they kill the reverb and create something percussive.

But with electric piano, there are no strings. In fact, having grown up digitally, I’m accustomed to the sound coming from solid-state elements (semiconductors), with no physical object to manipulate.

What I wasn’t considering was that electric piano is an old concept, and being such, it’s actually based on physical concepts just like the piano. Glockenspiel might even be a closer relative. An electric piano’s sound comes from metal bars, like tuning forks, that resonate when struck by the keys.

Knowing that, it’s a simple mental step to use something to block those bars just like you would a prepared electric piano.

Rieman’s instrument, then, is a normal, working electric piano — he even played me some non-prepared sounds to prove it — that’s been dissected, its guts exposed to the world. That leaves Rieman free to mess with the sound, but he doesn’t just use wooden blocks.

His is an electrified electric piano. Rieman puts pickups and contact mics on the instrument’s surface, so that pretty much anything he touches gets sent out as a sound.  In the picture to the right, you can see the electric piano with its top removed, exposing the tines. To the left are the mixing board and effects boxes Rieman uses to adjust the sound.

One limitation is that the bare sound of Rieman slapping and thumping the instrument can actually overwhelm the amplified sounds that you’re supposed to be hearing. It was advantageous, then, that Rieman insisted on letting the crowd wander the Luggage Store during his set with Wong. They’d played one short improvisation, and Rieman told us the the audience/performer hierarchy wasn’t exactly giving him the warm fuzzies. So, we wandered, most of us starting on Rieman’s side to get an up-close view of the prepared electric piano. Later, I found myself moving away, trying to hear more of the amplified sound for a “purer” view of the music.

Rieman played kinetically, with lots of finger tapping and palm thumping to trigger the contact mics. Wong often contrasted this with long or skittery tones from both the cello and her voice, adding a shade of mystery.

What you’re not seeing in my pictures is the stand that held up the instrument. It looked like a short four-legged stand that was placed on top of four other legs, held together by little more than a prayer to the balance gods. I figured it was sturdy and that that’s just how it always looked, but after the show, Rieman glanced at it and made a comment along the lines of, “Whoa, that’s not good!”

Ann O’Rourke has posted a good video of the Luggage Store performance — starting from the beginning, then cutting to the time we were invited to wander the stage. You’ll hear some high-pitched singing in there, which is Wong rhapsodizing along with her cello.

For more about Rieman, check out this interview by Dan Godston of Experimental Arts Examiner.

February 20, 2011 at 12:31 am Leave a comment

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