Lisa Mezzacappa and Nightshade

Lisa Mezzacappa & NightshadeCosmic Rift (Leo, 2011)

Nightshade is essentially a new-classical quintet, performing compositions that reserve large spaces for improvisation. But while you get frequent episodes of scribbly improv — furious crackles and scrapes on John Finkbeiner’s electric guitar, for instance — there’s still a concert-hall studiousness to the music. It’s not something that would come off well in a bar.

It was a treat, then, to see the group perform at Old First Church in San Francisco last month. The church hosts chamber music concerts regularly, from the very traditional to the new and outbound (like this one, from 2009).

Old First was a natural habitat for Nightshade. Sounds thrive and resonate there; they can be relished and absorbed. The resonance isn’t echoey, it’s more of a magnifying effect — you can hear everything, from the quietest musical details to the frustratingly loud rustling of your own jacket as you scratch your arm.

Nightshade’s sound relies on a lot of vibraphone (Kjell Nordeson), played in sleek and modern lines. There’s no true lead voice, though; clarinet (often bass clarinet, from Cory Wright), guitar, bass (Mezzacappa herself), and subtly tinged electronics round out the group. The written themes often follow dreamy, glassy melodies, striking onto a few jazzy moments before opening up into solos or improvising.

The electronics are a surprisingly subtle touch. Tim Perkis isn’t just thrown in there to make noise. He’s handed a score like any other player and abides by it. Now, his part must have a higher level of improvisation (or at least randomness) than the others, but still — it’s a gentle addition, arriving at specified times, blending into the group aesthetic. There’s a lot of potential in that approach.

The most aggressive melody on the CD (and in the concert) is/was “Regard de L’etoile,” taken from a suite of Olivier Messiaen piano pieces. It comes across stern and jazzy. Mezzacappa also put a Zappa song, “The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ,” into the band’s repertoire. It’s got lots of vibes, of course, and some slash-and burn moments for Finkbeiner. I seem to remember both having a spikier, more aggressive sound live than on the CD, which I’d attribute to the usual difference between recording a clean-take CD (it’s “classical,” after all) and performing live, in the moment.

Most of the album consists of Mezzacappa compositions, and they’re terrific. “Delphine,” is introduced on the CD by a quiet, bubbling improvisation before moving into the placid, glassy composed lines. It flows at a careful, liquid pace. “Cosmic Rift” likewise starts in improv territory, this time chaotic, aided by generous electronics, and shifts to a crepuscular tick-tock melodies that the band improvises around. It moves like a quirky classical music, with dark improvising flitting about the margins.

Separate, self-absorbed note: As mentioned earlier, this CD hadn’t even made it onto Leo Records’ web site when I played it on the air, and how cool is that? It’s up there now.

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