Earworms: The Music of Words

Lisa Mezzacappa/Katy Stephan/Michelle AmadorEarworms (planBmusic, 2008)

It’s a pop CD! Pop songs of all stripes, ricocheting from one style to another as Lisa Mezzacappa and songwriting/vocalist partners Katy Stephan and Michelle Amador present music inspired by individual words.

Beyond the CD, Earworms is an interesting and often fun art-installation project by Deborah Aschheim. She’s created sculptures, like the one above, using favorite words as inspiration — “node” for the piece pictured above, for instance.

The pieces are multimedia in nature, with video or music as part of the installment, and of course that’s where the CD comes in. Earworms‘ 18 songs relate to 16 different words in Aschheim’s ongoing project, and Mezzacappa & Co. clearly had a great time matching moods to the titles.

“Swoon” appropriately gets played to moonlit Parisian cafe jazz. “Pout” becomes a smoky jazz stroll. “Node” is stretched and abstract; “Crazy” piles spoken voices together to get into your head. “Like” is hysterical — ’60s beach music with, like, this girl’s voice and all?

Other songs treat the words as objects of their own. “Tarmac” gets picked because it was Aschheim’s first-ever computer password; it opens the album as a breezy pop song (a really good one) exploring the concept of literal social networks (the links among people we know). “Obviously” is a funny operatic song about how insulting the word “obviously” can be.

“Palimpsest,” one of my own favorite words, comes out surprisingly pretty and thoughtful. The inclusion of “Ice Knife” is perplexing until you read the book excerpt that makes up the lyrics — it’s about literal ice knives as assassins’ weapons, and it’s kind of cool.

Don’t forget, too, that Mezzacappa traces her musical roots back to metal; she didn’t leave that out. Little surprises like that add to what’s already a delightful package of songs. You’ll find it on CD Baby or at some of Mezzacappa’s shows.

The Read: June 25, 2011

1. Giving local musicians some love: This goes back a bit, but SFGate ran a nice profile of bassist Lisa Mezzacappa.

2. Quasi related, here’s a review of the band Cylinder in JazzWrap. Cylinder is a quartet that includes Aram Shelton (sax) and Mezzacappa; they’ve played around town for years, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve not seen them nor heard their album on Clean Feed. One more for the to-do list.

3. SOMArts in San Francisco is hosting a five-show dance/installation piece called The Book, by Avy K productions. Performances occur roughly weekly starting July 1. My main interest: experimental vocalist Ken Ueno and clarinetist (and sfSound founder) Matt Ingalls will be performing in Part 2, which takes place July 7.

4. Chris Speed’s Skirl label got a nice writeup in The Wall Street Journal. The story focuses on the general difficulties of selling CDs and getting music out to the public (or getting a fan base into the music).

5. Interesting discussion floating around the Web about whether younger jazz players are paying proper respect to their own sound and to their elders. Without a nightly bandstand to mature on, it would seem fewer musicians are interested in developing a bebop virtuosity. It’s an argument that has some credence and seems to have touched some nerves. Here’s a blog from writer Peter Hum about the issue; that’s a link that goes to other links, but it’s a good summary and a good starting place.

6. Remember that CD diptych from Steven Lugerner?  Here’s more about the former Berkeley native, from the L.A. Times and Berkeleyside.

7. From Louder Than War, a great long Cardiacs article.

8. From 2007, a piece on the coolness of Cryptogramophone.

Back to Vienna

While listening to Craig Taborn‘s solo piano CD, Avenging Angel, and chastising myself for thinking of Keith Jarrett so many times, I got the itch to give Jarrett’s Vienna Concert a spin.

It’s a 1992 ECM album of solo piano, just two long pieces. I can’t remember specifically why I bought this CD, as opposed to any other Jarrett piano disc, but I vaguely recall a side comment in a jazz magazine about how proud Jarrett was of this particular recording. Jarrett concurs with this note in the liner card: “I have courted the fire for a very long time, and many sparks have flown in the past, but the music on this recording speaks, finally, the language of the flame itself.”

Not to be dramatic or anything.

“Vienna, Part I” does shine.  The first third of the piece is built from the richly comforting gospel music Jarrett is so good at. There’s a slow bassline in there that’s every bit as delightful as that one riff that I think made The Köln Concert so famous.  From there, he shifts into a phase of stone-cold chords, blocks of concrete descending amid periods of temporary quietude.

Shortly after the halfway mark is when things suddenly spark. Jarrett comes out of a quiet pause with a fast, fiery rhythm in an odd tonality that then shifts further off the rails, gathering, brewing, intensifying. After about four minutes of this, he bursts forth, splashing madly up and down the keyboard while still keeping the same chaotic tonality intact. Those last six words are crucial. He’s taken this mood, this moment, and driven it outward, a wider radius that turns out to be perfectly comfortable and appropriate, a necessary conclusion.

Then the mad keyboard fluttering — fast but always in more of a ur-Jarrett rhythm than a Cecil Taylor spattering — slowly gives way to a pure major key, and from there, Jarrett downshifts back into big, grand chords that manipulate the heartstrings, a grand finale of seven or eight minutes.

There’s a characteristically indulgent side to the finale, but Jarrett does earn it. It’s a cooldown at the end of a magnificent race. Was it truly his best solo work at the time? I can’t say; I’ve delved only the surface of his solo concerts. (I haven’t heard the Sun Bear Concerts, in particular.) But I do feel like Vienna is monumental in a way few other musicians can match. Köln is the pop hit; Vienna might be Jarrett’s deeper, less appreciated masterpiece.

Speaking of underappreciated masterpieces — I notice The Survivors’ Suite is available on eMusic and probably on other legitimate download sites. Go get it. Recorded with Jarrett’s classic quartet (Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian), it’s an epic piece that’s unique in Jarrett’s catalogue. That’s a story for another day.

Elliott Carter Makes Billboard Top 200

A couple of years ago, I was marveling at Elliott Carter being still alive and still working at 100. In December, I did a blog entry marveling at his turning 102.

But the surprises aren’t done. Carter has now reached the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.

Yeah, the same chart that hosts every schlocky band that does MTV appearances and Disney soundtracks.

The news is a little bit old, but in case you don’t know: It’s actually Bruce Hornsby’s live double-CD, Bride of the Noisemakers, that’s made the charts, and it happens to include a composition of Carter’s.

This was a revelation to me. I always knew Hornsby had better than bar-band chops and an affinity for jazz. I just never associated his thick Americana chording with anything more — serious? cerebral?

Really, I’ve associated him with musicians on the smooth-jazz end of the spectrum, like Pat Metheney and The Yellowjackets, because that’s who he was hanging out with in the ’90s. And indeed, “Talk of the Town” on Bride pulls out the soprano sax and the synths — but it’s also got some playful, edgy tricks. Strange breakdowns and an angular piano segment that made me smile.

Carter’s spotlight is during the introduction to “Talk of the Town.” That introduction starts with some kind of horn, possibly trumpet, played in such a warbled and slow-motion fashion as to be unrecognizable. Then Hornsby cuts in with crazed hunt-and-peck piano that includes parts of Webern’s “Variations II” and Carter’s “Caténaires.”

The crowd loves it. How are they to know they’re supporting new classical music?

Here’s a quote, taken from Hornsby’s May 18 press release:  “I’m also extremely pleased that the classical composer, Elliott Carter, at 102 years old, is now represented on the Billboard charts, with our excerpt of his piece, ‘Caténaires.'” A canned quote, to be sure, but I love that he namechecked Carter.

“Catenaires” got its recorded premiere on a recent CD by Ursula Oppens. Built of feverish 16th notes, it’s a jigsaw puzzle that’s been kicked off the table. Here’s Sean Chen doing the kicking.

New Jazz Series in Oakland

Saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman pinged me a couple weeks ago about a series of monthly, Sunday evening shows at Actual Cafe in Oakland near Berkeley. The next installment is tonight, June 19, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.

The Actual Jazz Series is indeed billed as jazz, and it’s drawing from the pool of players around Berkeley’s Jazzschool. But a quick glance at their Web site, which includes sound files of some sets in their entirety, shows that some abstract, not-so-Sunday-evening stuff is part of the mix, too.

They’ve set up a blog (linked above) that previews each month’s programs with some links to artist pages and sound samples. The June 19 show is listed here.  A guitar duo of Noah Phillips and Chuck Johnston will start, followed by Bristle, a drummerless quartet led by saxophonist Randy McKean. Both acts seem rather out-there; this should be really interesting stuff.

I have not been to Actual Cafe yet (and Google Maps apparently shows you the boarded-up building that Actual hadn’t occupied yet). But I already like them, because — and this is something to note for Sunday’s concert — they don’t allow laptops on the weekends. (And they’ve got some pretty good reasons. I support their decision.)

Due to Father’s Day, I can’t make tonight’s show, but I’m hoping to get the July installment, curated by trumpeter Erik Jekabson, on my calendar. That’s going to be more straight-jazzy and should be quite nice. Support local jazz and the venues that are kind enough to host it!

Music-Reviewing Cliches

This blog isn’t my first attempt at writing about music; I also did some Bay Guardian work circa 2000 and a couple of unpaid articles elsewhere, not to mention lots of capsule reviews for KZSU’s music library (see here). And over the years, I’ve noticed a few things I do a little too often. How many can you spot!

* Making a big deal out of a song being the first or last on an album or in a live set.

* Mentioning each band member in a non-big band. Which is something that’s worth doing, but in a short review, it can sound very forced.

* Cliché comparisons: saying an artist is (or is not) like Coltrane (sax), Ornette (different sax/composing), Cecil Taylor (piano), Mingus or Monk (composing), Derek Bailey (anything weird) — or, for prog rock, King Crimson (I’m partial to the 1974-1976 and 1981-1984 editions) or early Genesis.

* Likening anybody’s music to any subset of the New York scene — especially “downtown,” the avant-jazz catch-all.

At least I don’t do the Pitchfork thing of starting every review with 2,000 words about what happened to me in college.

What a Scene (What? A Scene?)

Last month, the East Bay Express published a great story by Rachel Swan about the local jazz scene. Titled “Kind of Blue,” it muses about the steady progression of Bay Area jazz players who move to New York City.

That kind of thing happens everywhere that isn’t New York City. But there’s a poignant touch to the Bay Area’s situation. We’ve got a top-notch jazz program at Berkeley High. On top of that, many people still remember the ’90s heyday when venues were more plentiful and local artists such as Peter Apfelbaum and Charlie Hunter were making local headlines.

Even for the avant-garders, things seemed to be going well. Beanbender’s draws particularly fond memories. It was a vacated but still well-kept bank building that the landlords were willing to provide as a venue for the arts, including a Sunday night creative-music series. (The name referred to the Sunday night series run by Dan Plonsey, not the building itself.) The building was eventually sold to house a Kinko’s, and even though much of my Berkeley was already lost to Westwood-ization at the time, driving past that block is particularly sad for me.

Anyway. Swan’s article provides some history, some analysis, some good interviews, and maybe a small sense of hope — or if not that, at least an affirmation that we still have a lot to be thankful for. The music scene in general, and creative music in particular, hasn’t been the same since dot-com money pushed non-revenue-driving activities even further to the fringe. Swan doesn’t have answers, but I’m grateful that she was allowed to give some air to the questions.

Along similar lines, check out Tom Djll’s guest post on WFMU’s Beware the Blog. It’s a nice snapshot of the local scene, giving give out-of-towners a hint that creative music is surviving here, one step ahead of the bulldozers.

(By the way — if I may rant about the online comments that Swan’s story received … She gets hounded by a couple of readers with other axes to grind. In essence, they’re pissed off that she didn’t write their article about their beef with society. One reader takes her to task for not interviewing any women, for instance. This happens to journalists all the time. Not every story can include every source and every issue, but some readers refuse to understand that. It’s cool for readers to open a dialogue that extends the boundaries of a story… but I’m talking about the readers who just want to be angry, who go to a baseball game and complain there’s no goalie. Chin up, Rachel, you wrote a good story about a crucial issue, even if it’s not the one some people wanted to hear.)

Greenlief/Léandre, Four Years Later

Phillip Greenlief/Joëlle LéandreThat Overt Desire of Object (Relative Pitch, 2011)

On my radio show in 2006, I’d played tracks from That Overt Desire of Object,
an upcoming duo album by Phillip Greenlief and Joëlle Léandre.  It was a good album, 11 tracks organized into “variations” for Léandre’s contrabass and Greenlief’s different horns — clarinet, alto sax, soprano sax, etc.

Greenlief, who I believe has been interviewed on my show more often than anybody else, had fronted us an early CD-R, already mastered. On the show, we discussed the imminent CD release. It was fun to have a bit of a scoop.

That was four-and-a-half years ago.

At the Angelica Sanchez concert in April, Greenlief told me the CD was only now being released. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the gap; I’d just assumed the release had happened as planned.

But it hadn’t, bitten by the usual difficulties of the DIY/avant-garde world. Big thumbs up, then, to the folks at Relative Pitch — a newly formed Bay Area label — for releasing this music to the big, bad world. (UPDATE: Relative Pitch is in the New York area, as noted below. Thanks, guys!)

In our 2006 interview, Greenlief mentioned that particularly in duo improvising, he prefers creating shorter pieces. He comes into each one with a strategy, a single idea he hopes to articulate in the space of a few minutes. Of course, that doesn’t preclude going with the flow if his partner finds a new direction to explore — or if they both shift plans at once, almost telepathically, which does sometimes happen.

The template, though, is one of crisp focus, rather than stringing phases together to form a musical novel. It pays off in some of the shortest tracks here. “2nd Variation for Clarinet and Contrabass” is a compact adventure, a flurry of speedy clarinet with classical tones, backed by some quick sawing on bass. The moment fades down quickly, making for a tart 90-second snack.

Often, Greenlief and Léandre try contrasting approaches with one horn, as on the two pieces for alto sax and contrabass. “1st Variation” starts with tight, twisting sax, descended from free jazz. “2nd Variation” is just as fast but has a different bounce. Léandre starts it with springy bowed notes, from which Greenlief builds a more abstract and more dynamically varied sax part. You might call it a more serious sound.

Among my favorite tracks is “2nd Variation for Soprano Sax and Contrabass,” which has the sax playing between-toned flutterings, like the patterns of speech, while the bass patiently strums the start of what could have been a roots/blues tune. The piece wanders forward, like a spoken monologue over a spare bass pulse in a smoky jazz bar.

“2nd Variation for Tenor Sax and Contrabass” actually starts with bold, dramatic bowed tones, but the sax arrives as a toneful, calming presence, speaking in pillowy short phrases. It’s a really nice combination.

The album ends with two solo tracks, both long, at 11 and 12 minutes. “1st Variation for Soprano Saxophone and Voice” features growls and wails sung by Greenlief into the saxophone, contrasted with fierce overblown growls produce by the saxophone itself. Its second half gives way to more conventional sax playing, extracting power tones and quick angles out of the soprano sax. (Kenny G, eat your heart out.)

Léandre responds with a bold voice-and-contrabass piece, starting with buzzy-toned bass sawing that gets into an athletic frenzy, lots of ferocious virtuosity. Much of the playing focuses on the sounds from the bow, riding one tone and/or a set of fast glissandos while the bowing hand works on the different sounds produced by varying angles and pressures.  The “voice” part comes in late, starting with Léandre’s melodramatic breathing, then briefly opening into growly throat noises. You wouldn’t call the voice siren-like, but the bass part certainly is, especially the loud, assertive tones near the end. It’s bass with authority and attitude, which of course is a known strength of Léandre’s.

Taborn Alone

Craig TabornAvenging Angel (ECM, 2011)

Craig Taborn takes a studious approach on his first solo piano album, taking advantage of the chiming acoustics of an auditorium in Lugano, Switzerland. It’s a seeking process. You can understand what French critic Vincent Bessières means when he says (quoted on ECM’s site) that Taborn takes an approach “where improvisation blends into real-time composing.”

For example, “The Broad Day King” opens with the right hand playing pedal tones, individual notes that Taborn lets ring slowly while the left hand explores matching chords. Late in the album, “Forgetful” hands us a lovely jazz ballad, starting in tentative, primordial form, then blossoming beautifully. The intensity peaks early than halfway through the eight-minute piece, but the rest rides a lovely, gentle arc that’s just as rewarding.

It’s very hard not to think about Keith Jarrett, because the shallow similarities are there: solo piano, improvised on the spot, recorded in Europe, ECM, minimalist album cover …

About the cover. Yes, the hushed, soft image is partly just ECM being ECM, but this kind of sparsity seems apt for an album of solo improvisation. You see it on some Jarrett albums, or Henry Grimes’ Solo, for instance. It represents a blank canvas, giving the listener visual space to explore. Maybe that’s why Avenging Angel strikes me as participatory, as if you’re welcomed inside Taborn’s head has he explores, reaching outward to find the music waiting to be produced from this exact moment of time, place, and presence.

Taborn’s explorations are more varied and intricate than Jarrett’s. There’s a lot going on in a Jarrett improvisation, but he tends towards songlike forms, building harmonies around one tonal center. Jarrett can be dazzling, and there’s no denying the grandeur of his work, but there’s a formal sheen to it.

Taborn’s approach reflects the more “outside” tendencies of his jazz career. He does stick to his ideas on each piece, rather than going schizophrenic, but he wrests out the possibilities with more finesse and adventure than Jarrett. And when Taborn does lock into an idea and ride it out, he certainly shows off some dazzling technique of his own.

At the same time, Avenging Angel is very much a jazz album, especially when it comes to the faster tracks. You get a patient jazz stroll on “Neverland,” two hands in dialogue, wandering about tonal centers. There’s also “Gift Horse/Over the Water,” which uses the left hand in a more traditionally jazzy rhythm but also sneaks in some quick unison phrases and one nifty ostinato, over which Taborn splashes some strident chords, possibly the album’s most Jarrett-like moment. It’s spirited jazz that would make a good first listen if you’re trying to win new converts for Taborn.

Necessary Carla Kihlstedt

Carla Kihlstedt continues to rack up the uncategorizable projects. Witness:

Her Necessary Monsters will debut July 29 and 30 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  It’s a song cycle based on a catalog of humanity’s imagined creatures, by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and the stage show includes lots of dress-up costumes and apparently some dramatic elements. It looks pretty darned cool.

You can actually participate in the second half of this project, The Bestiary! Details here.

UPDATE: Turns out you can participate in Necessary Monsters, too. There’s a Kickstarter page to fund musician expenses, the printing of a libretto, and the documentation of the project in pictures and video.

Still You Lay Dreaming: Tales from the Stage II is a set of music written for dance productions. A collaboration betweek Kihlstedt and husband Matthias Bossi, the album is a followup to Ravish. It’s a digital-only release, ushering in The Age of the Absence of Objects, as Kihlstedt called it in a recent newsletter. Listen and buy at Bandcamp.

Tin Hat continues to branch out. Originally Tin Hat Trio, with enough gypsy-sounding influence to be signed by Angel Records, the band has added trumpeter Ara Anderson and harpist Zeena Parkins (both have moved on) and clarinetist Ben Goldberg (still in there) … and now they’re singing lyrics based on the poems of e.e. cummings. This East Bay Express article explains. The songs are dreamy and drifting, but not necessarily slow; Kihlstedt has posted two of the songs on YouTube — here and here, or link from the Tin Hat news page. An album is in progress.