Dec. 3 Shows

Every now and then, a few promising Bay Area shows conflict on the calendar. That’s OK; it’s the sign of a scene vibrant enough to have that much happening. The downside is that with the lack of venues and local support, some deserving shows will fall through the cracks — but, in a glass-half-full way, it’s nice to know there’s this much going on.

You can always check for yourself at or

Anyway — Saturday, Dec. 3, is one of those intersection nights. The calendars list five shows, all of them worthwhile. I’d like to call out three:

Nightshade at Trinity Chapel (2320 Dana Street Berkeley), 8:00 p.m.
….. As I’ve noted before, this is San Francisco bassist and composer Lisa Mezzacappa’s chamber ensemble, mixing vibes, electric guitar, woodwinds, and computer electronics (and Mezzacappa’s acoustic bass, of course). Their debut CD, Cosmic Rift, on Leo Records, combines Mezzacappa’s compositions with covers from Frank Zappa and Olivier Messaien.
        * Nightshade’s Web page.
        * Recent blog post about Nightshade.

Phillip Greenlief, and Jon Raskin/Kanoko Nishi at 784 65th St., Oakland (2 blocks from Ashby BART), 8:00 p.m.
….. I’m presuming this is a house concert. I don’t know anything about the venue. This is their second show, and they’re hoping to keep a series of shows running for a while. Greenlief will open with solo saxophone, then Jon Raskin (of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet) and Kanoko Nishi on koto will perform as a duo. Expect squeaky abstract goodness (although Greenlief might decide to bring his jazz bag, too).
        * Greenlief-related: About his duo CD with Joelle Leandre.
        * Raskin/Nishi duets available on Nishi’s MySpace page.

Grex at Meridian Gallery (535 Powell Street, San Francisco), 8:00 p.m.
….. The pop/chamber duo of Karl Evangelista (guitar, vox) and Margaret Rei Scampavia, (keys, winds, vox) will perform with with guests Jordan Glenn (drums) and Karen Stackpole (percussion, gongs).  Grex will be doing songs from the recent album, Second Marriage, and previewing “the second part of its Filipino-American trilogy–a fantastical exploration of the band’s World War II-era ancestry, tentatively titled ‘Mushroom.'” Expect artsy pop, sometimes with somber overtones, juxtaposed with noisy freak-outs.
        * Grex’s Web site.
        * Previous blog entries: The Grex Factor / Fred Frith’s Manifesto.

If you’re not familiar with these venues — Trinity and Meridian are listed on my highly unpublicized Venues page.

This busy night is followed by a couple of weeks of great local shows. I’m hoping to find time to put those in another post.

Strings in Motian

Joel Harrison String ChoirThe Music of Paul Motian (Sunnyside, 2010)

With Paul Motian’s passing recently, a lot of ink has been devoted — rightly so — to his impact as a drummer. He turned the timekeeper’s role into something elastic, an equal voice in a band — accomplished with the help of Bill Evans and Scott La Faro striving for that same balance.

But what about his composing? Motian led his own bands into his rhythmic world, where the pulse and ring of bebop drumming are subsumed into more of a continuous flow, a gentle outpouring. Guitarist Joel Harrison’s string choir — with violins, viola, cello and two guitars — is devoted to exploring that world.

Harrison’s liner notes include a description of Motian’s music that I like: “more suggestion than declaration.” With that in mind, it’s fitting to have a drumless string band interpreting Motian’s music. The melodies swirl and drift. The music is filled with what critics like to call texture. There are themes for the ear to follow, but you often feel more like you’re being enveloped into the music.

My appreciation of this album deepened even more this week when Harrison posted his remembrance of Motian (Facebook login required). Harrison wanted the String Choir to conjure up Motian’s famous elasticity of rhythm, but it wasn’t easy to replicate. “It turns out what he does is something only he can do!” Harrison writes. The answer was to put “wrong” tempos into the charts, codifying a new sense of time into the music.

The album starts with “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago.”  It’s a track Motian played with his main trio (Bill Frisell on guitar and Joe Lovano on sax), and while it’s got a definite theme, the trio plays it with a disconnected quality, with Motian’s signature minimalism: tiny taps and rustles just hinting at the rhythm. Harrison’s version starts with two wandering electric guitars (not un-Frisell-like) followed by a cello singing out the theme, actually in stronger rhythm than the original. The music overtly speeds up and slows down at points, just the way string quartets and chamber music do, particularly when the theme comes back at the end.

A song that was probably a deeper challenge was “Conception Vessel.” On the original, Keith Jarrett spells out the theme on piano while Motian does something … else … a slow sculpting of drums that sits outside the rhythm and yet doesn’t describe any other rhythm. It’s the drum equivalent of a soloist jumping outside the key signature. The duet continues like that for seven minutes; it’s a gloriously free-form exercise that still doesn’t stray from its original center of gravity.  Plenty of people do it now, but was it so common in 1973? I don’t know.

Harrison’s version is more compact, at just three minutes, and quite lovely. A guitar solo takes up most of the time, with wisps of chords from a second guitar just hinting at the direction of the piece. The intro carves out the theme with a slow, spacious air.

Motian’s music was not all gossamer and clouds. “Drum Music,” both from the String Choir and Motian’s Lost in a Dream album (ECM, 2009), is snappy and angled, even a bit grumpy (and it gives way to some great soloing from Chris Potter on sax and Jason Moran on piano). In the hands of strings, it becomes an agitated modern-classical piece, loads of fun.

“Drum Music,” with extra agitation by Oliver Lake.

Harrison put two non-Motian tracks on the album: Scott La Faro’s “Jade Visions” (played by the Bill Evans Trio) and “Misterioso,” a nod to Motian’s albums devoted to Monk’s music. “Jade Visions” unfolds with florid patience, a Japanese garden after a spring rain. The melody comes at you more directly than on some of Motian’s compositions, and the long string notes let you savor how delicate some of the chords are. “Misterioso” starts with open-ended plucked strings and plays a few timing tricks with the familiar theme, trying out new rhythmic ideas. It’s a treat.

Of course I have to point out a viola solo. On “Cathedral Song,” Mat Maneri solos with just a touch of rawness — just a touch, not enough to disrupt the delicate mood, even when he hit some high-speed phrases. It’s a highlight, and not just because it’s viola.

If you’re craving more thoughts on Motian, jazz writer Peter Hum has collected several musician remembrances at (at The Ottawa Citizen).  Here’s a link to the Matt Wilson entry, a great read.

You can also find links to media coverage at Avant Music News.

And here’s a quick interview with Harrison about the String Choir, and a performance of “It Should Have Happened Long Ago” at The Stone in NYC.

Here’s a Cool Site To Discover (R.I.P. Hans Reichel)

You may not have heard of Hans Reichel, but he once created something you ought to know about:

Go ahead, click. Have some patience. Mouse around, find the spots to click — you’ll see.

It’s not a game per se, nor is it really a music site. It’s just a place to slowly explore and discover. I recommend checking out Page 1 or Page 5.

The relevance to this blog is that Reichel was a musician — creator of the daxophone, a musical instrument consisting of essentially a polished piece of wood. When rubbed with the right tool — a violin bow, say — it produces clear tones that sound like vocalized beeps. He built dozens, if not hundreds, of these things, taking advantage of different shapes and curves to produce different sounds. Most of the music you hear at is being produced by daxophones.

Sometime around 2000, the Bay Area creative-music folks got really excited about daxophones, and Reichel came around to play at Beanbender’s in Berkeley. It was a fun show, with Reichel playing solo, the audience still and quiet as the little daxophone noises leapt out into the room.

Reichel was also a guitar maker. Page 9 of takes you through a history of his creationsSeveral times, I had to keep myself from giggling. It wasn’t the music, it was the sound. See, the daxophone comes awfully close to the noises that Snoopy makes in the Peanuts TV specials. So I kept seeing images of little beagle-dogs chirping and singing, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but always cartoony and, well, giggle-worthy. (Snoopy’s sounds are made by producer Bill Melendez, with the playback sped up, by the way.)

Let me put it another way: While this was serious music, it was also one of the cutest darned shows I’d ever heard. I hope Reichel would be amused by that.

Why bring all this up now? Because the news circulated today that Reichel has died at age 62. I’m saddened by his passing but happy that I got to hear his work in person, and also glad to rediscover the site.  Hopefully, it’ll stay up. It’s a nice legacy for Reichel to leave us.

Barbez (NYC Part 2)

One problem with having a wide-open evening in New York is the number of choices available, even when you limit yourself to more adventurous music. The particular Friday night that I had free on my recent trip was particularly stacked.

Out of the blue, a Brooklyn friend (who had no idea I was agonizing over the schedule) suggested I hop the subway to the new Roulette building to check out Barbez, a band with a very modern take on Klezmer and an interest in history. In fact, their next album, on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, will include melodies taken from the Roman Jews — there was such a people, apparently, and of course they date all the way back to Roman times.

That’s not to say Barbez (unrelated to the Brooklyn venue Barbès AFAIK) plays antiquated themes. It’s vibrant sextet music with energetic Klezmer-jazz attitude, some thick electric guitar from bandleader Dan Kaufman, and some new-classical turns on violin and clarinet.

They put together a varied show that took advantage of Roulette’s theater stage. For two quieter pieces, two dancers came out and performed slow-motion routines excerpted from a program called “The Making of Americans.” One of these pieces was also accompanied by vocalist Shelley Hirsch reciting some prose (Gertrude Stein?) and a silent film of Indiana scenes.

Hirsch, decked out in elegant black, took the stage for a couple of these readings and for an over-the-top Brechtian cabaret finale.

In addition to Kaufman’s bright guitar, the music included sparkling vibraphone lines and some aggressive electric bass from Peter Lettre (also of the indie band Shearwater). I wish I’d been able to hear more of Peter Hess on clarinet and especially bass clarinet; he was kind of buried by the amplified instruments. I liked what I heard from him, though, a blend of klezmer, jazz, and classical.

The next day, I did find myself really regretting that I hadn’t caught Berne’s band (formerly Los Totopos, now snakeoil) later that night. With the grace of the subway-transfer gods, I could have made it. But I can console myself by waiting for Feb. 28, when they’ll be playing at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

By the way, that Roulette theater is really nice. It’s unfinished — we sat on folding chairs instead of theater seats, for instance — but it’s a theater, with decent acoustics, a clean look, real stage lights, and balcony seating. I had trouble finding the front door, as did several other people I met outside, so apparently some of New York is still discovering it (or maybe Barbez attracts a very non-Roulette kind of crowd). I hope Roulette succeeds. This is the kind of venue that could hold a few decades’ worth of good music memories.

Cardiacs Revisited

Remember the Cardiacs tribute/benefit show I was distraught about missing, back in May? Here’s my chance for redemption (and possibly yours too) — it’s Dec. 2 at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.

That’s when the band Reconnaissance Fly will again bring out their alter-egos as ReCardiacs Fly, performing covers of the UK band Cardiacs.  The bill includes Dominique Leone and Wiener Kids, who had also performed at the tribute.

What’s the big deal? Cardiacs is a rock band with a quirky punk/prog energy and a talent for unusual, complex songwriting filled with “wrong” chords — and bandleader Tim Smith has landed out of action after a stroke and heart attack. This interview with Leone fills in some of the blanks.

This show has a little more. There’ll be Cardiacs stickers for sale — newly minted by Moe Staiano, I think — and Cardiacs T-shirts for silent auction, all to benefit Tim Smith.

Here’s a video of the band in action in May. And don’t miss this review of that concert, on the Fenderhardt blog, in case you didn’t pay attention the first time I linked to it.


Darius Jones (NYC Part 1)

Darius Jones’ saxophone playing is full of life and emotion. It’s like he’s pouring his soul into his solos — pain and laughter and love and regret all soaked into one powerful brew. And his music takes cues from gospel and funk, on top of that. It’s vicious free jazz with an extra cup of soul.

I didn’t know that much about Jones when I decided to head to Brooklyn for the first time — I’d carved out some free evenings on this work trip to New York, earlier in November — to catch the final night of his four-show residency at iBeam. I knew his name from CDs released on the AUM Fidelity label, and I saw that he had former Bay Area-ite Adam Lane on bass. Sold.

There’s a growing arts-and-culture center happening in Brooklyn, but the iBeam is several blocks off-center from that. I got off the subway to closed stores and nearly abandoned streets. It was a quiet residential neighborhood, so different from a tourist’s New York.

The iBeam is a small, brightly lit room, possibly a storage room for the office building it abuts. The walls are colorfully padded for sound, so the acoustics aren’t too bright. Folding chairs for about 35 were set up, and they filled up.

The music was athletic, with Jones, Lane, and drummer Jason Nazary all looking winded by the end of the show. There were slower moments — “Michele Willie” and “Ol’ Metal-Faced Bastard” both have slow, funky riffs at their hearts. But many of the songs, probably including those two, filled the room with sound. The speedy “Chasing the Ghost” comes to mind; it’s got a lightning-quick bassline for Lane to dodge through, and coming as late in the set as it did, it couldn’t have been easy for him.

Here’s one moment I remember: Jones overblowing on his sax, but doing it with a light touch, keeping the volume down. It was a balancing act of ecstatic energy and disciplined restraint — and while it might not be that hard to do (I honestly have no idea), Jones did it in a way that packed a wellspring of passion behind the sound, emotions waiting to burst the floodgates but being released slowly for maximum effect.

Seeing Lane in action again was great. He’s got the same fluid fingerwork that I remembered from his Bay Area days, getting so much sound out of what seems like so light a touch.

Jones’ latest album is called Big Gurl, and Jones told us the title character is a woman who’s so fully in love with life itself that she’ll watch a bug crawing on the floor for hours, marvel at it, try to befriend it.  She’s part of a “universe” Jones said he’s been creating with artist Randal Wilcox, depicted on the covers of Big Gurl and the 2009 album Man’ish Boy. They’re built from puffy, freakish features — three eyes on Big Gurl, three faces on Man’ish Boy — with a look that suggests these characters have detailed stories behind them.

While Jones with the trio was great, I was glad to give Man’ish Boy a listen some days later. It’s a trio where Cooper-Moore often plays piano rather than bass (actually diddly-bo, but its role is that of the bass), showing off another dimension of Jones’ composing. The track “Forgive Me” is sad and heavy, weight-of-the-sky heavy, and it’s really the piano that makes it.

Rainy-Day Recording

Noah Phillips and Lisa Mezzacappa have recorded tracks for a prospective duo CD. I know because I was there.

They’d invited some friends down to New, Improved Recording in Oakland for the session last weekend. Being an improvising duo, they’d decided the music would benefit from being played in front of an audience. So a handful of us got treated to pizza and got to hang out in the cozy environs of N,IR, as they call the place.

I missed the first set, but Michael Zelner and Suki O’Kane were saying it had an “autumnal” quality. That seemed fitting during the second set. Whenever Phillips got into a lyrical, chords-heavy place, it did have an autumnal feel — pretty sounds played at a lush place. About half the time, though, he and Mezzacappa were in a noisier mode, with the e-bow or eggbeater coming down on the guitar strings. There was a bit of electronics, too, with Phillips playing back some guitar sequences (sometimes backwards, it sounded like).

You’ll see what I mean when the recording comes out. It should be good.

N,IR itself was a treat, too. It was fun to just hang out after the session, gawking at the equipment and exploring the place. N,IR isn’t big but it’s got a lot of artifacts (some of it might good-naturedly be referred to as “junk”) lying around. So, thanks to Lisa and Noah for their hospitality, and to John Finkbeiner for being the physical-space host.  (He never told us not to touch anything, but… I was afraid to touch anything.)

The Noise Inside Bruce Cockburn

I bought a Bruce Cockburn CD while in Canada, because I wanted to be that obvious and unimaginative.

I’m kidding; I’m a fan. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to Cockburn, and his decades-long career deserves more air time in my life. Sure, I could look up his music in the ‘States any time, but being on his home turf, it seemed a good way to give the man a nod.

It’s not avant-jazz or free improv, of course; it’s Cockburn’s normal folk rock. But dig this, from the liner notes:

“When the last studio album, Life Short Call Now, was released, I felt that it was time for something different. I had a vision of music, electric and noisy, with gongs and jackhammers and fiercely distorted guitars.”

Now, that could be amazing. He wouldn’t have to go all Metal Machine Music on us, just partway. He’s a great guitarist, and the instrumentals on his albums peer into a world of jazz study, and — well, I see some promise in the overall package. Loud songs? Why not?

Cockburn says the past few years haven’t given him the isolation one would need to develop noisy music. He seems to mean that on a practical level — you can’t play the right instruments for it if you’re in a crowded apartment complex. So, that’s why this album is not the electric, noisy project he’d envisioned, but I hope the noise muse doesn’t fade away for him. I’d love to hear those gongs and jackhammers someday.

About the album. Small Source of Comfort is a more traditional Cockburn but still delicious stuff. “The Iris of the World” is full of the rich acoustic inventiveness that made his 1978 album Further Adventures Of… such a joy. And when the next song starts with “My name is Richard Nixon but now I’m a girl” — well, that’s hard to resist.

Did I mention Jenny Scheinman plays on the album? Jenny Scheinman plays on the album. She’s terrific.

The Grex Factor

Before the World Series rose to an all-consuming fever pitch, stealing time from things like this blog, I went to the release party for the new Grex CD, Second Marriage.

This was in downtown Oakland very near to Jack London Square, at the Swarm Gallery — my first trip there.  It’s a small art house that doubles as an artists’ space; offices in the back appear to be rented out as mini-studios.  The show was held in the spacious common area ringed by the offices. Not a bad spot for a show, because they’ve got the space and it’s mostly comfortable, if a little warm.

Swarm is close to some seedy neighborhoods (quite a few provocatively dressed women walking around, anyway) but there weren’t any signs of trouble around us. I was more thrown by the sight of a Bed Bath & Beyond sitting right around where the Swarm’s address was supposed to be.

Grex’s sound fuses classical piano, pop melody, and loud spasms of electric guitar — big, buzzy electric guitar. Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia, who really are getting married, performed as a duo half the time, and with drums (Tom Scandura?) or sax (Cory Wright) as guests on the other songs. A friend of theirs added video backdrop.

It was a good show, and for those who bought the new CD, they auctioned off this home-grown, 10-pronged squash. Where else in music can you see a show and take home a 10-pronged squash?

Before Grex, I finally got to see Wiener Kids. They’re as entertaining as I’d hoped — maybe not as laugh-out-loud funny as my CD review made them sound, but certainly a nice blend of cerebral jazz and smart-aleck tactics. “Here’s a Fun Fact,” off the new album What a Mess, was a highlight. It opens with intricate percussion, each band member hitting one instrument to produce overall patterns. (They got lost once or twice during this part; it didn’t sound easy.) Whistles and bird calls complete the intro before the chugging, R&B-steeped sax parts get started. Glenn also brought out the accordion for “Ballad of the Wee Dogs.”

The evening started with Alee Karim’s Science Fiction, a pop band that deals in big, flowery chords. Pretty music played at very high volumes. The band’s still new — they did flub a couple of songs — but they’d be worth seeing again, and not just because a couple of them were outside during a break having an earnest discussion about the awesomeness of Rush.