Reconnaissance Fly Turns Spam Into Prog Rock

Reconnaissance FlyFlower Futures (Edgetone, 2014)

Source: Bandcamp; click to go therePolly Moller’s experiements with spoetry — poetry made from the babble of spam emails — has come to a fruition in the band Reconnaissance Fly, which adds prog-rock and avant-garde musical backings for a new kind of songwriting.

Now they’ve got their newest album out, called Flower Futures (Edgetone, 2014), and they’ll be promoting it with a show at the Berkeley Arts Festival space (2133 University Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, Feb. 1.

It’s full of Canterbury sounds: electric piano, jazzy chords, and stumbling time signatures. Snatches of free improvisation crop up here and there. And flute! In addition to fronting the band with operatic alto vocals, Moller plays flute alongside the band’s woodwind or guitar leads.

Much of the music does feel patterned after the lyrics, which transforms the nonsense into something more ably amusing or even pretty. The musical passages never settle into verse/chorus patterns, but they occasionally lock in on particularly funny or strange phrases for some songlike repetition. Free improv segments on “The Party Constraint” and “Seemed to be Divided in Twain” form around controlled bursts, so that the abstract music actually makes more “sense” than the lyrics do — or, maybe the music helps create more meaning for the words.

The songwriting did start with the lyrics. Moller says she assigned spoems to band members who then wrote the music. “Tim [Walters, bassist]’s tunes reflect his love for Rock in Opposition and progressive rock, Amanda [Chaudhary, keyboards] gave us our graphic scores for improvisation, and mine are kind of all over the place,” she writes in an email.

The album was more than four years in the making and survived a couple of band shifts — notably, saxophonist Chris Broderick departing, with Rich Lesnik taking his place. The band’s history makes for a pretty good read, actually. (By the way, these same folks formed the bulk of the Cardiacs tribute band founded by Moe! Staiano.)

You can hear parts of the album (and of course buy the whole thing) on Bandcamp. Try the ’70s prog sound of “Sanse Is Crede nza” or the Henry Cow chamber-funk of “An Empty Rectangle” for songs that’ll grab the ear quickly. I’m also partial to the proggy “One Should Never.”

Monday Make-Out, January 2014

Nathan Clevenger Group @ the Make-Out Room, SF
Nathan Clevenger Group, bathed in the Make-Out Room’s red light.

On the first Monday of every month, jazz takes over the Make-Out Room bar in San Francisco’s Mission district. It had been more than a year since I’d gone, and I finally atoned for that this month.

I arrived in about the middle of the first set — the Nathan Clevenger Group, whose new album I’d just written about. The band’s sound relies on feathery harmonies of clarinet and sax that have to work just so; one of the strengths of the Observatory album is the silkiness in the recording. I’d imagine a venue with a bright sound, like the Luggage Store Gallery, might not be so conducive to that sound.

It worked in the Make-Out Room, though, which was a pleasant surprise. The band was locked in with the harmonies and their solos, playing for a decent-sized audience, many of whom had come to truly listen to the music. Late in the set, when guest Jason Levis stepped in as a second drummer, he and Jon Arkin got into a brief, unaccompanied drum battle– and I swear, the whole bar went silent for it. They even got a few laughs when they traded off quieter and quieter sounds (the machismo of silence). It was nice to see a jazz band capture that much attention in a bar setting.

Levis and Lisa Mezzacappa were up next as duo B, a reunion of their bass-and-drums combo. Duo B used to play around town quite a bit, and I’d imagine venue owners helped come up with one of their song titles: “So It’s Just the Two of You.”

Duo B was an acoustic act, but they added an electric guitar for this set, producing a heavy sound. While the guitar did have its mellow moments, the first of two improvisations started with an electrified, industrial feel. A later segment had Levis going nuts on the snare and high-hat with Mezzacappa delving athletically on the bass. The second piece was more of a long, glorious sunburst with elements of drone; it started with some prickly guitar in an adversarial approach but ended up as an example of nicely sustained mood and coloring.

The third act was apparently Denny Denny Breakfast, performing one long, unexplained suite. On the web, DDB seems to be a pop act, the musical vehicle for Bob LaDue. What we saw was different: a fairly large band playing a long, polished, complex suite full of tricky passages at breakneck speed. It was as if a marching band had grown up in a town where Zappa chemicals leaked into the water supply. Drums and/or vibes triggered goofy synth patches as well, adding a madcap Nintendo silliness to the music.

This wasn’t throwaway stuff. The band’s charts were long and, according to one guy I was talking to, really complicated. (The charts were also photocopied just a couple hours before the show, apparently.) It was impressive.

Jim Black’s ‘Not Bloodcount’

Take a look at what’s on The Stone‘s calendar in March:

3/25 Tuesday (KR)
8 and 10 pm
Not Bloodcount
Tim Berne (reeds), Chris Speed (reeds), Mike Formanek (bass), Jim Black (drums)

Black is calling it “Not Bloodcount,” but of course it’s the exact lineup of Tim Berne‘s Bloodcount, the band that got me into creative music in the first place and whose reunion tour I attended in Philadelphia.

“Not Bloodcount” is part of a week-long residency by drummer Jim Black that will also feature his piano trio, the Ben Monder Trio of the late ’90s (another early discovery for me) and other bands.

Jim Black. Photo by Robert Lewis, from the booklet to "Low Life: The Paris Concert Vol. 1," the Bloodcount CD that started it all for me.
Jim Black. Photo by Robert Lewis, from the booklet to “Low Life: The Paris Concert Vol. 1,” the Bloodcount CD that started it all for me.

That’s the new model of The Stone: An artist gets a week to perform in whatever contexts he or she wishes. It can be a workout for a particular group, just like in the old days of the jazz clubs. More often, it’s a cross-section of a performer’s bands and projects, as Ben Goldberg is doing in the last week of February (first week of March). For Black, it seems, it’s also a chance to regroup with old mates from the ’90s.

With the name “Not Bloodcount,” though, he seems to be signaling that they won’t be playing Berne’s compositional suites. Bloodcount had a brief reunion in 2008, playing new material at shows in New York and Philadelphia, so a follow-up wouldn’t be out of the question, but it looks like the group will be trying something else at The Stone. Maybe an all-improvised set.

By contrast, the Ben Monder Trio‘s set, on March 26, is being billed as a reunion, with Monder on guitar and Ben Street on bass. I came across the trio on the CD Flux (Songlines, 1995), which had Drew Gress playing bass. I seem to remember discovering it while browsing at the Knitting Factory circa 1997. At the time, I was seeking out more of the Bloodcount crew’s previous work, especially Black, so it’s his name that caught my eye. What I found inside was some wondrous guitar work, with Monder spinning wispy chords that seem to never have existed before.

The opening moments of the track “Muvseevum” display what I mean. Here’s an old video of a live performance (with Street on bass):

Dust (Arabesque, 1997), also with Street on bass, has more traditional shadings. The chords are still tangly but in a mellower mode, and the guitar lines tap traditional paths more often. It’s good, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect on me as that first listen to Flux did.

Black’s residency will also include his own piano trio (which is supposed to have an album out sometime around now) but not his half-Icelandic Alas No Axis quartet. That makes sense; aside from the fact that Skuli Sverrisson and Hilmar Jansen might not be available on any given week, Alas No Axis already gets to tour fairly regularly.

Nathan Clevenger Strikes Again

The Nathan Clevenger Group plays Monday, January 6, at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco at 8:30 p.m., the opening act in the venue’s monthly jazz program.

Nathan Clevenger GroupObservatory (Apoplectics, 2013)

Source:; click to go thereBay Area guitarist Nathan Clevenger has a pretty good formula down, using the tight, silky harmonies of conventional jazz charts and applying those sounds to modern composing ideas. Building from a sextet format with two saxes and a clarinet (Evan Francis occasionally provides flute as well), the songs are recorded with a quilted, gentle sound but create space for some spirited soloing.

Observatory is more a jazz sextet album than a guitar album, and it seems like it would be great music for late summer evenings, especially with tracks like “The Letting Down” and its gentle, bluesy air.

That track is also one of the few to feature Clevenger’s guitar, in a patient, gossamer solo. As on his previous album, The Evening Earth, Clevenger’s jazz guitar is in the background, shaping the music while the spotlight goes to the horns. They’re at the heart of the melodies and they get the bulk of the solos. (OK, yes, the horns outnumber Clevenger 3-to-1, so of course they’d get the bulk of the solos. The point is, Clevenger’s role is more as composer, bandleader, and accompanist.)

The overall mood is soft. If I were to play you the first 30 seconds of each song, you’d get the impression of an album of pretty and mellow songs, and that’s not inaccurate. But the music is set up to let the solos really cook. An example is the opener, “The Irreconcilables.” Here’s a touch of the catchy main theme and of Kasey Knudsen‘s alto sax solo toward the end:

I especially liked the opening of “Sleepwalker’s Anecdote,” where Clevenger’s guitar plays a kind of counter-melody that adds a scrambling feel to the pleasant horn lines. (The polyrhythmic drumming of Jon Arkin helps, too.)

And I should probably note the quirky track “Equinauts,” which adds Jason Levis on marimba for an extra touch of whimsy. You also get to hear Clevenger set his guitar on stun.

KZSU Day of Noise: Saturday, February 8, 2014

Day of Noise: at or 90.1FM, Feb. 8, 2014

Thanks to the efforts of Abra (@abraRadio), KZSU will again present the Day of Noise: 24 hours of drone, electronics, ambient, improvisation, and … well, NOISE!

It’ll be on Saturday, February 8, just about all day. That’s 12:01 a.m. or thereabouts, until just about midnight the next night. Find out more and see the full schedule on Facebook.

You can listen worldwide at KZSU’s Web Feed, or in the Bay Area, you can tune us in on good old radio at 90.1 FM. Listening in the car with the windows rolled down, to spread the noisy goodness, is a particular pleasure (and totally comfortable in what passes for February ’round these parts).

Previous Day of Noise posts on this blog:

Adam Lane Trio

Adam Lane TrioAbsolute Horizon (NoBusiness, 2013)

Adam Lane Trio; click to go to NoBusiness Records“Spontaneous compositions,” Adam Lane calls them, rather than group improvisations, and the way these pieces build, the term seems to fit. Some of these improv-jazz pieces feel like they’ve got the blueprint of a composition behind them.

Take the very gradual buildup at the start of “Absolute Horizon.” When Darius Jones enters with his trademark sax wailing (the microtone-packed faltering that comes close to a human voice), he parses out the melody obeying bars-of-four patterns from bassist Lane and drummer Vijay Anderson. The group stops for a Lane bass solo that eventually becomes the intro to a slower, more tense group segment — a nicely planned trajectory that wasn’t formally planned.

Here’s a bit of that weepy Jones sax:

“Run to Infinity” could been a monumental ’60s free-jazz classic, if you hadn’t told me who was playing. The early improvising builds up to a fast bass/drums rhythm, over which Jones chooses to play a slow, serious melody — shades of free speech and radical ideas coming up through the ages — sounding meaningful even as he starts digging and swinging hard. This is free jazz getting down to business, picking a spot to groove and letting the music ride from there.

I’ve always used the word “fluidity” to describe Lane’s bass playing, and you get plenty of that effect here. On the cautiously quiet start to “Apparent Horizon,” you can really savor Lane’s bass against Jones’ sax. He plays in faster modes — both improvising and really fast bebop-bass walking — during the breezy, fast first half of “Light.” He also gets to play rock star in spots; “Stars” pulls out some electric effects that turn the bass into a staticky maelstrom battling the other two players.

Jones himself — who’s previously included Lane in his band — is at home on this album with his storytelling style of sax improvising, freely flowing and emoting in solos that seem more like conversations. Anderson is his usual hyperkinetic self, hammering out blindingly fast, precise rhythms, even when playing with abandon.

“Apparent Horizon,” after its quiet intro, dives into a serious groove around a Lane bass riff. Here you get Jones soloing in a more traditional free-jazz role, with Anderson clattering away on sturdy toms and tapped cymbals.

On “Light,” Anderson and Lane mess with playful beats, letting a couple of upbeat, rhythms (one that’s almost silly) develop into toe-tapping segments. It’s nice material for Jones to work with, and it makes for a bright closer to the album.

A New Voice in Minimalism

Henry PlotnickFields (Holy Mountain, 2013)

Source: eMusic; click to go thereA mini-sensation at KZSU and KFJC in the Bay Area, and probably other college stations nationwide, Henry Plotnick has released an album-length keyboard suite that combines minimalist influences such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It’s compelling and bright, an admirable work. And Plotnick recorded it at the age of 11.

Piano/synth themes, washes of “strings,” and various sound effects combine to form what might seem, on the sruface, to be a new-agey symphony. Which by itself would be an accomplishment for an 11-year-old, but what sets it apart from the Mannheim Steamroller crowd is the insistent pulsing repetition that’s woven into most segments (hence the Glass/Reich comparisons) — it’s layers upon layers that build up slowly in each track, with counterpoint themes piling up to create the feel of a bustling department store at Christmas.

The melody can be a little cloying sometimes. “Field 1” opens with some straightforward major-key anthems, like a warmup (although it quickly shifts into more interesting keyboard patterns). The video-game-sounding melody on “Field 8” struck me as a bit trite, too — but as the counterpoint layers come in, the track becomes more wondrous.

Yes, I might be giving Plotnick extra points for his age. (And I hesitated to write about this at all, because I felt bad saying anything critical about an 11-year-old’s work. When I was 11, I barely knew how to program the TV remote. He’s writing symphonies. I don’t want to sap any of the joy he gets out of it. I honestly hope he doesn’t read his reviews, and I’m glad to find that he doesn’t seem to have a web site, although you can find a lot of him on YouTube, including this impressive hour-long piano improvisation.)

Whether he’s 11, 12, or 121, Plotnick has put together a professional album that works as one long concept. I like his sense of timing and drama in the transitions between the “Field” tracks. They don’t blend into each other either; it’s more that one idea stops and the next one starts without pause, and he’s engineered those spots well. Maybe it’s just something a radio DJ appreciates.

Plotnick can play, too. I liked the soloing of bells on “Field 3,” although they seem to fall behind the beat occasionally — which might be intentional, for all I know. “Field 5” puts analog/Moog-sounding synth in the lead voice, soloing in a rubbery, taffy-pulling way:

For a segment with a more challenging sense of harmony, there’s the intro to “Field 4,” where the strings and bass move at funny angles for a tense, foreboding framework:

Fields did quite well at KZSU in August and topped the station’s overall chart for one week in October. (That’s the overall weekly chart; Plotnick beat out Neko Case.) I had nothing to do with any of that; it was mostly the proselytizing of DJ Miss Information. I hope Plotnick isn’t in a hurry to do another album — he has to spend time being a kid, after all — but I’m more than happy to spread the word about what he’s done on here.

(Unrelated aside: Anybody remember a duo album with Harold Budd and Andy Partridge called Through the Hill? It’s got surface similarities to Fields, down to the geographic album titles and the pervasive use of keyboards. They’re very different projects, though. Fields is more dense and expansive — a wider field of vision, you might say, courtesy of the technological advances of the last 20 years.)