Archive for November, 2012

Ben Goldberg Goes Low: Update

I’m double-posting this, just because the original post is so far down the queue by now…

Here’s a sample of Ben Goldberg’s new band, Unfold Ordinary Mind. It’s been on Soundcloud for a month, but I didn’t think to check; thanks to Ben for pointing it out.

The song is apparently called “xcpf.” It’s a nice tune, with Nels Cline in rhythm mode at first and in slinky layered effects mode later. In between, the two saxes and Nels’ guitar all criss-cross with simultaneous melodic soloing while Goldberg, as promised, holds down the bass.

[UPDATE 2/1/13: That track got removed, but here’s another one, called “Stemwinder,” more of a ballad.]

To learn about the band, and see that Soundcloud widget yet again, click here.

November 27, 2012 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Swapping Styles: Paul Motian, Local Jazz

Two upcoming Bay Area concerts will feature people interpreting the music of others in creative ways.

First Thing Of Two: The Makeout Room in San Francisco is hosting what the musicians are calling Festivus 2012, or The Festival of Us — a two-day festival where local jazz bands will pay each other’s music on Sunday, Dec. 2 and Monday, Dec. 3.

I love this idea.  It’s a gig not just for the bands, but also for the compositions. I’ve always thought it a shame that jazz and classical compositions, which can take a lot of work to formulate and execute, don’t get performed or heard to the extent that they could.

Rather than list who’s playing, I’ll tell you whose songs will be played: Beep, Bristle, Aaron Novik, and Wiener Kids on Night 1.  Nice Guy Trio, Ramon and Jessica, Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, and the Darren Johnston Quintet on Night 2.

Second Thing Of Two: The next “X v. Y” concert, where Bay Area musicians interpret the music of past greats, will have a Paul Motian theme. The Michael J. Dale Quartet will play the music of Keith Jarrett’s ’70s quartet that featured Motian. And the Karl Evangelista/Jordan Glenn Group will play a set of Motian’s music. Jordan Glenn’s group, Mindless Thing, will close out the evening.

That’s Weds., Nov. 28 at Berkeley Arts. More specifics here. Sounds like a great chance to revel in some rich jazz of the relatively recent past, seen through a current, youthful lens.

What It All Means:  … to me, anyway: I won’t know all of the compositions being played, so there’s a level of appreciation that will be a little bit out of my reach. No matter. What I said above is true: I love the idea that these compositions will be aired and heard, that they’ll be given life in new hands.

I’m especially hoping to catch at least one of the Festivus shows. Sounds like a nice gathering for local musicians in general. And I think it would be nice, later, to retrace the steps of some of the pieces, or discover others in their real form for the first time.

That goes for the Jarrett and Motian compositions, too. They’re certainly more thoroughly documented, but how often do I get to hear them live? Pretty much never. (Although if I spent more time in mainstream-jazz circles, I might encounter the occasional Motian cover.) The X v. Y exercise is meant to channel non-obvious gems of the jazz heritage through local musicians’ talents. It’s a worthwhile cause.

November 26, 2012 at 11:32 am Leave a comment

Jack of All Noise (NYC Part 4/4)

Pre-show setup. I wasn’t the only one who touched the walls to see if it was real aluminum foil. (Answer: Yep.)

JACK is a new arts space in Brooklyn, an emptied-out storefront innocently tucked away in the hipster enclave of Willambsurg. Here, I got to experience an evening of aggressive noise.

The intention was a CD release show for an improvising trio called Iron Dog, but the theme was aggressive noise, with three like-minded groups playing one long improvisation each.

Mostly geared toward theater, JACK is an eclectic spot. It hosts Tuesday-night readings of French plays translated into English, for instance. And it hosts experimental music, including occasional concerts titled Aural Dystopia — big, noisy improvisation. My friend Dan clued me in about the November installment, and I made plans to go get a taste.

This was the same day as my Central Park tour, so after relocating my things to Brooklyn, where I would spend the night, I took a quick nap before heading into the subway. It wasn’t going to be a complicated trip, but it was still comforting to catch a glimpse of Jim Black — part of the night’s opening act — farther down the subway platform.  At least I’d picked the right train.

I arrived early with the intention of finding an espresso, which turned out to be a little tricky. Old Brooklyn still dominates the neighborhood; Starbucks hasn’t yet overrun the two or three blocks that I explored. I did find a hipster grocery boutique called Brooklyn Victory Garden that gladly sold me a coffee and a dinosaur cookie. You can’t turn down a dinosaur cookie.

The show started with heavy saxophone blasts from Briggan Krauss, a choppy, ragged attack like a helicopter or a half-speed machine gun. That set the tone for the trio Han Blasts Panel, consisting of Krauss (sax, guitar), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), and Jim Black (drums), with all three adding electronics of various shapes.

We got to hear plenty of Black’s offbeat grooves, which start out tight and then unravel, as if slowing down (as I’d recently heard in his Nels Cline duo). Hasselbring sent the trombone through a variety of effects, and when he shut them off, the pure trombone sound suddenly felt bright and fresh.

Black added electronics played off of a pad, including low, floor-rattling bass tones that worked especially well when Krauss was playing electric guitar. Towards the end, Krauss was riding a one-note groove, settling himself as the rhythm section while Hasselbring soloed and Black contributed those bass notes and some electronics crackles. When Krauss broke out of the groove, Black switched immediately back to drums, and the piece exploded into a new life. Great sequence.

Next up was The Home of Easy Credit, the duo of Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen (sax, vocals) and Tom Blancarte (standup electric bass), who performed a set of sustained fury. They opened with Jensen playing smooth, mellifluous runs on sax, but Blancarte put a stop to that with a hard bass attack, using sticks and fingers to pull out loud, sticky notes, as if he were extracting teeth from the instrument.

(Jensen and Blancarte’s Web domains seem to have been replaced by spam sites, so use caution searching for them. Probably better to look them up on Facebook.)

Jensen’s demonic growls were spooky enough, but it’s a moment of overdubbed syllables, a falsetto harpies’ chorus that she built up from loops and echoes, that’s going to turn up in my nightmares.

Their set included some gorgeous cooldown segments (definitely in the minority) and some moments of mood-shifting that showed an attentive listening that’s the key to good improvisation.

Then it was Iron Dog‘s turn, performing their piece in the dark accompanied by abstract video. Sarah Bernstein played violin and recited poetry for certain passages. Stuart Popejoy played electric bass, usually so heavily distorted and pedaled-up as to become a roar of electronics. Andrew Drury at the drum kit was a treat to watch; I loved his jazz-influenced drumming, but he spent a larger amount of time in a soundmaking space, bowing his cymbals and creating other scraped noises.

Bernstein’s poems are written down, but she selects them on the fly, inserting them into the flow as one would a violent cadenza or a steady backing sound. She did this deftly, and the improvisation overall had a strong, episodic feeling, to the point that I thought it might have had a pre-arranged structure. But it was all improvised, with the group collectively steering the shifts in mood and intensity.

It wasn’t always that way, Popejoy told us after the show. It just goes to show what can happen when a band plays together for a long time, developing an instinct for one another’s moves.

The poems became a focal point, but Bernstein’s violin playing was terrific, too. (Turns out she plays in settings like Braxton ensembles.) At one point near the end, she sawed ferociously, fingers ratting up and down the neck, with the other two gradually building up until white-noise intensity. Another moment that stands out in memory is when Popejoy played with a fingerpicked guitar-like serenity, but with the bass producing a sound like shrieking steam.

As for the poems themselves, there was one about conversation being an accident, something you always wish could be undone. Another was a word collage — “didactic,” “auto,” several others — echoed back. Bernstein would repeat the words at a different tempo so that the echoed loop brought up thewords at unpredictable, incongruous moments. Simple idea, but I liked the sound of it.

The new Iron Dog album is called Interactive Album Rock, and it’s good. So, they’re on my map now, as is JACK.

November 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

A Walk Through — Really Through — Central Park (NYC Part 3/4)


Jazz and Colors was an afternoon-long festival held throughout Central Park on Nov. 10, 2012. Thirty jazz groups performed simultaneously, playing the same 18 standards from stations scattered all over the park, mostly out of earshot from one another.

It’s an inspired idea. Think about it: You’re walking through the park, and you encounter jazz at almost every turn. Visitors were handed maps and left to their own devices. No two people would experience the same concert, so the literature said.

It was the first time it had been done, and I had trouble finding out exactly where and who the idea came from. Jason Kao Hwang, for example, told me he’d simply received a call from a local promoter he knew, asking if he could participate.

This is the great thing about a week in New York. It’s not that hard to catch a lucky break and have something special happening during your stay. After seeing a mention in Time Out New York, I knew I had to plan my Saturday around this.

I scouted the schedule for interesting artists and found several, none of them in the same sector of the park. Joel Harrison was playing on the West Side, about in the middle; Marika Hughes was up in the northeast corner, Klezmatics in the northwestern corner. I tried to craft a plan where I wouldn’t end up walking the length of the park, but … well, I ended up walking almost the length of the park. Diagonally.

Approaching from the south, I arbitrarily headed for 6th Avenue and the José Julian Marti Statue, where the Kimberly Thompson Quartet was playing.

They dealt out the music in front of an appreciative crowd. This stop also had a Jazz and Colors information table, where I got a hardcopy map.

I would later learn that some bands got luckier than others in terms of location. Playing essentially at the corner of 59th and 6th, Thompson’s band had lots of foot traffic to build an audience from, especially families with kids. “See that? He’s playing the big bass,” one father said to his little boy. “Why?” the boy asked.

The crowd was delighted with the group’s crisp, straightahead sound. Passers-by could afford some tip-jar generosity, too, in this area unblemished by superstorm Sandy.

Thompson led the band from the drums, and I found myself liking the bass player, which was sensible of me, because he turned out to be Essiet Essiet. Didn’t catch the saxophonist’s name, but he took “Take the A Train” off the rails a bit, casually adding some crazy changes and buzzy sounds. Certainly not plain jazz fare. This was a good start.

After one number, it was obvious I wasn’t going to be able to see more than one or two songs from each band. It was already nearly 12:30, with the festival ending at 4:00. I was going to have to move, and take advantage of the subway.

Figuring I should head to the park’s uppermost corner, at 110th Street, I ducked back into the Columbus Circle station and waited. And waited. Lesson No. 2: I wasn’t going to have time for subways.

Jazz and Colors had wisely included street numbers on their map, so, feeling like I had lost too much time already, I jumped off the subway at 81st Street and worked my way east, inland, towards Joel Harrison‘s spot. To my left, I could hear the sounds of a bright, fast trumpet, really going at it. Sounded exciting. I think this might have been the Mike Mo Quartet. But sticking doggedly to the “keep moving” mantra, I headed to the grounds of Delacorte Theater, where Harrison’s quintet was in the middle of “Autumn Serenade.”

The weather was cold, and clots of snow still dotted some streets. Harrison’s band, like Thompson’s and all the others, was well bundled up but still played solidly. The song ended, and Harrison took time to introduce the band. The trumpeter I liked so much, who had a lot of stage presence as well as trumpet chops, turned out to be Steven Bernstein.  Well, okay then! The drummer turned out to be George Schuller. Awesome! The caliber of the band reflects the level of music that Harrison, a former Bay Area resident, is continuing to produce in NYC.

Sometime around this point, a jogger ran past. Bernstein yelled out a surprised “Hey — Trey!” and the jogger waved back as he ran past. “Hey, wanna sit in?” Harrison yelled after him. And I looked at the long hair bobbing against the back of the jogger’s head, and thought “Trey? Wait, is that –?” … and indeed, it was Trey Anastasio of Phish, getting a workout. Harrison confirmed that a second later: “That was the lead singer from Phish! He apparently doesn’t like jazz,” he joked.

I think the next number was “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which was dealt out in a choppy, funky style. Harrison had mumbled something about getting his Will Bernard on, which was apt: This was a snappy, bluesy music worth relishing.

“Pork Pie Hat” was the seventh of nine songs in the first set, so I was running out of time before the bands’ lunch break. Jason Kao Hwang, who I hadn’t noticed on the schedule earlier, was playing a stone’s throw away, at Seneca Village, so I headed out quickly.

I got there for the last solo of “Blue Trane,” with Hwang on violin enhanced with guitar pedals, creating aggressive melodies and a growly sound that wouldn’t be out of place in a rock band. His trio included an electric piano, completing the fusion-y setting. It’s not a context I’ve heard Hwang in before, and it was an appropriately fun touch. (They apparently took one of the earlier songs “way out,” as Hwang was telling the crowd. Wish I’d seen that, too!)

That ended the set and started a one-hour lunch break, where solo artists stepped in to give each band a breather.

So, I got to talk to Hwang for a few minutes. This was where I found out he didn’t know how Jazz and Colors got organized, either — and that the violin pedals were his compromise in place of an electric violin, because he doesn’t like that electric-violin sound.

Superstorm Sandy did have some collateral effects on the festival. Hwang told me they’d hoped for a full PA system at each station, but that would have required generators, a scarce commodity that particular week. They settled for battery-powered amps instead. I didn’t notice any effect on the sound (but Nate Chinen did.)

Lunch break. Now what?

I had to backtrack southward, to Harrison’s spot, because it was the only restroom within reach. I weaved my way through Summit Rock, to see if Mike Mo’s band was still playing. (Nope, and no solo artist had stepped in yet, either.) Back at the Delacourte, I watched the solo saxophonist who was spelling Harrison’s band.

Indecisive, I waffled. Of the choices on my list, I really didn’t want to miss Marika Hughes, in the northeast quadrant. I could also catch Roy Campbell, farther down the east side, and make an east-side afternoon of it.

But that meant getting to the upper-upper east side in 30 to 45 minutes. I didn’t want to chance the subway. The park was full of walkers and joggers. Surely I wouldn’t be the only person walking several dozen blocks through the park?

I bought a cheap hot dog and an expensive bottle of water, doing my best Kobayashi impression as I started the long trek north and east, around the reservoir. From my left came the sounds of a grand piano, stationed at 90th and 8th for Eric Lewis, now known as ELEW. That would have made quite a picture, but I didn’t have time to stop.

And as I made my way around the enormous reservoir, the character of the park changed. It wasn’t bad, just quiet. The southwest quadrant was dominated by families and little kids. Now I was seeing more joggers, solitary and in isolated duos. A few others were walking, but not in the gawking touristy manner. It was as if I’d found the park’s inner core, the oasis for the natives.

This was doubly enforced when I reached the Conservatory Garden. The near-silence there provides a respite from the New York streets — but I like the New York streets, and the high-society air of the conservatory was just too over-the-top. I exited eastward and finished my walk on 5th Ave. proper, gladly tasting the diesel fumes.

At the conservatory’s north gate, Marika Hughes‘ band, Bottom Heavy, had already finished their first number of the second set. I didn’t know what to expect here, as I mostly know Hughes from experimental/world/song circles (2 Foot Yard, Charming Hostess). Bottom Heavy turned out to be a straight jazz band built of strings: violin, guitar, bass, and Hughes’ cello. The drummer played only cymbal and snare, but he got a lot out of those two implements, especially when it came time for trading fours.

Hughes herself proved to be an adept jazz soloist on cello, and the ensemble overall had a perky sound, like a modernized Hot Club. I wanted to stay, but the rest of the park was calling. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” was coming up in the setlist, and I decided I wanted to see Roy Campbell play it. Weary of tree-lined serenity, I headed back to 5th Ave. and was lucky enough to catch a bus immediately.

I disembarked at 90th Street to see Marc Cary at Engineers’ Gate. He was playing an ocarina — a keyboard small enough to hold in one hand, powered by a breathing tube — accompanied by electric bass and flute. There was something almost primitive about its oboe-like sound, as if we were hearing someone play an exotic reed, infusing it with a sinewy swing.

Remember what I said earlier about good locations? Cary didn’t get one. He and the flautist did a fine job and tried hard to engage the audience. But Engineer’s Gate offered no obvious place for spectators. Most stood on the opposite side of the wide sidewalk, and the division drowned any intimacy. Contrast that with Joel Harrison’s setup: People were just as far away, sitting on nearby rocks, but it felt like one big living room.

Still, Cary’s band kept playing and smiling and having a good time. They made the best of the situation.

Roy Campbell was at the intersection of walkways next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so his was a crowded set. “Peace” came out in bluesy, standard-sounding tones, a more polished rendition than I was expecting but still very lovely. It was a hit.

Campbell himself seemed to be having trouble with the embouchure on the flugelhorn, but his playing was still warm and spirited. The big highlight for me came during Mingus’s “Nostalgia in Times Square” where Campbell’s keyboardist, playing a digital piano, went absolutely nuts with his solo.

It was tempting to seek out one more band, maybe the Mingus Big Band, to hear the finale, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” But I’d walked a lot, and the sun was setting, and I still had to get myself through Times Square and down to Brooklyn with enough energy for even more music that evening. I opted to pack it in and take a bus ride down 5th Ave.

In retrospect, I didn’t hear as much jazz as I thought, and maybe I worked too hard to rech the music I did. Doesn’t matter. I came away feeling happy and fulfilled, feeling like I’d done Jazz and Colors. It was a big experience.

And then I went to Brooklyn.

(Bigger photos follow. Apologies if the formatting goes all wonky on your browser. Click for the big versions.)

Columbus Circle. My starting point.

A gathering for Kris Thompson’s quartet. You can’t see Thompson herself.

There she is! Kris Thompson on drums. Photographer at left; every musical ensemble was photographed continually.

Joel Harrison Quintet. Steven Bernstein at extreme right.

Joel Harrison’s audience. The nearest place to comfortably sit was on a group of rocks. Despite the distance, the audience seemed engaged.

Jazz and Colors had these information tables set up throughout the park. Some weren’t near any of the music spots; this table had a solo trumpeter providing its music.

Joel Harrison’s band’s lunch break.

Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy.

This trombonist, at right, was one of the lunchtime performers. He won his crowd over with some playful antics, then reminded them to go support live music after today.

A young fan makes friends with Marika Hughes’ drummer — and dances. She was really into it, too. The propensity of little kids to dance to any music is a wonderful thing.

Marc Cary at Engineers’ Gate.

Marc Cary’s group was possibly best enjoyed from above.

Roy Campbell belts it out, just behind the Met.

Two little fans tried to slow-dance as Roy Campbell played Ornette Coleman’s “Peace.” They didn’t quite get it right. It was awesome.

A musician *not* involved with Jazz and Colors packs up after a day’s work. I passed him on my walk to the bus stop. A nice reminder that in a city like New York, you’re always surrounded by music, if you’re just willing to go find it.

November 23, 2012 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

Ben Goldberg Goes Low

If you’re bored of the New York installments I’ve been running, take heart. The next one has tons of pictures and a real narrative (maybe). If that doesn’t float your boat, just consider that it’ll all be over soon.

In the meantime: a bit of news that happens to involve Bay Area clarinet hero Ben Goldberg … and the city of New York.

His new superband, Unfold Ordinary Mind, debuts at The Stone on Dec. 5 and will release an album on Goldberg’s label, BAG Productions, in January.

It’s all about the low, low contra-alto clarinet. Here’s the blurb you can see on Goldberg’s site and The Stone’s calendar:

I have been developing my abilities on the E-flat contra-alto clarinet (a weird member of the family, pitched below the bass clarinet) for some years, mostly in my work with the group Tin Hat. Somehow it occurred to me to have a band where I was the bass player, on this instrument.

Of course the group would need two of my tenor saxophone heroes (Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth), a guitar genius (and now certifiable rock star) (Nels Cline), and the deeply tumultuous drummer Ches Smith.

So after finishing up the premiere of my latest giant project, Orphic Machine, in March of 2012, I wrote a bunch of songs and assembled this crew at the Bunker studio in Williamsburg one day in May. We learned the tunes, rehearsed, and recorded them all in just a few hours, and the results are extraordinary—raw, dire, and to the point.

The record will be released by my label, BAG Production Records, in January. The record is called Unfold Ordinary Mind, which is also the name of the band for a few East Coast shows I am happy we will be playing in December.

In addition to the New York visit, Unfold Ordinary Mind will be in Baltimore on Dec. 8 (at The Windup Space) and Philadelphia on Dec. 9 (at Johnny Brenda’s, presented by Ars Nova Workshop).

I think I’ve seen Goldberg perform on the contra-alto; if so, it’s the curled thing with the long stand that’s in the photo, upper left. It certainly does pack a bass wallop.

Here’s a taste of what it can do as a lead instrument, snapping out some deliciously low notes on the track “Epilogue – Bongoloid Lens,” from the album Speech Communication (Tzadik, 2009). Greg Cohen is on bass, Kenny Wolleson on drums:

UPDATE 11/26:  And here’s an Unfold Ordinary Mind track that’s been on Soundcloud a while. Thanks to Ben for pointing it out!

UPDATE 2/1/13:  That particular track got removed, but here’s a different one:

November 22, 2012 at 10:05 am Leave a comment

The Read: Nov. 21, 2012

1. This particular concert is long gone, but this article about the Real Vocal String Quartet is a good read. The group has a new album and concerts scheduled in Berkeley (February 2013) and Arcata (April 2013). More at rvsq.com.

2. A Chicago Reader article about the new Michael Formanek album, Small Places that also mentions his work with Danish pianist Jacob Anderskov.

3. Destination:Out remembers Byard Lancaster and Ted Curson. Those blog entries have some nice sound clips that will be removed fairly soon, so check them out quickly if you missed them.

4. Critic Richard Scheinin’s picks for five jazz CD gifts include some very non-obvious choices, such as the new, archival Sam Rivers album on Pi Recordings; and something new from the 82-year-old Ahmad Jamal. His album pick of the year? Robert Glasper.

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likes Robert Glasper, too.

November 21, 2012 at 7:52 pm Leave a comment

Jim Black’s Mystery Duo (NYC Part 2/4)

The Cornelia Street Cafe is on one of those impossibly small streets in Greenwich Village, and its downstairs music room is equally cramped: a little corridor with tables down the sides. I’ve been to a few places like this in New York. They manage to be small without being intimate.

Still, I won’t complain about a restaurant that regularly supports the creative arts. After years of eyeing the Cornelia Street calendar, I finally managed to get down there to see drummer Jim Black and his Mystery Duo.

The Mystery came from the shadowy nature of Black’s duo partner, an unnamed guitarist who, according to the promo material, played music ranging from– oh, heck, it basically described Nels Cline. Black didn’t really mean for this to be much of a mystery. They did play a completely improvised set, so I suppose there’s mystery in that.

The music was a lot like the Berne Black Cline trio, from their CD on Cryptogramophone, but with added touches: Black adding laptop effects, or Cline bringing out the acoustic guitar.  Cline went through a bag of electronics tricks, creating loops, reverb, echoes, and the occasional backwards playback at high speeds. The loops gave Black a chance to become the soloing instrument over a rhythmic bed, a nice reversal of roles.

Not that Black stuck to rhythms much; the whole point in an improvisational duo is to create a dialogue between soloist peers. I do love it when Black goes into a groove; he keeps it strong and pulsing, with accents that start out in the right place and quickly scatter around the beat. He had quite a few segments like that, but also long spells of creative mayhem.

Overall, it wasn’t your normal dinner jazz, but it also wasn’t as heavy as it could have been. The place was filled, and most people seemed to know what they were getting into.

It occurred to me — and I don’t know why I didn’t think in these terms before — that Black has carved out his own definition of jazz drumming. It’s certainly not the cymbal-tapping rhythm of bebop, and it’s more wide open than even the beat-shifting complexity of Max Roach. It’s more derived from rock drumming, with virtuosity and even some element of restraint. Having his own band has been an important part of that development, because it’s let him set the context for his own playing.

Black announced the end of the set by saying they’d play exactly the same music for the second set. Yeah, it was a joke, but it would be funny if they tried to pull it off.

I was tempted to stick around, but a long day at MOMA (saw “The Scream”!) and some wine with dinner a couple hours earlier were all catching up to me. I ceded my little table to one of the people who’d been SRO’ed in the back. I had a feeling the next day was going to be pretty long, and I was right.

November 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm Leave a comment

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