Archive for July, 2018

When Music on the Airplane Is Surprisingly Good

Emile Parisien Quartet with Joachim KühnSfumato (ACT Music, 2016)

I can’t believe I discovered this album on an airplane.

Sfumato_teaser_550xIt was one of those longer flights with the personalized video screens for each passenger. Which is a nice way to catch up on movies, but I like it more when there’s a handful of short films to watch. It’s stuff I wouldn’t otherwise discover, and my propensity to fall asleep on planes doesn’t get in the way so much.

I’m also one of the few passengers who checks out the audio programs. Classical music is out of the question (too much dynamic variation — the long quiet stretches are inaudible) but something tolerable usually shows up in the jazz section. That’s how Sfumato came up. Recognizing the ACT Music cover-art style, I figured it was worth a listen.

Turns out Sfumato covers a lot of ground. The music is led by Emile Parisien’s soprano sax and the steadfast piano of veteran Joachim Kühn … and if you don’t know what’s coming (as I didn’t), the appearances of accordion, not-so-placid electric guitar, and even electric bass are welcome delights, little surprise bonbons spread throughout the tracks. Mostly, the territory is European jazz, steeped with hints of classical and old-world folk — but it’s got an edge. I was ready to enjoy this album but still got more than I was expecting.

Accordion shows some virtuosity and even some free-jazzy moments during the suite, “Le Clown Tueur de la Fete Foraine.” The suite opens with sad nostalgia, evoking images of a big-top era gone by … but the title translates to “The Killer Clown of the Fair.” It doesn’t get outright sinister, but Part 2 includes a fuzzy electric-guitar solo, and Part 3 gets into some fast-paced jazz with a light dramatic tinge.

“Le Clown” doesn’t get too dark, but if that’s your thing, “Brainmachine” goes there, swaying between two heavy chords. In a brighter mode, “Arome de l’Air” lets Manu Codjia chop away on guitar and gives Parisien a nifty solo as well, sometimes almost buzzing like a harmonica.

Sfumato won an Album of the Year award in France, and the band has since released a live album that includes a Wynton Marsalis appearance. I’m going to have to check that out.

July 14, 2018 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment

Beat Kitchen

Back in May, I found time in Chicago to check out the weekly music happening at Beat Kitchen, a friendly dive restaurant well northwest of the tiresome Magnificent Mile area. A singer-songwriter type with a decent following was playing in the basement. But I was there for the upstairs jazz show — with Jim Baker (piano/electronics), Ed Wilkerson (sax), Brian Sandstrom (bass), and Steve Hunt (drums).

The group is called Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and it’s a rotating-cast show that Baker brings to Beat Kitchen every Monday night. Here’s an example of them in a mellower moment, with Mars Williams on sax:

 
There’s a slightly more intense video available with better sound, but it’s filmed in what I assume is the Beat Kitchen’s basement space. I wanted to provide a taste of what the upstairs is like. It appears to be a kitchen and small restaurant space — maybe even a former studio apartment — with stools and chairs scattered about. Only a handful of us were in the audience, and the waitress downstairs seemed pretty happy when I said I was there for the jazz show.

IMG_3840 beat kitchen cutExtraordinary Popular Delusions released at least one CD on Okka Disk (2007), based on compositions, but the M.O. for these shows appears to be long-form improvisation. I got upstairs just as the band was reaching a crescendo — not a super frenzy but definitely a high energy point. Wilkerson was dealing on sax, Baker splashing with abandon at the digital piano.

They ended up playing one long piece. One of the cooldown phases dropped into a piano-drums duet, with chording from Baker that could have been mistaken for a jazz ballad. Sandstrom’s acoustic bass work was something to savor, but soon he switched to electronic guitar effects while Baker moved over to his analog synthesizer and its impossible tangle of cables. Hunt’s drums kept the pace brisk throughout.

Wilkerson later contributed some popping, clicking acoustic guitar, and Sandstrom moved to an amplified toy guitar (or possible a ukelele; it was hard to tell in the dark).

Even though it’s predictable that the energy would rise up to a climax, they did it in a way that was miraculous and beautiful. Piano and drums were cooking — and then the acoustic bass came back in, pushing the intensity up several notches. Hunt locked into an almost swingy non-groove, egging the others to ratchet it up even more. Wilkerson let the energy build and build, then made his grand entrance with passionate overblown wails on the tenor sax, a clarion call, before launching into big, throaty tenor-sax riffs and calls.

beat kitchen IMG_3844

Long notes from Wilkerson signaled the end, and as the sound settled back into silence, Baker started choosing chords in sympathy with Wilkerson — and the music came to a peaceful stop, as if it were meant to do that all along.

The players agreed that was a perfect ending, and opted not to play another piece. That was the right call — everything clicked, in a way that doesn’t always happen, not even for a band of this caliber.

Finding this kind of music is always a challenge. Avant Music News is a good resource, as it reprints some of the local calendars around the world. And in the Bay Area, we still have the Bayimproviser site and accompanying Transbay Calendar app.

July 4, 2018 at 10:38 am Leave a comment


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