SF Offside Festival

A set of shows celebrating Bay Area jazz has been put together by Laura Maguire, local music fan extraordinaire.

She’s calling it the SF Offside Festival, and the bill consists entirely of local talent, except for saxophonist Dave Rempis, who appears in a cooperative, experimental trio. It’s happening May 24-26.

Here’s the full-on press release:

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What: *San Francisco Offside Festival*

When: 8pm, Thursday May 24, Friday May 25, & Saturday May 26

Where: El Valenciano (Thursday), 50 Mason Social House (Friday), plus
special location TBA (Saturday)

Tickets: Starting at $10/night or $25 for festival pass

Advance purchase: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/244401

Website: www.SFOffside.com

RSVP: www.facebook.com/events/284562801627321/**

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Born of a passion to celebrate the unique creativity and diversity of the local jazz scene, SF Offside has gathered together some of the Bay Area’s most exciting musical talent for an event unlike any other. The three-night festival showcases notable local musicians and composers, like Marcus Shelby, David Boyce, Darren Johnston, Lisa Mezzacappa, Larry Ochs, Erik Jekabson, Aram Shelton, Eric Garland, and many more.

*Night One: “Excursions” – El Valenciano, 1153 Valencia Street*

The festival kicks off with three different ensembles with one thing in common—mastery of traditional techniques coupled with fearless commitment to exploring innovative territories. Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa opens the evening with her improvisational “garage jazz” quartet, Bait & Switch. Following is an experimental trio featuring saxophonists Dave Rempis from Chicago (the festival’s only non-local musician!) and Larry Ochs of ROVA with the ubiquitous Darren Johnston on trumpet. These Are Our Hours, a brand new quintet featuring core members of the Oakland Active Orchestra, close the evening with explorations grounded in jazz and free improvisation.

*Night Two: “Onward” – 50 Mason Social House, 50 Mason Street*

The second night of the festival takes a decidedly contemporary look at straight-ahead jazz and presents three Bay Area composers and their respective trios—bassist Marcus Shelby, trumpeter Erik Jekabson, and guitarist Alex Pinto. Celebrated as a leading light of the Bay Area’s jazz scene, Shelby will perform with a fresh trio that features the talented young pianist Joe Warner and the versatile Tiffany Martin on vocals. Jekabson, respected both as a bandleader and as a sideman, brings his post-bop improvisational sensibilities to the mix, while Pinto, a young guitarist trained in Hindustani classical music (who also happens to be the festival’s co-director), has a distinctive modern sound all of his own.

*Night Three: “Junction” – Location TBA (See website May 21st)*

The festival closes with an evening of genre-expanding music that intersects jazz in distinctive ways. Secret Sidewalk, an innovate quintet bridging electronic/tape music and jazz, spotlights Marcus Stephens on sax and electronics. Blending rock and jazz strategies, the recently formed Klaxon Mutant Jazz All Stars is an illustrious quintet featuring music by all five members—Eric Garland, Henry Hung, Kasey Knudsen, George Ban-Weiss, and Colin Hogan. Bay Area staple and masters of improvisation, The Supplicants, with guest drummer Hamir Atwal, end the festival with a musical journey that takes many unexpected directions.

*SF Offside Festival*

A co-production of local jazz guitarist Alex Pinto and local music curator Laura Maguire, SF Offside was created to fill a perceived gap in the regional jazz festival circuit. With an exclusive focus on homegrown talent, the mission of SF Offside is to draw attention to the incredible creativity to be found right here in our own backyard, and to build larger audiences for specifically local jazz offerings. The hope is that San Francisco ultimately gets the recognition it deserves as home to a rich, diverse, and exceptionally talented jazz community.

*‘Like’ Us on Facebook*** …. www.facebook.com/SFOFest

Get In the Flow

Sacramento’s In the Flow Festival has started up a blog this year. It’s a nice way to publicize the event for weeks in advance (the festival runs May 9-14) and to introduce the artists one by one.

You’ll find the blog at inteflow12.wordpress.com.

It starts with the natural question of what the In the Flow Festival is — and specifically, whether its mix of improvisation, folk-inspired creativity, and poetry counts as “jazz.” It’s exactly the question Socrates and Plato contemplated that fateful day at the beach, and, well, you know the rest.

Wait — you don’t? Then you’d better get reading.

Already the blog has covered some great Bay Area and former Bay Area musicians who’ll be trekking to the Central Valley to participate. The festival kicks off with a poetry session Wednesday, May 9, and ends with an intimate, small show at Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar (a regular Sacramento creative-music haunt) on Monday, May 14. In between are shows packed with music, including 10 acts apiece on Saturday and Sunday, and an extra three-set gig at a second venue on Saturday.

Among the bands already profiled: Bristle, which recently got mentioned in my own blog, and Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland. There are writeups about The Lost Trio’s planned all-Monk set and about the latest band from free-jazz dynamo Marco Eneidi. The Los Angeles quartet Polarity Taskmasters (recently mentioned here) should be making an appearance at some point too.

What it all adds up to is a wide variety of music presented as a community quiltwork, showing off a diverse range of talents and creativity. It’s what a festival should be, in other words.

Signal to Noise Is Back

“Back” might be misleading. No one expected it to not be back!

But after seeing Signal to Noise, my favorite music magazine, shrink with the times — from monthly publication, to quarterly, and now to semi-annually — finding it in my mailbox last week was like an unexpected visit from a friend who’d been on vacation. The magazine’s format, style, and mission are all the same, packed with the same goodness including features, live-show reviews, and CD reviews. In other words, it feels like a normal issue, which is good.

Part of what’s inside:

  • A Tim Berne feature written by Christian Carey, focusing on the current Snakeoil band.
  • A feature on the Houston improv scene, past and present, featuring bassist Damon Smith, formerly of the Bay Area.
  • A story on Loren Connors.

Big thanks to publisher Pete Gershon for keeping the faith, and to all the sponsors for keeping StN alive.

Find out more about the current issue (“current” will have hopefully changed, if you read this after October 2012) at SignalToNoiseMagazine.com.

Bristle & New Monsters, Part 2

Here’s Part 1.  New Monsters will be at  El Valenciano (San Francisco) Thursday night, April 19, playing alongside Bristle and the newest band from trumpter Darren Johnston, Northern Eclipse.

New MonstersNew Monsters (Posi-Tone, 2011)

Posi-Tone is an interesting choice of label, for this album, because theirs seems to be a more retro style of jazz, recalling bachelor pads, NYC jazz clubs, and bands in suits.

Some parts of New Monsters fits that mold. “Imperfect Life” opens the album with a simple, declarative melody that reflects popular late ’50s jazz. You’ve also got a fast cover of Coltrane’s “India” leading into Eric Dolphy’s “The Red Planet.”

But there’s free jazz in the details. The title track opens with a nice piano lick and slips into a nice alto-sax solo from Steve Adams fronting the ensemble, with liquid bass and comforting chords. But a second sax solo, Dan Plonsey on tenor, comes with just drums behind it and crosses into more aggressive, free-jazz jamming.

That’s the sound of New Monsters. The group displays a love of tuneful jazz and injects it with the occasional shot of adventure from a later time, showing off influences from Ornette and beyond.

It’s apparently bassist Steve Horowitz’s band, but the compositions are by Plonsey, an East Bay stalwart whose work has touched on traditional jazz, Braxton-style “trance” pieces, and free improv. He’s also got quite a sense of humor, which is an important element in everything he writes. Two tracks on here are “Brains for Breakfast” and “Herald of Zombies,” and I’m pretty sure those aren’t standards.

Plonsey has a knack for toe-tappers with a sense of adventure. “Dragon of Roses,” for instance, is an ultra-pleasant ditty built on a relatively simple rhythms, but Plonsey’s sax solo barrels through the 4/4 time with intentional bullishness. Come to think of it, it seems Plonsey takes the more crazed solos while Adams, who normally gets all abstract with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, seems to revel in playing it more straight.

Scott Looney on piano is a big part of the band, contributing tasteful comping that adds sneaky dissonances where he can get away with it. He also gets some chances to goof around with prepared piano, particularly on “Vision Pyramid Collapse,” where it sounds like he uses metal bowls to produce some catchy twanging to go along with the sliding swing of the theme. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album. As for other adventurous moments, the group gets more overtly “out there” on “Cylinder,” which is catchy and cartoony but is built in a twisty structure of “off” meters.

Plonsey’s web page lists a few reviews of the album, including one from ejazznews that I liked.

Put this group together with Bristle and the Darren Johnston band mentioned above, and you’ve probably got one heck of a great night of jazz. Should be a fun show.

Finally, and randomly, here’s a common theme tying Bristle and New Monsters:  Randy McKean (Bristle) and Dan Plonsey (New Monsters) played together in the ’90s and were half of the Great Circle Saxophone Quartet, which put out an album, Child King Dictator Fool,  in 1997.

Jim Black and the Piano

Jim Black TrioSomatic (Winter & Winter, 2011)

It’s very hard not to draw comparisons to Paul Motian during “Tahre,” the opening track on drummer Jim Black‘s first piano trio album. While the piano and bass set up a rhythm, Black is busy on airy brushwork and small, precise cymbal taps. It’s busier than a Motian landscape, but it’s got the same gossamer feeling, that same disconnected sense of rhythm.

At first, I figured Motian’s relatively recent passing was just on my mind. (See Motian Studies.) But no — while “Tahre” eventually gets into a more defined beat, driven by some signature Black cymbal crashes, I do think he’s channeling a bit of Motian on most of the track.

It’s a departure for Black, whose drumming in most contexts is rollicking, explosive, and several leagues removed from traditional jazz drumming. His Alas No Axis band is arguably closer to indie rock than jazz. (See Houseplant Arriveth.) Those elements are still present on Somatic. It’s just that the piano trio format opens new directions for Black to try, and that’s a good thing.

The album consists of 10 Black compositions, and that indie-rock element is definitely present. “Hestbak” has the kind of hummable melody you’d find on an Alas No Axis album, played in comforting piano notes, and “Chibi Jones” is a slow and very pretty tune. “Terrotow” comes closer to Vince Guaraldi-style piano jazz, with a gentle, pattering theme backed by Black’s beat, quietly splashed out with lots of cymbals.

Austrian pianist Elias Stemseder is quite a find, and apparently quite young (20 or 21 at this writing). He’s got a patient, flowing way with the piano, working lovely solos out of Black’s quilted harmonies, yet leaving plenty of space for the bass and drums to share. Thomas Morgan is apparently one of the most in-demand bassists in New York these days. In fact, he’s got another piano-trio gig, with Craig Taborn, and he’s recorded in the piano trios of Masabumi Kikuchi and Dan Tepfer. He does other things too, like being in Steve Coleman’s band, but he’s certainly got the piano trio thing down.

Somatic sticks to a mostly comforting mood. Black doesn’t rock out much, and it’s interesting to hear him in this new context. Of the other tracks that stood out for me, “Somatic” is quite pretty and has the calm flow of a traditional piano trio. But “Protection” is more experimental, with spiky piano and poking bass. On that one, Black gives himself more leeway to rattle and wander on the drums; it’s a very Jim Black sound.

Bristle & New Monsters, Part 1

A couple of interesting new jazz groups have albums out and will be playing at El Valenciano (San Francisco) Thursday night, April 19.

They’re called Bristle and New Monsters (that’s two separate things: Bristle, and then, set apart by this long string of words, New Monsters), and they’re both helmed by musicians who were part of the Bay Area jazz scene a generation ago, figuratively speaking.

Let’s start with Bristle, a band that saxophonist Randy McKean has been kicking around for more than a year now, as he’s chronicled on his blog.

BristleBulletproof (Edgetone, 2012)

This is a drummerless quartet that combines some swingy jazz writing with more modern ideas and a free-jazz approach to solos. McKean leads the group, playing saxophone alongside Cory Wright. Lisa Mezzacappa, who’s played with Wright frequently, is on bass. Murray Campbell is the band’s secret weapon, as he plays violin or oboe — either way, it’s an unexpected sound injected into the mix.

The combination of styles comes up immediately in “Notlob,” which starts out friendly and swingy but then revels in the antics of modern classical music: sudden stop/start moments and the occasional raspy blare from a sax. It turns out the structure is all mapped out; Randy McKean wrote up an enlightening explanation on his blog.

“Settlin’inin'” likewise has a friendly trad-jazz swing to it — as does “Revolution,” a Lemuel Crook composition (think 1960s jazz). “Revolution” plays like a combination of a war anthem and a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope movie theme, then gets into a cool little sax/bass phase, light-footed and quick. That’s followed by a tangled group free-for-all.

“Boxcar Bob” has more of the feel of upbeat chamber music. It works on low-key principles with lots of freedom of melody, providing the basis for a nice oboe intro and a bass clarinet solo from Cory Wright. “Drizzle” really does evoke the peaceful feeling of watching things fall from the sky (I was thinking snowflakes more than rain, but rain works), then gets into one of the most intriguing improvisations on the record, backed by  pulsing bass.

Way over on the serious side of the spectrum is “Attica,” a slow piece made of spare, downcast phrases. The soloing space is quiet, nearly blank. There’s an overall stillness, and when the violin or bass starts up with fast playing, it’s like a lone insect scrabbling across the desolate waste. It’s a good song, and effective. Just don’t play it at parties.

Fun and thought-provoking stuff overall. Here’s a look at “Notlob” being performed at Actual Cafe in Oakland.

Help Moe Put Another Beautiful Noise on Disc

Moe Staiano is up on Kickstarter again, this time hoping to commit a very special performance to vinyl.

For years, he’s been building large improv/orchestral pieces for Moekestra, a varying but always large and loud ensemble. The group began more than a decade ago with the epic “Death of a Piano,” and the concept reached a pinnacle in 2010 with “End of an Error,” a piece performed in Wels, Austria, at the Music Unlimited Festival.

For a while, it looked like that might be the final Moekestra appearance, and it certainly would have been a fitting finale. (Moekestra did reconvene this year.)

Finale or not, the fact that the band got an invitation all the way from Austria made this performance a special occasion.

The Kickstarter funding would go towards a vinyl release of those recordings. So, check out the proposal, and help produce a cool musical souvenir if you’re so inclined.

(For details on Staiano’s most recent Kickstarter-funded vinyl, check out Surplus 1980.)

Bay Area Music in Space

Anteater is a local jazz trio who’s sending their debut CD into space.

The CD, which just came out, is going to be included in KEO, a time capsule that’s being sent into earth orbit. Literally anyone is welcome to submit a message for the capsule, which is intended to crash back onto earth 50,000 years from now.

Whether this will actually happen is anybody’s guess. KEO has to get launched first, and the date (according to the Wikipedia link above) keeps getting pushed out, with 2014 being the latest target. KEO seems to be run by an independent organization, as opposed to, say, a government group that would have access to actual rockets and the like, so like I said — whether the ambitious project even happens is anybody’s guess.

More in the here-and-now, you can see Anteater play on Sunday, April 15 in Oakland, in the latest installment of the Actual Jazz Series. The saxophonist in the group is Jacob Zimmerman, who first called the Actual Series to my attention; he’s accompanied by Sam Ospovot on drums and Kim Cass on bass.

You can hear a couple of Anteater tracks on Zimmerman’s site.  The music blends some interesting composed complexity with the open feel of a jazz trio. See for yourself on Sunday, at Actual Cafe. (Remember, they’ve got a weekend no-laptops policy.)

Emily Hay at Blue Whale

Polarity Taskmasters will be playing Saturday, May 12, in Sacramento as part of the In the Flow Festival.

Emily Hay, Brad Dutz, and Motoko Honda, plus Wayne PeetPolarity Taskmasters (self-released, 2011)

The L.A. quartet Polarity Taskmasters is made up of some downright friendly folks, but together, they spin spidery, eerie pieces spurred on by Emily Hay‘s flute playing. Forget the mellow, heartwarming kind of flute; Hay puts the instrument to dark uses, from shrill chirps to unsettling low-register improvising.

Early in March, I saw the group down in Los Angeles at Blue Whale. Hay played with the verve and theatricality she showed with rock-in-opposition bands Motor Totemist Guild and U Totem in the ’90s, gracing many pieces with spooky wordless singing or improvised monologuing. The two sets combined compositions from the other three group members — maybe to balance the five Hay compositions that are on the Polarity Taskmasters album — and a few improvisations called out from the stage.

Brad Dutz (percussion) and Wayne Peet (keyboards) are longtime players on the L.A. scene, as is Hay, so the show had a casual vibe — serious musicians trying out some new material for a test-drive in front of friends. Motoko Honda on piano and electronics added  some of the most polished sounds, including fluid classical elements or a stern, forceful take on jazz ideas. Peet stayed on organ most of the time, building deep psychedelic trenchbeds for the music to build upon.

The show traveled through some dark territories, with one composition calling for Hay to improvise as bleak a narrative as possible (I don’t remember the details, but appropriate amounts of death, destruction, and pestilence got dealt out. This was right around the time I started snacking on the BBQ sliders at the bar — the drinks at Blue Whale are exorbitant, but the food is set at normal appetizer-markup prices — so it was an interesting bit of dinner theater.) Honda’s piano added fluid classical elements or sometimes a stern and forceful take on jazz, and she wired up the Blue Whale piano for some electronic sounds as well.

The music did have its warmer elements. Peet, playing mostly organ and electronic samples, alternated between abstract strangeness and more groove-inviting sounds. Dutz likes to inject a sense of humor into his music in general; one composition of his, played early in the first set, was built around circus/carnival melodies and presented a more jovial side of the band.

The album — credited to Hay, Dutz, and Honda, with Peet as a guest — gives you a good idea what the show was like. The group spins heavy, involved improvisations, sometimes built off of Hay’s compositions, that highlight some of the flute’s darker and more adventurous qualities and also show off Hay’s vocals. Her trained voice can croon and wail hauntingly, or poke and jab sharply.

Concentrating on Dutz and Honda can present a less stern side of the music, particularly with Honda’s classically influenced piano sound. But it’s still many steps removed from traditional jazz. “Entrenched” opens with what sounds like prepared piano, or heavily treated digital piano, and opens from there into Dutz’s army of percussion, from quiet metallic bowls up to a gamelan-like clatter. Hay closes the track with a melodic nonsense patter, holding to the rhythm.

I really like the improvisation “68th Paragraph,” where all four players really get cooking quickly. It’s a fast-floating sound until Honda’s piano gets more percussive, driving some swirling free-jazz flute and some fast metallic percussion. “March of the Id,” one of Hay’s compositions, is built around percussive sounds, too, with piano insistently pecking next to staccato flute. The piece later opens up for some of Hay’s most frenzied improv vocalizing.

The group does make it up to the Bay Area once or twice a year, and they’re worth watching for. As noted up top, they’re coming to Sacramento next month.