Bay Area Shows: Dec. 29 and Jan. 2

The Christmas/New Year’s zone can be like a post-apocalyptic wasteland for music shows, but there are always a few dedicated presenters who damn the torpedoes and put on shows anyway. They’d love to see you, I’m sure.

Daniel Popsicle @ Berkeley Arts Festival (2133 University Ave., Berkeley), Thur. Dec. 29, 7:00 p.m.
….. I’ve seen Dan Plonsey a few times in the past couple of years, but I haven’t seen a Daniel Popsicle show. The band was more like a mini concert orchestra a few years ago, performing Plonsey’s long, episodic compositions that were like Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music made less strident and more melodic. I don’t know what Plonsey’s “Music of El Cerrito” group has in store this time, but they’ll apparently include some music from New Monsters, the sunny avant-jazz group he and bassist Steve Horowitz have created.

Charm and Strange/Hare and Arrow @ Luggage Store Gallery (1006 Market St., San Francisco), Thur. Dec. 29, 8:00 p.m.
….. Two acts presenting fairly calm electronics sounds/noise. Charm & Strange is the duo of Julia Mazawa and Sharkiface; you can sample some of Mazawa’s turntablist work on her blog, and videos of Charm & Strange performances can be had on YouTube. Hare and Arrow is the duo of instrument builder Sung Kim (on the left in that picture) and David Dupuis; they’ve got a few samples of work up on Soundcloud, and yeah, they’re also viewable on video.

Cartoon Justice @ El Valenciano (1153 Valencia St., San Francisco), Thur. Dec. 29, 8:00 p.m.
….. Cartoon Justice, led by (or perhaps consisting of) Mika Pontecorvo will perform “the music of Feral Luggage, 29th Century Bluesman,” describing it as “genre-bent improv.” Jayn Pettingill and Aaron Levin Pettingill and Levin will open, doing improvised sax/drums duets.

Monday Makeout @ The Make-Out Room (22nd St. near Mission St., San Francisco), Mon. Jan. 2, 8:00 p.m.
….. The monthly jazz series continues at this Mission District bar. The lineup, cut-and-pasted from

  • Westbrook/Wick Duo (Luke Westbrook, guitar / Miles Wick, bass)
  • Johnston-Goldberg-Denson Trio (Darren Johnston, trumpet / Ben Goldberg, clarinet / Jeff Denson, bass)
  • Rob Ewing Group (Rob Ewing, trombone / Chris Sullivan, saxophone / Michael Coleman, keyboards / Hamir Atwal, drums)

RIP Sam Rivers

The New York Times, among other outlets, is reporting today that Sam Rivers has died at the age of 88.

I’ve missed my chances to see a lot of the jazz masters before they made their passage. Thankfully, Rivers is not one of them.

Sam Rivers Trio (not at Bruno’s), with Rion Smith subbing for Anthony Cole on drums. Source: MySpace page of RivBea member Keith Oshiro. Click to go there.

I saw him play at Bruno’s in San Francisco, maybe 10 years ago? Maybe a little more? He performed with his trio: Doug Mathews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums, but all three of them shifted on instruments, with Cole or Rivers taking to the piano, or Mathews picking up a clarinet.

The instrument shifts were fun, but Rivers himself was impressive, too. Aged 80 or thereabouts, he still blew his sax fiercely, with energy and youth still in his lungs. I’m telling you: Whatever music you’re into, you have to take the time to see the performers live. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

RivBea Orchestra. Source: The RivBea MySpace page.
Click to go there.

This show happened sometime after the trio had released the album Firestorm, IIRC. Rivers’ records from there would concentrate on his RivBea Orchestra, the big band he’d convened in his home state of Florida. This was tightly swinging, hard-punching stuff that easily won the critics’ hearts and got airplay on numerous college radio stations like ours.

More than just a great player, Rivers helped launch New York’s loft-jazz scene in the ’70s. You can read on his site about Studio RivBea nurturing a generation of great musicians. For a more complete obit, you can read Nate Chinen’s article for the Times (linked above), or check out Peter Hum’s blog for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s laden with video references.

The original RivBea days. Source: WFIU, Indiana Public Media. Click to go there.

Me, I’ll probably take a moment to reflect and maybe spin Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue. Sam Rivers is on there, and it’s been a while since I’ve listened to the title track and its open flow of ideas. Maybe the recent RivBea Orchestra stuff after that — it’s so buoyant and sunny, a great way to remember Sam.

If you happen to be in Orange County, Florida, local cable-access will be showing video of a 2008 Sam Rivers performance a few times in the coming week.

Motian Studies

Paul Motian’s recent passing got me examining some of the albums I’ve bought over the years that happen to include him.

A couple of these purchases came in the wake of discovering Tim Berne’s Bloodcount on the JMT label. I started snapping up all things JMT — and the label was already defunct, which perversely added to the fun. Anyway, it turns out Motian showed up on a lot of those albums. (Stefan Winter has since revived the entire catalog on Winter & Winter — where you’ll also find a PDF-formatted obit for Motian, cataloging his JMT output.)

Tethered Moon — s/t (JMT, 1995) ….. This one was hard for me at first. On the slow tracks, the music just seemed to sit there. Years later I would reconsider, having gotten more accustomed to less “busy” styles of music.  It’s a Kurt Weill collection, but the songs don’t have the Weill-like tension and drama. Sometimes, the band comes across as a regular piano trio, with Masabumi Kikuchi showing some Keith Jarrett-like leanings, down to the funny-voiced singing alongside his piano lines. But for some patches, this album becomes a celebration of inner stillness, colored by Motian’s delicious brushwork and the rich, resonating wood of Peacock’s bass.

Wolfgang Muthspiel — Perspective (Verve, 1996) ….. The opening “Gang of 5” held me spellbound on first listen. It’s expansive and open-aired, a landscape built on Motian playing a groove without a steady beat. He’s busily riding the cymbals and the snare in a very jazz-like way, but if you try to “spell” the beat in your head, you’ll be foiled. Above this, Muthspiel spins weeping lines on violin and Marc Johnson follows with mournful bowed bass. Eventually, Muthspiel switches to electric guitar for some free soloing over Motian’s non-groove.

On “No You Hang Up First,” you get to hear Motian assigned to play a straight 2/4 beat. Of course, it doesn’t stay that way, and the composition includes a breakdown passage where Motian gets to open up the rhythm.

My recollection is that I bought Perspective on a whim in Europe. It sure looks like a JMT release, but the label says just “Verve” — which did acquire JMT and printed its catalog for a sort time — and I can’t find Muthspiel’s name in the Winter & Winter reissue series.

Paul Motian and The Electric Bebop Band — Reincarnation of a Love Bird (JMT, 1994) ….. Hey, you get to hear Motian play regular swing! Sort of. The slower tracks like Monk’s “Ask Me How” get a swing infused with Motian’s airy treatment, those light, light taps on the cymbals. He’s in more straightahead mode on  some faster ones like Miles’ “Half-Nelson,” and you get to hear a nifty bebop solo from him on “Be-Bop.” I get the feeling this band started as Motian’s way of cutting loose a little bit, in a be-bop sense. (Ironically, by “cutting loose” I actually mean “giving in to jazz’s normal constraints.”) This album used a two-sax, two-guitar format for an exciting, busy sound in some places; Don Alias’ percussion sounds nice but seems like a bit much over Motian’s drumming, sometimes.

This one’s a JMT issue that you can’t get on Winter & Winter; it’s sold out!

Keith Jarrett ….. you know what, I’m not gonna call out a title. That whole mid-’70s period, with Dewey Redman (sax), Charlie Haden (bass), and Motian — those were glorious years. I had to pillage the used bins for Backhand, Bop-Be, El Juicio, and Mysteries, but you can find them all on CD now, thankfully. (Or online; I’m linking to eMusic there, but plenty of other outlets have them.) I think each album includes one “weird” track, one that departs from Jarrett’s snappy-yet-open jazz and goes into complete experimental strangeness, often in a slow, pensive mood. And then there’s The Survivors’ Suite, which I’ve called out previously. I’ve thought about these more than actually listening to them in the past couple weeks, so maybe they shouldn’t count here.

Paul Motian — Conception Vessel (ECM, 1973) ….. I hadn’t heard this one before, though I was aware of it (and other Motian ’70s gems) in the KZSU vinyl library. I’d mentioned it in discussing Motian’s composing, in my review of Joel Harrison’s tribute album. It’s Motian’s first album as a leader, and he tests the waters in so many areas. Sam Brown’s guitar plays rough-and-tumble on “Rebica” but still foreshadows the drifting role Bill Frisell would play for Motian later. The title track is a duet with Jarrett, both players exploring loosely connected territories with a spacious ferocity. “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullabye” puts Leroy Jenkins’ violin alongside Becky Friends’ flute in a downright vicious, emotional jam.

Most of these tracks have a younger Motian playing powerfully, with lots of cymbals, still resonating with the heat of the ’60s. He’s certainly not adhering to timekeeping, but neither is the sound dominated by his magician’s subtlety with blank spaces. I like the results a lot.

Of course, Motian’s catalog has a lot more to it. These are just the things I’d grabbed off the shelf, so to speak.

KZSU Special Shows, Including Mine Tonight

Looks like I’ll be doing an emergency fill-in tonight, Dec. 23, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.  Spinning the usual mix of jazz, improv, experimental, and Whatever.

Tune in at 90.1-FM if you’re in the Bay Area, or if you’re not.

Just before my show, you can hear the hour-long, KALW-produced, public radio show VoiceBox. Just after my show, you can stick around for our usual six-hour hip-hop block DJ’ed by M-Smooth and Japanic.

And long after, starting at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday Dec. 24, KZSU is running  a 27-hour Blues Marathon, organized by DJ Bird of Paradise. An annual tradition of awesomeness.

There’s a chance I’ll be on the air even more during the next few days, but it might not be all jazz stuff. You can always check the official KZSU schedule and see if you see “Wedge” anywhere on there.

What You Get With Dogon A.D.

Not that anyone’s going to hit this site for last-minute Christmas shopping, but, in the spirit of the holidays…

I’ve been proselytizing about how people should purchase Julius Hemphill’s newly reissued Dogon A.D. CD, even though the music has been available through less legitimate (albeit cheaper) means for some time. Part of my argument was that the quest to reissue Dogon A.D. seems like it’s been long and difficult, and we should be willing to show there’s a market for the stuff.

If you do spring for a real, tangible Dogon A.D. compact disc, here’s what you get.

  • Stiff gatefold package mimicking the LP packaging. Printed inside are the original liner notes by critic Richard Palmer.
  • Square poster of the original album cover, front and back, from Hemphill’s Mbari label in 1972. The 1972 back cover has a quaint DIY vibe and refers to Baikida Carroll as “Baikaida Yaseen.” (The more famous “African mask” cover, chosen for this rerelease’s outer packaging, was put out by Freedom Records (distributed by Arista) in 1977.)
  • Small blowup poster of Palmer’s liner notes, a godsend for those of us with aging eyes. On the back of this poster are some notes from producer Jonathan Horwich of International Phonograph Inc. about the album’s history and some engineering details about putting the reissue together.
  • The CD. Duh.

As for the music — well, if you’ve come to this page at all, there’s a decent chance you know it already. I’d examined the title track, “Dogon A.D.,” in this post in 2009. I’ve been listening to it with more careful attention to the horns lately, rather than getting hypnotized by Abdul Wadid and that that 11/8 cello line. It’s just as fun to get lost in the swingy melody line and Julius Hemphill’s fast soloing. “Rites” is an exercise in the freedom of spirit that had enveloped the culture by 1972. “The Painter,” with its flute and strummed cello, crosses serene ’60s folk/prog with edgy, stabbing modern jazz; it might be my favorite track.

The CD adds “The Hard Blues,” which you may have already heard on Hemphill’s album ‘Coon Bidness (politely retitled Reflections by the time I bought a copy.) It comes from the same recording session as Dogon A.D., so there’s a feeling of completeness about having it included here. The annoying way the right speaker keeps cutting out during the main theme — an intentional twist that I’m sure seemed like a good idea at the time — is preserved. Great track overall, though, an evenly paced long jam.

The sound on the CD flickers here and there, probably reflecting the condition of the master tapes. Maybe that’s one reason why a reissue was so hard to bring about. Whatever the case, Dogon A.D. is an important piece of jazz history that needs to be available. I’m glad to have bought a copy.

The Metal in Edmund Welles

Edmund WellesImagination Lost (Zeroth Law, 2011)

To my ear, the metal influences in Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet, have been more foundational than foreground. For example, as ominous as the core riff sounds on “Watch Me Die,” on Imagination Lost, it has a catchy and even jazzy element to it, and the higher-registered melody above it tickles my jazz/prog center more than my metal center. It’s probably just the way my memory associates bass clarinet with jazz.

Imagination Lost makes the metal influence clear. The opening “Moira the Warrior” is one of their most ominous tracks to date. Not just dark, but more looming, and when the drums suddenly and surprisingly kick in — a guest appearance for what’s normally a bass clarinet quartet — the metal takes over, and it grabs hold for much of the album.

If you don’t already know: Edmund Welles is the creation of Cornelius Boots, who’s a serious student of metal but also a disciple of classical and free jazz. His compositions for the bass clarinet quartet deftly mix the three influences, creating songs that can dart and fly like jazz while also rocking you like, well, rock. The heaviness of metal has always been there, drawn by the low, low basslines of bass clarinets doubled- or tripled-up, but the music doesn’t alienate jazz fans. (See “Chamber Demons and Prankster Gods.”)

In fact, the songs often come across brightly and even flash a sense of humor. The band’s signature tune for years was their cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” Imagination Lost adds its own goofy touch with “At the Soda Shop,” a doo-wop tune with an ending that lets you know they’re not serious.

Most of the album presents a heavier mood, though. “When I Woke Up, Everyone Was Gone” is grand and fatalistic. “Moira” and the closing track, “Curtains,” have a processional feel, as if a dark ritual is taking place. The centerpiece is a tight, faithful cover of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” with Gene Jun on vocals. (And Gene’s got pipes. Man.)

This is only the band’s third full-length album, but they’ve been around for 15 years, so it’s not surprising that Boots chose to mix up the format a little — drums on two tracks, Jun’s vocal guesting.

I do miss some of the crazier, breakneck jazz pieces that dot Edmund Welles’ catalog. That element doesn’t seem as prominent on Imagination Lost. But it’s still a solid, varied album showing off some high-caliber musicianship. (Another track to note: “Separating Sanity,” which feels like a classic rock song, down to the voice-like lead and the bluesy touches, but it’s an original.)

Edmund Welles is a band that works hard for its results, and hopefully this album can give them the expanded audience they deserve. You can find it at CD Baby and Bandcamp.

Small’s (NYC Part 3 and final)

Small’s: the view from the back.

Small’s, in Greenwich Village, is not the place to find avant-garde free jazz. But it’s open past 1:00 a.m., with after-hours jam sessions that run “until closing,” which I assume means 4:00 a.m.

I’ve always romanticized the idea of staying out late in New York, catching multiple shows. So, the last part of my last night in New York recently was spent at Small’s. I was determined to crowd in and hunker down well past 1:00 a.m.

Amanda Sedgwick (sax) and Tyler Mitchell (bass) go over some charts

The cover is $20, but it gives you in/out privileges for the entire evening. For Manhattan, that’s not so bad. There’s no waitstaff — which you might consider a negative, but that also means you’re not pressured to drink. If you just want a warm seat and a place to hear jazz among friends, you’re all set.

The place lives up to its name — it’s small. More than 50 can fit in there, but some will be standing at the bar, some will have an obstructed view from the back rows of folding chairs, and a lucky few (or unlucky, depending on your POV) will be up front, smooshed against the band. A couple of people are literally in danger of bumping the pianist if they get up.

It’s awesome.

I arrived in time for the second set by Amanda Sedgwick’s band (actually billed as a showcase for pianist Freddie Redd), then stuck around for the jam session as planned. And the music did go late, late into the night, with a local cast of crazies jamming away and generously ceding time to anyone who’d brought their instrument (or in the case of piano/bass/drums, their chops). This wasn’t amateur hour. The folks who took the bandstand knew and proved that they belonged there.

Pianist Spike Wilner’s trio was nominally the band at the center of the jam. Wilner, also an owner and a manager of Small’s, let other soloing instruments join the stage — saxes, a guitar — and stepped them through “Misterioso” for starters. Typical jam-session fodder. The next track was a big surprise, though. Wilner started improvising like he was surveying the piano terrain, leaping all over the place, flipping in and out of rhythms while keeping a tonal feel intact. He’s an excellent pianist, fluid and ingenious. The saxophonists didn’t know what to do with that at first, and finally the jumped in with blaring, “Ascension”-like alarms.

Pianist Freddie Redd sneaks a sip before the second set.

This fit the mood well, but it also made me think. Free jazz players are typically informed by the jazz tradition; they’ve grown into their music through the classic sounds going back through Miles/Monk all the way to Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. The opposite tends not to be true: hard boppers don’t always know what to do when the familiar patterns get M.C. Eschered. A little knowledge of free improv could have served the saxophones well here. I don’t mean they would have played abstract, squeaky stuff. I mean that I was hearing some opportunities for more complex and tonal sounds to sit above Wilner’s creations. I think the chance was there, but they hadn’t built up the reflexes to take advantage of it.

But as I said, they were excellent players. A couple of the long solos really blew me away.

This being a jam session, players began cycling in and out after about three numbers (lasting about 20 minutes each), including Wilner himself. A couple of vocalists stepped in for a song apiece, one of them gussied up in a smart red dress for the occasion. I made it until a little after 3:00, then had to call it quits. The crowd was thinner but still strong, and my vacated front-row chair didn’t last long.

The Bay Area will always be my home, but some things can only be had in a place like New York.

Small’s: the view from the front.