Rent Party at The Stone

The Stone isn’t just a nonprofit space; it’s a non-revenue space. So owner John Zorn throws rent parties, monthly improv concerts with proceeds going to The Stone. My latest trip to New York, in mid-May, happened to coincide with one such concert.

It was fun. Ten musicians played in different combinations, each group improvising for maybe five minutes, then disappearing to the basement green room while another group took the stage. Many seemed to be meeting each other for the first time, judging from the handshakes before or after each piece.

Jeff Zeigler
Jeff Zeigler, from New Music Box. Click to read an interview about his career change.

The big-name players included Zorn, Jon Rose (violin) Erik Friedlander (cello), and Kevin Norton (vibes, percussion, and oh my god he’s as good as people say). A second cellist was someone I’d pegged as “random young guy” — and he might be, in a sense, but he’s also Jeff Zeigler, the Kronos Quartet’s cellist for the past eight seasons. In fact, he’d played his final concert with Kronos just two days earlier.

A few highlights:

  • Zorn himself played in a few of the sets, including he opener with Jon Rose, a drummer (Brian Crane?) and David Watson (guitar). They opened things with an immediately jagged, raucous piece.
  • Rose and Norton drew up a frenetic duet that stopped on a dime — because perfect eye contact is an advantage to having only two players. In a subsequent piece, Rose seemed to be setting up for the same kind of ending with a trio but couldn’t get the guitarist to make eye contact.
  • Zeigler and bassist James Ilgenfritz were concocting good, slow bowed duet when the drummer (Brian Crane, if that’s his actual name) tried fiddling with a saucepan lid on a cymbal. It slipped, making a bit of a clatter — and Crane, to his credit, compensated by immediately clashing a drumstick against the cymbal rapidly, as if the clatter were part of a plan. It was a perfect recovery, because the two string players, backs to the drums, took it all for an intentional change of direction, and the piece finished out with some aggressive and hard-edged sawing.
  • A frenetic trio of Norton, Ilgenfritz, and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch. They locked into a jamming non-groove that bordered on traditional (if you want to call it that) free jazz.

I was tempted to come back for the second set — Jon Rose with Zeigler and Ilgenfritz — but an early Tuesday-morning wake-up time was beckoning. I settled for a slice of pizza for the walk back to the 2nd Ave. subway station, pausing at bar windows for glances at the Rangers mercilessly shutting out the Capitals in Game 7.

‘Tides’ at SF Offside 2013

DSCN2817The third and final night of the SF Offside festival was like one big sigh of relief for organizers Alex Pinto and Laura Maguire (at right). After dreaming up the festival on the spur of the moment in late 2011 or early 2012, they had now pulled off a two successful sets of concerts and had quickly built a following that seems to cut across multiple layers of “jazz” fandom.

They thanked the audience; the audience thanked them. It was one big group hug, and why not? It’s a worthy cause to celebrate, this coming-together of a music scene that too often feels marginalized, lost in an indifferent Bay Area fog. It’s also a reminder to us all that this music is going on around us all the time — Sheldon Brown talked about his band playing at El Valencio restaurant, for instance. I had no idea.

Subtitled “Tides,” following the previous nights’ themes of “Streams” and “Currents,”  the program kept up the concept of presenting disparate settings for improvisation and jazz.

Lisa Mezzacappa and Steve Adams (bass/sax) played a set of compositions they’d written for other bands and other contexts. I always like seeing a song get extra life in a new environment.

DSCN2796Adams’ “Black Notebook #11” got things started with a strong bopping feel, while the graphic score that came next created a more expansive sound. Mezzacappa contributed “What Is Known” and “The Deep Disciplines” from her Bait & Switch and Cylinder bands, respectively. The latter track’s free-jazz energy had Mezzacappa dancing around with her bass and both players smiling broadly. DSCN2798

A Carla Bley cover, with its strong melody, got good audience response. One piece with Adams on bass flute had the cryptic peacefulness of a zen koan. They finished with an upbeat piece where Mezzacappa ran through lots of percussive sounds and off-the-wall techniques while Adams burbled away on a sax solo. Great stuff.

The Sheldon Brown Group. See if you can spot all five of them.

The Sheldon Brown Group brought a fusion attitude, with electric guitar, five-string electric bass, and powerhouse drumming contrasted with the acoustic sounds of Brown’s woodwinds and Jonathan Alford’s piano. This was a more familiar jazz format, with songs having definite heads and soloing spaces, but Brown kept it interesting with a few changeups.

“Temptress,” a slower song, was built on skeletal chords, over which the drums and soprano sax aired out fiercely. Their opener, “Fatma’s Love Song,” featured a clackety African beat and tough, fusiony guitar-and-bass chords. Alan Hall turned in a crowd-pleasing performance on drums, filling the space with energy, but I liked his work on “Random Shards of Daring Know,” a more open-ended song with a contrary swing. His drums and Brown’s clarinet took the lead voices for a long stretch of untethered improvising, with Hall showing some creative and sensitive playing.

DSCN2829Dave Mihaly’s Shimmering Leaves Ensemble, the final band of the night and the festival, showed something truly different. Mihaly, a drummer, has put together a gentle folk/Americana band with an occasional jazz kick.

Shimmery electric guitar, played by Michael Cavaseno with a country twang, defined much of the sound, while the trio of David Boyce (sax), Ara Anderson (trumpet), and Charith Premawardhana (viola) stood to the side, concocting a backdrop of lingering, moody chords and sometimes stepping up for some soloing. Boyce played at the first SF Offside as part of free-jazz improvisers The Supplicants, but in Mihaly’s band, he sticks to lyrical, tuneful playing.

The band lives up to its “Shimmering” name. Mihaly’s songs have a languid feel, emphasizing a drifting, songlike quality over soloing chops or complex composing. (Although the roaring ’20s sound of “Oil Painting for Adolphe Sax & Coleman Hawkins” has a bouncing, nonobvious rhythm behind it; that’s one to do a cartoon dance to, Mihaly told us.)

DSCN2835For a few tunes, Mihaly sang gentle vocals and added more guitar, letting Boyce or Anderson take a turn at the drums. In both cases, their job was to add color and texture rather than lay down a beat; Anderson had the sharper turn of the two, I thought, peppering a folky song with quick jabs and accents.

Pinto is moving to India on a Fulbright grant, so SF Offside is in for some changes. They’ve shown this format can draw an audience, though, so hopefully they can keep the spirit burning for another year.

Mihaly demonstrates the ‘dance craze’ that goes with one song, a toe-tapper in 5/8 time.

Jack o’ the Clock at the Plough

DSCN2560As I pulled up to park in Berkeley, the Warriors were on the verge of tying Game 3 against San Antonio. I’d come to the Starry Plough to see Jack o’ the Clock in a too-rare live appearance, but they were due to appear last, and this game — which I’d turned on for background noise — was getting good. I decided to linger in the car to hear the team take the lead, figuring Jack o’ the Clock wasn’t due to start yet anyway.

It seemed like a tough call at the time, but it got easier. As history has now recorded, Golden State not only did not take the lead but collapsed immediately from that point. It took about five minutes (real time, not game time) for me to give up and headed into the Plough — where, ironically, the game was on TV.

The Warriors’ collapse gave me time to see the whole set by Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows, which mixed old-time songwriting with gypsy jazz and dashes of world music. Johnston is a trumpeter who I know through his more out-jazz leanings — albums like Reasons for Moving and projects such as OrchestROVA. This music was closer to what he’s done with the Nice Guy Trio (here’s a video), but drawing on a blend of traditions.

The songs were equal parts festival and heartbreak, with lyrics taken from Johnston’s “Letters from Home” project, where he’s asked immigrants to write letters to their younger selves. (It’s part of a larger project being presented June 22 at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.)

DSCN2558Johnston fronted the band with most of the lead vocals, sometimes adding solos of bright, emotional trumpet tones. The rhythm was held down by acoustic bass and a bass drum, for a very turn-of-the-century look, and most of the soloing duty was handled by a monstrously good violinist (barely visible in the photo at right), hacking and sawing and skittering his way up and down the fingerboard with abandon.

Jack o’ the Clock draws partly from the same well, with a love of times-gone-by that’s reflected in the faded, cracked photos of their album covers. To that folky base, principal songwriter Damon Waitkus adds the complex melodies of prog rock and the depth of classical composing. Bassoon and violin in the mix help create a different sound, rich layers to peer through.

Evangelista, Waitkus, and McLoughlin. Drummer Jordan Glenn is somewhere behind them.
Everybody wave to Jordan.

I’ve written about these guys’ studio work and live work before. This was another solid show, and being live does matter; it infuses an intensity and even ferocity to the chamber-folk-prog songs, a spirit difficult to capture in the studio.

They opened with a catchy rock song, probably called “Down Below,” which packed a heavy beat and some electric-guitar drama from Karl Evangelista, who sat in on a few songs. The set also included “Disaster,” one of the strongest songs off the new album, All My Friends…, and “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” a favorite of mine from the previous album. Much of the set was taken up by new songs; I didn’t take notes, but I remember them sounding good.

Admit it: Two flutes in a band is pretty kick-ass.

In addition to Evangelista, other guest artists included Johnston, Cory Wright and Ivor Holloway adding horns to at least one song early in the set. Most of the time, though, it was the canonical five members of the band — mostly minus violinist Emily Packard, who did join for a couple of numbers but spent most of the set tending to her baby. Lead singer Damon Waitkus brought his hammered dulcimer, which appears on the albums but hadn’t been at the last live show I saw. It produces that old-timey piano sound that helps sepia-tint the music. Kate McLoughlin on bassoon also added solid harmony vocals. And I really do love Jason Hoopes’ electric bass work.

You could say no band in the world gets as many gigs as they deserve, I suppose, but it’s particularly true of this one. That they’ve kept together for years, working at the music, is evident both on stage and on record, and I hope they’re able to keep it going.

Getting In the Flow

That’s Bows and Arrows, inside the ivy-covered cube.
Sacramento’s In the Flow festival was weeks ago, so I’m late in saying I made it to Day Two (May 9), the Thursday evening showcase at Bows and Arrows.

It was the only day I could make, due to a host of weekend commitments including Mother’s Day. But for the past couple of years, I’d thought about making the two-hour drive to Sacramento for at least one day of the festival, or even to check out the Monday-night shows at Luna’s Cafe some week. It was a matter of setting the time aside on my calendar and just doing it.

Luna’s and Bows and Arrows are in an older part of Sacramento, where the streets form the number/letter grid that’s found in every Central Valley city. (Luna’s is near 16th and N, for instance).

A glimpse of Bows and Arrows' indoor cafe area.
A glimpse of Bow and Arrows’ indoor cafe area.

I expected a dusty, decaying downtown, but Sacramento’s old town is lush with the calming, shady trees. Old homes — not decaying and maybe more importantly not turned into McMansions — abut pockets of gentrification, such as the stately brick Safeway complex that faces Bows and Arrows.

It’s not all perfect. Just down the street was a closed-down restaurant that clearly hadn’t had a long lifespan. But it’s the kind of neighborhood you root for, a place that wouldn’t be bad for a leisurely afternoon. The weather was comfortably cool on the night I arrived, and the neighborhood would have been a nice place for a stroll.

Bows and Arrows itself is a Bohemian neighborhood in-a-box: a clothes boutique up front, a cozy cafe in the back, and a small art gallery in the space joining the two. There weren’t many tables, but the place overall was spacious. I could see making this my home for four hours.

DSCN2504The first act played on the outdoor patio, starting at 6:30 p.m. when the sun was still bright and the cool evening air was settling in. They were the Element Brass Band, an ensemble of funky horns with soulful jazz soloing and a party attitude.

It's not a festival unless some little kid dances insanely.
It’s not a festival unless some little kid dances insanely.

Element isn’t quite a marching band, although their low end is held down by sousaphones and a bass drum. They’re closer to a funk band. They sing, with simple call-and-response phrases that get the whole band chanting along. “I feel like funkin’ it up / Feeeel like funkin’ it up,” went the opening number. Big fun.

Festival organizer Ross Hammond planned this night well: Element started the program with the most crowd-pleasing, easy-to-love music, and it would get progressively more “different” from there.

After the set, Hammond decamps us to the indoor cafe.
After the set, Hammond directs us indoors.

Element wasn’t avant-garde stuff by any stretch, but they were a lot of fun and got the crowd on the festival’s side. Sitting on the bright, sheltered porch, with a beer in hand and a cup of corn-tomatillo soup at the ready, I was plenty happy.

The patio filled to standing capacity, and much of the crowd lingered with the band afterward. The rest of us went inside, where things got more serious and electric.

Gentleman Surfer played a set of vicious math rock, with a splintering sound and complex changes — prog sent through a particle collider. The music on their recent album, Blalks, is more even-handed in it complexity, DSCN2533a geometry easier to grasp. The stuff they gave us was more of a precision assault, with the band in perfect but relentless odd-time lock-step. Any groove or melody that emerged got perverted with a frenetic shift out of meter. Even the poppy parts never got too poppy.

“How do you rehearse that music?” asked one audience member (who later turned out to be part of the Braxton ensemble, so he knew a thing or two about complex music).

Math-rock bands need sweaty drummers.
Math-rock bands need sweaty drummers.

Gentleman Surfer turns out to be led by drummer Jon Bafus, and while he was boisterous for most of the set, toward the end he turned in an amazing solo, full of fast, quiet thundering — proof that he knew what he was doing. That was impressive.

By now it was 8:30, and the place was still hopping. Culture was alive on a suburban Thursday night.

Lovely Builders is the duo of Scott Amendola (drums) and Ross Hammond (electric guitar; you’ll recognize his name as the festival organizer mentioned earlier). They asked for no photography during their set, so I’ve cribbed a photo from their MySpace page.

lb.amendolaThey played one long improvisation with a coolly sustained sense of drama, the mood surging and receding through open jazz territory. Here, Hammond picked quaint rhythms to back up an airy, bustling drum segment; there, Amendola toned down to a trance-like jam on the toms while Hammond tested shimmering chords. Contemplative stretches would eventually spark into angrier, intense moods full of sunburst chords and thunderous drumming.

In a sense, it was the most “difficult” of the four acts, but it seemed to have enough jam-band elements to keep the non-jazzers enticed. They might have stretched it a little longer than they should have, but they cranked up the energy for a satisfying ending.

Phillip Greenlief’s band had the most difficult set in a technical sense, but the grouping of a dozen or so musicians made it easy to watch. He’d come up from Oakland to lead a Sacramento ensemble in Anthony Braxton’s Composition 255, one of the early Ghost Trance Music pieces.

Setting up for Braxton.
Setting up for Braxton.

(He’d originally aimed for Composition 344, but it was too much: “We could not have done that one with one-and-a-half rehearsals,” he said, introducing the piece.)

Braxton’s compositions are modular, so No. 255 got interspersed with music by Pauline Oliveros, Greenlief, and Erik Satie. The breaks were evident, as the band would slip out of the “trance” and into a freer interlude, usually peppered with solos — and then they’d snap back into step.

If you’re not familiar with Ghost Trance Music, it’s based on a maddening, non-steady pulse that, on the surface, can seem like the musical equivalent of a guy reciting pi. But there’s much more going on, as I mentioned here — and when you’ve got a large group of friends performing, it almost develops a party atmosphere.

Yes, the ongoing pulse was there, with the bumps and deviations and the strident tone, the elements that separate GTM pieces from Glassian minimalism. It seemed less convoluted than other GTM works, though — maybe I’m kidding myself there, but I did start thinking it before learning that No. 255 was an earlier piece.

Non-Braxton moment: Element Brass members chilling after their set.

The band was driven by two basses and a drummer, fronted by a mix of strings and woodwinds. They also had a tuba player who would occasionally switch to harmonica — harmonica! Greenlief played as well, taking some sparkling circular-breathing solos, and he conducted the group, counting off the beat to start each new Braxtonian phase.

Braxton’s music can strike people as cold, but Greenlief’s enthusiastic conducting added life and energy. It really did feel celebratory.

Everything was finished just after 10:00, and Bows and Arrows stayed open through the aftermath. A crowd of young beer-drinkers had gathered around the cafe section, while the musicians collectively lingered in the gallery and boutique — friends talking about the music, or just catching up on one another’s lives. In terms of mood, it was a fitting end to the night. I hope the rest of the festival was just as uplifting.


SF Offside: Two Nights to Go

Source: SF Offside’s Twitter feed.
Click to see the Tweet & photo

The SF Offside festival is underway.

Night 1 is completed; tonight (Friday) the festival shifts to the Duende loft. Saturday’s show will be at the Community Music Center in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The highlight of the first night was apparently the Wiener Kids Family Band, in which Jordan Glenn’s trio was expanded to a glorious little mob. The Awaken Cafe, hosting the event, posted a blip on Vine that tells the story quite well.

Now, I have to admit I find animated GIFs rather annoying, so I won’t embed it here. But here’s where you can have a look:

SF Offside has been blogging little bios and interviews with the festival artists — for example, here’s one with the Howard Wiley Trio, which is playing at Duende tonight.  I love this idea, as it lets the audience get acquainted with the music they’ll be facing.

You can view the entire lineup here.

The Final Signal to Noise

stnThe back page of Signal to Noise magazine is a cartoon essay that pairs up a guest storyteller and a guest artist, usually telling the story of a musical experience.

Like a lot of magazine readers, I can’t resist turning to a back-page feature first. When I did that today, after receiving the Spring 2013 issue, I saw an opening panel that read; “I started Signal to Noise in 1997…” and I knew the time had finally arrived.

Pete Gershon is retiring the magazine after 15 glorious years, some more difficult than others. Signal to Noise has shrunk considerably as the economics of the record industry have collapsed, shrinking the budgets of the record labels that made up StN‘s primary advertising base. Perhaps more importantly, Gershon is moving on to a new phase in life, so maybe it’s simply time.

photo-1While it’s nice that the Web offers the potential for everybody to become a publisher, it’s still sad that the days are long gone when you could go to Tower Records and stumble upon a treasure such as StN. That’s how I got on board, many years ago, and it’s been a great ride. Thanks, Pete.

StN is going out with a bang, featuring The Residents — the newly not-so-anonymous Residents — as its cover story.

By the way, if you’ve got $100,000 to spare and didn’t hear about it last year: The Residents have a box set to die for. Act quickly, and they might even deliver to you personally.

SF Offside Returns

fb-logo-sfof4The SF Offside jazz festival is back for a second year, gracing three different Bay Area venues at the end of May.

The best resource to learn more is going to be, where they’ll be posting profiles on the musicians and where you can already see the full 2013 lineup, cut-and-pasted below.

But first, a taste:  A video snippet of the Wiener Kids Family Band, which currently tops the Wiener Kids video page.


Here’s the full lineup:

NIGHT 1 – “STREAMS” – THURSDAY, MAY 23, 8-11PM     
Awaken Café, 1429 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612
New collaborations, new directions

Aram Shelton – alto sax
Jason Gillenwater – tenor sax
Alex Pinto – guitar
Doug Stuart – bass
Shaun Lowecki – drums

Jaz Sawyer – drums
Asonic Garcia – sampler, synth, electronics
Mike Boo – turntable, sampler, electronics

Jordan Glenn – conductor
Cory Wright – clarinet
Aaron Bennett – soprano sax
Christina Stanley – violin
Kate McLoughlin – bassoon
Rob Ewing – trombone
Damon Waitkus – banjo
Karl Evangelista – guitar
Dominique Leone – synth
Kevin Thaxton – bass
Jon Arkin – drums

NIGHT 2 – “CURRENTS” – FRIDAY, MAY 24, 9pm-midnight  
Duende, 468 19th Street, Oakland, CA 94618
Leading-edge local jazz

Mads Tolling – violin
Dave MacNab – guitar
George Ban-Weiss – bass
Eric Garland – drums

Howard Wiley – sax
Marcus Shelby – bass
Sly Randolph – drums

NIGHT 3  – “TIDES” – SATURDAY, MAY 25, 8-11pm  
Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, SF, CA 94110
“The traveler hastens toward the town…”

Lisa Mezzacappa – bass
Steve Adams – saxophones

Sheldon Brown – soprano & tenor saxophones, clarinet
Dave MacNab – guitar
Jonathan Alford – piano
Michael Wilcox – bass
Alan Hall – drums

Dave Mihaly – drums, guitar, voice
Ara Anderson – trumpet, percussion
David Boyce – saxophones, bass clarinet, percussion
Michael Cavaseno – guitar
Charith Premawardhana – viola