Berkeley Arts’ Last Stand

dscn3521-greenlief-cutFor five years, Berkeley Arts Festival has hosted a variety of music shows, including a creative-music series curated by Phillip Greenlief. It’s also an art gallery that’s hosted various exhibits and events.

An oasis like this rarely lasts, especially when it’s in an economically desirable spot like downtown Berkeley, one block from the U.C. campus. Berkeley Arts is pulling up stakes in a few days. I’m assuming it’s the usual story of the building being sold. In fact, the hardware store next door has already vacated.

For his final show at the space, Greenlief convened a couple dozen musicians last night to perform one big, sublime, conducted improvisation called “Index.”

“Index” was based on a graphical score, with Greenlief cueing musicians in and out, creating episodes that crested and then shrank back down. After the show, he talked about the “reverence” that permated the piece — no one broke loose and really went nuts. There was a conscious effort to keep within the boundaries of the piece, maybe in deference to the community feel of the concert. This being the final Berkeley Arts show, dozens of people turned out.

For an additional emotional note, this band was considered a convening of OrcheSperry, the improvising orchestra created in honor of bassist Matthew Sperry, whose life was cut short in a traffic accident more than a decade ago.

Each phase of “Index” began with Greenlief picking one or two players to rebuild the sound from silence or near-silence. Most of the entrances were subdued, letting the blanketing air linger around the music. Gradually, Greenlief added more players until an active jam developed. He’d let that ride for a while, then drop out most or all of the musicians at once, flashing a sign with the Ø symbol to queue them to wrap up their statements.

Electronics figured heavily into the piece. Not just laptops, but good old fashioned analog as well — check out Thomas DiMuzio‘s cabling in the photo up top. Even Tom Bickley, who plays recorder, put a mic on his instrument, turning it into a growling nightmare wolfhound. (This was really cool.) The four electronics players each had their solo moments, but their main contribution was to color the periods when the energy began to surge, filling the gaps with crunches and swirls. It was a nice effect of busy-ness that helped spur the music forward.

One thing to understand about Berkeley Arts: It’s divided into two long, thin galleries, which meant the large band and relatively large audience were both arranged in long rows. I sat to one side of the band and didn’t get to see who was on the other end, in the percussion section.

dscn3519-setup-cutThat created some pleasant surprises. I hadn’t realized there was a vibraphone in the house, or that someone would be playing the piano, but boom, there they were. There was a long percussion solo that sounded like sand being poured onto a drum. I didn’t find out who that was, but Suki O’Kane, who’d brought an enormous bass drum, seems like a good suspect.

The point is, some sounds seemed to come out of nowhere. Even people in the band were saying they had that experience.

One thing that made Index work was that Greenlief, as far as I could tell, never felt obligated to get the entire band playing at once, not even for a “grand finale” moment. That kept the sounds focused, with few cases of players drowning one another out. What we essentially heard was a rotating ensemble, ranging from 1 to maybe 10 people at a time. And when violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul and cellist Crystal Pascucci hit the right moment during a duet — with Fluke-Mogel playing a few loud strums on the violin, as if it were a guitar — it was time, and the piece ended.

In all, it was a nice finale for Berkeley Arts. But it was also a chance for all of us, including members of the band, to thank Phillip for curating this series. It’s hard work, but it helps the community so much. Thanks, Phillip.


A Crimson Break, 2016

In my bachelor days shortly after college, my day-after-Thanksgiving ritual was to hole up in the apartment, stack up some albums and CDs to listen to, and fire up the Civilization computer game for a day-long session of empire-building, fueled by Stouffer’s and soda.

That was 25 years ago. Today, I have wife and kids — and, this year, a sick pet — to fill the day. The PC that used to run Civilization is long gone, and I can’t afford the time to dive into the likes of Civilization VI (and besides, the game sounds like it’s become too much like an actual job).

DGM5013_booklet_pairs_DGM5001 bookletStill, in a nod to rituals past, I did take some time shortly after midnight (technically the second day after Thanksgiving) to fire up the computer and spin some prog. The game this time was much less epic — I’ve gotten addicted to in the past week and am hoping to burn out on it before I have to go back to work. And the prog was modern-day, but still appropriate for some nostalgia: I’d finally taken the time to get my hands on King Crimson’s Live in Toronto, recorded in 2015 with the new three-drummer lineup.

I went out of my way to avoid seeing the track listing. And I did my best to try to focus on the drummers from time to time, more so than normal. It was fun.

Live in Toronto is an official bootleg, meaning the sound quality isn’t pristine. The drums, in particular, aren’t miked loudly, which is actually good — the CD delivers the DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS sound at appropriate moments, but the drumming doesn’t overshadow the rest of the music. Tony Levin comes through the mix clearly; you don’t have to struggle much to hear him.

The band has a retro touch, between Jakko Jakszyk’s very “prog” vocals (on the order of Greg Lake but crisper) and the presence of Mel Collins, the sax man who was a fixture of ’70s British prog, including early Crimson. The bluesy accents of “Pictures of a City” and “Vrooom” really come out, between the guitar choices and the sax assisting the melody.

The most obvious drummer spotlights are the all-drums track “Hell Hounds of Krim” and the triple solo during “Meltdown,” but one moment that stood out to me was during “Vrooom,” as the drummers playfully handed off high-hat rhythms. The drummer to the left (Pat Mastelotto, judging from the cover photo) plays a quick rhythm, with the center and right-hand drummer following (it’s Bill Rieflin, then Gavin Harrison, I think).

For me, the drums are particularly enjoyable during the quiet segments, with each drummer providing improvised nibbles of texture. But you can’t beat the excitement when all three furiously pound away.

Even so, live recordings don’t give you the full-body experience of being there. Much of the band’s presence is lost in my cheapo audio setup. “Red,” in particular, didn’t feel like the usual ocean wave of force — although when the three drummers kick into full gear at once, it’s massive.

The big, booming older material was welcome, but it also warmed my heart to hear the “Discipline”-like guitar weaving on “Meltdown,” only because it’s been a while since I’ve listened to that kind of Fripp/Crimson. I could actually do without “Epitaph” in general, but it makes for a powerful ending to the first disc, and being in a mood for some nostalgia, I enjoyed it. Nice place to visit.

And now the horrible confession: Between the late hour and my age, I didn’t have the stamina for Disc 2. Luckily there’s a good long weekend ahead. Long live the Crims!

(Random bonus link: Tony Levin’s tour diary, stuffed with photos, as usual.)

ROVA’s Celebration of Butch Morris

ROVA: OrchestrovaNo Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)

rova-noThe beauty of conduction, Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ method for conducted improvisation, is in the silences.

Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.

No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.

In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.

ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.

The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.

“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in

Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”

“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.

Source: ROVA
The instrumental groupings (strings/rock/ROVA) are crucial to “The Double Negative,” which starts with each group giving an opening statement, directed by graphical scores. You get whispery strings, a delicate sax quartet, and as an exclamation point, a guitar-bass-drums segment anchored by Jason Hoopes‘ rattling bass. The piece ends with the three groups merging in a glorious slow crash.

Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.

And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.

Gustafsson, Minimalist

Mats Gustafsson & Christof KurzmannFalling and Five Other Failings (Trost, 2016)

gustafsson-fallingThese experiments in sound situate Mats Gustafsson, that firebrand of the sax, in minimalist mode — small blips, often repeated in simple percussive fashion, against the often sparse laptop electronics of Christof Kurzmann. It’s a march through a distant alien world of crackles, sine waves, and floating musical notes. The overall effect is sparse — and rewarding, if you’re in the right mood.

“Failing II,” for instance, pits Gustafsson’s restrained high-register scribbles, like the motions of an insect, against swirling, static electronic tones. Kurzmann also reflects some of the saxophone sound back into the mix for a brief spate of multi-tongued babble.

The quiet aesthetic peaks on “Failing IV,” where the clacking of saxophone keys and small, crisp curls of digital sound create a noise-music sotto voce. Similarly, “Failing V” starts off quiet as a hearing test, with Gustafsson trading tiny whispers of melody against small puffs of computerized sound.

Kurzmann does produce a sense of tension and drama, though. “Failing V” eventually introduces a quiet pulse that frees the mood and lets both players get more aggressive (but still quiet). On the less subtle scale is “Failing III,” a saxophone dirge where Kurzman is at first barely audible but gradually ups the volume and the activity (including samples of lonely sax tones) to momentarily overtake the sound.

Five of the tracks are improvisations. The sixth — the one called “Falling” as opposed to “Failing” — has Kurzmann on vocals, singing and speaking in soft, close-miked tones over a strain of electronic tones. It’s slow and atmospheric, but it’s the most aggressive track, in its own drawn-out way.


Halvorson Octet

Mary Halvorson OctetAway With You (Firehouse 12, 2016)

halvorson-awayThis time, it’s an octet.

Mary Halvorson‘s band, once a trio with Ches Smith (drums) and John Hébert (bass), was supposed to stop growing at the septet phase, but then she encountered pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. The result is another fine album of compositions where Halvorson creates uplifting tunes with rich arrangements for the four horns and generous spaces for thrilling solos.

Often, the compositions germinate from Halvorson’s penchant for spidery single-note lines. The horns team up to overlay those patterns, or to cut across them, creating a textures. Halvorson told The New York Times that her solo guitar album, Meltframe, pushed her to think about the music in more orchestral terms, and she’s applied those learnings effectively with this band.

Given the players involved, all of whom have established themselves as bandleaders, you can see why Halvorson was enthused to bring the septet back. Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock bring some ferocious sax solos, and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jacob Garchik (trombone) add a glinting bite to the music.

The upbeat title track kind of parallels the band’s evolution. It starts with the guitar-bass-drums trio playing what’s almost a doo-wop tune, with Halvorson’s guitar chattering over a catchy chord progression that eventually twists away from the norm. As the theme repeats, the horns enter in two layers — one countermelody, one backing harmony, for a nice dramatic effect. Then Alcorn gets a spotlight, adding a touch of mystery.

I have to admit, the opening theme of “Away With You” doesn’t quite click with me. It’s elegantly and smartly arranged, especially the two layers of horns, but the main theme itself leaves me flat, which makes the whole structure less compelling. The spaces that follow, though, use the band efficiently — open spaces for solos to shine and for comping players like Alcorn to add some special frills.

Overall, though, I really like the way Halvorson puts the band to use. A track that really succeeds for me is “Spirit Splitter,” which includes into stone-skipping horn countermelodies and thickly built harmonies. In a thrilling sequence, the song pits eerie, rubbery guitar chords behind a furious sax solo (Irabagon, I think) with other horns joining one by one for a sense of acceleration.

Getting back to Alcorn: Her presence on the album is often subtle. She uses her guitar in off-kilter ways for a theremin-like touch, providing a nicely contrasting companion to Halvorson’s guitar. I like the way they dance in unison on “Sword Barrel,” slowly in the intro, and then in a jumpy way later on.

A free-jazz setting suits Alcorn nicely, as shown in her tangled solo on the spacious “Fog Bank,” or her plaintive trio with Halvorson and Hébert to start “The Absolute Almost.” A complete piece in itself, that trio intro comes to a peaceful, satisfied conclusion, then gives way to the horns, in sun-through-clouds flourishes backed by pulsing guitar chords.

The Curvature of Monk

Oil painting by Boris Chaliapin, photo by Cliffords Photography (CC2.0 license).

What drew me to Thelonious Monk was the fulfilled promise of what drew me to jazz in the first place: this promise of complexity, of a depth that I wasn’t getting any more from rock.

I mean “complexity” in a nonacademic way — what I enjoyed about Monk was the cryptic nature of his melodies. A song like “Well You Needn’t” made little sense to me the first time around, or the second. I could hear the theme, but it took a small amount of work to understand the song on its own terms.

I loved that. Same with prog rock. Those 5/4 and 13/8 melodies might take a couple of listens to decipher, but once that was accomplished, the music became more rewarding than ordinary pop. (I’ve since learned that pop bands can reward you in this way, too. Devo’s “Clockout” comes to mind.)

Monk was a different type of challenge, and a fun one to conquer.

But as Pitchfork contributor Carvell Wallace argues, in an article published in April, Monk wasn’t writing unusual melodies just to be weird. Well, it’s possible he was; Wallace entertains the thought that Monk is just trolling us. His primary argument, though, is that a sense of identity was at stake, not just for Monk, but for black culture.

Sometimes it seems the entirety of black American music is about this: trying to carve out a space unspoiled by the overbearing whiteness of being. Slave songs were coded messages about escape and freedom. Blues was filled with complex and culturally specific imagery. Jazz expressed an attempt to deconstruct and complicate American band music in a way that captured the violent and frenetic pace of life in northern cities.

Blues and jazz have now been co-opted by the rest of us. Monk’s music is the norm. Likewise, Ornette Coleman still isn’t for everybody, but his compositions show up on some surprisingly mainstream albums.

That’s why innovation in black music shifted to the sphere of hip-hop, Wallace argues. Discussing some pivotal moments of the ’90s, he writes:

These contradictions weren’t just to be weird. They were meant to leave your ass behind. If you didn’t understand how these things worked together, then it was not for you. Every moment of this progression consists of a black artist making something that challenges the norm and tries to give life to the specificity of their experience. Every moment imbues the maker with the power that comes when you create music that is direct, epic, and (most importantly) impossible to understand for people that don’t live it. Doing things wrong is often how black people create their own freedom. 

Whatever the “meaning” behind Monk’s crooked sense of melody, it’s produced a rich body of work that’s now a staple of jazz music and a cornerstone of American art. Monk is the mainstream.

I feel a little bit bad about that, but I’m not sure that I should. This is progress. This is the world expanding its horizons. Monk might have been writing for himself, or to pave his own sense of culture, or just to have a laugh on white people. No matter his motivations, he produced music that stretched minds in new directions. We’re glad for that.

Meanwhile, the artists striving for their own sense of identity have been pushed into new forms and new directions. In a perverse way, that’s the gift we give back.

An Amazon River Spirit in Sweden

Amazonas [featuring Biggi Vinkeloe] — Deep Talk (SODA, 2016)

deeptalk-amazonasSwedish trio Amazonas mixes jazz with the earthly sensibility of the rain forest. It’s not new age — in fact, it often sounds like a bustling take on late-night club jazz — but it carries that same sense of calm. The green fronds on the cover are an apt image.

In the past, Amazonas has included a vocalist as a fourth member. For their fifth album, Deep Talk, the group has brought in fellow Swede Biggi Vinkeloe, who’s also a frequent Bay Area visitor and resident.

I’ve mostly heard Vinkeloe in the context of free improv, but her recent album Jade, an ambitious project featuring a church organ and a choir, gave me a sense of her playing in a context closer to conventional music. She exercises some of those same muscles on Deep Talk, showing off her jazzy side on flute and sax

These tracks are improvised but focus on building melodic structures. On “My Shaking Hands,” Anders Kjellberg‘s drums set up a steady beat of sandy percussion; it’s just a drum kit, but the sound just feels at peace with itself. Annika Törnqvist‘s bass sets up a steady pulse, and the combination feels like a stroll through the gentle rain forest suggested by the band’s name and the album cover.

Above all that, Vinkeloe’s flute flutters and darts like a bird, aided by snatches of vocalizing. Thomas Gustafsson‘s soprano sax, charged up with reverb, essentially plays the part of a second flute, creating intertwining melodies over the rhythm section’s footfalls.

There’s an edge to tracks like “Mad Chat” and “Breaking News,” which spring out of the gate with galloping drums and bass, while the two horns share “soloing” duties in a collaborative way. It’s no so much a dual solo as it is a collectively painted portrait.

While much of the album evokes images of nature and peace, “The Snake” is a bit different. It’s got an oddly grooving rhythm and some of the most frenzied sax playing on the album, which makes the video’s placid images seem a bit incongruous. The video serves well, though, in presenting the band’s aggressive and peaceful sides.

A Side Shot of Human Feel

Human FeelParty Favor [EP] (self-released, 2016)

humanfeel-favorI’m one of those people who mourns the things lost in the digital age of music — things like record-store bin-digging. But one of the advantages of the digital age is the ability to release songs in small handfuls. You no longer have to amass an album’s worth of material before having something to say. Weird Al Yankovic, for instance, has talked about eschewing albums in favor of just releasing singles from now on. And yes, I just cited Weird Al in a context serious enough to include the word “eschewing.”

Human Feel is one of those treasures of the New York “Downtown” era, a quartet driven by quirky composing, tetherless improvising, and Jim Black‘s sometimes thundering drums. They’re still around, but all four members have their own careers as bandleaders, which must make group efforts difficult. They managed to record and tour a few years ago, but how often is that going to really happen?

Maybe the answer is to do as much as you can whenever you can. Party Favor is a three-track EP. Back in the ’90s, we would have called it a CD single. Nice new dose of music without having to wait for a full album.

“Alar Vome,” a title that has a very Andrew d’Angelo feel to it, is an emotional anthem, slowish and big. “Eon Hit” is a catchy ditty with the horns in tight harmony and a light, pattering rhythm. And “Half-Bassed” is an exploration in low, crystalline tones that eventually bursts into slow-motion ragged glory.

You can find the EP on Bandcamp or CDBaby.

If Party Favor isn’t enough of a Human Feel fix, there are three unreleased live tracks available for listening on Soundcloud, posted by saxophonist Chris Speed to the Skirl Records account. They’re worth a listen not only for the avant-jazz goodness in general, but also to hear Kurt Rosenwinkle in full freak-out mode. Observe: