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.

Michael Formanek Quartet at Yoshi’s

Monday night’s crowd at Yoshi’s Oakland was  lively and responsive and actually a bit over-the-top, but when some big-name guys make the trek here from New York — hey, why not? I was happy to see them, too, and glad they drew a bustling, receptive crowd.

And it was good to hear Michael Formanek‘s band outside the spacious ECM shell of their record, The Rub and Spare Change. (Reviewed here.) I actually love that ECM sound, which I don’t find as antiseptic as some critics say, and which does leave room for a brilliantly burning energy. But live music, for many performers, benefits from being more visceral. That’s what we got: a more visceral, gut-reaction version of the quartet, with songs nourished by repeated live performances.

A review of the band’s recent L.A. gig noted that “Tonal Suite” was the opener — the five-segment, 17-minute “Tonal Suite.” I wasn’t sure how the audience would take to that, but they went ape over it. People didn’t applaud after solos — it’s hard with creative music, since a “solo” overlaps so heavily with the rest of the piece — but they seemed to be well into the groove with Tim Berne‘s spirited sax solo, and they appreciated Craig Taborn‘s bright piano splashes. It helped that “Tonal Suite” ends with an active, upbeat theme that gets repeated here and there, complete with a nifty false ending, like an inside joke.

Formanek’s writing, like Berne’s, uses complex melodies often jutting with odd-time-signature shards. The set mostly consisted of new pieces, mostly on the peppy side — that might be one reason the crowd stayed so engaged, although folks around me were also dead silent (a rarity at Yoshi’s) during Formanek’s one unaccompanied bass solo. One piece I remember in particular, “Rising Tensions,” was light on its feet and included a lovely yet electric Taborn solo. “Pong,” the set ender, came in a lovely chiming 6/8, likeable and relatively easy listening. (At the table next to me, after the show, a couple of people mentioned it being their favorite.)

Throughout, Gerald Cleaver was a monster on drums — lots of strength and sound — and Taborn’s piano was not only lightning-quick but fiendishly inventive. The band was loose and smiling

The encore was “Twenty-Three Neo,” the opening track to The Rub and Spare Change, which is based on a delicate and hypnotic piano line. They played it even more slowly, more delicately, than on the CD — a different kind of “visceral” breakthrough. Cleaver was a model of restraint, using silence as the glue to hold the piece, rather than breaking the careful mood.

Formanek has some roots in the Bay Area and mentioned the December passing of “Bishop” Norman Williams, crediting him as a major influence that steered him towards the edgier side of jazz. Good work, Bishop. Hopefully, you’d agree that you did good work here.

Longer Burning: The Music

Pamela Z has confessed. She owns a viola.

She told us as much at the start of Sunday’s “Longer Burning,” the latest in her years-long ROOM series of chamber concerts. She played viola as a child, and the instrument is still in her possession. Rather, the case is. It’s apparently been years since she’s verified that the viola is still alive. Schroedinger’s viola.

Several of the ROOM concerts have focused on one instrument or class of instruments — flutes, percussion, bass, voice — and Pamela Z has apparently been trying to get a viola version together for years. She did well, recruiting players who presented a wide range of styles.

Charlton Lee, founder of the Del Sol String Quartet, started the program with three modern works. “Melt Me So” by Edmund Campion was a piece for computer and performer, where the live instrument triggers responses generated by computer. It’s a dialogue but not a pure improvisation; the program notes provided by Lee describe a deeply collaborative engagement between Campion and the various performers who’ve done “Melt Me So.”

His other two pieces were acoustic. “Calligraphy No. 5” was written by Reza Vali as a modern piece that uses a traditional Persian scale that to Western ears sounds, well, Persian. For Western ears, that meant a mixing of the familiar and the new, a soaring and very engaging piece.

Lee closed with “Insistence” (Matthew Cmiel), an athletic piece that kept returning to an almost bluesy little phrase.  Really nice, with a rhythmic middle that calls for the performer to tap his foot (or maybe Lee was just getting into it).

Jhno performed next, as mentioned below. As often happens in electronic music, his piece developed in patient layers, and he’d just laid down the foundational colors before being interrupted.

Hank Dutt of Kronos Quartet presented what I suppose was the most conventional set of pieces, but it still wasn’t conventional conventional.

He started with the Bach-influenced “Solo Based on Courante” by Nils Bultmann. Very Bachian, in statements formed by long chains of notes. I was fascinated by one element of Dutt’s technique here. Maybe I just don’t see enough classical music up close, but many times, I noticed he started notes without friction, with none of the tiny crunch or grind that’s inevitable in more aggressive bowing. There was just air, as if he were coaxing the viola into breathing the tones.

Like Lee, Dutt took a “world music” turn, picking India as his destination, and a segment called “Alap” from “Raga Mishra Bhairavi,” by Ram Narayan. He closed it out with “Waiting,” a solo looping piece from Joan Jeanrenaud‘s album, Strange Toys. It’s a pretty piece that builds one phrase after another over a two-chord pattern, culminating in a dramatic credenza.

Pamela Z followed with a solo improvisation — a collage for samples, voice, and processing, where the samples came from the piano in her practice room during a Montalvo residency. She triggered these with hand motions in front of a sensor, a jangly little breakdown of noises matched against her voice’s soprano notes.

The program ended with Pamela Z, Dutt, and Lee in a group improvisation. They started tentatively, building from staccato fragments, and later meshed into some longer, gorgeous tones.

Longer Burning, Short Fuse

We got a heckler at the Pamela Z viola show Sunday night.

He prematurely ended the performance by Jhno, who was building an improvisation in his usual format: long electronic washes of sound and feedback, some of it using a viola as source instrument.

Yes, it was loud. The man, an elderly gentleman, decided the loudness was physically painful. And so, he abruptly started to applaud and yell “Bravo,” clearly indicating he’d had enough.  Jhno continued, maybe even turning it up a little to drown out the distraction. (At the time, nobody knew it was the loudness that bothered the guy. I think most of us assumed he just didn’t like the nonconformity of it all.)

The guy didn’t quit. He started rapping the floor with his cane — how stereotypical is that? — and started shouting over the music: “Thank you! Over! FINISH!”

Jhno wasn’t able to shrug it off. He threw the viola to the ground and stormed off. The viola was destroyed, the neck snapped apart. The rumbling tones he’d set in motion just lingered as audience members started heckling the heckler, telling him what a jerk he was, asking why he didn’t just leave.

Luckily, an intermission was programmed after Jhno’s set. Friends of Jhno’s turned his equipment off and cleaned up, and the audience dispersed and cooled down. It was a long intermission.

The heckler stuck around and was more than willing to explain his position. He was a violist himself — with one degree of separation from the Kronos Quartet, it turns out — and he probably did object to Jhno’s presentation, where the viola came through only in warped, distorted form. But what got to him was apparently the volume, which he decided was worth causing a scene.

I still don’t understand why he didn’t just step out. But at least, he was calm afterwards, and he welcomed discussion with the detractors who tried to engage him (although he did repeatedly call Jhno’s piece an atrocity). Joan Jeanreneaud, the cellist, debated him for a long time; they parted peacefully but didn’t convince one another.

The program’s second half went smoothly, including Jhno silently returning to the stage, as scheduled, to help with Hank Dutt’s performance. At the end, when Pamela Z asked for some extra applause for Jhno (who’d apparently left the building by then), the heckler joined politely.

What he did was ridiculously selfish. (I don’t think his wife was happy with him, either.) But Jhno didn’t help matters by smashing his viola, something I think he’s going to regret. I understand how interruptions like this can throw someone off their game, but there had to be a better way to respond.

I’ve been at performances where people didn’t like the music, but the only other time I remember actual catcalls was at the Starry Plough — a bar in Berkeley that’s willing to host the occasional experimental show. A group of Irish fellows (I got the impression they were a casual soccer team) made a few disgruntled noises during an improv set. It didn’t last, though, and in fact, one member of the group shushed the others, encouraging them to give the music a try. “This is what I like about the Plough,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get.” And he applauded enthusiastically for each piece.

Me, I’ve been to three performances where the music made me physically uncomfortable. Never once stopped a show because of it. I’ll save that for another time; 570 words about this is enough.

Past and Present Energies

Rejuvenation TrioRejuvenation Voyage (Edgetone, 2010)

Now 62, Hasan Abdur-Razzaq takes some of his sax cues from Albert Ayler — directly from Albert Ayler. Abdur-Razzaq was a teenager in Cleveland as Ayler, then an Ohioan, was getting his start. Maybe that’s part of the rejuvenation referenced here — a way of bringing back the sounds of his youth, of telling the universe that while the bodies have moved on, the community they built continues.

Or, maybe the music just helps keep him young.

Rejuvenation Voyage is a spirited energy-jazz session in a sax/bass/drums format. I didn’t know Abdur-Razzaq’s background when I sat through my first listen, and his sound really did conjure up visions of those mid-60s days, when free jazz had been around but was developing a rawness, a bite, that was a product both of the political times and of the musicians trying to reach beyond their bebop and modal histories.

“The Search for Truth” is the most directly Ayler-like track in the way it swings, with Abdur-Razzaq bleating an energetic, clear melody. On other tracks, like “Exclamation Pointe,” his sax is an outpouring, a blur of motion that tells a story in raspy, buzzy tones.

The other element that got me thinking “60s” were the diversions into Eastern mysticism. “The Quest,” for all its brashness, has a soothing, healing sound, starting with lone bass and slowly adding a strong-toned sax sermon. “Return Voyage” is a sea of percussion, full of the rich clatter of wooden beads.

The band is more than just Abdur-Razzaq. On that Ayleresque track, “The Search for Truth,” it’s really drummer and fellow Ohioan Ryan Jewell who’s getting the “solo,” with clattery drumming and snare rolls that create a sense of counter-motion against the sax melody. Behind both of them, bassist Tom Abbs — the ringer from New York — slowly plays out a gummy, sinewy bassline. Jenna Barvitski adds some high-register swooping on violin. (She appears on a few tracks but is counted as a guest, hence the band’s “Trio” moniker.)

All four of them pour it on in “Warp Speed,” where Abdur-Razzaq’s part is actually the slow one. It’s a great little trip. I also enjoyed the 14-minute “Strings and Things Suite,” an exercise in off-kilter chamber music that includes some cello from Abdur-Razzaq. It’s just as active and chatty as the album’s other tracks, but with less of a blazing sting, with crazed sax replaced by raspy cello sawing and skittish bouncing-bow violin. And then, in the second half, a big blazing alto sax shows up and kicks everything around, with the help of some merciless drumming by Jewell.