Archive for April, 2017

Billy Drummond

I felt bad about questioning Billy Drummond’s work on Kris Davis’ Duopoly album yesterday. I’m not deeply familiar with Drummond’s playing but of course I know and respect the name. And while I have the right to like or not like any given piece of music, I’m starting to think I could better appreciate Drummond’s contributions to the album given different expectations.

While I wonder if Drummond held back too much on Duopoly, I’m not saying he should have gone for fireworks. One possibility is that he didn’t want to overshadow Davis; another is that he had set his mind toward focusing on subtleties rather than fire, which is certainly a valid goal. There’s no way to know. (And I’m trying not to judge by the video. Discerning a person’s thoughts by watching them on video is not as easy as you think, especially if they know they’re being filmed.)

Philosophical questions aside, I felt I owed it to the music gods to seek out a dose of full-strength Drummond. I’ve certainly heard of him but don’t happen to own any of his output. I wanted something fairly recent, as opposed to his ’90s straightahead albums on Criss Cross, and maybe something a little off-kilter too. I didn’t expect to find anything flat-out avant-garde in his catalogue, but that was part of the point: to applaud Drummond’s willingness to step into that world for the sake of the Duopoly project.

What I found was the track “Hydrogen Atom” by pianist Burak Bedikyan, from Leap of Faith (Steeplechase, 2015). It has a relatively disjointed opening, with lots of free space, and gives Drummond some explosive moments. He has a solo as well, which tends toward the understated side — much as his work on Duopoly did. That might partly be because his solo on “Hydrogen Atom” is also the gateway into the cooldown theme at the end of the song.

Witness:

 
It’s nice work. Maybe I’ll also take in one of those Criss Cross albums as well, before I give the Duopoly tracks another listen.

April 30, 2017 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

The Art of Process

Kris DavisDuopoly (Pyroclastic, 2016)

duopolyI wanted my first listen to Kris Davis‘ Duopoly to be an uninterrupted viewing of the 80-minute video of the performances (available online or as a DVD sold with the physical CD). It’s not as if the act of filming these studio duets altered the music. It’s more that I wanted to get into the spirit of the project.

Duopoly comprises 16 duets with eight musicians. Some Davis knows well, but none have previously recorded with her. Each musician took three hours in the studio to record one composition (most often one of Davis’) and one improvisation. Topping it off is the mirror symmetry of the track order, which I was so pleased to hear about last summer — the album features each of the eight musicians playing a composition, then the same eight, in reverse order, doing improvisations.

To me, that whole structure is part of the art here. It isn’t just that Davis recorded 16 duets (the partners being two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, two reedists). What I wanted to savor was the whole “shape” of the project — the constraints, the spontaneity, and the trajectory of the overall process. Certainly I enjoyed the music, too, but what I savored was the overall experiment.

The recordings are pure, with no rehearsals, overdubs, or mixing — although, sensibly, multiple takes were allowed. On the video side, the amount of camera movement is minimal. Davis is recorded by a fixed camera, while the guest musician is filmed by videographer Mimi Chakarova, using a handheld. Not every track works for me, but I think that fit the spirit of the rules.

One of the most fascinating visuals is “Eronel,” the Monk composition, played in duet with Billy Drummond. Davis starts off with an improvisation, and it’s up to Drummond to trust his ears, decide when to come in, and listen for the composition. The same is true of their improvisation, but with one constraint fewer. Being able to watch Drummond’s facial expressions, seeing him tease out his process, is a treat.

davis drummond cutAt times, though, he seems to have psyched himself out. I found myself aching for him to cut loose in a few spots. His improv duet takes time to get going but really cooks when it does, when he settles on an all-toms groove.

It’s possible that Drummond did cut loose, on alternate takes — or, maybe restraint was his strategy all along. Or, maybe it’s my burden to warm up to that strategy. The quiet tapping at the start of “Eronel” really clicked with me on a second listen, without the video (opening a whole other realm of discussion), and provides a healthy contrast to Marcus Gilmore’s hard asphalt swing on “Dig and Dump.”

The dual-piano tracks likewise complement one another. Davis’ composed duet with Craig Taborn, pensive and abstract, is followed by the direct jazz attack of Angelica Sanchez. I like that the Taborn track comes first in the album’s sequencing. It does get fiery but builds slowly and abstractly to that point; its introduction would have been an odd full stop had it followed Sanchez’s piece.

Sometimes, the only way to tell which parts are composed is to watch Davis’ eyes on the video. Even then, you can’t always tell, but based on that cue, “Trip Dance for Tim” has her playing an intricate theme filled with insane intervallic leaps. Tim Berne’s alto sax soloing is a delight during that phase, and eventually both are playing a layered composition that does resemble some of Berne’s two-horn work with bands like Snakeoil or Bloodcount.

berneThe Tim Berne improvisation comprises two phases: Berne madly screeching against stony chords, and Berne playing a tumult of notes against Davis’ rapid-fire blips, sounding like an acoustic sci-fi computer.

How about the guitars? Davis’ composition “Prairie Eyes” seems very much tailored for Bill Frisell, with Davis laying down scrabbling minimal riff against his sparse notes, or putting big-sky chords behind a very Frisellian melody. It’s an attractive piece with a haunting coda. “Surf Curl,” for Julian Lage, starts out percussive and skittery, building into a steady drizzle.

Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” played with Don Byron, is the halfway point, the last of the compositions. The piece ends sublimely, making for a satisfying transition into the improv half of the album/video. That Moebius twist of a transition, as Davis’ producer calls it, is equally sublime, opening quietly with Byron’s clarinet like a flowing brook and Davis playing gentle dewdrop notes.

Davis has posted the entire video online: http://krisdavis.net/duopoly-full-video … and you can catch it segment-by-segment on Vimeo.

April 29, 2017 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

Moe Staiano & the Switchboard Music Festival

Moe Staiano has something interesting in the works: a 40-minute composition for nine electric guitars, bass, and drums. It’s called “Away Towards the Light,” and he’s presenting it on May 28 as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, at Gallery 308 in Fort Mason.

Moe is a percussionist, and lately he’s been active with his rock band Surplus 1980 (see here), but he’s also led some intriguing projects with the large group Moe!kestra. Some of those pieces have a performance-art element — the most obvious one being “Death of a Piano,” in which Moe would demolish an old piano while the orchestra “accompanied” him.

While his music tends to favor big, loud sounds, he’s dabbled in chamber music, too. Here’s a nifty piece written for Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle:

That performance was part of the Switchboard Music Festival, an annual, day-long series of concerts. I’ve never managed to attend, but the lineup is always intriguing, sitting loosely in the realm of new chamber music with shades of pop. Part of the idea is to present music that’s not easy to categorize.

Switchboard is gearing up for a 10th anniversary festival on June 10 at Z Space (450 Florida St., San Francisco). Kronos Quartet is going to headline, and the organizers are hoping to crowdsource some of the costs — you can find the campaign at generosity.com.

In past years, Switchboard has used Soundcloud to post short interviews with the musicians. I liked that idea, and I’m hoping they do it again this year:

 
To close out, here’s a set of random Switchboard links I collected a couple of years ago, a mix of previews and reviews:

New Music Box:
http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/sfs-annual-switchboard-music-festival-celebrates-the-eclectic/

I Care If You Listen:
http://www.icareifyoulisten.com/2013/04/distinctive-sounds-at-sixth-annual-switchboard-music-festival/

SF Civic Center:
http://sfciviccenter.blogspot.com/2013/04/switchboard-music-festival-notes.html

SF Classical Voice:
http://www.sfcv.org/preview/switchboard-music-festival/switchboard-music-festival-turns-it-on

April 28, 2017 at 6:55 am Leave a comment

It’s Not the Jitters. It’s the Music.

Eivind OpsvikOverseas V (Loyal Label, 2017)

opsvik vIf I had to pick an overarching mood for bassist Eivind Opsvik‘s Overseas V, I’d say nervous energy. The compositions practically quiver with it.

“Izo” feels faster than it really is, for example, because the moderately fast bassline is augmented by a rolling, relentless guitar riff and tumbling bits of piano and sax. Some music conveys emotion; this track conveys “Keep moving, for god’s sake!”

Many of the songs, such as “I’m Up This Step” and “Brraps!,” are based on off-kilter repetition. The former sets up an angular, crooked space, with boundaries drawn and sometimes broken by Kenny Wolleson’s drums and Brandon Seabrook’s choppy guitar. “Brraps!” feels like it’s constantly shifting. You start off-balance, and then the music gives you a shove.

Judging by Opsvik’s comic pantomiming in video for “Brraps!,” that’s just the effect he’s going for.

Even the more serene tracks are deceptive. “Shoppers and Pickpockets” morphs from peaceful ballad mode into spiky piano from Jacob Sacks, augmented with Tony Malaby’s murmurs of sax. The cool, fluid “Extraterrestrial Tantrum” builds into shifting stormy melodies, undercut by what sounds like electronic percussion and Opsvik’s own echoey arco bass.

I’ve been aware of Opsvik and his Overseas album series, but this is my first time listening closely to his blend of cerebral jazz and jittery rock. The slower, pretty tracks are well worth your time, but the majority of the album is out to get your fingers and toes moving, if not more.

Overseas V is available on Bandcamp and eMusic, among other places.

April 25, 2017 at 11:55 pm Leave a comment

Grand Gestures for Piano & Drums

Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Rapture (Atma Nadi, 2017)

coverThe piano-drums duo of Dialectical Imagination is all about chasing a big sound, but not in a noisy way.

Eli Wallace (also of the Bay Area trio Sound Etiquette — who play tonight at Octopus Literary Salon, incidentally) provides jittery and hammering piano laced with jazz and classical elements. It’s like heavy, elegant drapery crashing down on your head. That’s paired with the thunderous but sure-handed drumming of Rob Pumpelly, formerly of prog band miRthkon.

“Angel and the brute” is a good way to describe both sides of the music — it gushes lushly in one moment, then screams with adrenaline-rush urgency.

The 12-minute “Sky in Eye Free of I” is a good example. It opens with some sophisticated, jazzy dabbling — Pumpelly on brushes, even — that soon begins to speed up and unravel. By minute 8, Wallace is stabbing mercilessly at the bass notes while Pumpelly, now using drumsticks, batters away deftly.

 
“Immutable Light” is a power play, with Wallace sternly hammering away for a dramatic opening and Pumpelly taking a strong solo full of toms rolls and cymbal crashes, in a style closer to serious classical percussion than metal-like thrash. “Rungs” is another good example of high-energy bobbing and weaving, possibly the most exhilarating track on here.

One dial down the notch in intensity is the jittery “Turnabout,” where both players show tasteful restraint during Wallace’s hyperactive splashing.

“Deepest View’s Horizon You” starts out describing vast, mysterious caverns, then dissolves into a lyrical and downright pretty ending for the album.

If you buy the album in physical form, there’s a fun twist: It comes on “faux cassette” — a USB drive in a cassette-shaped housing. You can also download and stream the album on Bandcamp.

April 15, 2017 at 12:39 pm Leave a comment

Road to Aacheron

aacheron

Photo: Sandra Yolles, from romus.net

Rent Romus’ theatrical project, “Road to Aacheron,” got a couple of performances last weekend in Berkeley. It’s a story built around a series of arias — improvised vocal monologues, mostly in made-up tongues — telling a story influenced by the sci-fi and horror writers of the 1930s (think H.P. Lovecraft).

Sifting through an ancient book discovered by a colleague, a professor finds a portal into (of course) a mysterious and dangerous world, a planet populated by a civilization whose technology and hubris are on the verge of rending their universe apart.

The production fit nicely on the relatively small stage of Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall, with simple but effective lighting creating a pocket of eerie darkness around each performer. The story is mostly driven by the narrator (Roderick Repke, Romus’ uncle) who was standing to the side of the audience at a mic’ed lectern. The 10-piece musical ensemble started at the foot of the stage and extened outward, to the side of the audience — Kaleva Hall is cavernous and had plenty of space for all this.

The story starts with the professor, played by Dean Santomieri singing in the grave, steady tones you’d associate with opera. His part is in English and is pre-written, tracing his exploration of the book and his colleague’s notes, and his growing sense that something troubling is happening.

The other characters are various denizens of Aacheron — the high priest, the scientist, and so on — singing in gibberish and sound conveying a sense of an ancient language but also reflecting the characters’ motivations and emotional states.

Musically, what drives the production are the mini-ensembles backing each vocalist — subsets of the musicians, chosen to convey particular moods. Santomieri’s narration was accompanied by an oboe adding curt, angular responses — a nice foil that added a sense of foreboding and mystery, but also a voice of pert curiosity.

Another aria that people liked was Polly Moller’s role as the high priestess of Aacheron, accompanied by a group featuring flute, recorder, and (if I’m remembering things right) vibraphone.

That segment was a cool oasis after the spiky intensity of Bob Marsh’s character, Sareith, the High Priest of Aacheron, dressed in the awesomely abstract costume you see in the photo up top. He dug into his role with relish and fervor.

Mantra Plonsey was deliciously mad as the architect of Aacheron, reciting bits of English accompanied by saxophone. (“I cannot pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” It’s from W.C. Fields, Tom Djll told me later.) And quite a few of the musicians in the audience said Kattt Achley’s airy soprano aria was their favorite, portraying the scientist who might have a way to avoid catastrophe.

Romus performed an aria-less version of “Road to Aacheron” — using a quartet of instrumentalists, with Romus narrating — during KZSU’s recent Day of Noise. You can find that performance on the Day of Noise archive — it’s number 19 on the list. Romus has extracted part of it on Soundcloud as well.

 

April 2, 2017 at 11:35 am Leave a comment


Calendar

April 2017
M T W T F S S
« Mar   May »
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Posts by Month

Posts by Category