The Big Catchup: Recent Shows

Unintended consequences: When I saw a spate of shows in late July/early August, it ate up the time I would normally use to blog about them. Only now am I catching up, by typing things here and adding pictures to my Flickr account. (Because it occurred to me about two weeks ago: “Oh yeah… whatever happened to my Flickr account?”)

So, here’s my really busy week-or-so, or, How I Spent My Summer.

Necessary Monsters
@ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
July 30, 2011

As noted here and very briefly here, I did manage to see the staging of this very special project from Carla Kihlstedt. Neither a play nor a concert, it’s a theatrical musical experience that will hopefully have a continued life on the stage.

The stage was set to resemble a dissheveled office or attic, with storage boxes and papers everywhere, as if we were sorting through the discarded paperwork of the mind. There’s no storyline; the central character and narrator, played by Denmo Ibrahim, introduced each of nine songs based on monsters from fables and folklore. Her lines were in the form of extended definition, like encyclopedia entries, with dramatic and sometimes funny text that was poetically rendered.

Kihlstedt shaved her head for these performances, an edgy look that worked well with the richly rough-edged look of the costumes that transformed each band member into one of the monsters.  Kihlstedt played violin and sang most of the lead vocals, often harmonized by Theresa Wong, who hit some high high notes and did an overall amazing job. Wong was also playing cello and got an early showcase as the Squonk (no relation to the Genesis song, other than using the same legend as a source).

Most of the songs were in Kihlstedt’s style of mixing emotional Eastern European folk with classical and jazz elements. Her husband, Matthias Bossi, got to perform something closer to a showtune as the One-Eyed Being, a highlight that hit in about the middle of the show. The Being got played up as quite the narcissist, as Bossi ate up the stage, crooning in an old-timey jazz growl, with jazz hands and high kicks, even. It was a crowd favorite.

Or so I assume, because the audience didn’t clap between songs, and we should have. It’s one of those things: Do you clap after each piece, like you would in normal theatre, or wait for the completion of all movements, as in the symphony? People didn’t clap after the first number, “Squonk,” so that sort of set the tone. I think it would have been a more engaging performance for us and for the performers if we had applauded. In any event, the show got a standing ovation at the end, so people were obviously into it.

What’s next for the project? A recorded version will eventually come out, and Kihlstedt’s Kickstarter page mentions the possibility of a touring life for the show. That would be exciting. It would also be great if Kihlstedt has time to start fleshing out the other half of the Imaginary Beings Project, where the fans help craft new mythologies.

Photography wasn’t allowed at the show, but Pak Han took some crisp shots that are viewable here.

Time Is Now, Not Money
@ Bird & Beckett Books
July 31, 2011

Already blogged here.

Libertas and z_bug
@ Luggage Store Gallery
Aug. 4, 2011

Libertas is an improvised-jazz trio, fierce and loud. Sometimes a bit too loud; Wade Driver’s drums tended to overpower the music, but that’s partly a function of the Luggage Store’s bright sound. I did like the forcefulness, though. Tom Griesser is a saxophone whose resume includes a lot of nice inside-jazz projects; Libertas seems to be his outlet for doing something edgier and cathartic. He was terrific, bouncing with energy both in his playing and in his stage presence. The third member was Liz Byrne — of the Kirby Grips, I think, which is so cool — playing electronics and samplers from gizmos laid out on an ironing board. It’s good punk jazz with some technical chops. Here, go listen for yourself.

z_bug, formerly a quartet, was pared down here to a duo, with Sheila Bosco on drums and David Leikam playing synths and/or electric bass, with high volume and heavy distortion. They turned the lights down for these slabs of industrial jazz. I remember thinking of the pieces as spacey psychedelic jams, roaring and blistering and even hypnotic. A great couple of sets from both bands.

Lisa Mezzacappa & Nightshade
@ Old First Church
Aug. 5, 2011

Already blogged here.

Bait & Switch Octet
@ Berkeley Arts
Aug. 10, 2011

I couldn’t resist the chance to see Mezzacappa’s band expanded to an octet, with the addition of vibraphone, electronics, and two more horns. It was a grand overlapping of Bait & Switch, Mezzacappa’s Nightshade, and the jazz quartet Cylinder. From the latter camp, I remember trumpter Darren Johnston getting a lot of soloing time.

The show started with just the quartet, playing some old favorites off the What Is Known album and some new tracks hopefully destined for another album. Then came the octet, which offered the chance to try some more expansive charts, including one really experimental-looking one, and some longer, suite-like pieces. (That’s how my ear remembers it, anyway; I could be mistaken.) The band’s aesthetic — free jazz based on some catchy composing and a garage-band attitude — still came across.

This performance was part of the Berkeley Arts Festival, which is presenting a few dozen music acts at an art gallery near U.C. Berkeley during the summer and fall. They’re really pouring it on from Sept. 15 to Oct. 31, with a lot of edgy jazz — it’s worth checking out.

I would imagine this was a one-time performance, but they did record it, so … you never know.

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.

Playlist: August 31, 2011

Full playlist is viewable here. A few notes:

Donnie McCaslin — “Mick Gee” — Seen from Above (Arabesque, 2000) ….. Blast from the past. I remember this album didn’t make me a McCaslin convert; some of the melodic tracks and soaring, dramatic swells were too much for me. But he’d assembled a crack band: Ben Monder (guitar), Jim Black (drums), and Scott Colley (bass).  They don’t push boundaries on many of the tracks, but this one’s a cooker, and it opens with some of Black’s trademark drum propulsion. Overall, I do prefer McCaslin’s more recent stuff (such as Perpetual Motion on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf label). McCaslin’s playing at Yoshi’s Oakland on Sept. 12, so I might be spinning him next week in conjunction with a ticket giveaway.

Danielle Roger — “India Which Is Not India”/”Deception… and Melancholy” — Pinta, Nina & Maria (Ambiances Magnetiques, 2008) ….. Interesting brew of classical music, electronics, and improvisation. This pairing, which ends the album, starts with a crinkly electronics sound but then bursts into a full-on chamber composition, with jumpy brass criss-crossing against madrigal woodwinds. Ren Faire plus modern classical plus abstract electronics.

James “Blood” Ulmer — “High Yellow” — Forbidden Blues (DIW, 1998) ….. I blew it here.  A caller raved about the loud, chaotic Joe Morris track I’d played last week and mentioned that he was into Ulmer as well.  So, into the library I went.  But I decided to go with this track for its catchy opening rather than with the searing, cosmic-ocean-wave sound of “What Is.”  The result worked well as far as radio transitions go (especially going from this track to the steady Klez-funk of Ben Goldberg’s Go Home), but I got bored of the track quickly. Good stuff, just not what I was looking for at the moment.

Evan Parker & John Wiese — “No Shoes” — C-Section (Second Layer, 2011) ….. Evan Parker is Evan Parker: saxophone sounds that flutter and continually change, like a flame. He’s teamed with electronics, tapes, and computer patches by Wiese. I’m having a hard time getting into this one; the electronics seem abrupt and disruptive. The session is meant to have a loud aesthetic, which is great. I’m just not sure the blend works for me.