Archive for October, 2015

Tirtha and the ‘Asian Thing’

Vijay Iyer, Prasanna, Nitin MittaTirtha (ACT, 2011)

Iyer/Prasanna/Mitta -- Tirtha (ACT, 2011)Tirtha is a trio jazz album with Indian influences and a tabla in place of a drum kit. But the composing isn’t overtly “Indian,” and in fact, most of the album follows modern-jazz trajectories. Vijay Iyer’s “steel and glass” sound on piano is intact, and Prasanna’s guitar is a springy, jazzy machine that only occasionally touches on Indian scales.

This is a good thing. I don’t mind hearing albums that mesh jazz and Indian music, but Iyer, Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta shouldn’t feel obligated to create that kind of hybrid just because their names are Indian.

The band originated with a 2007 concert to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. Iyer writes in the liner notes:

Heritage matters to me, but I’ve steered clear of fusion experiments that attempt to mix styles — to “create something,” as John Coltrane famously admonished, ‘more with labels, you see, than true evolution.’ For this event, I hoped to avoid those pitfalls, and perhaps instead offer something a little more personal.”

What speaks to me is that Iyer didn’t feel trapped by any sense of obligation. I’m Japanese-American, but I’m fourth-generation, with a heritage that’s more L.A. than Kyoto. I don’t even enjoy Japanese food that much. I do take interest in Japanese culture, but if I were to write, say, a novel, I don’t know that the characters would come out very Asian at all.

(On an almost related note: I’m reading a novel about Japan, An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Who translated it? No one — Ishiguro is British. He also wrote Remains of the Day, the very non-Japanese, non-WWII novel whose main character was played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie.)

While Tirtha does not attempt to be “Indian jazz,” it still willingly taps Indian influences. Prasanna’s composition “Tribal Wisdom” has him adding Indian inflections to his guitar work, and it also features a lengthy and stunning tabla solo by Mitta.

“Gauntlet,” though, is a catchy bit of cerebral rock; it has a simple rhythm, but a prog band could have loads of fun with it. “Duality” generously sprinkles Iyer’s piano sound, cascading like hailstones on a sidewalk against the polyrhythms set up by Mitta’s tabla and Prasanna’s small guitar figures.


I bought this album on a whim at a terrific Ashland, Oregon store called The Music Co-Op. It’s a store with jazz and world music sections — real sections, not the kind curated by “meh, whatever” staff members. Economics dictate that they can’t go too deep, but they had Tirtha. I was happy to reward their good taste.

October 18, 2015 at 11:15 am Leave a comment

The Tim Berne & Steve Byram Book

Tim Berne and Steve BryamSpare (Screwgun*, 2015)

Tim Berne & Steve Byram -- Spare (2015)

Photo lifted from Screwgun Records.

My first real foray into avant-garde jazz was Low Life by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and part of the adventure was the late-night atmosphere of the CD booklet’s artwork — not just the cover, but Steve Byram’s odd scribblings and abstract collages, and Robert Lewis’ obscure black-and-white portraits of the band.

Berne and Byram have collaborated for nearly 30 years now. They met during Berne’s brief tenure as a major-label recording artist, with Columbia, and have been inseparable since.

Now they’ve released a small coffee-table book together, an objet d’art, as NY Times critic Nate Chinen aptly calls it. True to its name, Spare comes in a brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of Berne’s first DIY CDs with his Screwgun Records label.

The illustrations inside the 100-page book live up to the name as well. Byram’s scribbles, hand-drawn or computer-generated, are etched onto blank backgrounds, or occasionally onto stark pages of color or texture. (I’m showing black-and-white pages here, but the book does have plenty of color.)

Berne’s photos — a surreal travelogue — favor dark shadows, and a common theme is rain or fog seen through windows of cars, trains, and planes. Many of them seem to be long-exposure pictures taken on a phone or a point-and-shoot camera, with the inevitable hand wiggles adding a touch of surreal narrative. If you’ve seen the covers to his albums Snakeoil and Shadow Man, you know what you’re getting into. He’s also taken several photos of bandmates, and one of a peeling-paint building that reminds me of the neighborhood near Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris.

Steve Byram drawing, from the book

A plate from Spare.

The quietude of the photos is set against the sometimes jarring design of Byram’s drawings, which often feature humanoid figures built from crazy shapes, using impulsive scribbling to fill the spaces. Randomly, several of the drawings seem to be of wedding couples.

Here, I should make a horrible confession: I’ve never been that much into Byram’s art. I appreciate it — and as I said, it set the right mood for that first listen to Low Life. But I have to admit, a lot of his drawings have that look of five seconds and a cocktail napkin. I enjoy abstract art, but I’m not immune to that lingering doubt: Could my kids have done this?

And yet, I love having a book full of the stuff. Byram creates an unsettling little universe. Touches of humor and sarcasm are in there, and a sense of playfulness. It all seems to tap a common theme, something busy and baffling, with touchstones of familiarity underneath layers of a language I haven’t deciphered.

Actually, maybe that’s the point. I guess I like Byram’s work more than I knew.

The accompanying CD is a live recording of the Snakeoil quartet, mixed mastered by David Torn. [Thanks to Berne himself for the correction.] “Spare Parts” and the suite “OC-DC,” from previous Snakeoil albums, get extended treatments here. The new piece “Lamé” gets explosive after a soothing, twisty composition led by sax and vibes. And the CD opens with “Deadbeat Beyoncé,” a new long-form piece that features a sweeping classical-piano display by Matt Mitchell. Elsewhere on that piece, Oscar Noriega takes a quieter, spare solo that sounds like a different kind of classical — a modern piece, with clean lines and unhurried demeanor.

The disc, which I think is titled Arguis Oleum, has that “live” fidelity but is a welcome addition, almost in the vein of the three-CD Unwound set from Bloodcount (which will always be a pinnacle of Berne’s catalogue). It’s a nice collector’s item.

(* This is the spot where I normally put the “record label” or book publisher. There kind of isn’t one here, this being a one-time project, but you can order the book through Screwgun.)

October 10, 2015 at 1:14 pm 1 comment

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage

Lisa Mezzacappa performs Glorious Ravage one more time: tonight, Oct. 2, at Brava Theater Center (2181 24th St., San Francisco).

steampunkGlorious Ravage is Lisa Mezzacappa’s “panoramic song cycle,” a set of ambitious tunes inspired by the writings of pioneer women — scientists, explorers, and adventurers.

It might sound incongruous, pitting modern jazz styles against words written a century ago. But with an ace 15-piece band, some thoughtful video from four artists, and Fay Victor on vocals, Mezzacappa has created an exciting and uplifting production.

It really is a production, as I saw on Thursday night. Mezzacappa developed the song cycle during the course of this year, a process that included not only writing and rehearsals, but live previews at the de Young Museum and a research visit to the Louise Arner Boyd archives in Marin. She blogged about it all, and it sounds like it’s been quite a rush for her.

The band combines top-notch musicians from northern and southern California. Alongside a team of Bay Area favorites, it includes Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, and Vinny Golia, along with Nicole Mitchell, a stalwart of Chicago’s AACM scene who now teaches at U.C. Irvine.

Lisa Mezzacappa performing Glorious Ravage, 1 October 2015
Then there’s Fay Victor, who inspired the project after impressing Mezzacappa during a 2011 performance together. Based in New York, Victor sings with a voice like Betty Carter’s but also has a penchant for experimenting. Her albums in the mid-2000s includes elements of psych rock and free improv, and she’s more than willing to experiment with sounds.

The lyrics she’s singing are taken from the writings of women who broke with the customs of the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore, whether for science, for adventure, or “for anything but awaited them in their suffocating Victorian parlors,” as Mezzacappa writes in the show program:

“The fact that there was no contemporary precedent for how they chose to live their lives, and the great lengths they went to live so fully off-script, resonated with me enormously.”

The show got its official debut Sept. 25 at U.C. Irvine, followed by a performance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. The Oct. 1 and 2 shows at Brava Theater might sound a little less prestigious, but it’s a lovely theater with an expansive stage that suits the video projections well.

Some highlights of the music:

“Heat and Hurry” displayed a quick-stepping, sophisticated kind of jazz. It was one of a few songs backed by the cut-out animations of Kathleen Quillian — think Terry Gilliam with less silliness and with varying landscapes in the background (jungle, mountains, Hawaiian lava bed). The song was inspired by world traveler Isabella Bird, who “literally fell ill whenever she returned home to the British Isles of her birth,” as Mezzacappa’s program reads.

“Taxonomical” made use of Victor’s creative use of sounds and inflections, because the lyrics are just scientific names of plants in Greenland. It’s from the journal of Louise Arner Boyd, a biologist who lived in Marin and developed a fascination for the Arctic Circle. Her list made for some creative vocal babbling, after an introductory duet that contrasted eerie laptop sounds by Tim Perkis with some brisk vibraphone statements by Kjell Nordeson.

victoBoyd and Bird showed up again in “Shut Out the Sun,” which set one of Bird’s poems against actual video footage that Boyd took in the Arctic Circle. The song featured swaying horn harmonies and attractive piano chords — and later, a sublime flute solo from Mitchell to go with the ice floes and glaciers of Boyd’s journey.

“Soroche” drew from the weird rivalry of Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman, mountain women who were intent on setting world records and got into some heated arguments in the Scientific American letters-to-the-editor column. Victor read just a few phrases, repeating them and twisting them all about with her voice. Later, Mezzacappa and Dresser got into a brief duet, the two basses battling in a frenzy as if to replicate the argument. That was a fun moment, and Dresser continued playing for an equally fun duet with Victor.

“City of Wonders” closed the show with some upbeat music and somber thoughts. The writings, by Ida Pfeiffer and Marianne North, reflected on the negative aspects of the California gold rush and the carving up of redwood forests, respectively — two subjects familiar to anyone who grew up around here. The bouncy and brisk piano/vibraphone lines soon cut away to a swinging, old-timey jazz theme with some cool solos from John Finkbeiner (guitar) and Dina Maccabee (violin).

With professional lighting by Allen Willner and with Bay Area musician Suki O’Kane controlling the video, Glorious Ravage had the look that a major work deserves. There’s one more chance to catch it. And check out Mezzacappa’s interview with KALW-FM to learn more about the show’s historical aspects.

October 2, 2015 at 2:15 am Leave a comment


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