Jakob Pek, Shoebox Orchestra @ The Make-Out Room, 2/24/20

Back before shelter-in-place took effect, I found myself in San Francisco for work one evening, and it happened to be one of the jazz nights at the Make-Out Room in the Mission District. So I took advantage, for the first (and for now, probably last) time in a long while.

Performing on solo guitar, Jakob Pek played one long solo piece built of heavy sounds, starting with some bowing and moving later to prepared guitar. It was a gradual progression, moving from dark and abrasive to conventional strumming and picking to close it out. Of course, the Make-Out Room is a bar, a setting that doesn’t lend itself to the quietude of, say, this Pek performance, so while the overall performance was pensive and spacious, Pek kept the amplifier amped to fill the room.

The Spotlight Orchestra was a jazz quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums) playing one long “out” improvisation, sticking mostly to jazz idioms and letting the music wander where it may. Trumpeter Erik Jekabson was the name on the bill, but he stressed that this was really a gig for the group as a whole.

They kept up a high energy throughout, good late-night bar fare, staring with close orbits around a Monk tune and then spiraling outward. The two horns had a couple of nice moments blending together, including one accidental phrase that came out in harmony and in step, the kind of small surprise that makes jazz improvisation click. They invited vocalist Lorin Benedict to step in as well, to contribute his new-language scat singing. He picked the right moment, too, starting a new phase after a stormy-seas drum segment full of cymbal washes.

I did not see the duo of Benedict (vocals) and Tim Perkis (laptop electronics), who started the evening. That would have been fun — two musicians each with a distinct language to speak, performing apparently for the first time together. Hopefully there will be a next time, sometime after the urban environment goes back to normal.

 

Zorn Piano Trio

John Zorn — The Hierophant (Tzadik, 2019)

I have to admit, I expected all of The Hierophant to sound like this:

Turns out, a lot of it sounds like this:

Can you blame me? Upon reading the obi, with phrases like “modern chamber music” and “not like any piano trio you have ever heard,” my imagination went to dark, scary places — as it often does with Zorn.

zorn-hierophant

But of course, Zorn has done lots of accessible music. Not everything is Torture Garden. And it turns out, these nine compositions based on tarot cards often let the trio sound like, well, a contemporary piano trio. It has that sparkle.

Those excerpts are from “The Devil” and “The Lovers,” respectively, and it’s not surprising that they are so different, given the theme of Tarot cards and their potentially divergent meanings. The point is, The Hierophant is truly a jazz piano trio album, ableit one that throws a few experimental twists at you.

Zorn’s name is on the CD as a composer only; it’s Brian Marsella on the piano, executing these compositions with brisk flair. It’s fun to hear Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass in an out-jazz capacity; that’s how I first got introduced to him. Fellow Bay Area transplant Kenny Wolleson holds down the drum chair with a light touch and tight energy.

This is not to say The Hierophant is harmless. “Death” features snail’s-pace bowing and a prepared piano that sounds like a sinister rattling of bones. The main theme of “The Tower” opens with insistent Morse code tapping, not exactly cocktail hour fare. And the title track is a dizzying speed run, as if many hands were clawing at you from every direction. Marsella’s playing can be simultaneously fleet and expansive, and some of the best passages of The Hierophant have him conjuring beauty while still speed-tap-dancing forward.

KZSU Day of Noise 2020: Photos

The 2020 edition of KZSU’s Day of Noise happened back on February 8. “The best day of the year,” according to Abra, who diligently organizes the whole affair every year, including catering. I helped out during the midday hours, running sound (under the direction of Smurph) and announcing acts on-air.

We also streamed the event live again, engineered by Jin. You can find the recordings here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

You can correlate that with the schedule, posted at http://kzsu.stanford.edu/dayofnoise/2020/. That same page will eventually have the audio recordings of the performances as well.

Finally, you can see results from previous Days of Noise.

Qanaaq, a Quintet’s Journey

McPhee, Rempis, Reid, Lopez, Nilssen-LoveOf Things Beyond Thule, Vol. 1 (Aerophonic, 2020)

Of Things Beyond Thule Front Cover smallThis album is being released only on vinyl, in an edition of 350, with no other format or digital download planned. It might be because “Qanaaq,” the 37-minute quintet improvisation comprising both sides, has the feel of something special, one of those nights where the musicians hit the right resonant frequency and build something powerful.

“Thule” and “Qanaaq” are alternative names for the same city in Greenland, and maybe that small suggestion is what makes the music feel vast. The more intense segments aren’t full-bore blowouts, but a sustained, patient energy conjuring the awe of immense spaces.

In the mold of good long-form storytelling, “Qanaaq” flies through passages of both quiet and noise. The sound can be cozy, as in the intimate monologue that opens the piece. Dave Rempis on baritone sax (possibly also a touch of Joe McPhee on tenor sax) is backed there by restrained, persistent group undercurrent (Tomeka Reid on cello, Paal Nilsson-Love on drums, and Brandon Lopez on bass). It can also be energetic, as in the open groove later built by Nilsson-Love and Reid, putting an exclamation point on Side One.

What really sparkles, though, are the climactic final minutes. They start peacefully, with McPhee’s smoky monologue on tenor, but it’s when Nilsson Love jumps in — a moment of full conviction — that the grand expanse of an ending suddenly springs into shape.

Of Things Beyond Thule is part of a live set from 2018 — the first performance by this particular combination of skilled improvisers — and makes a fitting souvenir from an inspirational night.

David Tudor’s Rainforest V

IMG_5800-cut1One experience from my recent New York trip hasn’t made it into here yet. MoMA was exhibiting David Tudor’s installation, Rainforest V (variation 1).

Rainforest is a sound installation that’s very tourist-friendly. Conceived in 1968 and re-imagined many times since, it’s an abstract jungle of shapes and industrial artifacts suspended at different heights and adorned with speakers emitting chirps and splashes and gentle roars. Much of the installation is built of wood or metal, the idea being that the materials’ resonant qualities contribute to the sound, especially when you put your ear up to a plank or stick your head in an oil drum.

This MoMA page has a virtual rendition of Rainforest V, complete with audio. It works in a browser and can apparently be played on a VR device as well. It’s nice to experience in solitude, but it was also worthwhile to be there, with other people making their own discoveries.

The bad news is that it closed on Jan. 5, so you can’t go see it there. But it’s a traveling exhibit, so maybe it will come to a town near you.

Tyshawn Sorey and the Long Game

Tyshawn SoreyPillars (Firehouse 12, 2019)
Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn CrispellThe Adornment of Time (Pi Recordings, 2019)

sorey-pillarsIt took a while for me to dig into Pillars (Firehouse 12, 2018), the nearly four-hour, three-part composition that earned Tyshawn Sorey the No. 1 spot in the Free Jazz Collective’s top albums of 2019. The scope is daunting, and so is that ominous black cover. It felt like a commitment.

With Einstein on the Beach, I listened sequentially in fragments. Pillars doesn’t seem as well suited for that. It does break into three distinct parts — a concession to the physical limitations of CDs, sure, but Sorey takes advantage by ending each disc with a trademark blare, a single note from dual trombones (Ben Gerstein and Sorey), patterned in slow, synchronized arcs, followed by a telling silence.

Pillars develops slowly, but it is neither all-slow nor all-quiet. It’s built of jarring contrasts, with near-silent passages next to bursts of loudness. We rarely hear the entire eight-person band at once, if ever. They appear in fragments of different character. Strident horns and electric guitars seem to embolden the surrounding stillness. Later, a passage of nurturing acoustic guitars serves as a balm. The quiet parts dominate in memory, though, and sometimes the busy passages seem to exist in service to the looming quiet. Even the quick and nervous parts hover patiently.

But make no mistake, there is noise, from cacophonous group explorations to a pure noise solo of crunchy, industrial electronics. Some of the composed parts resemble a sternly edged minimalism — such as the opening moments, where Sorey, alone, plays an impossibly long snare roll in the vacuum of space.sorey-adornment

The Adornment of Time uses some of the same tools as Pillars. It features just two musicians: Sorey on drums and percussion, and Marilyn Crispell on piano, playing what appears to be an improvised 74-minute piece. But it has a like-minded attention to the long game, flowing on a geologic, “macro” scale.

Even more so than PillarsThe Adornment of Time conjures vastness, enhanced by the same strategy of unsettling contrasts. Out of near silence, Sorey will strike one intensely loud drum beat and let the sound quickly decay, smothered by the weight of the surrounding air.

The music acoustic but other-worldly, with long rumbles and cavernous groans carrying the action in some stretches, building up a ruckus before tamping back down. Late in the piece, a playful streak emerges as Crispell starts wandering inside the piano — tapping wood, scraping strings. The endgame begins with slow, plaintive piano chords — a return to crepuscular daylight — followed by a final frenzy.

One key to The Adornment of Time is that multiple payoff moments light the way. Pillars is similarly rewarding but the scale makes it harder to grasp the whole narrative. I’m still working on it while admiring the expanse that Sorey has created.

144 Strings

Christy Doran144 Strings for a Broken Chord (Between the Lines, 2018)

doran-144During the course of Christy Doran’s suite for 24 guitars (four of them basses), you’re rarely listening to all 24 guitars — or if you are, they’re playing with restraint. This isn’t an barrage of shredding, and even when dense riffage-upon-riffage moments come up, they’re well coordinated and cleanly executed. The sound often resembles jazzy prog. It proudly showing its blues and rock roots, and it’s executed with the precision of a chamber orchestra.

The band includes drums, and they’re crucial, adding a tiny bit of sonic variation that provides a focal point. The four electric basses often get buried in the mix, but they have plenty of good moments, including solos. The passages of many guitars playing small parts together, often as the backing to a solo, create a lushness, a crunch that can only come from lots of strings being plucked at once. “Broken Chords” is brimming with that sound. The bluesy “Bad News Babe” is another good example, with the little chiming harmonics played as a group backing.

“Andromeda” is an exercise in grooving counterpoint — think of the overlapping lines of Steve Reich or later King Crimson with a jazzy beat set down by the drum kit. It has a sparkling sound that tickles my prog center.

“Gunslingers” has some appropriate showing off, in the form of tickling, speedy riffs adorning the corners of the sound while a chiming guitar figure occupies the center. It’s a fun exercise in precision, including what sounds like a “solo” played by multiple guitars in unison:

Doran was fortunate enough to present 144 Strings live in a theater, with the guitarists seated in a gentle arc spanning the stage. It just plain looks fun, and based on the excerpts he’s posted, the concert was a blast as well.