Archive for February, 2011

ROVA’s Russian Return

ROVA plays tonight (Feb. 19) in Marin County, at The Dance Palace Community Center in Point Reyes. Then they’re touring the northeast.

ROVA Saxophone QuartetPlanetary (SoLyd, 2010)

Planetary is a nice slice of classic ROVA, in my imprecise idea of what “classic” means. While it’s great seeing or hearing the band doing full-on improvisation with graphical scores, or appearing in augmented form with electronics (see the upcoming 33-1/3 concert or The Celestial Septet), there’s always something to be said for the straight lineup of four acoustic saxophones and some robust composing.

The other reason why “classic” comes to mind is because Planetary, released on a Russian label, extends ROVA’s connection to what used to be the Soviet Union.

In 1983, before the Iron Curtain fell, out-there jazz was outlawed — which, of course, created a thriving underground scene. ROVA accepted an invitation to make a clandestine tour through Russia, Latvia, and Romania. It sounds like it was tremendous fun, and they were treated like underground rock stars. The results came out on the CD, Saxophone Diplomacy (Hat Hut, 1991).

ROVA would return in 1989 for a formally welcomed tour — bigger venues and probably bigger audiences, but not the same enthusiasm, according to liner notes on the CD, This Time We Are Both (New Albion, 1991).

In addition to those recordings, there’s a marvelous double CD called San Francisco Holidays (Leo, 1992) by the Ganelin Trio, a Soviet group that Leo had been championing. It documents the Ganelins’ 1986 trip out west, including a couple of short performances with the trio and ROVA combined.

Planetary itself has no direct ties to Russia, other than the SoLyd label. The recordings, from 2003 and 2009, were made in the East Bay rather than Eastern Europe. But it’s still a nice excuse to revisit the whole Soviet story.

The album consists of two tracks by Larry Ochs (ROVA’s “O”) and two by Steve Adams (nominally, the “V”). As you’d expect, the songs combine aggressive group work with more thoughtful moments, the latter often in the form of untethered playing by subsets of the quartet.

Ochs is good at writing really chipper themes for the quartet (a fave of mine is “Torque,” from This Time We Are Both). His track, “Planetary,” does take you on a 17-minute journey, but don’t expect something reverentially cosmic. A catchy opening theme is followed by a suite of solos, including what I think are long stretches of Ochs unaccompanied — gruff and blustery in an almost comical way for one long stretch; later, calm and colorfully kinetic. It ends with a gravely shrill march, maybe a nod to Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.”

Ochs’ other composition, “S,” starts by playing around with overlapping sax lines for a tumbling, perpetual-motion sensation. Later themes get more swingy, providing backdrop for individual members’ solos.

Adams’ tracks include the breathy, wandering “Parallel Construction #1” and its perkier companion, “Parallel Construction #2.” They take similar themes and carve different pathways with them — “#1” has a wide-open feel and a chamber-music lilt, while “#2” gets more dense and frenzied. Adams also contributes a peppy, upbeat track called “Flip Trap.”

The track that’s easy to overlook, because it’s quiet, is Adams’ “Glass Head Concretion.” It creeps along, starting with careful foreshadowing and light tension, working its way through some ostinato themes and composed passages that are actually quite catchy, if you don’t let them drift past unnoticed. It’s full of long tones and agile but whispered soloing — a great, close listen if you’re in a quiet environment.

The “SoLyd” link up top connects you to the distributor Forced Exposure. You can also purchase the CD directly from ROVA.

February 19, 2011 at 11:47 am Leave a comment

Jen Baker x2

With a couple of evenings free, I had the chance to check out a couple of the improv shows featuring Jen Baker, the former Bay Area trombonist who’s now living in New York.

I’d also never been to Mama Buzz Cafe, out in Oakland on a less-gentrified stretch of Telegraph Avenue. It’s essentially a diner that’s been converted into a coffeehouse, with a counter that offers coffee and food and yummy spheroid vegan donuts. Greasy spoon meets Bay Area bohemia. An adjacent room, sheltered from the counter, is scattered with tables and chairs in the classic DIY coffeehouse look, and that’s where music events are held. (Photo below is by Flickr user katerw; I’d forgotten my camera that night.)

Wednesday night, Baker was playing here with a quartet including Phillip Greenlief (sax), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Ava Mendoza (guitar).  Only a half dozen of us were in the music room, including a couple of people with the requisite Mac PowerBooks (it can’t be a coffeehouse without  a couple of open laptops), but everyone paid rapt attention to the music, which was nice.

The sparse crowd, the midweek vibe, and maybe the fact that Baker had been out of town — it all made for a fun and casual session.  These were four friends just having fun with music. Mendoza’s electric guitar mixed well with the acoustic instruments; she seemed to be keeping things at a careful volume and contributed some nicely choppy rhythms. There were good long passages of all four tuning in on a propulsive mood and a strong pace.

Baker also found a couple of good spots for a few seconds of lyrical vibrations — the multiphonics created by singing into the trombone. It’s become an area of study for her, but the sound stands out and could really overwhelm the music, applied carelessly. She used the technique only for seconds at a time, and it worked well. Later, she told me she’s started transcribing some of her previous lyrical-vibrations improvisations — which turns the method into a composed technique that requires a different type of thinking in performance.

The set ended sublimely, with Greenlief dedicating a birthday piece to his late mother. It started with just Greenlief and Mezzacappa playing in a wistfully lyrical mood, with Baker and Mendoza following suit in long, gentle tones.

Thursday night, Baker played in two sets at the Luggage Store Gallery. The first was an improvising trio with Philip Gelb on shakuhachi and Tara Flandreau on viola, all three standing in front of the blank movie screen that occupied the gallery’s back wall. (A video installation was playing on the other side, visible out on the street.) Lots of serene moments in this set, some of that attributable to the natural sound of the shakuhachi — Flandreau even spent one passage playing whispery sounds on the viola’s bridge, matching the wooden flute’s demeanor.

The evening closed with 25 minutes of Baker’s lyrical vibrations. She introduced the solo performance by explaining that this music draws her into a trancelike state that she’d never experienced before — which is part of her fascination with the concept. The goal of the set was to share that experience with us, and it worked, aided by the stark white of the Luggage Store’s blank walls.

You can hear samples of the concept on Baker’s Web site.

Between Baker’s sets was the duo of Eric Glick Rieman (prepared electric piano) and Teresa Wong (cello). I’m going to write that one up separately. (Preview: I finally got to see the prepared electric piano!)

February 13, 2011 at 9:50 am 1 comment

Einstein on My CD Player

I’ve started working through Einstein on the Beach, and I do mean “working through.” The liner notes say that audience members were encouraged to wander in and out of the hours-long opera at will, so that’s what I’m doing, in a virtual sense — digesting one of the three CDs per night, and even allowing myself to doze off during scenes.

Why bother? Well, I actually have fond memories of mocking a friend’s copy of the CD set. He played me one of the knee plays — segments between acts of the opera, which can stand together as a play of their own — where one female voice is chanting along with the rhythms: ONEtwothree ONEtwothree ONNNE-two-three ONNNE-two-three ONEtwothree ONEtwothree… and so on.

This was 1988. I didn’t listen to any remotely avant-garde music, or even anything classical. I laughed heartily.

Years later, I’d been exposed to more of Phillip Glass, and I’d learned how to listen to minimalism, to admire the tapestry while studying the weaving, the tiny shifts making up the whole. And I’d developed a sense of humor for the avant-garde — ONEtwothree ONEtwothree is still amusing, but I feel like I’m in on the joke.

That first listen had stuck in my mind all these years. I wanted to go back and discover what I’d missed.

I was also inspired by Eric Bogosian. The introduction to his book, Drinking in America, is a longtime favorite, something I reread a few times every year. He describes his immersion in the New York avant-garde art world of the ’70s, and how he departed that phase to do the solo works that made his name. Of Einstein, he wrote:

“I was a true believer and sat dutifully in my seat for the full six hours. I found an excitement I couldn’t find in traditional theater. Einstein was a visual and aural masterpiece, intellectually stimulating, bold, loud, bohemian, young and unfettered by commercial stodginess.”

To be fair to my 1988 self, there is quite a visual element to Einstein that a listener can’t grasp. That’s the Robert Wilson contribution, as I undertstand it: big, spare, minimal, abstract sets. Large spaces and oddly robotic movements by the actors. Musicians scattered about the landscape of the set.

Yeah… none of that comes across on CD.  ONEtwothree ONEtwothree…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying the opera. Minimalism is not my preferred style of classical, but as I said, I can appreciate its intricacies. I’m amazed at the concentration it takes to keep one’s place in that maze of twisty tunnels, all alike. And I’m really enjoying the knee plays, where violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who nominally “plays” Einstein in the cast, really tears through those arpeggios.

There’s an athleticism to the singing, too. I don’t understand where the chorus takes their breaths! There are times when they’re barking out wordless rhythms, keeping up with that Glassian patter, and they seem to go minutes without a break. It’s impressive.

The opera certainly has punch and energy, sometimes accentuated by Glass’ bright major-chord tendencies. A very large percentage of the music comes from the two keyboards, for a very non-classical sound that must have been invigorating (or off-putting) to 1976 ears.

On top of everything else, I think one of my goals here was simply to add the opera to my library. Like my copies of Kind of Blue and Sgt. Pepper, it feels essential. I can’t wait to hear my kids giggle at it — and then, maybe years down the line, return to it with open minds and earnest curiosity.

February 8, 2011 at 8:40 pm Leave a comment

Vijay Anderson

Vijay Anderson’s sextet performs Monday, Feb. 7, at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco.

Vijay AndersonHard-Boiled Wonderland (Not Two, 2010)

As a drummer, Anderson has a nice free-jazz resume that includes Marco Eneidi, sax screamer Lynn Johnston, and the highly acclaimed bands of Adam Lane. More recently, he’s been part of the four-person axis that forms both Go-Go Fightmaster and Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch. His style can be fleet and explosive.

But Hard-Boiled Wonderland, like a lot of good improvised CDs, is more about process. Anderson sits more in the background or is even absent (as on the tracks “Nix” and “Dilation”).

It’s improvised jazz in a group setting, a sextet of equal parts where the two horns or the two guitars could be spinning virtuoso lines or providing the backdrop for the scene.  The predominant sound is the vibraphone played by Smith Dobson V, presenting a cooled sound even on the title track — where the guitars, played by Ava Mendoza and John Finkbeiner, chug away continually, sometimes heavily distorted. It’s a drifting piece full of peaks and valleys, using long tones and guitar effects to build the music to its heights.

For much of the album, Anderson uses subsets of the band. “Skittering” drops the vibes in favor of letting one guitar and Ben Goldberg’s clarinet take the lead. As if to show what a group effort this is, I’m not sure Anderson and Dobson play at all on “Dilation,” a slow piece with rubbery clarinet sounds, carefully springy guitar, and some continual bubbling from Sheldon Brown’s sax.

“Swimming in a Black Well” is an Anderson/Dobson duet and one of the more directly jazzy pieces on here. Anderson lays down a jazz-aimed cymbal-tapping rhythm, and Dobson solos accordingly on the vibes. That’s followed by one of the least jazzy pieces, the choppy, all-out abstraction of “Nix.”

On “A Widow’s Last Penny,” the two horns flit among a shimmering backdrop created by Anderson’s rolls on the toms and the occasional splash from Dobson. Long, stretched guitar wails complete the picture.

A lot of attention is going to go to the title track that starts the album, but it’s the finale, “March at the End of the World,” that really shows off what the band can do. It’s also the one track that feels like it might be composed, or at least pre-planned. Military drums lead to shrill horn calls, a military declaration drawn in jazzy cartoons. After some loose improvising, Anderson starts into a drunken swing beat, surrounded by mildly chaotic group sounds.

Anderson’s Touch and Go band, part of the Make-Out Room’s monthly jazz installment, will be a different breed: four horns and a bass. A different sound, probably, with an intriguing lineup that includes Brown, Goldberg, and 3/4 of Byte and Switch/Go-Go Fightmaster.

Further reading: There’s a brief review of Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the East Bay Express and a longer one at Stef’s Free Jazz blog.

February 7, 2011 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

Jen Baker’s Resonant Space

Jen Baker performs in various groups, every night from Monday, Feb. 7 through Friday, Feb. 11. Details below.

Jen BakerBlue Dreams (Dilapidated Barns, 2008)

She calls it “lyrical vibrations:” the music that can be produced by singing into the trombone while playing. The parallel tracks of melody come out in a buzzy, growling sound that’s quite close to Tuvan throat singing. It’s certainly something different.

Before leaving the Bay Area for New York — where she’s now part of the madcap Asphalt Orchestra — Jen Baker was working on this concept, exploring its musical possibilities. She’ll be back this week in a series of improv shows where I would assume she’ll continue that exploration — and try out whatever other techniques she’s been interested in.

There is admittedly a sameness to the lyrical vibrations tracks on Blue Dreams. With the exception of “Pip Squeak,” a cute dijeridoo-like hoedown, the music is all improvised. But the music is toneful — that is, it doesn’t come from the sound-sculpture school of abstract improv. In addition to the Tuvans, Baker lists Gregorian chant as an influence, and her shares the same sense of “meandering melodic lines,” as she puts it in the liner notes.

The melodies process slowly, not surprising considering the trombone isn’t as fleet an instrument as, say, a piccolo. Some of the most interesting effects come when the vocal and trombone melodies diverge. More often, I think the trombone or vocal holds one note while the other instrument varies in pitch, creating something almost like a dijeridoo drone but not quite. “Neptunian Love Song,” the longest track on the album (5 minutes) is packed with both types of moments.

Careful listening also reveals different kinds of interference between the voice and trombone, creating little pulses in the long tones. Baker hits a couple of these delicious dissonances early in “17 Unpredictably Disappears,” one of the album’s more abrasive melodies.

For some samples, check Baker’s web site.

Here’s her upcoming calendar (see also BayImproviser or the Transbay Calendar). Lyrical vibrations won’t be the only musical tool she’ll use, but I would expect it to be a big part of some of these shows, especially the Mills events.

Mon., Feb. 7 — Solo performance at the Mills College Ensemble Room. Free.

Tues., Feb. 8 — Quartet that includes Tony Dryer (bass) and Jacob Felix Heule (drums), 2/3 of the spacious improv trio Idea of West. At The Uptown, opening for the Oakland Active Orchestra. Free.

Weds., Feb. 9 — In various improv combinations with Phillip Greenlief (sax), Ava Mendoza (guitar), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass). At Mama Buzz Cafe, $5.

Thurs., Feb. 10 — Baker (mostly) takes over the weekly Luggage Store Gallery show, performing solo and in trio. Sliding scale admission, $6-$10.

Fri., Feb. 11 — Back at Mills, playing in the resonant atrium of the Concert Hall. This will be a quartet called DYNOSAUR, consisting of three brass players and Karen Stackpole’s gongs. Expect lots of echoing.

February 6, 2011 at 12:01 am 1 comment

More from the Bloodcount Vaults

Tim Berne Insomnia (Clean Feed, 2011)

Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, which disbanded sometime around 2000, left a wealth of long-form pieces to pore over — 20- and 40-minute compositions (or longer!) with compelling composed segments and spellbinding improvisation. The quartet tears it up on the rough and ragged 3-CD set, Unwound, and they’re presented in more studious, pristine form on the essential Paris Concert trilogy (still available on Winter & Winter).

And the basement tapes from that 1994-1998’ish timeframe keep coming. Berne put out a 2-CD set, Seconds, featuring tracks a mere 10 or so minutes long (but accompanied by a DVD of the 51-minute “Eye Contact”).

Now there’s Insomnia, two half-hour pieces featuring the five-man Bloodcount team plus three guests. It adds up to what looks like a chamber ensemble, including trumpet (Baikida Carroll), clarinet (Chris Speed), cello (Erik Friedlander), violin (Dominique Pifarely), and acoustic guitar (Marc Ducret). Recorded in 1997 after a sleepless night on Berne’s part, as he recounted for Downtown Music Gallery (click here and scroll down), the album delivers two long-form suites from the vein that Bloodcount so skillfully mined.

There’s a familiarity to the moments when the group comes in for a landing, easing into a composed section after playing freely. It’s not like Bloodcount is the only group that’s ever done that, but something about those moments on here sounds like Bloodcount. It’s as if the core quintet is the hive mind directing the piece, even though the three guest members each bring strong personality to the music.

The sound palette is considerably wider than Bloodcount’s, though. “The Proposal” starts out velvety and chamber-like, drawing from the same source as Bloodcount’s track, “The Other.” Ducret’s acoustic guitar adds a soft, chiming texture that I’ve never heard with Bloodcount (he’d always been on electric). There’s a particularly nice moment early on where he doubles up with Michael Formanek’s bass, splashing the occasional chord against the plucked bass strings and a lightly dancing Carroll solo on trumpet.

About halfway through “The Proposal,” Ducret launches a peppy, strings-heavy theme that leads to a particularly symphonic passage where trumpet, guitar, cello, sax, and clarinet are each playing fragments of themes. It’s a carefully arranged and fast-moving segment that shines. It’s through moments like that that Berne’s suites, at their best, exude an aura of control that I’ve always enjoyed. You feel like you’re traversing a carefully laid-out plan, an invisible schematic.

“Open, Coma” opens unlike anything Bloodcount ever did — with acoustic guitar and trumpet dominating the scene, followed by a frenzied Pifaly violin solo. It’s only 6 minutes into the 29-minute piece that a Berne-like theme pops up, returning the song to familiar ground.

Like “The Proposal,” “Open Coma” goes through a gauntlet of mood swings. Its composed themes feel grander, almost like dark marches sometimes, and the improvising seems more of a free-for-all, touching on that orchestra-tuning-up sound more often than “The Proposal” did. Much of the second half is taken up by a good, long Berne solo, lively and kicking, showing none of the ill effects of sleeplessness.

One odd thing I noticed was how little I noticed Jim Black. He’s there, but it wasn’t until his solo at the end of “Open, Coma” that I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to him. I guess there was just that much else going on.

February 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm 1 comment

Michael Formanek Meets ECM

Michael FormanekThe Rub and Spare Change (ECM, 2010)

It’s good to see Michael Formanek get so much critical praise for this album. Down Beat gave it five stars and put it on the Best-of-2010 list. The Village Voice poll ranked it 27th overall, with nine critics placing it in their Top 10s and Ed Hazell assigning it No. 1 status.

I’m not sure any of Formanek’s other albums are available, save the solo bass outing Am I Bothering You? So, it’s especially nice to see his music getting some ink.

A lot of the attention has to do with the record being on ECM, although it’s interesting to note that this album was recorded without an ECM deal. ECM’s Manfred Eicher later mixed the album at Avatar Studios, a fave ECM haunt.

Whether it’s inherent to the music or a trick of the mixing, this album certainly sounds like an ECM record, as you can hear on the promo video (which I’d embedded in a September post). That’s the track “Twenty Three Neo.” The piano has a crystalline air, and Gerald Cleaver‘s drums rely on lots of light cymbal taps, that placid wood-on-metal sound that’s so ECM. Even when Cleaver gets ferocious, as on “Jack’s Last Call,” he’s pushed back, so as not to overwhelm.

Craig Taborn‘s piano work is amazing, spinning away at computer-like speeds. He carves a fleet solo on “Inside the Box,” and he’s a monster toward the end of “Tonal Suite,” where he’s hammering away at an irregularly regular theme while also soloing with the right hand. Every jazz pianist can do hand independence, but something about Taborn’s playing here seems like it’s slipped in from another dimension.  I went back to check on Feign, the 2005 Tim Berne trio album where Taborn’s on acoustic piano throughout, and traces of the same strong hand independence are there, so — I guess I’ve proven I’m an unobservant idiot.

With Berne (sax) and Taborn on board, it’s fair to wonder if the soloing sections might end up sounding like a Tim Berne album themselves. I mean, you put the same people together in an improvising-friendly combination enough times, and you’d wonder if the output would all take on the same tint. There are moments of similarity. On “My First Phone” on Feign, an open-ended, floating piano pattern backs a poking, staccato Berne solo; the whole moment could probably be inserted somewhere into The Rub. But overall, Feign has more of an attack posture. Understandably, the pieces tend to be written with a sax-driven theme in mind, and Tom Rainey’s drums are more of a co-leading instrument, whereas Cleaver on The Rub takes a lighter, tactile approach.

As for the composing itself, Formanek goes with a suite-like approach, with one long theme after another, spread apart by well-knit group improvising spaces. Quirky time signatures abound. As bassist for Tim Berne’s Bloodcount in the ’90s, Formanek got a lot of experience with these kinds of blueprints, but the composing certainly shows his own mark, in elements such as the swinging shuffle of “Inside the Box” or the insistent, thick piano chords of “Too Big To Fail.” It’s good to hear his compositions again, and he’s found a fertile environment for letting them bloom.

February 1, 2011 at 11:12 pm Leave a comment

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