Surplus 1980 and ReCardiacs Fly: Raucous Musicks Coming Saturday

Cool avant-rock show happening Sat. Feb. 23 at The Starry Plough in Berkeley:

Moe! Staiano‘s Surplus 1980 is the headliner, and he’ll be preceded by ReCardiacs Fly, the Cardiacs tribute band make up of members of Reconnaissance Fly (plus others such as Moe!).

They’ve done a good job using Facebook as a promo hub for the show. Check it out here.

It’s a chance to experience new Surplus 1980 songs and rarely heard Cardiacs complexities, and to rock the Starry Plough (which happens with some regularity, admittedly, but is still a good cause).

Previous posts about the two bands, which have shared a bill before:

Droplets in an Ocean

Ian Carey performs at The Sound Room (2147 Broadway, Oakland) on Thursday, Feb. 21, and anybody who pays the admission gets a free copy of the new CD.

Ian Carey‘s newest album, Roads and Codes, is going to get a lot of attention just for its cover, partly because its cover tells the story of how hard it is for a new jazz album to get attention.

carey-roadsBay Area jazz fans know Carey as a trumpeter and bandleader, assuming they know him at all. But he’s also a graphic designer. So, in toying with drawings to go with Roads and Codes, he developed the idea of making the cover a self-referential story about how to connect good music with an audience.

And Carey’s music is good. It’s got a cozy modern-jazz sound with a lot of tricks under the surface; it’s stuff that would get airplay on a station like KCSM. Listen to the alternate take of a very Joe Henderson-like song, “Nemuri Kyoshiro,” on his blog — a lot of people would enjoy that tune. But how does one get the music into their ears?

I’ve never had to struggle with that question. I’ve only been on the other end, as part of the problem.

As late as 2008, KZSU was still getting hundreds of CDs per week, and while some of that volume has shifted to MP3s, I doubt it’s decreased. We do listen to it all, at least a few seconds of every album. Some of it gets easily rejected outright. Other candidates go straight to the review shelf, destined for airplay.

The agonizing cases are the middle ones, and they make up the majority. Especially in jazz, where getting to the mainstream takes a particular level of dedication and ability. But to add it all means each individual CD gets less attention. Add too much, and it defeats the purpose of even having an airplay rotation (that purpose being attention).

Moreover, my philosophy as jazz director was to tilt the station towards the edgier stuff. Occasional mainstream releases were welcome, but I didn’t want them overwhelming the rotation.

Bottom line: Every week, some reasonably good music had to go.

I’m not asking you to shed tears for my plight or anything, but I have to admit, I found it damn depressing on occasion. Especially at the end of a hard work week, when I was tired and frayed, and suddenly staring at a stack of music that didn’t make the cut. I would know I’d made the right decisions, and I’d still feel bad about it. All these artists fighting to bob above the waves just long enough to be seen — and so many little bits of luck, tiny pushes at the right or wrong times, would make the difference.

Maybe they just lost at the numbers game, or maybe they’d arrived after I’d been overly generous for too many weeks in a row and had to cull the field. Maybe theirs was the sixth album in two weeks to make heavy use of a string quartet, and it was just too much. (Something like that really did happen once.)

I don’t know the full text of the graphic-novel page that comprises the Roads and Codes cover, but I know this: It’s visually catchy. It’s not something that’s been overdone (yet). And based on the hints Carey has dropped on his web page, the story told is actually interesting, topical, and relatable — and a little bit funny. It’s good storytelling that you’d think would click with any jazz fan. On top of that, it will carry a spark of recognition with radio DJs: Ah, yes. I know where he’s coming from. It’s a tough road, trying to get an audience to discover music.

He got my attention, and I have it on good authority that he got KZSU’s as well.

Now, can he get listeners?

Improv — Human and Otherwise

lasqo0950It’s been a couple of weeks since I took in this show at Berkeley Arts Festival: Joe Lasqo playing piano against a computerized improviser, and the improv quartet Gestaltish.

Lasqo’s digital partner was his artificial-intelligence program called Maxxareddu, and there’s a really interesting side-story to that. In July, Maxxareddu will perform in a duet with Maxine, an AI created by Ritwik Banerji of UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). Two machines conversing musically, without human intervention.

That’ll be part of the Outsound New Music Summit (exact schedule still TBA). Lasqo said he’ll be putting a lot of work into Maxxareddu during the next few months.

For the performance I saw, Lasqo let Maxxareddu wander, adding his own piano to the mix. All improv is unpredictable, but the AI element, from a performer’s point of view, seems to be unpredictable in a different way. “Sometimes I find I’m learning from this thing I was trying to teach,” he said, introducing the show.

yayoi-cropThere’s certainly something myserious about the self-recursive nature of Maxxareddu’s learning process. The images Lasqo chose for previewing the show on his blog included a clock curling in on itself and the space-warping, mirrored installations of Kasuma Yayoi.

Being the human in the duo, Lasqo held the right to decide when phase or a piece should end, but that did require the push of a button (removing one hand from the piano keyboard, although he could pretty easily do that without harming the music). Each new set of sounds can take a bit of setup, although that’s not much different from a string player adjusting to a different tuning, as Lasqo pointed out — but it did mean Maxxareddu stuck to one type of sound per piece.

The set started with what might have been the most difficult of the pieces with Maxxareddu’s spouting bubbly, cartoony voices, altered and pitched and mangled. Against that, Lasqo laid down calm piano bits, a zen response. Next, he changed Maxxareddu to a more metallic set of sounds, sometimes like coins being shuffled like cards. The more active setting made it more natural for Lasqo to add occasional bursts of speed and even a fist bump or two on the piano, but his playing always kept a layer of tonality in mind, like a musical grounding for the electronics.

The final piece felt the most natural to my ears, probably because Maxxareddu was holding to calm, chiming notes, providing a tonality for the first time. Eventually, that gave way to a thin electronic hum.

I sometimes had trouble linking the piano and electronics directions in my mind, something that’s often a problem for me in acoustic + laptop situations. And I’m not sure if it’s possible for the audience to “hear” how Maxxareddu makes its decisions. Still, it was a very enjoyable performance, and the whole idea of AI in music intrigues me.


Gestaltish is a quartet that brings a kitchen sink of sonic possibilities to the stage — a fistful of reeds; prepared piano and guitar; vocals; and percussion everywhere.

They tended towards the quieter side of abstract improv but were willing to ride the snatches of melody or rhythm that would evolve, particularly out of the guitar. (Jacob Peck overtly spun some soft jazzy chords at a couple of points.)

Jennifer Wilsey on piano added some melodic structure — or some additional percussion, if it was prepared piano. She also got a lot of mileage and variety out of her snare drum, sometimes filling the drum head with a cymbal for a muted sound that made me think of falling sand.

Most of the focus fell to clarinetist Rachel Condry (also of the SF Chamber Composers Orchestra — see here) and vocalist Gretchen Jude. They would frequently stumble onto dissonant harmonies that they would ride out, letting the long notes hold and vibrate.

gestalten-duo0958They combined for a duo to end the set, a goofy dialogue starting with both of them giving each other a surprised “HI THERE!” expression and then launching into barks and squiggles. It was fun.

Gestaltish’s set took a little while to warm up. On earlier pieces, they seemed to be waiting for each other to start. But the group soon found its groove and settled into some good communication. The second-to-last piece was particularly nice, as they built up an elegy, a soft melodic space starting with slow piano lines. They’d done well with the jumps and swoops of improvising in the rest of the set, but this was an interesting change of pace, one that sprang up organically.

Mainstream Love for The Residents

Two residents with Bimbo’s owner Graziano Cerchiai. Photo by Bimbo’s, lifted from
NBC Bay Area.

NBC Bay Area — the Channel 11 nightly news, basically — gave The Residents some love on Valentine’s Day.

I doubt there was an accompanying TV spot, but the NBC Bay Area web site ran a story that day about The Residents’ “40th Anniversary” tour, noting that no particular milestone of theirs appears to have happened exactly 40 years ago.

Cleverly, that gave writer Nicole Powers a chance to trace the band’s early history, getting more Residenty goodness onto the web site of — I can’t stress this enough — a TV nightly news operation.

Of course, why not give The Residents some ink? Their story is compelling even to the non-converted: A mysterious quartet that doesn’t reveal their identities yet has carved out a 40-plus-year career that’s included an impressive number of live performances. They deserve the publicity.

Find the story at NBC Bay Area, and catch the band’s Wonder of Weird tour at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco on Feb. 24.

Good Music Needs No Apology

An astute caller to my radio show once gently berated me for using words like “crazy” to describe free jazz. Don’t scare people from the music, he said. Treat it all as music.

It was an excellent point, and one I hadn’t considered. In my own library, I do treat it all as music, but in identifying songs on-air, I’d often point out the weird songs, the oddball songs, the crazy songs.

The words were always apt. In my head, they counted as strong praise, and maybe also a little self-deprecation: Yeah, it’s odd stuff. But ain’t it great?

The caller’s point was that in reality, I was helping scare off the closed-minded. What I should have been doing instead was to normalize the music in listeners’ minds. Just call it music. It was a lesson worth remembering.

And maybe it’s one the BBC could learn, because in broadcasting a series on modern classical music, they might be going a bit too far in letting the music’s critics air their opinions. Those opinions don’t dominate The Sound and the Fury, from what I understand, but as Tristan Jakob-Hoff blogs for Lelio, they’re sure to confirm the prejudices of those listeners who aren’t sold on the music.

The BBC’s case is a little different from that of my radio show. In preparing a documentary, it does seem sensible to include those dissenting voices, because the music’s weirdness is rather obvious — heck, that’s why some of us love it. But to leave the music’s difficulty level unexplored would be elephant-in-the-room denial.

No, I think you have to acknowledge the music’s barriers. Some of the criticisms are valid. I can see how Webern can appear “emotionally stingy.” But that’s not the only message you want the audience to hear.

I haven’t seen the episode in question, so I don’t know the context of the complaints that Jakob-Hoff is bringing up. Maybe he was a little hard on the show’s producers — one of whom graciously responded in the comments.

At any rate, I do agree with his conclusions:

Let us stop being shy about our love for classical music. Let’s stop flagellating ourselves for the fact that it is inaccessible to the masses. Let’s stop worrying about whether it is as popular as Jay-Z, because it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it is great, great music –- and worthy of our unapologetic enthusiasm.

It goes for “crazy” jazz and abstract free improv too. Be unafraid to spread good music.

[h/t Christian Carey (@CBCarey) and Jerry Bowles of Sequenza 21 (@sequenza21)]

Passages: Rules of the Road

Didier Petit & Alexandre PierrepontPassages: A Road Record (Rogue Art, 2012)

petit-passagesHere’s an interesting exercise in turning process into a nearly tangible contributor to the art. Cellist Didier Petit teamed up with prominent North American musicians (Marilyn Crispell, Joe Morris, Hamid Drake, Larry Ochs….) in duos and trios, improvising to the sounds of a poem that we don’t get to hear (with the exception of one short passage).

So, Alexandre Pierrepont’s poem, Le Jardin des Cranes, is reduced to context, like the walls or the weather. It’s the backbone of the entire album, but it’s invisible.

Everything about Passages is a discovery, starting with the packaging: It looks like a typical Rogue Art softpack until you tear the plastic off and realize you’re holding a 48-page booklet. The CD itself blends segues many of the music tracks together, often with an interstitial sound from Petit and Pierrepont’s travels (airplanes, street crowds, etc.) — creating a subtly shifting tableaux, like a long drive where you suddenly realize the scenery has changed. The music, excerpted from thirteen studio sessions, is a  mix of lyrical moods and aggressive sparring.

DSCN0852Here’s how it worked. For each session, a selection of the poem was chosen and translated to English. The guest musician(s) and Petit got acquainted, warmed up a little, then improvised — with the poem segment read into their ears multiple times, including one reading by a special guest (William Parker was one) who would read the French passage phonetically. The CD takes a few minutes from each session, with any part of the musical exercise being fair game.

I love the intangible sense that the process is a major component of the art. What’s being presented is not just the music, but it’s surroundings, too.

It’s the same feeling I get from the “Drawing Restraint” series of works by artist Matthew Barney. Not the movie with Björk in it, but the actual drawings that were the earliest stages of the project. He’d set up some ridiculous physical constraint, such as swinging from the ceiling of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and draw. The MOMA example produced pencil drawings on a piece of paper attached to a wall; Barney had to swing over, draw, then swing back. The drawings themselves are a wreck, as you might imagine, and quite uninformative. It’s the whole process that gives the project the sheen of art.

(This reminds me that I’ve never written up Jean Derome’s album, Le Magasin Du Tissu, a fun application of random processes.)

The music is not a wreck. It’s very good. There’s even a trajectory: It starts in stern tones with Andrea Parkins and Gerald Cleaver, followed by Chicago sessions that are quite sublime, such as the gentle, jazzy groove of Nicole Mitchell’s flute backed by Petit’s cello and singing. His piece with drummers Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang is like an ominous little tribal dance, full of tension and rhythm, topped off by some gruff vocal howling by Petit.

François Houle, on clarinet, gets to represent Canada during the L.A. sessions. He’s got an extended dialogue with Petit that floats from lyrical tones to a choppy call-and-response. Bay Area hero Larry Ochs closes out the album with a session that includes the one time we get to hear the poem.

The booklet is more than liner notes; it’s a template and a road journal. It includes a poetic textual “map” of the 13 studio sessions, the entirety of Pierrepont’s poem, and an explanation of the whole project, written by Yves Citton. And photos, of course, taken during Petit and Pierrepont’s sojourn from Woodstock to New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles.

Passages is a wonderful pack of surprises and a good argument as to why the CD can still have a place in the digital world.