Bennett created this ensemble in the late ’90s, combining abstractly scored music with open-ended improvisation. “Vapor trails of structure” is how pianist Joe Lasqo words it in his blog — such a delicious turn of phrase.
The album is meant to be self-titled, but I’ve given the artist credit to Bennett mainly out of habit. For 12 years, I’ve thought of this CD as being his creation — what’s in play are his band and his scores, after all. It’s a mostly acoustic ensemble, with the “electro” part being fed by John Finkbeiner’s guitar.
The band will feature six players, with one violin and one cello against three horns (Bennett on sax, Darren Johnston on trumpet, Rob Ewing on trombone) and Lasqo’s piano. One pleasant surprise is that Jeff Hobbs (violin) will be returning; other than Bennett, he’s the only holdover from the 2000 version of the band.
Not that the band requires the same people every time. I just like that little bit of continuity.
But of course, the music really comes down to the choices and abilities of the musicians. Group improvising is an exercise in collaboration and trust, musicians leading one another around blind corners. They don’t have a map, but the good ones know how to blaze a trail.
The album is strings-heavy compared with what you’ll hear Saturday. Two violins and two cellos keep the sound alternating between classical- and jazz-influenced moments: classical, when the strings take over and the woodwinds (Bennett or John Finkbeiner) strike in small curls; jazzy, when it’s just Bennett and a small fraction of the ensemble.
More specifically: The strings and Bennett’s sax (actually it sounds like a bassoon) quietly bubble in an orchestra-tuning-up feel near the end of the piece titled “C.” That’s followed on the album by the introduction to “D”: a cool jazz bassline and some sax fluttering, backed by small plucking and sloping sounds from the strings.
In case I’m making this all sound too cerebral, there’s a passage — I think on the track titled “E” — with Bennett going free-jazz wild with conch-shell-like calls and raspy screams on saxophone against the calmer backing of accordion and tuba. The closing track, “B,” ends with Bennett soloing aganinst Finkbeiner’s choppy electric guitar.
Hear the album for yourself at empto.bandcamp.com. Then you can go see the 2012 edition tonight.
It was just a half-hour show, but hey, it’s not as if Surplus 1980 plays all the time, and I’ve been wanting an excuse to spend some time at Amoeba …
Moe Staiano‘s rock band got the stage at Amoeba Berkeley on Sunday afternoon, playing tracks from the album, Relapse in Response — plus one new song that’s earmarked for a 10″ vinyl release Moe is considering.
Neither the stage, nor the crowd, nor the pay (Amoeba gift certificates) are large, but I’ve always thought in-store record shows were a neat “community” thing to do, both for the stores and the musicians. Come to think of it, I seem to remember Moe doing a solo performance at Radio Free Records, a short-lived store in a strip mall down here in Campbell, Calif.
Anyway, Surplus 1980 this time had five members: Moe, Bill Wolter, and Thomas Scandura (the guitarist and drummer I’d seen at the band’s Starry Plough show) an added guitarist (a woman whose name I didn’t catch, sorry!), and Vicki Grossi on bass (who appears on the Relapse album).
It was a nice set of pounding, complex rock. See below for a few pictures — at angles that obscure Grossi and Scandura, unfortunately. And from Moe’s Soundcloud page, here’s one track earmarked for that 10″.
The set covered a lot of the album, including some of my favorite tracks — “Let’s Put Another One There,” the instrumental title track (with guitars taking over the Morse-code horn line), the amusing “M.E.S. Shoe Contact,” and the Diagram Brothers cover “Aggravation.”
Two interesting shows are going to compete for your attention this Wednesday night, July 25.
As I’ve said before, the situation is frustrating for the artists, but the rest of us can feel lucky to live in a place where that many cultural options can present themselves.
First, Karl Evangelista (of Grex and numerous other bands) will present his latest idea for a concert series. Named X v. Y (“v” for “versus”), the series assigns a musician the task of providing original music and, separately, interpreting the music of a past jazz master. “Pitting the hearts and minds of Bay Area musicians against the legacies of legends,” is how the official blurb puts it. Specifics:
For his inaugural edition, Karl will be tackling the ideas and imposing legacy of Ornette Coleman. Karl has spent months of looking at, transcribing, and analyzing Ornette recordings of all eras (and even music of his associates—Old and New Dreams, etc.) in the hopes of getting inside both his compositions and his theoretical approach. The selections for this concert are off the beaten path, and Karl has asked some of his closest associates to join in for three short sets:
Set 1: Broken Shadows (the songs of/with Ornette Coleman)
w/Caitlin Moe-vocals, Zeina Nasr-vocals, Crystal Pascucci-cello, Jason Hoopes-bass, Jordan Glenn-drums
Set 2: Grex (doing your own thing with harmolodics)
w/Rei Scampavia Evangelista-keys, vocals, Robert Lopez-drums
Set 3: Moon Inhabitants (harmolodic shredding)
w/Aram Shelton-alto sax, Scott Brown-bass, Jon Arkin-drums
The other show features saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe from Sweden, a frequent visitor to the Bay Area.
One set will feature her with fellow saxophonist Phillip Greenlief. Official blurb:
These two saxophonists and veteran improvisers have been working together on and off over the past decade and will bring lots of sonic and melodic delight in their set of improvisations.
The second is a reconvening of the CBD Trio: Vinkeloe on sax, Chris Brown on piano, and Donald Robinson on drums. I remember really enjoying the sublime sound of their CD, Suspension (Rastascan, 2006). “Brown plays acoustic piano, but taps his electronics to tweak the sound and direction of the entire group in an interesting direction. There is a lot of variation within a single track, from serene meditations to full group blowouts,” I wrote at the time.
What I recall from vague memory is actually something between those extremes: flowing improvisations kept afloat by Robinson’s light, quick drumming, with the piano setting the foundation.
Of course, the music will be improvised, so it could go in any direction. Just be aware these folks have played together enough to have coalesced as a group. One final official blurb:
Come hear this long-standing trio whose history includes an acclaimed recording and an international touring schedule. Biggi Vinkeloe, Chris Brown and Donald Robinson, all master improvisers, fulfill the promise of free jazz without the burden of excess.
Biggi Vinkeloe and friends will be at Berkeley Arts, starting at 8:00 p.m.
Amar Chaudhary — @catsynth on Twitter and publisher of the Catsynth blog — attended the Outsound nights that were devoted to poetry and to jazz-influenced improvising.
The “Sonic Poetry” program naturally featured a few poets with one or two musical improvisers, small settings meant to cede center stage to the words. I’d already mentioned Carla Harryman‘s set with Jon Raskin, who played sax and helped recite some of the poems; they were joined by Gino Robair, playing prepared piano among other things. Read the full Catsynth review of the three poetic acts (the others being rAmu Aki of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and Ronald Sauer, part of the North Beach crew) here.
Amar might also have a review of the free-jazz night (titled “Fire and Energy“) posted soon. He was certainly there, posting some updates and photos on Twitter.
I really wish I could have made it to that show. A few of the @catsynth comments that I found particularly intriguing:
“I appreciate hearing solo performances. Jack Wright‘s featured a lot of timbres an techniques in a compact space.”
“Now that was a real jazz set fron Dave Bryant. All the rhythms chords and cadences. and bass.”
Hopefully, when you click the video below, it will have more than “1” views.
It’s bran(…)pos, testing out a (relatively) newly acquired synthesizer.
I happened to be on Twitter right after he linked to the video, so I checked it out. I knew bran back when he was “The Bran (Another Plight of Medics) POS,” creating noise pieces from distorted samples of his screaming voice. Cool stuff.
Anyway, I happened to be the first person to view the video. Not that that matters now, but hey, I got to feel special for a few minutes. And I liked the video — with the self-run camera work, it’s like a little mini-tour of the synthesizer. Hopefully, it’ll keep you noisily entertained for a few minutes.
As for bran(…)pos’ voice work, you can check out soundcrack.net, and you can see him perform in the August 31 installment of Pamela Z’s ROOM series. That show will focus on vocal artists.
Specifically, we got exposed to a graphical score, a computer-driven (yet acoustically-produced) backdrop for improvisation, and a highly structured piece that still had high degrees of freedom.
(For more about the Summit in general, see here, or read this excellent overview at the Fenderhardt blog.)
Christina Stanley presented two graphical scores: oil paintings meant to be interpreted by string players. Before the concert, she explained that the players are given instructions. For “Put It On,” the piece presented first, they start at the central confluence (that spot to the right and below center, where the spokes converge, I think) and work their way outward and then around the edges — but the direction and speed of motion are their choice. Different shapes represent different types of playing, small cells to be linked together. (You can see the painting on Stanley’s web site and read more about her compositions in this interview on Sequenza 21.)
That piece got performed by the Skadi Quartet, with Stanley at first violin. It was an active piece, spiky and often aggressive but also featuring some airy slow bowing. The execution was a lot more organized than I’d expected. The players started with two quick notes, directed by Stanley, and as the piece progressed, Stanley would cue them into speeding up or slowing to a whisper. They also stopped at Stanley’s direction (I’d been wondering how a piece like this would end.)
Her second piece, for a violin/cello duet, was more mellifluous, and in fact, the score looked calmer, with flowing squggles surrounding a central unit of musical shapes, the way a moat surrounds a castle. The sound was sometimes delicate, sometimes rich in melody. It was a lovely piece.
Matthew Goodheart performed a solo piece consisting of cymbals and gongs spread around the edges of the audience space, with little buzzers (computer speakers?) attached to the backs. These were activated by a computer program, creating rattling or buzzing sounds, or mimicking the small taps of a drum stick.
The piece started with whispery tones from the cymbals, eventually building to louder sounds. Goodheart’s piano included some strident playing, full of big, stiff chords to stand up to the clamor of metal in the air. As with any installation piece, the sound depended on where you sat; I couldn’t her the gong in the balcony, but I got an earful of the cymbal in the front row (the one at right).
The sound never got overwhelming, and the sensation of cymbals pinging and rattling behind me was interesting, reminiscent of the surroundsound experience at the SF Tape Music Festival.
Overall, Goodheart’s piece was slow-moving yet created a feeling of constant motion, new sounds arriving all the time. Goodheart himself was hammering and bold at the piano keys, and he also provided some quieter and creaking sounds by working directly with the piano strings.
The piece ended with Goodheart hammering one piano note very fast, over and over, building up that tone in our heads and in the air. And when he stopped, I thought I could faintly hear the metal instruments shimmering in resonance. Whether it was there or not, it was a good effect.
John Shiurba‘s 9:9 was the most ambitious of the pieces, a 65-minute composition in nine segments, performed by a nine-piece ensemble.
The sound was a cross between modern classical music and pure improvisation, and in fact, the score opened many places for improvising, including some instructions that came in the form of pictures or diagrams without explanation. At the same time, Shiurba conducted with active zeal, using notecards to cue certain players to play particular notes or rhythms.
After the first few minutes, the structure started becoming clear. Each of the nine segments consisted of:
One soloist, who I think improvised throughout, dramatically standing out from the crowd at first and then blending into the mood of the piece. Each player got a turn being soloist.
Little songs, lyrics to which were cryptograms taken from The New York Times. One female vocalist (Hadley McCarroll) sang the corny English solution, while the other (Polly Moller) sang the encrypted part phonetically. The songs were entirely scored for both singers and all the instruments, and the melody was that cross-tonal, spiky sound of contemporary classical song.
Pre-determined phrases that two or three players performed on the side, almost in unison but not necessarily. Sometimes these consisted of fragments of the songs.
Little rhythms that other side players would create on cue. The rhythm was set, but the exact notes weren’t.
Individual notes: small glancing blows. Shiurba used the notecards to execute these, pointing to a couple of players to hit the note, then stop.
The last three elements would be woven throughout the soloing part, but the songs stood by themselves, with all nine players included in the score.
(Shiurba explains 9:9 in more detail in this interview with Polly Moller, published on Sequenza 21.)
There was a lot to take in — lots of moods, lots of soloing styles, and of course the ear-deciphering of trying to make out the cryptogram lyrics. The English part was easy to pick out of the mix; the encrypted side, less so, which shouldn’t be surprising.
Some standout moments from a few segments:
Gino Robair, who had started the piece with a bit of solo percussion, also took the last solo — lots of fun pattering (pots and metal bowls placed on a towel, I think).
The bass segment, led by Scott Walton, got immense and droney, propelled by his bowing but also by the choices of the rest of the ensemble.
Ava Mendoza played acoustic guitar, turning in an engaging and tangy solo with lots of offbeat choices in the melody. I liked it a lot.
McCarroll was the one performer I’d never seen before. She could certainly belt out the soprano (mezzo-soprano?) notes, but she also proved to be really good on the piano. Her solo was fierce and thundering.
Matt Ingalls, on bass clarinet, started off in a slow, patient mode, and the music around him continued with that glacial mood as he shifted gears into loud squeaks and ungodly howls.
The Summit ends tonight (Saturday) with “Fire and Energy,” a program of jazz-inspired music from Jack Wright (who’ll be very non-jazzy), Dave Bryant, Vinny Golia, and Tony Passarelli. Location is 544 Capp St., near 20th, in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Raskin and Harryman appear Weds., July 18, at the Outsound New Music Summit, and they’ve got a KFJC appearance Sunday night, July 15. Details below.
Jon Raskin and Carla Harryman — Open Box (Tzadik, 2012)
For Open Box, Jon Raskin wrote music to frame the poems of Carla Harryman. It sounds artsy and serious, but the album starts with a sucker punch: the searing metal of electric guitars.
That track, “Fish Speech,” isn’t typical of the rest of the album, but it serves to upend your expectations, setting you up for a variety of music and moods.
You’d expect Raskin, the “R” in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, to back Harryman’s abstract word collages with equally abstract music, maybe something improvised or driven by a graphical score. And you’d be right — but he applies other ideas as well, putting to work different combinations of Bay Area and former Bay Area musicians in a total project that took three years to complete.
“Fish Speech” dangles sharp-edged guitar and bass over bleak verbal images of the nothingness before time. The words alternate between power and whimsy. (“There were no stories or bones … no lizards, pelicans, or fish.”) But the music sticks to the “power” side, conjuring an empty, chthonic universe — a “nothingness” that’s writhing and explosive, like the near-infinite heat in the microseconds following the Big Bang.
That piece gets an extra edge early on, when the vocals shift from Aurora Josephson’s silkiness to a harsher voice that I’m guessing is Roham Sheikhani. His accented, staggering voice arrives stern and biting: “Silence was neither dominant nor peaceful nor silent. There was no sound or smell.”
But the album spends longer stretches on improvised music — a suitable backing to the work of Carla Harryman, a teacher at Eastern Michigan University and Bard College whose work is categorized with avant-garde language poetry.
Harryman’s work is indirect, as you’d expect. We’ve all been exposed to that kind of poetry, but in listening to Open Box, I tried to pay particular attention to the words. Sometimes, I tried immersing myself in the language, the specific syntax; other times, I could let the words flow through my ears, like a kind of music, a language not intended for directly semantic interpretation.
The two-part title track is built of fragmented and purposefully incongruous phrases, like the framework of a framework, delivered in plain-fact style by Raskin and Harryman. Ideas appear in long expositions such as: “The psyche of the poet exceeds the poem without the poem disappearing into an exterior world in which the poem cannot survive / The poem is therefore a representation of an edge performed in other worlds, not this / Once /”
It’s during the closing minutes of Part 2 that Raskin and Harryman diverge, reaching completely separate parts simultaneously. Even with their voices reading calmly, the tension wells up quickly as their non-thematic lines shove one another out of the way. I found my ears hearing one, then the other, as if the words were two colors of ribbon spiraling in front of me. It’s a good effect, creating a coda without having to superficially punch up the music.
The music follows a similar path, free improvisation in small motions, like construction activity going on in the background: sparse, rattly sounds from percussion, guitar, and electronics, and the occasional sweetness of Raskin’s sax or, in Part 2, the crinkle of Liz Allbee’s trumpet.
I find myself being drawn back to “A Sun and Five Decompositions,” which somehow feels like more of a narrative flow, maybe because of the balletic and criss-crossing among the three speakers (Josephson, Sheikhani, and Harryman) and the music’s interplay with the words. Blips of sax, guitar, and percussion build and release tension in time with the moods of the intertwined spoken parts — three speakers calling-and-responding, sometimes repeating one another’s phrases or meeting in unison briefly. You get the sense of the voices having been orchestrated, a foreground scored to sit with the musical improvising.
It’s serious, and yet … there’s a passage where “Don’t be silly!” appears right after someone says “potato head.” Josephson does a particularly good job changing voices throughout the piece, ranging from poetic seriousness to flighty dingbat.
But I’d started off talking about variety: “JS Active Meme” closes the album with blistering guitars, a psychedelic sunburst. “Song for Asa” is an actual song, crooned by Aurora Josephson against long tones of sax, then it turns into a quietly bubbling improvisation, with small, popping vocalizations and crackling electronics sounds. The singing, coming up in the middle of the album is an odd sensation after an half our or so of spoken word.
“Ascension” has become a signature piece for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, or at least a favored experiment-in-progress. They’ve performed the album-length Coltrane epic at least seven times, usually under the auspices of “OrkestROVA,” where the quartet gets augmented with other great musicians. They’ve recorded it twice, once in acoustic form (on Black Saint, 1998) and later — with Nels Cline and others on hand — in a searing reading called “Electric Ascension” (on Atavistic, 2005).
They’d like to document the next performance of “Electric Ascension” on video, and there’s a Kickstarter fund underway to help with the substantial costs.
The performance, at September’s Guelph Jazz Festival (an hour west of Toronto), will feature a stellar crew of current and former Bay Area musicians, most (if not all) of whom have played a ROVA “Ascension” before. Special guests augmenting the band will include cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Hamid Drake. The “electric” part will be provided by Nels Cline (guitar), Fred Frith (bass), and Ikue Mori and Chris Brown (electronics).
That performance will happen regardless. The Kickstarter money would fund a highly professional filming of the concert, capturing this epic work in its entirety, with a visual scope to go along with the audio documents of the past. As ROVA’s Kickstarter pitch puts it, “a five-camera, high quality video of Electric Ascension, performed in its entirety, will be an unprecedented musical document.”
There’s more: The concert footage would punctuate Cleaning the Mirror, a documentary about the evolution of “Electric Ascension.” The film, four years in the making, follows the musicians as they develop “Electric Ascension” and explore their relationships with Coltrane’s music and this epic piece.
The original Ascension is probably familiar to anybody who’s curious enough to find this blog. The idea is deceptively simple: a majestic theme, played by the band, followed by a succession of solos, with composed or pre-arranged material appearing between solos.
It’s not just a 50-minute blowout. In past ROVA shows, a band leader used hand cues to indicate which pre-written segment would emerge next, and to trigger a soloing section or a large-group attack. (Coltrane apparently used hand cues as well, according to the liner notes to the Black Saint album.) The music is big, aggressive and mighty, but it adheres to a plan. The concert audience gets a taste of that plan, and now a video audience would be able to as well.
(There’s also the fact that the band playing “Ascension” has to be big. As I’d remarked before, the song takes on a different vibe when played by a smaller group.)
I don’t think it’s out of character with Coltrane’s late period to consider “Ascension” to be a live quest for a truth. It’s a spirit rally, a “seance,” as one review put it. That’s what makes the piece worth revisiting, and it’s what makes the process worth documenting.
Plenty of worthy concerts, CDs, and tours are seeking funds on Kickstarter. This film is a little different — more ambitious, more historic. Let’s help make it happen.
Two video interviews related to the 2012 Summit are posted on OutSound’s YouTube page. That same page has the archive of past videos — including the 2011 performance I attended and past interviews.
Here’s one with violinist Christina Stanley, who will be leading a string quartet and string duo, each performing her graphical scores. (Thursday, July 19.) Her experience with viola gets mentioned. She starts discussing the graphical scores after 16:16.
Benjamin Ethan Tinker will be part of the “Thwak! Bome! Chime!” program on Friday, July 20.
Very detailed descriptions of the entire Summit program are available at outsound.org/summit/12/schedule_details12.html. You get a lot more information than is normally provided for a concert or festival, with sound samples, to boot. It’s worth spending some time there.