Evaporation: Sketching With Silence

Eli Wallace and Ben CohenEvaporation (Eschatology, 2020)

“Noise” music doesn’t have to be loud. It can be contemplative, as Pauline Oliveros showed us with her work in deep listening. On Evaporation, pianist Eli Wallace and Ben Cohen follow that aesthetic, creating bundles of action while leaving the blank canvas mostly blank. It’s a wide-angle landscape contrasting rapid motion and stillness.

The 33-minute “Saturation” is the main event. Wallace tests out all manner of prepared piano — a passage of tightly percussive strings against a fluttering of sax from Cohen, or a ringing strum of the stringboard. Cohen produces long streams of non-tonal monologue but also works in the almost subliminal language of long buzzes and breaths.

Informally, “Saturation” could be divided in sections according to the loud/quiet transitions. The early stages feature bursts of noise that couldn’t be called quiet, but the overall effect is spare.

The quietude is not for the faint of heart. Midway through, “Saturation” becomes a hearing test, with distant clatter — a metallic resonance out of the piano, whispery air through the saxophone — nestled between thick silences. That sets us up for the stretch of light metallic hail that ends the piece, not a “grand” finale so much as a satisfying bit of punctuation to close things out.

The 10-minute title track similarly stretches out across its time. Midway through, the sound truly evaporates, leaving a near-silent percussive chatter that gradually dissolves into nothingness. As a listening experience, it requires the right mindset, and that’s true of the whole album. If you come in expecting “free jazz,” the stubborn quietude could feel abrasive. Taken on its own terms, as that expansive canvas, it can be satisfying and thought-provoking.

Journey to Manala

Rent Romus, Heikki Koskinen, Life’s Blood EnsembleManala (Edgetone, 2020)

Manala thinks big. It brings an 11-piece jazz mini-orchestra to celebrate Rent Romus’ Finnish heritage, and while the theme is related to folklore about the underworld, the mood is bright and welcoming. It feels like a joyous personal statement from someone who has made a journey and discovered wonderful things along the way.

The song cycle blends traditional jazz ensemble writing, scribbly free-improv solos, enjoyable moments of melodrama, and sounds of natural instruments that harken back to the times of legends and bold heroes.

Saxophonist Romus shares composing duties here with Heikki Koskinen, a frequent collaborator in recent years whose e-trumpet cuts bright soloing lines through tracks like the opener, “Maahinen (Gnome).” They draw a big sound out of the band’s four horns.

Sometimes, though, a rustic mood prevails, anchored by Cheryl E. Leonard, well known in the Bay Area for her musical instruments derived from natural objects (bones, sand, shells) and David Samas, whose instruments include song stones and waterphone. There’s also the reverent flute trio that opens “Loitsun lukema (Casting the Spell)” to introduce a cool theme mixing jazz and ceremonial music, a sound relying heavily on Gabby Fluke-Mogel on violin and Mark Clifford on vibraphone.

Romus has been passionate about researching Finnish mythology, and it’s wonderful that his documentation of that work comes in the form of music. The “Journey to Manala” suite later in the album is based on the legend of Vainamoinen, “the most powerful adventurer shaman of the Kalevala” (quoting the liner notes), “who builds a boat out of song, only to find he is missing the words to complete the task. The story follows him into Manala to find those words.” During the suite, David Samas gets to break into a splendidly dramatic monologue — I think it’s the character of Vainamoinen himself — against a grooving backdrop.

That idea of using song to influence the physical world — I think every musician must sometimes feel like they are on verge of completing that quest, like a journey to the infinite horizon. Manala feels like that kind of exploration.

Manala is the second album based on Romus’ research into blending jazz and his Finnish heritage, the first being The Otherworld Cycle, and it has a live followup, Return to Manala. Romus has tapped a rich creative thread that hopefully will continue.

RIP, Dr. Tim Smith

I was saddened last month to hear that Tim Smith, the brain and heart of the band Cardiacs, had died.

Rhodri Marsden wrote a touching and succinct tribute for The Guardian. Cardiacs’ stage persona was built around a tyrannical Tim who himself was a slave of the shadowy Alphabet Business Concern, but as Marsden writes:

His bandmates speak of a generous hippy, a man who made everyone feel good about themselves. He was no extrovert, but was certainly a magnet. He ran an open house, welcomed you in, and offered limitless reserves of enthusiasm and support. He always said that his favourite music was his friends’ music. He’d go to your gigs, and he’d stand at the front.

I owe local musicians Amy X. Neuburg and Polly Moller for introducing me to Cardiacs, on separate occasions. I believe they also indoctrinated Moe Staiano, and his social media posts helped get me hooked, too.

I could link to any number of Cardiacs songs (R.E.S., Tarred and Feathered, Come Back Clammy Lammy, Flap Off You Beak, Is This the Life) or recount the cover band called ReCardiacs Fly.

But here’s something I didn’t know, and perhaps you didn’t either: Tim Smith received an honorary doctorate from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in late 2018. He was honored in person, in Scotland, at a ceremony that included speeches and lots of music — and they captured it on film, thankfully:

Tim went through an inconceivable ordeal with dystonia — a condition involving, among other things, continual involuntary muscle contractions — for something like 12 years following a stroke. His mind was still sharp, by all accounts, leaving him a prisoner in his body that entire time. In a 2017 interview, he described it as: “Imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you, with electrical pulses going all the time.”

He could only communicate by pointing to letters on a board, and yet he was still thinking in sentences like that. Imagine.

In contrast to his stage persona, Tim was apparently a kindly soul, making it all the more sad that so many people outright loathed the band. Their catalog has been available online for some time, and it’s now on Bandcamp as well. It’s not too late to drop them a little love.

An Italy-Canada Connection

ITACA 4tetVortex (Nusica, 2020)

Springy and optimistic, the ITACA 4tet is a smiling bundle of Eurojazz, even if half its members are Canadian. (The name comes from the Italy-Canada connection.)

The quartet thrives on the interplay of clarinetist François Houle and alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini. A track like “Sketch 26” uses a brief composed line to launch a fast flow of musical doodles, both horns tossing out ideas, propelled by Alessandro Fedrigo on bass guitar (a nice choice that creates a fluid low end throughout the album) and Nick Fraser leaning heavily on the snare drum.

The group explores in a welcoming way, tracing pleasantly zig-zagging paths. Faster numbers are always enjoyable, but it’s during the slower passages that the two-horn interplay can get especially rich, as on the playfully warbling “Saturno.” Houle has a knack for merging the serious and lighthearted sides of improvising, and the rest of ITACA has the same mindset. Even “The Third Murder,” which opens with discontented hive buzzing, slips into bubbly tunefulness.

“‘Nette,” composed by Carlos Ward, does indeed echo Ornette Coleman with its sunny, melody-driven theme. When the solos start, Fraser’s drumming pull back abruptly to signify the newly opened space, while Fedrigo keeps the mood and tempo uplifted.

“‘Nette”

Eddie Gale Memorial Livestream: Saturday, August 8

I think I saw Eddie Gale perform only once or twice, which is sad. I did get to interview him on the radio, however, and while I don’t remember the details, the impression in my head is that he was engaging and entertaining, and that we ran long.

It’s always been a point of pride for me that Eddie was from the South Bay, and that he carried the title of San Jose’s Official Ambassador of Jazz, bestowed for real by then-mayor Norm Mineta. Eddie Gale passed away on July 10, and as you can see from the tributes posted to forevermissed.com, he was generous with his time and energy and was a mentor to many a Bay Area musician. (WARNING: That link might launch with audio playing.)

Do yourself a favor and check out his albums. He might be best known for having appeared on Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, but Eddie also blazed his own path as a leader. His albums Ghetto Music and Black Rhythm Happening take free jazz in a spiritual direction heavy in civil rights activism, with lots of revolutionary choral vocals. Around the turn of the century, he frequently played with the funky jam band Mushroom. His recurring band in modern years was called the Inner Peace Jazz Orchestra, a reflection of the kind of world Eddie was striving for.

There will be a memorial livestream for Eddie on Saturday, August 8, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. The forevermissed link above will have the link.