Archive for October, 2016

Generations Quartet: Fonda/Stevens Plus Oliver Lake

Generations QuartetFlow (Not Two, 2016)

generations-flowThe name “Generations Quartet” apparently refers to the youth of drummer Emil Gross, who’s found himself in a supergroup of veterans who’ve helped advance the creative language of jazz.

Me, I prefer to consider the name as a reference to concepts echoing down from past generations, mixing with today’s ideas to create a musical spirit for tomorrow.

Bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens have been partners for decades, not only in the longstanding Fonda/Stevens group but in bands such as Gebhard Ullmann’s Conference Call.  Their calling card is steeped in the traditions of the ’60s, colored with rich creative touches from the worlds of free jazz and free improvisation.

Lake — who recently came through the Bay Area for the Outsound New Music Summit — is familiar with all those languages as well, of course. It all adds up to a depth and reverence in these tracks, taken from live sets in Germany last year.

They do exercise their free-jazz muscles. The track “Flow” features disjoint sax lines, leading into some crooked-line free-for-all playing — high-energy stuff. “Rollin'” is the basic, midtempo jam that the title suggests, but against its bluesy air, Lake is “rolling” at a slightly different pace, playing sour tones and a slower counter-rhythm. His solo eventually works its way into blazing free territory; the groove fractures and yet continues (yeoman’s work by Joe Fonda on bass, freeing up Gross’ drumming).

“Mantra #2” is the one that really echoes down from the ages, with a delicious, deep bassline redolent of that ’60s eternal-seeking vibe. Lake uses that backdrop to build some heartfelt soloing. It isn’t perfectly polished (this is a live take, after all), but I love the way you can hear Lake feeling out the song and the moment, working many different angles to build his statement.

 
“Me Without Bella” deserves a mention, too — a 17-minute exploration that starts as a dirge, eventually building into a midtempo, soul-searching groove. After an arresting bass solo from Fonda, the band really kicks into gear, with Lake in buzzing, fiery mode and Stevens and drummer Gross pounding away — all without losing control of that tempered groove.

October 31, 2016 at 9:10 pm Leave a comment

Reconnaissance Fly at the Octopus

img_2633-reconn-fly-cutIt looks like prog band Reconnaissance Fly picked up a few new fans Wednesday night.

The audience was sparse, sure. It was a Wednesday night and the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland doesn’t look like it has room for much of a crowd anyway. But the people there were open to the music and happy about what they heard. A couple of conversations about the Canterbury sound formed after the show.

I’ve seen Reconnaissance Fly a few times now, so while the music was good, the novelty for me was in seeing the Octopus for the first time. It’s a cozy and modern bookstore and cafe with several shelves of tantalizing books and a menu with microbrews and panini sandwiches.

It seems like a great place to just hang out, which is exactly what was happening — the audience seemed to be folks from the neighborhood who just happened to be out, checking out what the Octopus had to offer. I like that.

The band’s set included most of the new Off By One EP and three new songs by vocalist and flutist Polly Moller. (Most of the EP’s songs were written by bassist Tim Walters.) Given the nature of the venue — small, relaxed, surrounded by books — they did lean more toward their Canterbury side. Lots of relaxed melodies and odd time signatures.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t rock a little. From the drumkit, Larry the O again pumped a lot of energy into the music.

Hopefully some of those new fans (including one who was aware of prog history and early Genesis) really will take time to check out more of the band’s music. And hopefully I’ll take more opportunities to visit the Octopus. Not sure I’m cut out for the literary events that make up the bulk of their live entertainment, but it looks like they book a pretty healthy music calendar.

October 28, 2016 at 10:46 pm Leave a comment

Tender Buttons

tender-buttons-studio-grand

From a YouTube video by Ann O’Roarke

From the “need to get out more” file: Two of the local musicans whom I’ve known the longest have been part of an interesting electronics trio for quite some time, and I never noticed.

Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.

I’ve seen Gino Robair and Tom Djll play in many contexts, including electronics. I’m not as familiar with Tania Chen, but she’s a KZSU Day of Noise veteran.

Here’s the trio in action:


Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.

There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.

Tender Buttons is playing a show on Friday, Oct. 28, at Turquoise Yantra Grotto (32 Turquoise Way, San Francisco), and they’re performing live on KFJC-FM on Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m.

October 27, 2016 at 11:40 pm Leave a comment

Aram Shelton’s Last Bay Area Shows

Gold Age performs at the Woods Bar & Brewery (1701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Friday, Oct. 28.

Gold AgeGold Age (Singlespeed, 2016)

goldageFor the past several years, the Bay Area has been graced with the presence of Aram Shelton, a saxophonist out of the Chicago scene who came here to study at Mills College. He’s moving to Copenhagen in November, so the past few weeks have seen him perform one last spate of shows, kind of a victory lap.

His musical work spans from free improvisation to nearly straight jazz, as a leader and as a sideman. His final shows here have toured different parts of that history, including Wiener Kids, the trio led by drummer Jordan Glenn (it was standing room only, reportedly) and Tonal Masher, Shelton’s experimental project based on saxophone feedback and computer-generated sound.

Gold Age is up next, with a show at the Woods Bar & Brewery this Friday. The band, whose debut album came out in July, is a free-jazz quartet with all four members contributing compositions and showing off plenty of improvisational prowess.

Their easy, liquid sound is colored by the cool hand of Mark Clifford on vibraphone. But it’s also a product of the expert work of Safa Shokrai on bass and Britt Ciampa on drums, holding that balance between a straight groove and outright anarchy.

A good example is “The Docks,” where the solos fly over a rhythm that’s bustling and full of sparkling details.

 
That track and Clifford’s “Levity Faction,” with its broken-swing melody, might be the album’s closest examples to conventional jazz. One of the more swerving departures is “The Hand That Might Mend Itself,” written by Ciampa, which breaks into full-on group improv that intensifies until it’s coalesced into the song’s final theme. It’s a nice display of creative energy honed toward a purpose.

“Show Jumping” is a nice chance to hear Shelton’s bass clarinet in a bouncy, lively setting. “Peach Orchard,” written by Shokrai, opens with sour-toned fluttered notes that slowly build a melodic line; it’s the jumping-off point for a lively midtempo vibraphone solo, followed by Shelton doing some of his most adventurous playing on the record.

You can sample the entire Gold Age album at Bandcamp. Here’s the itinerary for Shelton’s final three shows — until he comes back for a visit, of course.

October 28: Gold Age. Woods Brewery, Oakland. 9pm
October 30: Shelton/Ochs/Walton/Nordeson. The Back Room, Berkeley, 8pm.
November 1: Aram Shelton, Chris Brown, Jordan Glenn. Tom’s Place, Berkeley, 8pm.

October 24, 2016 at 11:09 pm Leave a comment

Counting Narayana’s Cows

Tom Johnson composes pieces that are mathematical almost to the point of parody. The most extreme example is The Chord Catalogue, consisting of literally every possible chord in a particular octave. As I’ve noted before, he plays the chords in order, and the result, depending on your mood, is either amusing or maddening.

“Narayana’s Crows” tilts more toward the amusing side. It’s still a math piece, but it can be presented with some humor, and it builds a melody that’s dynamic and engaging.

I found this one on the Soundcloud page of Splinter Reeds, the all-reed quintet I wrote about a little while ago. The composition is based on an algebra problem credited to 14th-century Indian mathematician Narayana, and it has to do with the number of cows in a herd after successive generations of breeding. It’s a modified Fibonacci series, essentially.

The piece itself consists of a narrative (a little hard to hear in this recording) explaining the setup of the problem. The music itself consists of long and short notes representing each adult and calf in the herd — Morse code for cows. You get the idea pretty quickly.

 
As with all of Johnson’s compositions, the structure is clever and is a big part of the fun. I love his ideas, even the simple ones like The Chord Catalogue. In this case, though, there’s enough rhythmic and tonal variety to produce some interesting music as well — although I’m glad they didn’t do the 20 generations of Narayana’s original problem. The 17th generation alone consists of 872 notes and takes 3 minutes to play.

October 22, 2016 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

Shipwreck 4

Bennett / Johnston / Mezzacappa / RosalyShipwreck 4 (NoBusiness, 2016)

shipwreck4-stOakland’s Shipwreck Studios was devoured in a fire two months after this recording session, but its name will live on through this improvising quartet, featuring three ace Bay Area performers along with Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly.

In an improv context, familiarity can be productive, and you can hear it in the way this group just clicks. Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) are all integral to the Bay Area scene, and they’ve played together in many combinations, including the bands Bait & Switch and Go-Go Fightmaster (which are actually the same quartet under different contexts).

With Rosaly, they spin up some terrific jazz-influenced structures, from the gospel-tinged sunset mood of “The Face Consented, at Last” to the alternating muted/unmuted trumpet melody that Johnston develops at the end of “Bloom.”

“The Storm We See, the Storm We Saw” demonstrates the easy interaction the quartet enjoys. Rosaly lays down an easy, free groove, and the others jump on board — Mezzacappa laying down the mood of the rhythm, with Bennett and Johnston fitting tightly together with congenial thought lines. It all comes together so naturally.

 
There’s a tunefulness to many of the pieces.”Everything’s Coming Up Rosaly” builds from a quiet drum solo into a brief tumult that knits together like a tight composition, with the two horns following one another’s leads.

Intertwining, sleepy melodies characterize the first part of “When Not Night,” supported by appropriately sparse bass and drum parts. The track retains its quiet atmosphere as Bennett lifts off into a long circular-breathing run, burbling and babbling as part of the undertow, with Johnston gradually increasing the intensity in his trumpet phrases.

These kinds of rich musical conversations make Shipwreck 4 a strong album and (apologies to Rosaly) another nice document of the Bay Area scene.

October 21, 2016 at 6:44 am Leave a comment

Frantz Loriot and the Big Picture

Frantz Loriot Systematic Distortion OrchestraThe Assembly (OutNow, 2016)

loriot-assemblyThese are big-concept pieces executed by an 11-piece band including some stars of the Brooklyn out-jazz scene. They go through long stretches of improvising, and as you’d expect, they can produce quite a bit of sound.

But there’s organization: Each of the four mid-length tracks seems to focus on executing a central idea, a particular mood. Violist Frantz Loriot sends his group on an improvisatory mission every time, with volume and cluttery chaos applied to a purpose.

For example, I think of “Echo” as the “blare” piece. Starting from the rudiments of silence, it builds in the form of unison horn notes, serious and slow, backed by clattering percussion (produced by three drummers) and an ominous bass drone. It all builds to a violent climax, but for me, there’s a sense of stillness that pervades the piece.

“The Assembly,” on the other hand, is built to produce a dense rustle. Again starting from practically nothing, it builds up into a jumble of scraped and plucked strings, eventually adding up to an abrasive buzz almost like a noise piece, even though the Systematic Distortion Orchestra is an all-acoustic group.

“… Maybe … Still …” is an exercise in quietude, a poem spoken in dramatic tones by bassist Sean Ali against a backdrop of small, sound-based improvisation — a minimalist industrial vibe that continues in lower-case fashion after Ali has had his say.

And then there’s “Le Relais,” a percussive forest that gives way to the full orchestra, with plenty of emphasis on strings. An octave chord on Loriot’s viola signals the change to the new landscape of quiet rustles and night sounds.

The Assembly nicely pairs planned structure and the glorious chaotic blur of large-group improvising. Thanks to saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer and his OutNow label for giving it an outlet.

October 8, 2016 at 4:07 pm Leave a comment

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