Not Exactly Music to Sleep By

ZsXe (Northern Spy, 2015)

zs-xeDuring the 18-minute “XE,” the quasi-title track of Zs‘ most recent album, I found myself thinking about how meditative it was.

Meditative in a tense, loud way, that is, if there is such a thing. You can trance out to the repetitious clackety-clack that dominates the early part of the track. Maybe less so when the menacing guitar riff takes over, accompanied by Sam Hillmer’s screaming sax.

A similar effect takes over “Corps,” which has more of a crisp EDM feel. The repetitious loop and street-corner drumming make a good backdrop, first for wild sax spasms and later for calmer, springy sounds that again make me think “meditative.”

Do you like that assessment? Well, it’s all blown to hell if you listen to the album in proper sequence. “The Future of Royalty” is a blast of an opener, coming at you in rhythmic pulses of sound with a mildly abrasive edge — and then, abruptly, it’s over.

That’s followed by the unrestful haze of “Wolf Government,” which doesn’t have to be played loud to convey a sense of continual noise and mad scribbling.

The real point is that I’ve seen Zs mentioned peripherally for years, but I’ve only now started sampling the trio’s blend of noise, rhythm, and electronics. I’m liking it.

Steve Coleman, Dancing and Jabbing

Steve Coleman’s Natal EclipseMorphogenesis (Pi Recordings, 2017)


Morphogenesis has a smoothness to it, a rolling and easygoing feel compared with the deliciously choppy geometry of other Steve Coleman albums. Maybe it’s as simple as the lack of a drum kit. Maybe it’s something in the harmonies, where I find myself drawing parallels to big band swing.

I like to think the album’s mood comes from Coleman’s new compositional approach, “where the initial compositional forms are derived from musical figures created sponaneously while visualizing the themes, motions, or concepts that I would like to communicate.” From there, Coleman adds layers and layers to build a piece.

He’s been working on this for five years, so it’s possible some of those results appear on Synovial Joints (Pi Recordings, 2015). What might make Morphogenesis different, aside from the makeup of the band, is that five of its nine tracks were based on boxing moves, with an eye toward the sweet science’s balletic side. A song with the name “Dancing and Jabbing” turns out to be a pleasant and mildly slow study; “Pull Counter” has an upbeat and mildly tense theme punctuated by sudden, brief “punches.”

Coleman’s mathematical mindset is still all over the music, of course. “Morphing,” the album’s 14-minute centerpiece, is based on an impossibly long composed theme that was sparked by “one impulsive moment,” Coleman writes. It’s a trail that keeps twisting and twisting.

The band consists of three other horns and Kristin Lee on violin, who is a key part of the punch in “Pull Counter.” There’s no drummer, but Neeraj Mehta adds percussion to five of the tracks, adding tension to tracks like the hard-digging “Horda” or the contemplative improvisation “NOH.”

Getting back to the idea of big-band swing — the track that reminds me most of grand ballroom jazz is “Roll Under and Angles,” even though it doesn’t strictly sound traditional. Maybe it’s the overall velvety touch, or the way Rane Moore deploys the clarinet, or the breezy fills provided by Lee and vocalist Jen Shyu. I find myself especially savoring the gentle bass — simple, cushioned taps by Greg Chudzik.

(The solar eclipse happens to be tomorrow, but the timing of this post is just coincidental. I started writing it weeks ago, and I’m just slow.)

Gordon Beeferman: Tunnel Visions, for Viola & Piano

Stumbled upon: A world premiere performance of a Gordon Beeferman composition for viola and piano:

“Raucous, rhythmic, spicy and microtonal” is how violist Stephanie Griffin, in her YouTube “liner notes,” describes Beeferman’s jazz-related music, and you get a taste of all that in the opening moments of Tunnel Visions, the pressure-packed first movement. It slows immensely for the middle movement then surges back with sweeping drama. Really good stuff.

The jazz band she’s referring to is Other Life Forms, a quartet with Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and Andrew Drury on drums. They’re pretty interesting.

NYC Part 2: Strings & Halvorson

Ha-Yang Kim, at the Irvine Music Festival, 2015.

In February 2018, The Stone will end its run at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. Programs will apparently continue elsewhere, but the cozy little black box (a friend of mind considers it stifling, actually) will be given up. I assume it’s the usual gentrification story, with the landlord having found a more profitable use for the lot.

I don’t get to pick and choose my visits to The Stone. Usually, it’s a matter of dropping in during the one evening I have free, and seeing what’s going on. This time, during my July visit, it was an improv session with three strings players.

They included Miya Masaoka, which was a treat. I’d seen her perform many times when she lived in the Bay Area, and I’ve appreciated the daring approach she takes to creating new music and to advancing the range of the koto, the Japanese floor harp. Her jazz album, Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997) is a lost masterpiece, and I’ve been meaning to write something about her latest classical release, Triangle of Resistance (Innova, 2016). She’ll be back in the Bay Area for an Aug. 20 reunion of the trio Maybe Monday, with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs.

The session was led by cellist Ha-Yang Kim, who was finishing a week-long residency at The Stone, and was fleshed out by Stefan Poetzch on violin.

Miya Masaoka, from a 2016 Vimeo video of a piece called “Stemming,” using a setup similar to what she had at The Stone.

They played two improvisations. The first, longer one — probably about 40 minutes — was less focused and took longer to really coalesce. I did enjoy the melding of sounds, as the use of amplification sometimes made it hard to tell which instrument was creating which part, especially when it came to the koto and violin and the use of electronics. Masaoka also brought an array of percussive toys, sometimes nicely augmenting the group structure, sometimes creating a distraction.

But it was all in earnest. One thing about live improvisation is that you can gauge the performers’ reactions and feel almost like a participant (really more an eavesdropper) in the creative process. It makes for a more sympathetic listening experience.

The second piece, maybe 15 minutes long, was actually more successful and easier for me, as a listener, to lock into. This might have been because the performers no longer felt the pressure to get particular instruments, techniques, or sounds into the mix. Sometimes, a long improvisation feels like it carries that pressure — you sense the players trying to find a spot for every horn or every percussive device, much like a baseball manager trying to get every player into the game.

Any feelings like that were used up in the first piece — and maybe, just maybe, the players were a little bit spent as well. Either way, they chose to stick with ideas for longer stretches. While I enjoyed the opening piece, I got more entwined with the second.

I had Tuesday evening free, and while another trip to The Stone wouldn’t have been bad (it was the start of Kevin Norton’s residency, I think), Mary Halvorson was bringing her octet to the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard is always a pricey trek but with good reason, when the music is this good.

While I can’t name them off the top of my head, several recognizable numbers from Halvorson’s albums appeared, especially from Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016, reviewed here.) The band was positioned in pretty much the arrangement you see in the video below, with Halvorson and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn both sitting and virtually invisible to a lot of the audience.

I was OK with that. The four horn players, each bandleaders in their own right, stood tall front-and-center.

I remember enjoying the contrast between the saxophonists — Jon Irabagon (alto) with his fluid style informed by the jazz tradition but peppered with skronks and squeals, and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor) spinning tight patterns built from sharp turns and rapid-fire pronouncements.

I’d never seen bassist Chris Lightcap live, and I found myself paying a lot of attention to him, not just during bass solos but also during ensemble passages. I liked his choices for enhancing the melodies and solos.

The set, filled with mid-length pieces (modest song lengths have been a hallmark of Halvorson’s groups) got a warm reception from a full house, as you’d expect. This being a midweek show, we got the opportunity to stay for the second set, free of cover charge. It was a blast, and I was even able to move forward to a seat with an occasional view of Halvorson and her guitar.

A really nice New York trip, all told.

NYC Part 1: Clarinets

Had it really been five years since I last visited New York City? Feels about right.

I’ve had family members living in Brooklyn for at least the past decade, but sadly, the thing that really gets me out to the city is work. So this trip, like its predecessors, was a whirlwind. The subway is convenient and cheap but not particularly fast, so it takes effort to make it to events on time. It’s worth the sweat and the energy drain.

IMG_3009 novik dtmgallery 300xI arrived in Manhattan late on a Sunday afternoon, with barely enough time to catch the end of a free show at Downtown Music Gallery, the store that’s been a mandatory stop on every visit. DMG hosts a free set every Sunday, but I’d never seen one, since I tend to start my east-coast trips on Mondays.

DMG is also well off the subway routes, down in Chinatown between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. After checking into my hotel, I grabbed a cab, willing to pay the extra cash for the sake of taking the FDR expressway directly downtown.

I arrived for the tail end of a clarinet trio of Guillermo Gregorio, Aaron Novik, and Stan Zenkoff. The lights were down, with the audience of about 10 people seated in tiny chairs filling the browsing aisles.

One of the clarinet sounds I enjoy the most is the low burble, a quiet, mid-register fluttering of fast notes. Novik got a number of moments like that, backed by stark landscapes drawn by Gregorio and Zenkoff. But really, each of the three players cycled through moments of screeching abandon and moments of more conventional musicality, alternating roles among themselves to create that ever-shifting landscape that free improv can create.

An added bonus: Novik, formerly from the Bay Area and now living in Queens, actually recognized me. We never knew each other that well, but it was nice that he remembered me — and I certainly remember him.

We had a good chat. Then I purchased a couple of items (because I can’t visit DMG and not buy anything) then caught the F-train back to the Lower East Side for what was probably my last visit to The Stone.