François Houle & Zachary Watkins


Earlier in March, I caught François Houle’s show at the Center for New Music, the new venue just north of Market Street in San Francisco. It’s an interesting place, existing as an office/administrative space for musicians during the day, then opening its doors for occasional evening concerts.

DSCN1596Houle’s “Aerials” is a program of clarinet improvising that’s keyed off of responding to the surrounding space. He started by standing next to CNM’s elegant piano, which is shiny and black and — keyless. Yes, CNM is new, and its piano is still being assembled.

But the strings are there, and Houle’s first piece had him blasting notes into the piano, with mics helping to pick up the reverb. He did this with buzzing sounds and clarinet harmonics as well, getting that “big echoey chapel” effect going in CNM’s relatively small music space DSCN1599(really the office’s common area). It’s an idea he used on the Aerials album as well, and while the idea has certainly been used, it’s still a valid way to wrest some additional sounds out of a horn.

Part of the Aerials philisophy is to mess with all the clarinet’s sonic possibilities. Houle took the instrument apart, playing without a mouthpiece or playing just the mouthpiece.  Houle kept to a melodic form, though, often tussling wtih modern-classical ideas. He would settle on pretty melodies, using pedals to feed them back into harmonized loops. His two mid-length improvisations featured long stretches of circular breathing, at once point settling into quick arpeggios played in buzzy multiphonics, like Philip Glass after a bender.

The second set had Houle working with the Zachary Watkins’ electronics.  Watkins started it off in noisy territory, and Houle followed suit, clacking the clarinet DSCN1605 mouthpiece against its keys for a sound that, on a recording, might actually be mistaken for more electronics.

But it was when Houle drifted to tonal melodies that things got really good. At one point, Houle’s playing was mimicked by a low buzzing tone, while Watkins also replayed slices of Houle’s previous playing. The latter created a shifting, chirping, subtly squeaking subtext, a sound bed for Houle’s melodies. Houle explored lots of marvellous and pretty scales, little gems of melody fed back into the system.

Houle’s improvising is fluid and lyrical, full of creative twists. After having heard his music in mostly composed contexts, it was a pleasure to see him roam in an unbounded environment.


See also: Aerial Clarinet

Tyshawn Sorey on Shuffle

So, I was listening to Tyshawn Sorey‘s Oblique I (Pi Recordings, 2011) on shuffle play — a tool I’ll often use when I don’t have more than 10 or 15 minutes to listen to music.

tyshawn-obliqueTracks 10 (titled “Thirty-Six”) and 8 (titled “Twenty-Five”) came up first. They happen to be the only two where John Escreet plays Fender Rhodes electric piano rather than acoustic piano, and they follow a similarly sparse strategy.

The transition between them was pretty cool. I’ve edited it into the soundbite below. Keep in mind that it’s the sound of “Thirty-Six” winding down followed by “Twenty-Five” making its initial explorations. It gets pretty quiet:

Well, I thought it sounded cool, anyway. Maybe you had to be there.

Closup of Oblique I cover, just becauseNow, I don’t know if the two compositions would truly work as a suite. I suppose a lot of suites operate in halves, as sides of a coin, but having gone back and listened to the combined 15 minutes again, and when you do that while thinking of the pieces as “matched,” the cohesion isn’t there.

“Twenty-five” is considerably slower and has different aims: It’s about a languid atmosphere, whereas “Thirty-Six,” for all its pensive qualities, keeps one corner reserved for flat-out blowing. “Thirty-Six” starts with Rhodes floating up some chords against Sorey’s drumming but then the Rhodes springs into in an attack-mode solo as Sorey fires sparks at the kit. Loren Stillman’s alto sax appears after about four minutes, adding new color with the sudden splash of dye thrown into water.

These are the only two tracks with Rhodes, so they needed to be spaced apart on the album. And I think they’re well served by being later tracks, due to their deliberate pacing and their long stretches without the sax/guitar front line.

To state an old lesson in an old-fashioned way, you make some fun discoveries when you take time to listen to Side 2.

If you’re wondering about “Side 1,” meaning the complex and, yes, oblique composing and the drum bombardment you’d expect from Sorey, Oblique I does deliver. Not every track carries the battle-stations urgency of “Twenty,” which opens the album…

… but you still get plenty of dynamic interplay and soloing. The modern and challenging compositional elements are sometimes overt (horn/guitar unison lines) or latent (you get the feeling something organized is happening but can’t pinpoint it).

It’s thoughtful music that still gives the players a chance to howl. Tints of Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton — all namechecked in Sorey’s liner-notes essay — are evident. He also lists Bartok, Schoenberg and Stockhausen as influences.

Here’s a beefy compositional segment from the piece, “Forty.”


Weekend of the 23rd: Vexations, Sonny Sharrock, Switchboard Music, Martha & Monica

Vexations tres lentSomewhere in San Francisco right now, someone is playing Erik Satie’s “Vexations.”

The 840-cycle piece started at Berkeley Arts in the afternoon of March 23 and is continuing until noon Sunday, March 24. It’s organized by Joe Lasqo, who organizes a previous “Vexations” in September that was “straight,” with musicians at the piano reading notes on paper — but even that had its twists and variations, he says. This time, the artists are playing a variety of instruments, including some that don’t play musical notes. (Berkeley Arts: 2133 University Ave., Berkeley.)

There’s also a fundraiser for the SF Offside festival. The show should be starting right about now — it’s the Sonny Sharrock Experience, a quartet that includes Offside co-organizer Alex Pinto playing the all-important guitar part as they cover Sharrock’s music (and McCoy Tyner’s, and Alice & John Coltrane’s). So, you could catch that show (Revolution Cafe: 3248 22nd St., San Francisco) then cross the Bay to camp at Berkeley Arts for a night of “Vexations.”

Switchboard 2013Then, there’s the Switchboard Music Festival — an eight-hour celebration of creative, modern, quasi-classical music presented with a dynamic, almost indie-rock vibe. That starts at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, at Brava Theater (2781 24th St., San Francisco).

martha&monicaIf you got restless just before 4:00, you could leave that venue (possibly missing part of Ava Mendoza’s Unnatural Ways’ set, which would be a tough call) to see martha & monica, the piano/cello duet, perform the world premiere of a piece by Matt Ingalls (of the sfSound troupe) and pieces by Elliott Carter and Dmitri Shostakovich. (Old First Church: 1751 Sacramento St., San Francisco).

Then you could head back to the Brava Theater for the concluding hours of the Switchboard Festival. Could you take the bus there and back! Sure! I think. (My Muni mojo is about a decade old.)

Someday, someone is going to look back at this as one hell of a musical weekend. Why should it be you?

Vijay Iyer Plays Up a Storm

… Actually, it was Tyshawn Sorey (drums) brewing up a lot of the big, big sound Friday night at San Jose’s Theater on San Pedro Square. But Stephan Crump (bass) and Vijay Iyer (piano) did their parts too.

crump-soreyI went with my daughter, her first-ever jazz show. Rather than overexplain the music to her (heads, solos, the long stretches of improvising), I gave her only one bit of advice: If you find yourself getting bored, start watching the drummer. I’ve found the drums to be the most surprising and educational instrument when it comes to the visual aspect of a music show. You can see what the drummer is doing (as opposed to piano, depending on your angle) and understand it (as opposed to saxophone, which is still a mystery to me) — and for the non-musician, the amount of stuff going on behind that kit is astounding.

So, I told her to watch the drummer. Thing is, it hadn’t occurred to me that the drummer was going to be Tyshawn Sorey. Whoa.

Sorey is basically the drummer from The Matrix. He’s big and strong and can produce a deafening sound, but he’s also impossibly fast. His solos are breathtaking, but what’s even more impressive is when he pours it on in his comping, like hyperkinetic techno percussion gone organic. In Friday’s show, I loved the polyrhythms that built up, with Sorey overlaying his own geometry onto whatever Iyer and Crump were doing, or vice versa. There’s a wealth of math behind all that clatter.

I’d had reservations about my daughter’s reaction to the long song times, but it turned out she had a great time, primarily because of Sorey.

iyerI don’t want to sell Crump short, either. He got some good tone out of some kind of dwarf bass, and his playing was the rich, complex brew that Iyer’s music demands. A couple of quieter moments laying down glissandos stood out in my head, and his solos were dynamic and captivating.

As for Iyer’s actual music, it’s gotten more melodic since his days (and Sorey’s) with the trio Fieldwork, but a lot of that stern steel-and-glass sound emerges in their live performance, as Iyer’s more tumultuous side gets freer reign. Live trio shows of any kind also let the bass and drums stand out more, and Crump and Sorey certainly took advantage of that, making for a forceful, dynamic show.

The trio will be playing again Saturday night, March 16, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

Aerial Clarinet

François HouleAerials (Drip Audio, 2006)

houle-aerialsClarinetist François Houle will be down from Vancouver on Thursday, March 14, to perform “Aerials” at the Center for New Music (San Francisco). The solo improvised performance should be a nice chance to hear the clarinet fill the room and explore the acoustics of the Center. It’ll be followed by a duet where Zachary Watkins processes and feeds back the sound, turning Houle’s clarinet into an ensemble.

“Aerials” is not a set of specific songs, but an improvisational project Houle developed during a five-week residency in Italy, after nurturing the idea for years.

Houle explains more in this All About Jazz article from 2006. Aerials is a foil to Double Entendre, the album where Houle performs new-classical works solo with the aid of overdubs. (I gave it a mention in 2011.) For Aerials, his inspiration was John Carter, and his goal was to “make a strong musical statement.”

That, he did. Aerials could have been an exploration of every-sound-possible, but Houle edited his explorations to give the album a pervasive mood. It’s celebrates the room’s reverb but also its stillness; it’s an inviting sound that doesn’t let the air drag, even in the most reflective pieces.

“Liege” has the sound of a Native American flute, yet it wiggles and wanders, as if the clarinet were taking a drink. The last melody in this sample is the motif with which Houle started the piece; he returns to it, turning “Liege” into a kind of improvised song.

“Tuilerie” gets into a varied wandering, reminiscent of Evan Parker’s long sax solos of circular breathing. It’s rich in detail, with Houle jumping all over the clarinet’s range.

On the more sad and melodic side, “Pour Sidney” flows like a film noir ballad.

Read more about Aerials — the album and the process behind it — at Misterioso.

Endangered Blood Rides Again

Endangered BloodWork Your Magic (Skirl, 2013)

endangered-magicThe out-jazz supergroup Endangered Blood is no less adventurous on their second album, but they’ve added more nods to conventional jazz this time.

The first album did have “Epistrophy,” but it was a version darkened by crinkly bass clarinet. Work Your Magic has “Argento,” a breezy swing tune with Jim Black’s bustling racket going on behind the straight-faced horns. “Blues in C-Flat Minor” really is a blues, albeit in 7/8 time and propelled by some bubbly, unconventional drumming.

And “LA#5,” apparently a nod to Lester Young, is a sweet ballad. Black goes into quieter mode for this one, using brushes for a more subdued style (as on his piano album, Somatic). Trevor Dunn gets a a nice bass solo before Chris Speed’s tenor sax takes over with his tart sound.

Most of Speed’s compositions reach further afield than that, though. Manzanita” starts with written counterpoint lines for alto sax and clarinet, sometimes with one player pulsing one note while the other one weaves in and out of the fabric. It’s a summertime cerebral jazz, played out politely until the group careens into speedier form. “Kaffibarinn,” named for an Icelandic bar, uses light Glassian arpeggios and a heavy melody of stern chamber music.

It’s all executed well, as you’d expect from these guys. Speed (tenor sax/clarinet) and Jim Black (drums) have been together since the ’90s in groups like Human Feel and Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. Oscar Noriega (alto sax/bass clarinet) has been on the post-downtown scene almost as long, and he’s most recently gotten airtime as a key part of Berne’s Snakeoil band. Dunn (bass), a darling of the out-rock set, has also been delivering solid jazz chops for any number of groups, including some great Bay Area groups in the late ’90s.

You do get more of the jazz in Speed’s playing on this album, and less of the wandering microtonal musings that he often favors. I like that. There are plenty of sax or clarinet solos over a bass/drums jam, certainly, but there’s also space for untethered improv duets (as on “Ah-Le-Pa,” which includes a nice Dunn/Black workout), criss-crossing composed lines for the reeds, or delicate chamber-jazz moments.

Further toward the outer edge of things, “International Four” (written by Hilmar Jensson, who’s played with these guys in other contexts) starts with free improvisation at a fast jog, full of sax/clarinet squawking, then gets into a composition of attractive long lines, a long path of bursty notes.

A Busy Start to March

The good news is that I got a chance to go to Barcelona and took it.

The bad news is that I missed these shows while I was gone: Surplus 1980 and ReCardiacs Fly; Craig Taborn, Amy X. Neuburg and Pamela Z at Other Minds; Other Minds in general; Emily Hay visiting from L.A.; Lotte Anker visiting from Europe; a couple of rare Tin Hat group appearances; Miya Masaoka (another rare in-town appearance) in a show that also included Lisa Mezzacappa’s new strings band; the ROVA Saxophone Quartet performing with a guitar quartet; The Residents’ anniversary show at Bimbos; and Chris Potter, whose new ECM album is quite compelling. In Barcelona also missed a chance to see Spanish pianist Agusti Fernandez, due to evening work commitments.

Sure, there’s no way I would have seen all those shows, since many of them conflicted. Chris Potter probably would have been outa luck, going up against The Residents. I’m just complaining on principle.

Meanwhile, it’s a really busy week of music coming up, with too many things to mention. I’ll list a few, but I’m unfairly leaving out so much — take a look at to see what I mean.

  • William Parker is in town at the end of the week, starting Friday, March 8, doing a lot at Stanford’s Bing Hall and a Sunday afternoon performance at San Francisco’s Center for New Music. The latter is a solo show followed by a set from Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch.
  • Mills College is running its annual Signal Flow series (concerts of new works by students) starting Thursday, March 7 through the weekend.
  • Great lineup for the Monday, March 4 installment of monthly jazz at The Makeout Room (San Francisco):  Karl Evangelista’s Ai Ai, Dave Slusser’s new quartet, and Aram Shelton’s Ton Trio II.
  • Larry Ochs has some new composing for quintet that debuts on Friday, March 8 at the Center for New Music; he’ll have trumpeter Nate Wooley in his band, who’s also appearing Weds. March 6 at Berkeley Arts Festival.

I didn’t get a chance to do any serious record shopping in Barcelona, but luckily, there are four CD stores along Calle dels Tallers [Street of Workshops, in Catalan, I think].  Mostly, they specialize in American/British rock — i.e., they look just like CD stores here, but with a lot more metal and a lot of classic rock. Revolver Records had a section set aside for Spanish and Catalonian bands, so that’s where I concentrated my time. Using the principle of judging a CD by its cover, I picked up some poppy, mellow electronica from a Catalan trio called Lasers and an indie rock album from a Spanish indie-pop band that looks like it’s been around for a while, Los Planetas. Pretty happy with both of them, but I’m hoping to dig a little deeper if I ever make it back.