Secret Codes of Guitar and Drums

The Lie DetectorsPart III: Secret Unit (Chant, 2018)

maoz-3The Lie Detectors could be classified as a jazz duo, but in fine downtown fashion, it’s jazz with hefty shots of bombast: the heavy crunch of “Rice;” the light touch of “Go” that descends into a sinister, shamanistic guitar sounds; the echoey and folky strains of “Closer” mixed with sparse improv. Punk and metal get their say in the next track, “Here and There.” Those four track are the way Secret Unit starts.

Eyal Maoz (guitar) and Asaf Sirkis (drums) have known each since age 10. Now living in New York and London, respectively, they’re charting impressive musical careers. Maoz is a member of the Lemon Juice Quartet and Shanir Blumenkranz’s Abraxis (which got to record one of John Zorn’s Masada Book II albums), and he leads bands including Edom, Wild Type and the eclectic power trio Hypercolor. Sirkis has been playing with jazzsters including Larry Coryell, Dave Holland and John Abercrombie.

They’ve released two other duo albums: Elementary Dialogues (Ayler, 2006) and Freedom Has Its Own Taste (Fasson, 1998). They don’t seem to have used the Lie Detectors name with those releases, and maybe with good reason — the name is the top secret organization that they formed at age 10. Apparently they’ve decided it’s time to reveal the secret.

Maybe that means more Lie Detectors records to come. Secret Unit‘s varied styles are held together by a cosmic constant of jagged energy and wide-grinned attitude. “Flying Horse” gets into a catchy little groove, but not after a nifty intro of spackled non-rhythm. “Circles” plays like an improv-minded mutation of surf music, with Maoz echoing away against Sirkis’ continuous wave of rolls and snare.  Then there’s the relatively quiet noodling of “Sting” and the choppy rock anthem of “Green Shirt.” But it feels cohesive, like two people speaking the language of a decades-old secret society.

KZSU’s Day of Noise: Saturday, February 9, 2019

dayofnoise2019

It’s here again: The KZSU Day of Noise, 24 hours of live noise/improv performances, broadcast across the free airwaves, streamed over the Interwebs, and stored for posterity on YouTube.

From midnight to midnight (Pacific time) on Saturday, February 9, 2019, musicians will be performing live at the KZSU studio, playing laptop electronics, analog electronics, acoustic instruments, electric guitars, and whatever other noisemakers they decide to bring. Artists will perform for 30 or 60 minutes apiece. See the full lineup here.

In the Bay Area, tune in to KZSU on the good old-fashioned radio at 90.1 FM. Elsewhere in the world, stream the show live at kzsulive.stanford.edu. We’ll probably have a live video feed running as well (in the past, it’s been on YouTube).

The last few Days of Noise have been archived on the KZSU site in both audio and video forms, so you have plenty of material to get acclimated for the big event.

We have loads of fun putting this on every year, and I’m so grateful to the KZSU staffers who make it happen. Abra masterminds the whole thing — many thanks to her for keeping the idea alive — while Smurph does the bulk of the audio engineering and Jin documents the event in video and photos. Other DJs like me chip in where they can, moving gear, delivering food, giving directions over the phone. And the musicians have loads of fun. Please do tune in, any way you can.

I’ve posted Day of Noise photos a few times before. Have a look:

2017
2013
2012

RIP Alvin Fielder

I came to know drummer Alvin Fielder’s name through his improvised-jazz work with pianist Joel Futterman and saxophonist Ike Levin, as several of those CDs crossed KZSU’s transom in the early 2000s. Later, Bay Area bassist Damon Smith moved to Texas along with his Balance Point Acoustics record label, released a series of recordings involving Fielder. 

Here they are in a robust duo improvisation:

And while I’m there, here’s a look at Fielder’s quiet side, backing up Smith on the Johnny Dyani composition “Roots” and taking a long solo at the end:

But of course Fielder, who died this month at 83, had an accomplished career long before I “met” him. He was a co-founder of the AACM and appeared on one of its first albums, Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound in 1966. He stayed in his native South rather than doing the free-jazz thing of traveling Europe but remained active, recording with saxophonist Kidd Jordan for more than 30 years. This 2013 release on NoBusiness Records features the two of them in concert with bassist Peter Kowald:

He also had a long association with trumpeter Dennis González and his sons Aaron and Stephen González. They played on A Measure of Vision (Clean Feed, 2007), technically Fielder’s only recording as a leader — although it’s no stretch to call him the co-leader of the many improvises sessions he recorded. Most of the album puts Fielder in a trio with with Chris Parker (piano) and Dennis González (trumpet). “Max-Well” is a bright Fielder composition quoting “A Love Supreme” and, with its free use of snare accents, probably nodding toward Max Roach as well (Fielder cited Roach as a key early influence), while “The Cecil Tayler – Sunny Murray Dancing Lesson” is a beautiful dirge with flowering piano and, in place of a bass, Fielder’s toms. (Spotify login required to hear entire tracks — apologies for that.)

Writer Clifford Allen is a longtime champion of Fielder’s and published a lengthy interview with him on the All About Jazz site in 2007. Allen apparently introduced Fielder to Damon Smith. It’s through Allen’s blog, “Ni Kantu,” that I found this: a fiery 1976 TV appearance by the Improvisational Arts Quintet, a band that included Jordan and Fielder. Their recorded output is limited to one obscure LP (1983) and one side of a Rounder Records compilation (1988), so it’s nice to have this document available.

To end on a cathartic note, here’s a live take on “Max-Well” with Kidd Jordon on sax and London Branch (of the original Improvisational Arts Quintet) as one of two bassists. It’s from a 2009 tribute to Fielder in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

Casual Bombast on Piano and Drums

Paul F. Murphy and Larry WillisExposé (Murphy Records, 2008)

murphy-exposeI know Paul Murphy’s drumming through his work with saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Glenn Spearman. I remember the aptly named Trio Hurricane, with Spearman, Murphy, and bassist William Parker bringing heavy thunder.

Exposé is now more than a decade old, but when it showed up on eMusic’s “recent additions” list, Murphy’s name caught my eye. I didn’t know what to expect from him in a duo setting, especially paired with a piano, although he’s apparently recorded with Larry Willis multiple times. Exposé presents powerhouse drumming from a subtler angle — lots of tapping cymbals and feathery tom rolls on the solo track “Labyrinth,” for example. Willis brings the crystalline sounds of jazzy piano, but in an edgier vein than cocktail music, with the right improvisational spirit to keep the session outward-facing.

The title track starts slowly with what might be a nod to Cecil Taylor — not in terms of torrential playing but in the kinds of harmonies Taylor composed with. From there, Willis goes more lush and bright, weaving through jazz idioms while Murphy keeps up a continuous rustle, busy but not overwhelming.

The phrase “Liquid Dance” makes for an excellent track title. Murphy keeps up a busy, almost relentless patter but at a low volume, while Willis applies the right restrained, contemplative splashing to fit the name.

Some contemporary mainstream jazz leans in this direction. I’m thinking of labels like Origin Records — pleasing to the ear, but striving to create something new out of familiar cloth. This session wouldn’t be out of place there. Murphy fills space in a way that might be off-putting to some listeners, but I came here for the drums, so I’m happy to focus on the robust energy more than the relaxing moments.

Guitar-Trio Gazing

Ethan ShermanBuilding Block (pfMentum, 2018)

sherman-blocksYou could categorize Building Block as jazz shoegazing or maybe a calm shade of post rock. Clocking in at 40 minutes, the album presents small bites of tasty trio work led by Ethan Sherman on guitar, with appropriately restrained bass and drums — a casual and grooving little session.

The 7-minute “Keltner” is a good way to introduce where the album is coming from, although it takes patience. The longest track on the album, it gradually builds on its on the stillness of a Western-tinged theme to reach a slow-burning payoff.

“Motivation” is languid and comforting, an almost too-pretty melody. I’m also partial to the cool little tune “Dangling,” with its gentle swing.

Chris Rolontz on bass doesn’t get many chances to stand out, but he turns in a nice solo on “Dangling” and does an excellent job framing and sustaining the mood on “Norway.” That track is sparse to the point where drummer Christian Euman is left to sustain the momentum, which he does fluidly.

Usufruct, a Harvest of Sound

UsufructWindfall (VF Industrial, 2018)

Usufruct performs at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco) on Thursday, January 10.

From the joyous prog rock of Reconnaissance Fly, Polly Moller and Tim Walters have staked new turf in the realm of pensive electronics and austere set pieces.

Windfall paints a spare landscape where silence is a primary color. Moller’s voice and flute are foundational sound sources, both organically and in digitally twisted forms, and Walter adds electronics like small, bright creatures darting across a shadowy geometric plane.

“Usufruct” is a real word, referring to “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property.” In that spirit, the band harvests found texts, read by Moller. “Only a Test” borrows from what might be a military handbook, with Moller and Walters barking out disconnected proclamations and lists of words. “Donzerly” cuts up the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, backed by swirling, buzzing electronics that sound aggressive but feel solitary.

When the flute is unadulterated, Moller draws forth a sense of color and stillness, augmented by trilling or tilted embouchure. On “Upside Down Wedding,” Walters plays back the melodic lines  to create an intertwining vine climbing through the ether.

Here’s Usufruct performing at the 2018 Outsound New Music Festival:

Tania Chen and Feldman and Cage

Tania Chen, Wobbly, and Thomas Dimuzio will perform Triadic Memories at The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco) on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8:00 p.m.

Tania Chen and Jon LeideckerMorton Feldman: Triadic Memories (Knitted, 2018)

Tania Chen (with Thurston Moore, David Toop, and Jon Leidecker)John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano (Omnivore, 2018)

feldman score

Tania Chen champions the piano music from the quadrant of Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, and John Cage. It was one of her John Cage albums that inspired me to start writing something here. But then I found out Chen is going to be performing Morton Feldman’s 90-minute “Triadic Memories” with real-time electronics responses provided by Wobbly (Jon Leidecker) and Thomas Dimuzio. So I took a detour to hear her 2018 recording of the solo piano piece.

The composition is what you’d expect from late Feldman: lingering, drifting phrases, more relaxing than ominous, organized in delicate, spacious rhythmic doodles, and while you can run the piece as comforting background noise, you can also use the stillness to focus yourself into the moment, clinging to the notes and phrases against the deep silence. It’s also an interesting exercise in perception. The piece consists of arpeggios that spell out dissonant, prickly chords, but the melting-ice pace turns them into sparkling gems.

The added electronics are based on what’s coming out of the piano — Leidecker presumably attached microphones to the instrument, as he and Dimuzio will do in the Jan. 16 performance. On the CD, electronics appear sparingly, trying to accent the sound without being distracting. A passage starting around 17:20 includes a deep-water aftereffect. Another at around the 26-minute mark is more overt and mischievous but still doesn’t upset the overhanging atmosphere.

But that’s not really what I sat down to write about. I wanted to write about John Cage.

Chen-Electronic-Music-For-Piano-OV-262As you’d expect from a Cage piece, there’s a game aspect and a touch of whimsy behind Electronic Music for Piano, and I think it’s more enjoyable if you listen knowing the rules. Producer Gino Robair recorded Chen performing the piece three times — in separate duets with Toop and Moore in London, and with Leidecker in Berkeley. The CD knits the performances together with help from a “chance-based system” deciding which sound sources would play at which times.

“Sound sources” seems to include not just the six players (counting Chen three times) but also multiple angles, as microphones were all over the place — under the piano soundboard or at different points in the room, all to capture the mix of sounds persisting in air. Pure silence counted as a source and was weighted into the system, as were special options for “piano tracks only” and “non-piano tracks only.”

The overall mood is a fuzzy darkness: Lots of buzzing and roaring (not just Thurston Moore, but also the amplified piano soundboard), alternating with plinks and plucks from the piano, alternating with thick silence.

chen cage silences

About the silence — you don’t put on a John Cage record if you can’t tolerate silence, and this one delivers, with slabs of blankness lasting one to three minutes. “Silence” also factored into the original performances. One silence at around the 8-minute mark is broken by the tiniest flicker of piano strings, almost accidental. That, and the organic way in which the piano sound returns, suggest this was “organic” silence — a very quiet moment that really did happen in the studio.

That said, Thurston Moore’s roar tends to dictate the tone at any given moment — especially in the early minutes, where he’s either ON or off. Much as I enjoyed the chance aspect of the recording, I have to admit it creates jarring results, especially when the guitar kicks in or out. Take the excerpt below, for instance. In the spirit of the recording, I’m starting it at exactly the 15-minute mark, and it includes two silences of roughly one minute apiece.