An Improv Trio, Making Up the Rules

Sound Etiquette — Sound Etiquette (Orenda, 2016)

a2542493565_16Oakland-based trio Sound Etiquette starts with the ingredients of fusion and soul — electric piano, sax, and drums, and an open spirit. What they create, though, are improvised pieces across an impressive spectrum of moods ranging from jazzy to jamming to abstract.

The music might appeal to the jam-band crowd, but it feels closer to the realm of hardscrabble free jazz. Each of the pieces on Sound Etiquette’s debut album sticks to one core idea. They set the rules as they go, sticking with them until the song has played itself out.

All the tracks clock in at less then 9 minutes, and most have some grounding in a traditional mindframe of jazz or rock. “Entrance,” for example, does groove, flashing the swagger of jazz electronica. It’s a friendly piece that shows off the band’s charisma.

“A Clearing” builds from conventional jazz patterns: a smoky, bluesy saxophone entrance leading into a coolly swinging piece. And “First Steps” moves like a drunken would-be jam, with Nick Obando creating a mad babble on saxophone backed by Eli Wallace’s stuttering keys — but along the way, you’ll also encounter moments of soulful jazz chording and straightforward rhythm.

Not every piece has to groove. “The Tides” is a sinister simmer, crawling slowly with pulsing electric piano and abrasive, nearly subliminal tones on sax, propelled by whisper-fast drumming.

“Escape Velocity,” on the other end of the abstract spectrum, might be my favorite track: an all-out blowout, with Wallace and drummer Aaron Levin raining fire. Obando’s saxophone is bright and scribbly, building up to some passionate skronking to wake the dead.

Ahmed Abdul-Malik and the Oud

abdulmalik-sahara-cropI had been vaguely aware that Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Thelonious Monk’s onetime bassist, had made strides in mixing “world music” with jazz back in the ’60s, but never investigated the specifics. Coming across his 1965 album Spellbound in a store one day, I decided to give it a try.

Turns out it’s the wrong place to start, but it got me on the right path eventually.

From hanging out at a college radio station, I certainly had heard of the oud, a lute-like instrument that’s ubiquitous in Mediterranean music of the Arabs, Turks, and Greeks. Jazz-minded oud is not hard to find. Oud player Anouar Brahem has gotten a lot of good exposure from ECM Records. There’s also Ravish Momin’s Trio Tarana, an oud-violin-drums band applying jazz soloing ideas to its calmly acoustic Middle Eastern grooves. (More recently, Momin has ventured into electronica with a duo simply called Tarana.)

Spellbound‘s attempt at world jazz, though, is heavy on the jazz. It’s primarily an evening-bop album, well executed straightahead stuff. Oud player Hamza Aldeen appears on only two of the LP’s four original tracks (a bonus track on the CD is an oud-less blues), and his lone solo, on “Song for Delilah,” is treated like an externality — the lone oud with very light bass and a whispered hi-hat beat.

Turns out, Spellbound was Abdul-Malik’s final album as a leader. His previous albums were more involved efforts at introducing the oud and Middle Eastern musical styles to a jazz audience.

malik-spellboundJazz Sahara, from 1958, is the one that’s called out by Jazz Times in this 2012 article. This is a full-out Middle Eastern band complete with Abdul-Malik on oud; Jack Ghanaim on the kanun (qanun), a jangly stringed instrument; and Mike Hamway on the goblet drum (darabeka) — plus saxophone solos by Johnny Griffin. Track times are around 10 minutes each, providing plenty of space for a chantlike groove to simmer.

Griffin, of course, adds the key “jazz” element to the setting. He has a grand time soloing over the changes but hits the novelty angle a bit too hard by quoting, at various times, “Salt Peanuts,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” or the opening shadows of “‘Round Midnight.”

Quotes aside, Griffin’s solos work well, but I get more out of Lee Morgan’s trumpet solos on East Meets West, Abdul-Malik’s 1960 date. Morgan seems more willing to let the surrounding single-chord rhythm steep and flow around him. The carefully emerging trumpet solo on “El-Lail (The Night)” is particularly delicious.

With its longer track times, Jazz Sahara leaves more space for that Middle Eastern sound to brew, and in that sense it feels more authentic. But I find I like many of the shorter, tune-length tracks on East Meets West, partly for the contributions of Morgan. It seems clear, though, that Jazz Sahara was Abdul-Malik’s shot at a real “world music” kind of album. East Meets West feels like it has some business compromises, not only the mainstream-friendly track times but also the inclusion of one straightahead jazz number, “Searchin.'”

Maybe Spellbound represented further compromise. Then again, Abdul-Malik never stopped playing normal jazz; you could also view the album — two of its tracks, anyway — as a true melding of the oud into a full-on jazz setting, rather than a more comfortable environment.

Spellbound is a more-than-competent album, with some eye-opening violin solos by Ray Nance (better known as a cornetist for Duke Ellington), but I’ll stick to the more world-music sounds of Abdul-Malik’s earlier albums.


Ernesto Diaz-Infante’s Noisier Side

Ernesto Diaz-InfanteMy Benign Sword (Eh?, 2016)

diaz-infante-ehMy Benign Sword is a solo acoustic album where guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante madly fiddles — not literally, but in the sense of wringing different types of scribbly, babbling sounds from the instrument.

It has some of the drone/ambiant elements that populate a lot of his other solo work, such as Wistful Entrance, Wistful Exit and this year’s Tunnels, an album of peace inspired by the horrors of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But Diaz-Infante is no stranger to more prickly kinds of experimentation.

“My Forgotten Stars” opens the album in a Derek Bailey dialect, but one that emphasizes notes and tones. The clicks of tightly held strings and a bit of knocking on the guitar body serve as adjuncts to a spattering of tiny notes and small glissandos.

Most of the album is noisier than that, though.

On “Yin” and “The Inside Answers,” it sounds like Diaz-Infante is bouncing a hand up and down the strings, a springy, twangy effect that settles into a groove-based folk ambiance. His approach is harder to decode on “Where Are You? Hope You’re OK,” where the strings rattle continuously like a tuneful roulette wheel — that’s my favorite effect on the album.

I had a bit of trouble with “Moving Away From My Mind,” which is nice and contemplative but is based on that all-too-familiar sound of a guitar’s open strings. (If you don’t play guitar, the track is probably refreshing.)

“Fear of Love” was more my speed, with its gentle sawing sounds and avant-twang tones. It’s a very quiet track, possibly easy to miss if you’re not listening closely, but it’s full of ideas.

You can sample two of the louder tracks on the Eh?/Public Eyesore website.

Donny McCaslin: Going Beyond

Donny McCaslinBeyond Now (Motéma, 2016)

mccaslin-beyondI’ve never been able to fully commit to saxophonist Donny McCaslin‘s music. I appreciate his soaring compositions and his curiosity about electronics, and he does seem to be a musician with a vision, but there’s a sweetness to his writing and his soloing that’s always turned me off.

That element is present on Beyond Now, but even so, I found the album to be powerful and stunning on first listen.

Turns out, it’s all about sequencing.

The story is well told by now: David Bowie hand-picked McCaslin’s quartet to be his band on Blackstar, then died two days after the album’s release. Beyond Now was recorded in the wake of Bowie’s death, and it’s hard not to believe that the wrenching emotions of the moment provided unique fuel for this album.

McCaslin’s band was a wise choice. They’ve become accomplished at painting vast landscapes blazing with intensity. It’s not just McCaslin’s soloing. It’s drummer Mark Guiliana’s ferocity and keen sense of pacing, Tim Lefebvre’s throttling bass work, and the trove of sound effects in keyboardist Jason Lindner’s back pocket.

It all adds up to some intense storytelling in musical form.

The second half of Beyond Now packs four such tracks, most of them starting innocuously before slingshotting you to magnificent heights. This Side 2 sequence, if you want to call it that, starts with the roller-coaster highs of “Bright Abyss” and the pulse-pounding blizzard of “FACEPLANT.” The band takes a breather with the contemplative stillness of “Warszawa” and then moves to the comforting piano chords of “Glory.”

The start of that track feels like a welcome respite — but “Glory” runs hot in its own way. It’s a Metheny-esque track, deceptively pretty but built for

Those four tracks set you up for the closer, “Remain.” It’s a bittersweet anthem that takes its time building to a plasma-fueled crescendo. During that first listen, “Remain” was an emotional wringer, as if the band were trying to transcend the barrier and get one final message out to Bowie.

But here’s the thing.

“Remain” is a pop song originally performed by Mutemath, and it’s rather sappy, and not subtle. It’s drenched in the kind of sweetness that turns me off from some of McCaslin’s music. When I listen to “Remain” by itself, it doesn’t have the same effect. The song’s dramatic buildup doesn’t seem emotional; it’s just slow. And the keening climax of McCaslin’s sax solo feels like TV-style excess.

It’s all about the setting. I needed to be set up by the soaring, questioning, yearning sounds of the other tracks, “Bright Abyss” and “Glory” in particular, in order to buy into “Remain.” By itself, the song doesn’t convince me. But on that first listen, when everything aligned, it was perfect.

One last thing: I love that the album’s two Bowie covers are deep tracks rather than old hits: “Warszawa” from Low and “A Small Plot of Land” from 1. Outside. What great choices. Jeff Taylor adds jazz-appropriate vocals to “Small Plot of Land,” a velvety sound that turns out to be not far removed from the original. It’s a good track, carrying the tension and hint of menace that I want to remember Bowie by.

Hyper+ Plus ElSaffar

Hyper+ Amir ElSaffarSaadif (nusica, 2016)

09The Italian trio Hyper+ has a bright sound and a loose demeanor that match trumpeter Amir ElSaffar well. The four players combine forces for an intriguing session on Saadif, one of the latest albums from the nonprofit group

ElSaffar has made his name with a couple of well-received albums on the Pi Recordings label, mixing Middle Eastern elements, including chant-like vocals and microtonal scales, into a very New York brand of modern jazz.

Hyper+, meanwhile, favors perky, smart tunes that swing pleasantly. The jazz tradition is never far away — the tune “Futuritmi” includes some trading fours — but they’re thoroughly modern in their approach.

It’s a nice match. The horns of ElSaffar and saxophonist Nicola Fazzini (also of XY Quartet, another band on the nusica label) blend frequently and feed positively off one another. Pieces such as “Hyper Steps” or “13th of November” feature moments of the horns’ improvising intertwining; even when it’s just a fill to augment the other horn’s solo, it’s a warm touch.

The cohesiveness of the music is surprising because the moods of Hyper+’s and ElSaffar’s compositions contrast so starkly. Hyper+’s approach feels direct, even when the composition is a bit complex, as in the irregular hopping of the tune “Hyper Steps.” ElSaffar’s songs, on the other hand, bring solemn traditional elements, including singing, to the introductions of “Kosh Reng” and “13th of November.”

All is good in the end, though, as the ElSaffar songs eventually open up into a jazzy space that the whole group can occupy. The mood might be a little downcast, but the improvising still shines. I’m thinking particularly of “13th of November,” which gets into a sensational, gray-skied group improvisation with the two horns dancing against Alessandro Fedrigo’s acoustic bass guitar. Eventually, drummer Luca Colussi launches into a snappy groove as the song finally turns a little bit sunny for a final theme.

hyper_13gennaio-02ElSaffar’s “Human Tragedy” ends the album on a more upbeat note than you might think. Set at a midtempo gallop, it sets up some fluid soling by Fazzini and a nice but brief bass solo by Fedrigo.

You can hear the entire album at — and remember, they’re a nonprofit, so purchasing one of their CDs would be a nice gesture.

A Pauline Oliveros Walkabout

It wasn’t until days after the fact that I learned Pauline Oliveros had passed. So, I spent part of the past week absorbing random samples of her work.

Oliveros will be remembered as a pioneer of electronic music, a director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now succeeded by the New SFTMC and sfSound’s annual tape music festival), an improviser who crafted the philosophy of Deep Listening, and a female composer and crusader against sexism in classical and new music.

NPR had a nice obituary covering those points. The New York Times ran a good piece as well, penned by Steve Smith, a longtime arts writer with deep roots in jazz, classical, and metal.

I started my Oliveros walkabout by listening to “Bye Bye Butterfly,” her seminal 1965 electronics work, for the first time. Its source material includes a recording of Madama Butterfly, the opera, spun on a turntable and run through “oscillators and a tape delay,” as Smith describes it.

For a dose of Oliveros’ accordion playing, Roulette TV has a 20-minute performance followed by a brief interview. The music is a droney sheen, drawing you in to hear the buzzing harmonies.

Here’s something out of the ordinary: Circa 1993, Oliveros scored a dance-performance piece called “Ghostdance.” Created by Paula Josa-Jones, it’s meant to be performed in an area such as a park, so that the location becomes part of the piece. Oliveros’ score is as ethereal as you’d expect. There’s a lot more info on Josa-Jones’ website.

I also picked up The Roots of the Moment, the 1988 Hatology album, rereleased in 2006, that situates Oliveros’ accordian in the “interactive electronic environment” created by Peter Ward. He adds electronic touches, turning the accordion’s sound into endless shimmering planes of music. At first, I assumed Ward’s contributions were pre-recorded — tape music to guide Oliveros — but it blends together so nicely, I wonder if he was recording and playing back samples, like Robert Fripp does with Frippertronics.

For a deeper “deep listening” experience, I devoted some time to the album that’s actually titled Deep Listening (New Albion, 1989). Oliveros, trombonist Stuart Dempster, and vocalist Panaiotis, along with engineerAlbert Swanson and a didjeridu that one of them played, recorded it in an army cistern 186 feet in diameter, letting the reverberations layer over one another. Gentle waves of sound overlap and dissolve; it’s a different kind of “ambient” music.

Surplus 1980, Back at the Starry Plough

dscn3540moeMoe Staiano’s brainy punk band Surplus 1980 has been playing gigs again. I finally caught up with one — at the Starry Plough on Saturday night.

The band’s music, documented on the album Relapse in Response and the EP Arterial Ends Here, works from often stomping rhythms, sometimes with tricks like the occasional odd time signature. Math rock and jazz aren’t far removed from Surplus 1980’s explosive punk. In the studio, Moe can bring in guest musicians to flesh out the jazzy ideas, but there’s no substitute for seeing the band live and getting caught up in those infectious rhythms.

Mark Pino plays drums for the band, and Staiano occasionally joins him on a second drumkit. I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to watch Staiano on the drum kit, bashing away in a state of manic control. A couple of songs on Saturday night had the two of them bashing away at unison phrases while the two guitars provided chunky riffs as well as bouts of electric noodling and triggered keyboard sounds.

This was bassist Steve Lew’s last gig with the band. On a sadder note, the whole night was overshadowed by the tragic warehouse fire in Fruitvale, news of which had spread earlier in the day; Surplus 1980 gave their proceeds to the victims and passed out a donation jar as well.

I regret that I missed the previous set, of John Shiurba’s Vegan Butcher. It’s guitar-based slowcore, and I like what I’d heard of it on Bandcamp. Hopefully there’ll be more chances to see both of these bands in the coming year.

(Photo, left to right: Moe Staiano, Melne Twf, Steve Lew.)

Another Day With the Fred Frith Trio

Fred Frith Trio performs Dec. 3 at St. Cyprian’s Church (2097 Turk Street, San Francisco) on Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m.

Fred Frith TrioAnother Day in Fucking Paradise (Intakt, 2016)

frith-anotherWith a title like that, you’re not expecting a bucket of sunshine. And indeed, the Fred Frith Trio’s debut album delivers a long-form improvisation that’s often dark and ghostly, with Frith playing plenty of sinister, echoey tones against the deep, nimble bass of Jason Hoopes and the often aggressive drumming of Jordan Glenn.

There’s a happy subtext to all of this. Hoopes and Glenn were students of Frith’s at Mills College. They’re part of a collective of prog/pop/folk-minded musicians Frith had mentored, work that resulted in bands like Jack o’ the Clock, which includes Hoopes and Glenn, and Frith’s own Cosa Brava.

The Fred Frith Trio debuted last year with a show at Slim’s in San Francisco, followed by a tour in Europe. I’m calling Another Day in Fucking Paradise a long-form improvisation, which would match the strategy the band used at the Slim’s show, it appears to really be a set of studio improvisations stitched into one long piece with 13 track divisions. There might be some overdubs involved as well; Frith is keen on the idea of touching up an improvisation for the sake of a recording.

The album generally follows a fast-slow-fast trajectory — meaning, the tracks in the middle cover slower, subtler territory. That’s where some of the trio’s darkest and most intersting music gets made. The 11-minute “Yard With Lunatics” starts with Hoopes and Glenn spewing shards of nighttime glass but quickly levels into a spacious plateau, full of ghostly guitar and bass statements left to linger in the air, backed with swampy electronic squiggles and blips.

Of course, the faster segments are fun, too. Early in the album, “Dance of Delusion” and “La Tempesta” feature lots of Hoopes’ throttling electric bass sound and some rapid-fire clatter by Glenn. Frith is all over the place, as you’d expect — but even when Frith is in a “lead” role, it often feels like he’s tending to the overall tapestry rather than taking center stage.

The last third of the album has Hoopes turning to acoustic bass, strolling melodically through the clutter and cobwebby guitar effects of “Straw Man,” and eventually bowing on “Schelechtes Gewissen,” an incongruously organic sound against Frith’s tight staticky guitar fuzz and Glenn’s aggressive drums.

“Phantoms of Progress” has a jam feel, with droplets of psychedelic guitar echoing against Hoopes’ hopping, jazzy bass melody — it’s a very nice choice for the penultimate track. “The Ride Home” closes it out with a shuffling rhythm and some peaceful electric-bass melody. Frith hovers in the background, spinning near-rhythms and near-melodies to keep things just a little unsettling.