Archive for January, 2017

I Remember DR. MiNT

drmint2

Source: Orenda

DR. MiNT — Voices in the Void (Orenda, 2017)

When you volunteer at a radio station, a lot of music passes through your ears. You forget a lot of it of course — but you retain a lot more than you’d think.

I remember, for instance, learning about all kinds of great Southern California musicians through the labels pfMentum and Cryptogramophone. In the Vinny Golia and Nels Cline camp, for instance, there’s bassist Steuart Liebig, who produced lots of creative stuff, from the chamber-jazz suits of Pomegranate to three CDs from his out-jazz bar band, The Mentones. (“Bar band” is my description; they rock out and even have a harmonica player.)

Liebig’s prolific nature helped him stick in memory, but others managed to stay there despite crossing my orbit only once, often because the music was good and the CD was at my fingertips in rotation for nine weeks, like a reliable friend.

That’s how the name DR. MiNT stuck in my head. It’s a catchy name, but I also really liked their CD, Visions and Nightmares (pfMentum, 2008; available on eMusic and Bandcamp). Here’s how I described it at the time:

Mix of free jazz and psych guitar in a multifaceted jam. Many tracks start off with a low-level burble of electronics, synth, and drums, a bit like experimental dance electronica. Then, the sax and trumpet come in for some free-jazz sounds often backed by a solid and ferocious drum beat. Some nutty guitar also adds a psych/fusiony kind of craziness. Great stuff with a fresh sound.

But after its time in rotation was up, DR. MiNT dropped off my radar.

Fast-forward nearly 10 years …

drmint-a2879219858_16After being contacted by the trio Sound Etiquette, I checked out their label, Orenda — which turned out to be carrying the torch for some of the Southern California creative-jazz scene. One of the bands on their roster turned out to be Dr. MiNT — and memories of Visions and Nightmares came flooding back.

It got even better: Dr. MiNT was still active. They just dropped new album, Voices in the Void (officially released on Jan. 27), and they’re performing Sunday night, Jan. 29, as part of the Orenda third-anniversary bash, being held at Los Angeles’ Blue Whale jazz club.

Jazz horns, funk bass, psychedelic guitar, a touch of metal, occasional flashes of electronics — it’s all here on Voices, as is a new strategy that’s paying off handsomely: Unlike their older albums, this one is not fully improvised. Instead, on-the-spot improvisations were smoothed over to create compositions.

That’s basically the description of a normal free-jazz band, I know (although other artists might groom the compositions more, whereas DR. MiNT tries to preserve the suddenness of it all). But I like that they’re trying a different approach — and I like the result, which comes across sharply focused.

Much as I enjoyed Visions and Nightmares, I have to admit it drags sometimes. Long-form improvisations do benefit from quiet stretches, but it’s tricky to keep the momentum and “storyline” going while recharging. DR. MiNT didn’t fully achieve that on Visions.

Voices in the Void is tighter. “Down to One” is a healthy blast, opening with a very brief horn fanfare before letting Gavin Templeton’s free-funk sax and Alex Noice’s rock-out guitar take over.


Caleb Dolister’s snappy drum work has a lot to do with DR. MiNT’s sound. He’s the battery driving “Down to One” and the power punch behind the blasting midtempo of “Nymbists.” As that track turns jazzy, with criss-crossing horns, Dolister downshifts nicely to reset the mood while keeping the sound crisp.

“spacerobot[dance]” shows off a funky beat dolled up with a touch of EDM (garbly electronic sounds possibly generated by guitar). Templeton and trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom deliver inspired solos over Sam Minaie’s rolling, synth-like bassline.

“n-drift” is terrifically clean and bright — an ace trumpet solo gets augmented with fusion-esque guitar and sprinkles of electronics, and it’s a really nice moment when the band flows into a rolling composed segment. Below, see a live performance of this one from the Blue Whale last year.

So that’s been my re-introduction to DR. MiNT and my introduction to Orenda records. The band members are featured on plenty of other Orenda releases, so there’s a lot to explore in there.

As for pfMentum and Cryptogramophone, they’re still fighting the good fight. pfMentum founder Jeff Kaiser has left California but still releases albums at a prolific rate; the label’s latest features Bay Area electronics wizard Tim Perkis. Violinist Jeff Gauthier has slowed down with Cryptogramophone, but the label is gearing up for the March 10 release of Alex Cline’s latest, Ocean of Vows.

Hat tip: Avant Music News.

January 28, 2017 at 11:17 am 1 comment

The 2017 Day of Noise Schedule Is Up

2017-rightKZSU’s Day of Noise is imminent, coming on Feb. 4, as I wrote here.

The full schedule has now been posted to KZSU’s site. Give it a click to see the 40+ artists who’ll be performing live on-air starting at midnight that Saturday.

You’ll also find descriptions of the artists — important for the groups that consist of a few well known local improvisers, such as Revenant Quartet, Oa, Tiny Buttons, and Ear Spray.

You’ll find KZSU (Stanford University’s radio station) at 90.1 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area. The signal, originating near Palo Alto, tends to reach from the city’s SoMa district down to at least San Jose, and possibly eastward to Fremont (I haven’t check that direction in a long while).

And if you’re not local to us, the web feed is at http://kzsu.stanford.edu/live/.

The fun starts at midnight (I prefer to say 12:01 a.m., to avoid ambiguity) on Saturday, Feb. 4. Please join us!

January 27, 2017 at 7:08 pm Leave a comment

Jim Black’s Next Act: Malamute

Jim BlackMalamute (Inkakt, 2017)

black-malamuteMalamute feels like an update of Jim Black’s Alas No Axis band, but with revamped personnel including keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, from the drummer’s piano trio.

In fact, I started out by writing that the quartet on Malamute is an amalgam of those two bands, but that’s not right. Malamute clearly comes from Alas No Axis’ sphere, carrying that same laid-back demeanor fronted by the deadpan saxophone of Óskar Guðjónsson, whose tenor sax could be a stand-in for Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet.

Black’s M.O. involves languid, luscious compositions backed by energetic drumming that I tend to call “rock-oriented,” but there’s more to it than that. The Jim Black sound elaborates on a straight rhythm by adding smart fills and a looming sense that he’s about to unleash with abandon (which, often, he does).

A nice example is “Sought After,” with its steady, perky beat, snappy bass, and pleasant sax melody — instrumental indie rock, really. By the end, the track has become a noisier affair, with the rhythm crumbling like a satellite burning up in re-entry.

 
As that ending suggests, Malamute is replete with new sounds. On “Just Turned Two,” Chris Tordini uses chugging, guitar-like bass (another occasional feature of Alas No Axis) to support the song’s low-key sax and squelchy keyboard electronics. “Chase Rabbit” is a seasick sax-and-synth mixture that paints a blurry landscape for Black’s restless patter.

Stemeseder, so elegant on piano in the Jim Black Trio, seems to have loads of fun playing the role of noise man, whether he’s adding frilly extras on “Toys Everywhere” or creating a staticky landscape on “Stray.” Tordini gets into the act in the second half of that track, building a whitewash of feedback and distortion.

As mentioned, Óskar Guðjónsson — an Icelandic musician who’s played with Skúli Sverrisson, one of Black’s Alas No Axis compatriots — sounds a little like Chris Speed with his sleepy sax sometimes wandering through microtonal territory. “Almost Awake” is a nice showcase for him, starting off in a dreamy mood and building into something faster and noisier, with Guðjónsson still retaining that languid tone while also reflecting the dire tension building around him.

January 26, 2017 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

Charles ‘Bobo’ Shaw

On the heels of the news about Hamiett Bluiett’s health issues comes the passing of his St. Louis compatriot, Charles “Bobo” Shaw.

Both were involved in St. Louis’ Black Artists Group. Shaw’s was more directly connected with one of Bluiett’s World Saxophone Quartet compatriots, Oliver Lake, whose quartet, including Shaw, worked in Europe. If you’re looking for a Bluiett connection, though, he and Shaw were together as late as 2015, when Bluiett’s Telepathic Orchestra played New York’s Vision Festival.

Shaw is one of the many blank spots in my jazz knowledge, maybe because he’s more connected with funky jazz (such as the band DeFunkt) than with the “free” stuff. I’ve been checking out the Human Arts Ensemble, a group that he ended up leading in the late ’70s, which has been a blast.

I love the rough edges on Junk Trap (Black Saint, 1978), the raspy horn tones and the jumbly, not-quite-synched unison lines. The album features a crack band — Shaw (drums), Joseph Bowie (trombone), John Lindberg (bass), Luther Thomas (sax), James Emery (guitar) — so the rawness isn’t a lack of ability; it has more to do with the pure joy being poured into the music. On “Night Dreamer,” Emery even starts channeling Sonny Sharrock; I’m not sure it completely fits that particular tune, but it sure is fun.

But it’s the 1973 album Funky Donkey that shows the Human Arts Ensemble really pushing the needle. The title track is a funk fireball, and “Una New York,” composed by Shaw, has a more mellow vibe but is no less earnest.

I’m sorry I didn’t catch up with Shaw during his lifetime, but I’m grateful for the history lesson.

(Plate o’ Shrimp moment: Another of Shaw’s bands, Solidarity Unit Inc., gets a shout-out by Bryon Coley and Thurston Moore in this 2009 Arthur magazine article. Just above that is a mention of pianist François Tusques — someone else I only recently discovered — performing on Sonny Murray’s Big Chief album.)

January 24, 2017 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

Jack o’ the Clock: The Old City

Jack o’ the ClockRepetitions of the Old City – I (self-released, 2016)

Jack o’ the Clock performs Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th Street, San Francisco). Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows open; it’s a combination I’ve written about previously.

a2120824628_16Jack o’ the Clock‘s sixth album is another engaging collection of songs with prog smarts, jazz chops, and a folk/acoustic sheen.

The band’s chamber-pop aesthetic will get an update as of tomorrow, when they perform their first show without bassoonist and vocalist Kate McLoughlin, who has left the Bay Area. It takes two people to replace her: Thea Kelley will handling vocals — often backing frontman Damon Waitkus, sometimes taking the lead herself — and Ivor Holloway will be playing woodwinds. Bassoon isn’t among them, alas. But his sax and clarinet will have a similar effect playing in tandem with Emily Packard’s violin.

As I’ve been noting since 2011, the band has been a laboratory for an adventurous style of pop songwriting, one that uses prog as its base but adds so many other layers. Repetitions of the Old City continues the expansion of that formula and provides plenty to like: a folky twang to the guitar and violin on “When the Door Opens, It Opens on Everything,” or the long, twisting melodies that open “.22, or, Denny Takes One for the Team.”

 
Waitkus specializes in brainy, poetic lyrics filled with yearning. From “When the Door Opens,” one passage I particularly like: “The sun is like a dying coal, a feeble slap / across the face of February. Now there’s a / vacant house in disarray, the clocks all stopped, / the mirrors face the ceiling.”

The acoustic sounds on Repetitions are lucious, as always, but Jack o’ the Clock is by no means a straight folk band. Modern electronic touches abound. “Videos of the Dead,” for example, is a rather charming tune (despite the title) overlaid with ghostly guitar effects courtesy of guest artist Fred Frith.

It’s wonderful that the band has stuck together for so long. They’re always working on the next set of material, so expect some fresh sounds at the Bottom of the Hill show.

As for the album, it’s been out for about six months and got a good amount of attention. You can see some details on the band’s home page, including a link to an interview with Waitkus on the prog podcast Deep Cuts, complete with thoughts about the meaning of the “Old City” of the album’s title.

You can hear the entire album on Bandcamp.

January 23, 2017 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith: America’s National Parks

Wadada Leo SmithAmerica’s Natural Parks (Cuneiform, 2016)

wadada-parksOn KPFA radio yesterday afternoon, jazz/world DJ Art Sato started his show with a track from Fred Ho, that badass of the baritone saxophone. Ho was a political badass as well, and he would have been out in force this weekend, helping remind the world that the regime taking power in Washington D.C. is not supported by a majority of voters.

In that spirit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) would seem like an appropriate CD to spin right now. It’s not a barn-burner like Ho’s big-band albums. But its scope, sometimes augmenting Smith’s Golden Quartet with a second drummer and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, reflects the unbounded ambitions and determination of the (still incomplete) civil rights movement. As I wrote previously, it makes you feel the weight of history.

Smith’s more recent album, America’s National Parks, would seem to pale in comparison. (It would be hard to reach farther than Ten Freedom Summers did.) But coincidentally, this was the weekend I was hoping to finish a writeup about the album, and hearing Fred Ho on the radio shifted my perspective.

The album is still a political statement, after all, and it could be seen as a voice of protest. As Smith writes, “My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.” Not everybody likes that idea, including, as of now, much of the executive branch of our own government.

Perhaps to emphasize what “common property” ought to mean, three of the six subjects on  America’s National Parks aren’t literally national parks. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” and “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” The first is the birthplace of jazz, a place that should stand out in the American consciousness just as Yosemite does. Southern is a Harvard professor and musicologist who convinced the academic world that black music was a subject worthy of serious study.

America’s National Parks is not a quick listen. The pieces, written for Smith’s quartet (John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Davis on piano, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) plus cellist Ashley Walters, are expansive and gradual. I have to admit my attention wanders during some of the slowly unfolding themes.

The first half of “New Orleans,” for instance, consists of an odd-time bass riff covered by tickles of piano and cello and the cutting blare of Smith’s muted trumpet — a jam in slow motion. It’s only when Davis’ splashy piano enters, and the band kicks into a more jazz-oriented take on the same theme, that my ears perk up.

The tracks devoted to Yosemite and Yellowstone have the grand entrances you’d expect. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” opens with a group improvisation full of big drama, evoking the glaciers in the title.

“Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872” opens with an ominous bass-piano octave and a slow, reverent trumpet line. When the pace picks up, Davis gets showcased again, dabbling against an easygoing bass line and some distant shooting-star squeaks from either cello or trumpet

The longest track, appropriately, is “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” (The titles related to formal national parks include the year the park was inducted. For the Mississippi, we’re reminded that the land doesn’t really belong to us that way.) Like the river, the piece takes its time, wandering around each bend and occasionally hitting a tumultuous span. At one point there’s a slow funk riff backing some exciting drumming by akLaff, followed by a forceful whirlpool of free improvisation.

January 22, 2017 at 10:47 am Leave a comment

Anna Webber: Strange Shapes and Sounds

Anna Webber’s Simple TrioBinary (Skirl, 2016)

webber-binaryI’m partial to the art of surrealist Yves Tanguy, a contemporary of Salvador Dali’s. Whereas Dali used familiar objects contorted into dreamlike shapes, Tanguy’s worlds were entirely alien. His sense of shape and color pointed to other planes of existence: blobby figures that suggested living beings in sparse landscapes under grimly discolored skies.

You could think of Binary‘s cover art as a hypermodern take on Tanguy. But what really brought the painter to my mind was the track “Tug o’ War,” with the piping register of Anna Webber’s flute and the tick-tock percussion from John Hollenbeck. I think it’s supposed to conjure images of a malevolent toy shop, but what sprang to my mind were the puzzling, misshapen objects of Tanguy’s landscapes.


Strange, unexpected logic blossoms all around Binary, with Webber’s flute and saxophone tracing fluid curves and squiggles. Matt Mitchell’s piano sometimes matches the flow, as on the brief, dancing “Meme,” but in other cases, he goes for a blocky, stormy attack.

day-cut

Yves Tanguy, Day of Intertia (detail).
Source: Melt.

The latter strategy turns Mitchell into an accomplice to John Hollenbeck’s pounding drums, creating some highlight-reel moments during the 14-minute “Impulse Purchase.” Hollenbeck also uses his teletype Claudia Quintet style to lend a crisp, modern air to tracks like “Underhelmed.”

The title track is a particularly nice piece of work, patiently building into waves of soulful saxophone against stormy piano chording. It’s an emotional and severe piece, but also downright pretty.

Then there are the “Rectangle” series of miniatures, each packed into a couple of minutes “Rectangles 3b” is all rigid geometry and stiff lines. “Rectangles 3c” is a strident hurry-up beat, minimalism on caffeine with a skip in its step. “Rectangles 1a,” by contrast, starts slowly and builds into an abrasive climax, a complete short story in its own right. Little windows peeking into different worlds, much like paintings in a gallery.

January 19, 2017 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

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