It’s John Zorn’s Metal Band

John ZornIpsissimus (Tzadik, 2010)

Ipsissimus“John Zorn’s metal band” is not news to most of you, it’s true. But most of my delving into the Tzadik catalogue hasn’t been in the metal/Mike Patton vein, so I hadn’t encountered Moonchild until now.

Where Naked City’s Torture Garden was informed by speed-blasting punk, Moonchild is more about the weighty styles of contemporary metal. Ipsissimus, the latest of that band’s five albums, does indeed get heavy, and yet, it’s got references back to prog rock and even jazz that give me some grounding in the music. (UPDATE: See comments; it turns out the latest Moonchild album is Templars – In Sacred Blood, which has lyrics and adds John Medeski to the mix.)

Which is helpful, because metal tends to combine murk and hyperstimulation in a way that gets lost on me. “Warlock” and “The Book of Los” both provide a balm of prog-rock brightness, at least in spots. And the opener, “Seven Sigils,” flickers between a 4/4 and 15/16 time signature, I think — which, combined with the knowledge that nice-guy Joey Baron is on the drums, tickles my prog center nicely.

Later on that track, Zorn’s sax solo even hits some surprising moments of soul-jazz melody before getting into, you know, Zornisms.

Throughout the album, Trevor Dunn gets to crank out the low-end electric bass lines — I’m guessing he relishes the sessions where he gets to do that — and Marc Ribot’s guitar gets all crunchy in that choppy metal vein. I don’t mean blazing speed-metal, but heavy storm-of-doom stuff with Mike Patton providing the Cookie Monster vocals.

Tracks like “Supplicant” are where Zorn and especially Patton really bring the metal in midtempo, heavy-growl mode. Unexpectedly, Ribot chooses a classic-rock guitar sound for his subsequent solo. On a “metal” album that draws from so many other resources, it fits.

Mary Halvorson and Her Even Bigger Band

Mary Halvorson SeptetIllusionary Sea (Firehouse 12, 2013)

Wow. In a septet context, Mary Halvorson’s music gets all warm and cozy.

That might be an impolite thing to say in avant-garde circles, but listen to the billowing horns in the title track.

Source: Firehouse12; click to go there.

A lot of Illusionary Sea is like that: lovely sounding horns and quilts of melody, but enough room for Halvorson’s prickly guitar grunge. Richly melodic elements were present with her quintets — “Hemorrhaging Smiles” on Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12, 2012) or “Crack in the Sky” on Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12, 2010) — but to my ears, they’re amplified with the expanded horn section of the septet.

The eccentric guitar lines that made Halvorson’s trio such a delight are still there. But listen to the almost circus atmosphere early in the guitar solo on “Smiles of Great Men (No. 34).” The horns add a bright sound, and Halvorson plays along with a swinging melody before taking the song off the rails.

Halvorson even shows her hand at traditional jazz comping on “Four Pages of Robots,” setting down the backing chords while one horn solos. Of course, that mode doesn’t last, and as the horns wind down the piece, Halvorson obscures throws sheets of guitar spackle at the melody. That’s one of Illusionary Sea’s best tricks: mixing jazz horns with attack-mode guitar in a way that makes sense.

So, when I talk about the music being “nice,” it’s less about losing edge and more about gaining depth. The compositions are still rooted in avant-rock guitar sketchings, but they’re fleshed out with sophisticated horns — a step further toward the jazz side of the spectrum. The ensemble’s progression from trio to quintet to septet seems like a reflection of Halvorson’s desire to say more with the music.

A Remembrance for Bernard Parmegiani

Source: parmegiani.frBeing a jazz DJ, I would often pay tribute to musicians who had recently passed away. And I would remark on how these artists should be getting this attention while they’re alive, not only so they can appreciate being appreciated, but also to spread the word about a spark still glowing and, in many cases, still creating.

Electronic-music composer Bernard Parmegiani passed away recently, but whether he knows it or not, he got an evening of recognition out here in the Bay Area, as his works were showcased at the San Francisco Tape Music Festival last year.

I can’t say I’m a student of Parmegiani’s work, and I didn’t manage to attend his tribute concert. But I’m feeling a strange sense of contentment over the fact that someone gave him a spotlight while he was still around to bask in it, even if only in spirit.

You can sample Parmegiani’s work on YouTube, of course. I embedded a few videos in a previous post.

The official(?) Parmegiani site now includes a link to an homage at

Hat tip: Avant Music News.

Live at Total Meeting

Carlos Alves “Zingaro”, Jean Luc Cappozzo, Jerome Bourdellon, Nicolas LelievreLive at Total Meeting (NoBusiness, 2012)

zingaro-borderI love not only the sounds, but the pacing on the three long improvisations presented here. It’s a live performance from France’s Total Meeting Festival in 2010, and the quartet draws a rich variety of  ideas from their acoustic instruments.

Most of the music doesn’t appear to move blazingly fast, and yet there’s a building sense of energy and tension that’s rather captivating. The players manage to sculpt narrative arcs that draw you in. On top of that, the album ends with a sudden and mildly surprising flourish that leaves you feeling pretty good about everything you’ve just heard. (I won’t give it away — it’s not that unusual an ending, just very sudden. I got a smile out of it.)

The first and last tracks (“Total 1” and “Total 3”) feature Jerome Bourdellon’s flute taking command of the setting.  “Total 1,” has him playing in a sparkling, energetic mode, reflecting off of Zingaro’s violin and making you wonder why flute doesn’t come up more often in free improv. He’s takes the lead voice during some softer phases, where the flute takes on that calming voice, especially in the lower registers, but he can also dance and dart to play against Zingaro’s madman violin sounds and Jean Luc Cappozzo’s trumpet. Listen to him hold down the low registers here, gradually stepping into the background:

My ears kept gravitating toward the trumpet and the flute (or bass clarinet), but there’s plenty of drums and violin as well. Plenty of Zingaro, in particular: sawing, plucking, and romantically swooning. As often happens with improv, no one voice takes the lead for any long stretch. This is a thoughtful group effort.

Peter Brötzmann & Paal Nilssen-Love at CNM

Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love play Thursday, Nov. 14, at Kuumbwa Jazz and Friday, Nov. 15, at Duende.

View from the back row.
View from the back row.
What can I say? It was a hoot — and a howl, a mighty one that overwhelmed the Center for New Music‘s acoustics and turned Paal Nilssen-Love’s snare drum and cymbals into a fountain of white noise. Peter Brötzmann’s saxes came through loud and clear, though, and the sellout crowd that had come Wednesday night to hear his lung-busting improvising wasn’t disappointed.

There was no warm-up phase. Brötzmann opened the concert with a screeching blast of sax, and Nilssen-Love jumped in with full thunder — and off they went.

Brötzmann's weapons of choise.
Brötzmann’s weapons of choise.

As usual, long stretches of the sound consisted of motifs, little screamed phrases that Brötzmann would repeat a few times over Nilssen-Love’s tumult before shifting to the next phrase. Some of the best parts, though, came when things quieted down and Brötzmann’s playing got more emotional.

One quieter phase had his sax turning almost romantic, but with the volume still turned up to at least 7 and with a ragged, buzzing sound, like a lament sung by a burly king who doesn’t realize his robes are in tatters. Later, there was a more properly soft phase, with Brötzmann playing solo, featured some hardier melody and a sensitive air, until he started ramping the volume back up, encouraging Nilssen-Love to pound his way back in.

I really enjoyed Nilssen-Love’s playing, and I hope it wasn’t lost on the crowd. His solos tended toward the loud side — one solo oversaturating the snare and cymbals to intentionally create that white-noise effect, another featuring incredibly fast, rumbling toms. (The snare and cymbals are his, and the rest of the drum kit was borrowed.)

For an encore, Brötzmann turned to a melodic motif, one with an Ayler-like marching-band flair. It’s a well-played tool from his bag of tricks and seemed appropriate for a quick finale number.

The aftermath.
The aftermath.

Kneebody and That Indie-Rock Vibe

kneebody at duende, oaklandI’m not trying to say Kneebody and The Dismemberment Plan are at all alike, but they’re linked in my head. Both are bands of whom I’ve thought, “Man, if they ever come to town, I gotta see ’em.” And lo and behold, I found out recently that both were indeed coming to the Bay Area.

Sadly, I can’t make it to The Dismemberment Plan’s Dec. 10 date at The Fillmore. (Subtle plug there, eh?) But I did make it to Duende for Kneebody’s sold-out, raucous show on Nov. 6.

Kaven Rastagar (on mic), Ben WendelKneebody isn’t an indie rock band like The Dismemberment Plan is, but they’re probably the same age (maybe a little younger) and definitely have the vibe of a band that’s been together 12 years. (In a good way. Not in a Kinks or Oasis-brothers way.) And their music does groove and rock out; it’s just that it also gets twisty and partly minimalist — and includes swinging, blasting solos. The electric bass, electric piano, and drums create a rocking groove while the sax and trumpet push airy melodies drawn from a bright mix of post-bop and Ornette.

And I love the drums, that big sound Nate Wood can call up, sometimes pounding hard, sometimes sneaky and quick-handed with a trace of techno influence. That’s another link between the bands — in both cases, the drummer caught my attention early on.

So when Wood finally got a drum solo, to start the number “Trite” near the end of the second set at Duende, I was pretty stoked. It was a long dissertation on surges of sound, with stretches of quieter lightspeed pitter-patter. Nobody dozes off during the second set, dammit!

But the part I think most people liked, aside from the music, was the stage banter. These are intelligent and likeable guys who clearly love playing together. They take turns at the mic introducing songs, alternately praising and razzing each other in the process. They’re just hanging out, and you’re in the room too, and there happens to be a jazz show going on.

Kneebody: The Line. Source: eMusic; click to go there.As for that “minimalist” comment, I’ll explain it by pointing to “Nerd Mountain,” which bassist Kaveh Rastegar introduced as a “typical Shane song” — which came out like an insult, and we (and the band) were entertained while he tried to back his way out of that one. What I think he meant was that Shane Endlsey‘s composing often seems to be built on simple non-patterns — an irregular chugging. It’s like Steve Reich on speed or Giacinto Scelsi in a fusion band. I have to admit “Nerd Mountain” didn’t hold my attention as much as it does on record, but then it shifted into “The Line,” which ended with a soaring hard groove.

Other moments I remember: After the band opened with the airy chords of “Lowell” (the single off the new album, The Line), Ben Wendel started a long, fluid, unaccompanied sax solo that led into a really nice song (possibly “Still Play,” also from that album). “Antihero,” a Breaking Bad-inspired song with its dramatic rising melody, was one of the more powerful, slower moments. “Unintended Influences,” written by electric pianist Adam Benjamin, included a gloomy breakdown that I really enjoyed. They ended with “The Slip,” an incredible tangle of a composition from Endsley.

For more about the band, check out this great interview with Rastegar, in Denver’s Westword.

The Word on Lutosławski: A 24-Hour Tribute

Here’s what I know about Lutosławski:

  • His first name was Witold.
  • His Cello Concerto got namechecked in some interview with Tim Berne or Jim Black, some years ago. The context was along the lines of, “I don’t listen to kind of classical music you just asked about, but if you want me to pick something, here’s what I do like…”

Not what you’d call scholarly expertise.

Photo by Sue Terry. Source: WXQR; click to go there.
Photo by Sue Terry. Source: WXQR; click to go there.

But because of that interview (which I can no longer find), I picked up a copy of the Concerto — played by Mstislav Rostopovich, another name I would eventually come to know much better. (He’s super famous as a player and conductor.) So, you could call me a casual fan of Lutosławski.

The chance to quickly learn more about Lutosławski is at hand: WQXR-FM’s online satellite, Q2, has assembled an eight-hour tribute to celebrate the 100th year of his birth. It’s going to be played three times on Tuesday, Nov. 12, Eastern time.

The program starts with a one-hour “Lutosławski 101” session, which is what I’ll be listening for. In Pacific Time terms, it’s playing at 9:00 p.m. on Monday, and 5:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Tuesday.

That’s followed by seven one-hour installments that hone in on different phases of Lutosławski’s career.

The Cello Concerto itself famously starts with the cello alone, digging at one note. No buildup to a big entrance; the cello is just there, already seizing the conversation. After four minutes, a lone trumpet breaks the spell, joined by a gaggle of others. Most of the orchestra doesn’t do anything until the second movement. As opening movements go, it’s quite different.

The third movement, “Cantilena,” features some high-note cello sawing that bursts into a big, dramatic phase, with slightly chaotic horns, a splash of piano, a screaming violin mob, and (out of nowhere) a couple of seconds of scattered xylophone that mark the transition into the colossal “Finale” movement. It’s captivating, featuring lots of spaces for the cellist to show off, nearly unaccompanied.

naxos-lutoIt was enough to get me to randomly buy a Naxos collection of Lutosławski: Orchestral Works, Vol. 8 (released in 2003). It’s lighter, featuring a bunch of “children’s songs” and a set of dance preludes. What I really like, though, is the Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Chamber Orchestra. It opens with a frenetic swirl of strings, and it’s got some of the same ocean-crashing orchestral qualities as the Cello Concerto. Being for oboe and harp, it also presents some more soothing textures.

And then, in the third movement (“Marziale e grotesco”), the oboe gets a few moments of squeaking and buzzing — extended techniques! I guess it’s not that surprising, considering the piece was written in the ’70s, and it’s possible the sounds were a decision by oboist Arkadiusz Krupa and not part of the score. In any event, it was a nice surprise.

I like modern-classical music. It’s got a sense of exploration that I don’t find in “regular” classical music. And I’ve found I like this guy Lutosławski. I wouldn’t mind learning more.

(UPDATE: Judging from this video snippet, which I think is the same passage I excerpted, the oboe craziness is written into the score.)

How Much Brötzmann Can You Take?

Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love are coming to the Bay Area, and you can’t stop them. But you can go see them:

Brotzmann & Nilssen-Love. Photo by Ziga Koritnik.
Brotzmann & Nilssen-Love. Photo by Ziga Koritnik. Lifted from the Center for New Music.

Each venue promises a cozy, intimate setting for getting your eardrums blasted out. Brötzmann can certainly play quietly and sensitively, but it’s the biggest sounds that are his signature. This is a guy who told The Wire his overexpansive playing has expanded his lungs to the point of damage. Raise your hand if you didn’t realize that was even possible.

The condition doesn’t affect Brötzmann’s playing, however. So, as late as 2011 at the Musique Actuelle Festival in Victoriaville, he was able to do things like this:

Trio Roma (Victo, 2012).That’s Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love in trio with Massimo Pupillo playing an electric bass set on “kill.” They’ve obviously decided they’ll all amp it up, so to speak, to match Pupillo’s “11” setting. They do have pauses and quiet patches, but it’s a mostly sweaty and sprinting workout that makes up one of the two CDs in Solo + Trio Roma (Victo, 2012). It qualifies as a Sound of 4 experience.

That excerpt comes from only about 1 minute into a 70-minute track, by the way.

Regarding those quiet patches, here’s a segment where Pupillo sits out, and Brötzmann gets to display some delicate gruffness.

Concentric (Clean Feed, 2006)How about Nilssen-Love, who’s less familiar to most listeners? Here he is with a different saxophonist: John Butcher, whose aesthetic often tends toward the introspective — airy sounds and high-tone, slow-motion squeals. Concentric (Clean Feed, 2006) is a much different setting from Trio Roma, with Nilssen-Love going for a more sculpted sound even during the busier segments.

Sticks and Stones (Sofa, 2001)Nilssen-Love also has a solo album where he favors subtlety over bombast. Sticks & Stones (Sofa, 2001) isn’t exactly quiet — maybe “close-miked” is a better term? He solos on a rich array of percussion, making small noises that are amplified straight into your ear, as if you’re in a warm, small room with your head hovering right above the drums. He’s chosen his drums and implements so that the taps and bounces produce rich, almost liquid sounds, and you can savor every nuance, like sips of wine.

Sticks & Stones admittedly gets a little repetitious, but any one of the fairly short tracks is a treat, packed with delicious sounds and fast, rattling drumstick work.

Of course, these two gentlemen will spontaneously decide which colors to flash at these upcoming concerts. I would guess you’ll hear a little bit of all of it. Just come prepared for some big sounds.

(Each album-cover image links to eMusic, where you can sample more of the music. There is no commercial arrangement here; eMusic has no idea that I do this.)

Sharp Attack on Strings

Elliott SharpCut With Occam’s Razor (zOaR, 2013)

Jack Quartet performing "Boreal" at New College of Florida.
Jack Quartet performing “Boreal” at New College of Florida,

As part of Elliott Sharp‘s residency at The Stone in early October, JACK Quartet performed two of his compositions — two companion pieces similiar in strategy, both dynamic and exciting. One of them, “The Boreal,” also happens to lead off Sharp’s latest CD of classical works.

I caught the concert (and a couple others to be mentioned later) during my latest visit to New York.

“The Boreal” was written in 2009, and “Tranzience,” its followup, is a new composition that got its premiere at this show. Both involve alternatives to the string bow — springs, metal bars, ball-bearing chains — mixed with traditional bowing in slashing, cathartic passages.

As with most modern pieces, there were passages of near silence as well. The JACK Quartet impressively stayed precise and focused against The Stone’s Indian-summer heat and the Avenue C street noise.

Both pieces featured stretches of one-note rhythms, played hard and fast, and lots of tapping, plucking, and scraping the strings — which was no surprise, considering how percussive Sharp’s music can be. His guitar work often involves lots of hammer-ons, and some of his homemade instruments are along the lines of the slab, a horizontal bass played with mallets. I like that stuff. My introduction to Sharp’s music was the super-percussive piece, “Larynx,” whose sections are punctuated by solos from four different drummers.

E#'s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zoarmusic Tumblr; click to go there.
E#’s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zOaRmusic Tumblr; click to go there.

“The Boreal” opens with short metal springs scraping rhythms against the strings, small sounds forcefully pressed into being. It produced some great sounds (more about that below), but the springs weren’t particularly nimble. The players were limited to simple rhythms, sometimes accidentally hitting little nursery-rhymey patterns. Later, the piece sent JACK through some traditional bowing but in not-so-traditional motifs: twisty passages at breakneck speed, providing some of the most exciting moments.

“Tranzience” was very much a companion to “The Boreal,” rather than a sequel. The sheet music was on long, vertical pieces of paper, for a striking and artsy visual difference, but that atmosphere and attitude continued from “The Boreal’s” foundation. So did the extended-technique implements — customized metal dowels this time. In addition to tapping the springs, these were used in a guitar-slide manner, curving a tone into a glissando by moving up or down the neck. I found myself wondering how  notated those parts are; does Sharp dictate where the pitch should start and end?

“Tranzience” started with viola and cello hammering out background notes percussively (this really reminded me of Sharp’s slab) with crazed, scattered notes from the violins. This peaked ferociously as the quartet stopped on a dime — one of many pauses during the two pieces that made for particularly exciting moments.

“Tranzience” had the more exciting coda of the two, with the four players slashed frenetically through near-unison melodies near the end.

I enjoyed hearing the two pieces side-by-side, but they’re very similar; it was an awful lot of the same colors spread across 45 minutes. But that didn’t occur to me until near the ending, maybe because I spent most of the concert not knowing what to expect. I don’t think I’d want to hear them together again — but the same can’t be said for other audiences who haven’t experienced them.

(Elliott Sharp’s zOaRmusic Tumblr, which I discovered after writing this entry, has more details about this show.)

From my copy of Cut With Occam's Razor.
Like most zOaR releases, Cut With Occam’s Razor is a limited edition.

“The Boreal” opens Cut With Occam’s Razor slowly — as I suppose it must have in concert — but quickly picks up the pace, first with springs-grinding rhythms and then with one-note unison stabbing patterns. One of the best moments comes midway through the 15-minute piece, when the players form a counterpoint with the metal springs that builds up to a big, buzzy sound with shifting tones.

The next piece, “Oligosono,” gives us a solo piano executing Sharp’s percussive attack. This track was my first exposure to that combination, with Jennifer Lin often two-handedly pounding away at a dissonant chord or even dryly hammering on one note. It produces a nice effect in those low, low registers, where the resonating metal of the strings creates its own coppery overtone.

Add to that some splashes of higher notes and quasi-prepared piano in the form of Lin holding a string down (adding a dull thud to that hammering vocabulary), and you’ve got yourself a piece. “Oligosono” is often repetitious, but it’s full of engaging patter, as in this segment.

The piece culminates in a more colorful type of piano percussion, stacking tones one after the other for an almost flowery effect.

(Sharp writes more about “Oligosono” here.)

“Occam’s Razor” is a string octet commissioned for Sharp’s 60th-birthday marathon at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. It was recorded in 2011 by the JACK and Sirius string quartets.

It’s a series of shimmering sound blasts that slowly rise and fall in intensity, while keeping all eight instruments involved for a density of sound. Long tones criss-cross in a Grand Central Station bustle, where there’s so much motion going on (passengers flitting across the huge causeway) yet so little change (the crowd as a whole, like a river, remaining in one place while continually moving).

As the pace slows, the long tones of individual players become evident again, and we’re in familiar E# territory, with percussive strikes replaced by long bowing motions. Same idea, different perspective.

After about 15 minutes, “Occam’s Razor” boils down to a quick but satisfying ending — not a fadeout, but more a collective expression of, “Yeah, that’s all we had to say.” I think I favor “The Boreal” or “Tranzience,” but “Occam’s Razor,” while more difficult to take in, is still a really good piece.

Braxton’s No. 255

Earlier this year, I saw Phillip Greenlief conducting Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 255, at the In the Flow Festival in Sacramento.

A music fan named Charles has done dedicated work filming music concerts in that area. He got No. 255 on tape, and also recorded part of a rehearsal, for a feel of what it’s like preparing this kind of work.

I’ll embed both videos here. You don’t get to see these kinds of works live very often, so it’s nice to have a visual document to refer back to.