The joys and sorrows of itkuja

Rent Romus and Heikki KoskinenItkuja Suite, Invocations on Lament (Edgetone, 2023)

(Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble will perform Itkuja Suite on May 27 (8:00 p.m.) and May 28 (4:00 p.m.) at Berkeley Finnish Hall, 1970 Chestnut St., Berkeley.)

Manala, released in 2020, was the second in a trilogy of jazz-centric albums exploring saxophonist Rent Romus’ Finnish heritage. That album retold legends of the underworld and the afterlife. Itkuja Suite, completing the trilogy, brings us back to the struggles of the living world through the jazz-minded Life’s Blood Ensemble and some boldly emotive singing by Heikki Laitinen.

Itkuja is a traditional Finnish music of lamentation, but its singers are hired for weddings as well as for funerals. It’s a dichotomy that I think we all have a sense for. There are glimmers of thankful happiness in times of mourning, and there is a heaviness and longing that accompanies moments of joy.

In that light, Itkuja Suite deftly traverses emotional borders, at once railing against the cruel world while inviting us to dance to big band-inspired jazz. But this isn’t about contrasting two extremes; to me, it’s more an exploration around a multi-dimensional field of conflicting, intertwining senses. Laitinen sings in Finnish and Karelian, in personalities ranging from weepy to a menacing growl. Traditional songs provide much of the lyrical source material, although there is also a song mourning the Soviet Union overrunning the Karelian region (a WWII-era development that parallels Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and an original itkuja written by Romus, inspired by his own quest to recover his heritage.

The inspiration and some of the words date back centuries, but this is also a jazz project at heart, with most pieces written or arranged by Romus or Koskinen. The band delivering it is Romus’ Bay Area-based Life’s Blood Ensemble, 11 musicians counting Laitinen, Romus, and Koskinen, and they get ample room for soloing: sax, trumpet, flute, vibes and cello all take lead positions.

The songs best exemplifying the itkuja spirit might be those that open with majestic drama and then step into a more energetic, jazzy space. An example is “Runkoterian halla (Rungoteus),” which is based on a fable about a rye farmer and his spirit of perseverance. It’s a little more than a minute before the jazzy segment kicks in, with solos by Koskinen on e-trumpet and Romus on alto sax:

Explore more at Edgetone and Bandcamp.

Bleeding Vector and Stash Wyslouch

Bleeding Vector (Lorin Benedict and Eric Vogler)
Stash Wyslouch
Luggage Store Gallery
Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Stash Wyslouch occasionally bashes at the guitar in the way you would expect from someone who has never held a guitar. But seconds later, he replicates that same bashing. It’s precision insanity. Then he’ll follow it up with rapid-precision bluegrass picking. Like an express train, it’s all in your field of vision, then gone.

I knew none of this before stopping by the Luggage Store Gallery. My only hints came from the blurb in the calendar entry, which included an admiring quote from Billy Strings, a bluegrass band leader with jam-band tendencies. Not the name that usually comes up in jazz/improv circles.

Billy Strings was talking specifically about The Stash Band, a quartet that mixes meticulous bluegrass roots with the bent-mindedness of They Might Be Giants and Eugene Chadbourne. At the Luggage Store, Stash was playing solo, filling the space with his voice and guitar. Every other song was straight roots/bluegrass, starting with “I Ain’t Got My Walkin’ Shoes No More.” Every other other song was a twister like “Micro Rage Biomes Occupy the Cosmos,” so random and chopping — but full of repeatable intent.

Here’s a different performance of that one, less slashing than what I remember, and showing off Stash’s picking abilities.

I don’t want to make Stash sound like an amateur. He’s versed in music theory and oddball scales, as evidenced on his YouTube channel. That’s what makes his wackiness work. One song he played included a retelling of the melody using only harmonics. I found myself looking to other audience members to confirm that yes, this was goddamn impressive.

Stash was preceded by Bleeding Vector, the duo of Lorin Benedict (voice) and Eric Vogler (guitar), improvisers who wobble and spin near the axis of the jazz tradition. The performed one long piece, fluid and often dense, flipping through their own compositions and some established jazz pieces, including an interpretation of “Solar” which, they later told us, had one chord intentionally dropped.

Benedict and Vogler are two-thirds of The Holly Martins, whose 2010 album, no. no. yes. no., was similarly airy and lightly bopping, drenched in the light-touch velvet of Benedict’s voice and the spritely jump of Vogler’s guitar, aided by Kasey Knudsen on sax. Underneath the jazz sheen, you’ll find lots of angles and twists. It’s worth seeking out.

A Dance of Maps

“A Synesthete’s Atlas” at Shapeshifters Cinema
Sunday, September 25, 2022

Using digital maps as his medium, Eric Thiese is honing a new type of visual-art performance. On a projector, in real time, he pans, zooms, and rotates street maps, playing with color and text fonts along the way. Often the street and regional names are visible, but I prefer it when he turns them off, creating an abstract geometric space. Disorientation is core to the experience, and some of my favorite moments come when the image, in motion, stops looking like a map and becomes a sparse universe of lines and curves.

“A Synesthete’s Atlas” combines this video dance/movement with improvised music. Thiese performed the concept nine times in 2022, and I saw the seventh of them, a duet with Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and analog electronics.

Electronics suit “A Synesthete’s Atlas,” maybe because they fit the brain’s expectations: abstract sounds against abstract visuals. Fittingly for a map-based performance, Bruckmann’s electronics were often in an exploratory mode, a gradual hovering of buzzes and clicks. He would later tell us he’d performed with lines and rotations in mind. Oboe segments likewise hovered — long tones and overtones, with gradual variations like a geological expanse — but later moved into bursts of notes, at one point accompanied by an electronics loop with a slight random element added.

Thiese’s browser-based controls have their limits; the occasional abrupt shift in the visuals breaks the spell for a moment. Rotations and zooms, though, operate on computer presets that move smoothly. Overall, the concept is satisfyingly hypnotic, and it adds a novel visual aspect to solo musical performance.

It also aligns Thiese’s interests in experimental film and music with his cartography-related day job. In fact, he gave a presentation about his work at the 2022 North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference in October. Here’s the video of his session, which begins with excerpts from five previous performances including the one with Bruckmann. On Vimeo, you can also see snippets from his debut performance, with Helena Espvall on cello and electronics.

Incidentally, Thiese’s NACIS talk plugs a performance with Liz Draper, bassist for the indie rock band Low. He mentions that she was available because a bandmate was taken ill — and, sadly, Mimi Parker would die of ovarian cancer just weeks later. Draper is indeed familiar with experimental settings, and she’s a composer as well. Check out Liz Draper Bass on Youtube.

SFEMF 2022

Going into 2022, I had never seen Carl Stone perform. And I still haven’t. Sorry, Carl, but yours was the one night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that I couldn’t attend.

This was back in September, when SFEMF revived after a pandemic hiatus. Hosted in the spacious room of The Lab, the festival featured all local musicians this time, as it was put together in a relative hurry and without the budget of previous years. (Stone was an exception, as he was already scheduled to be in town.) Call it a ramp-up back to normal. Word certainly got out. The audience filled the room — well more than 100 people on the two nights I attended. Probably closer to 200.

I want to talk about the ROVA Electric 6 first, which means to the end. In reverse order, here’s who I saw across Sunday and Friday nights:

ROVA Electric 6, meaning the ROVA Saxophone Quartet performing with Tom Djll and Gino Robair on electronics. This was exciting not just for the music, but also for the use of The Lab’s luxurous space. Djll and Robair were in the back corners, so that their sounds came from opposite angles behind us, and ROVA’s four members wandered the generous perimeter and eventually weaved through the audience as well. It was an organic surroundsound experience. The electronics included both analog and digital effects as well as ROVA samples, including live samples from this performance, blurring the reality of the sound sources.

They performed a long, spirited set. It had its share of quieter spans, of course, but the stretches of full-group chatter and motion were particularly fun. Video excerpts here and here.

For the other performers, The Lab was mostly dark, cloaking us in the mesmerizing aspects of the music. That means no photos from me, but the ambience was an easy tradeoff to accept.

Only Now, aka Kush Arora, normally works in the realm of dancehall beats. This project has a more experimental bent but is still beat-focused. I remember his piece as a tunneling of motion and pulse. (Video.)

Anne Hege’s tape machine

Anne Hege performs with tape loops — good old-fashioned cassette tape running on a homemade workstation built from three hacked cassette players. Her own voice was the primary sound source, singing crystal-pure tones — but the tapes also picked up the ambience of the room, eventually creating an Alvin Lucier effect. Hege was performing pieces that she had composed for this instrument, so there was an element of structure. She would reduce the layers of sound down to a single voice, for example, creating a dramatic pause. She’ll be releasing an album of these compositions on the Innova label in 2023. Hege’s website includes some performance samples, and you can read more about her work on I Care If You Listen.

Moving backwards to Friday night …

Luciano Chessa‘s piece began as a stark, playful visual installation. He had placed a piano in the middle of the audience, with strands of red twine reaching up to a ring in the ceiling. You couldn’t miss it. Once Chessa’s performance began, the purpose became evident: Each strand controlled a different electro-acoustic device mounted high in a different corner of The Lab: rattles, bells, a tube that made the resonant sound of a thick metal spring. Chessa could pull strings to trigger these sounds, which played through the speakers installed in the corners. It all felt very steampunk.

This was a newly created piece titled Real Virtuality: Cori Battenti per Mario Bertoncini, dedicated to the Italian composer who used spatialization in his compositions. Chessa’s arsenal also included synthesized sounds, and an electronic surround system. The corner-mounted sounds often came into play during piano segments — composed melodies that Chessa would accent with (and contrast against) these primitive sounds. Hissing electronic static was also a frequent backdrop to the piano segments — some of them blocks of stark chords, others harmonized trails of melody. Visually and spatially intriguing, it was an ambitious, memorable finale to the Friday performance. (Video.)

shipwreck detective [Dev Bhat] is a solo ambient performer working with analog synthesizers and a barrage of digital effects. His set was lit in blues and greens, an oceanic feel for his washes of sound and abstract tonality, broken by occasional arctic howls of Moog synth.

Michelle Moeller’s setup

Michelle Moeller kicked off the festival with “Observatory,” a piece featuring magnetic objects manipulated in a porcelain bowl. A projector let us watch the motions as the metal scraped against the porcelain — such a satisfying sound, especially the ball bearings — and kept us informed as she progressed up to entire fistfuls of small objects. The piece had a sense of curiosity about it, like a creature emerging from hibernation to explore the new spring. A computer algorithm kicked off various sounds in response to the movement. Here’s a performance of “Observatory” from 2019.

Hooray for John Finkbeiner

Guitarist John Finkbeiner passed away a little more than a year ago. On a Sunday early in October, his friends took over the Ivy Room, a neighborhood bar in Albany, to celebrate his life and music. The event was co-organized by his partner, Lisa Mezzaappa, and one other musician (possibly John Schott, who emceed?). Many, many groups played in mostly abbreviated sets, stretching from the late afternoon well into the evening. It was a happening full of community and love, and it was wonderful.

The evening’s schedule.

Of course, I’d known Finkbeiner through his creative-music side. He was part of the quartet Go-Go Fightmaster and the Lisa Mezzacappa Quartet (same personnel, different bands). He applied a sense of humor to these efforts, evidenced by the album he and Aaron Bennett made making music out of drinking straws. The Quiet Storm All-Stars, a trio including Bennett, played one of those songs at the Ivy Room; the straws have holes, so they can play notes like a kazoo or a raspy recorder. Serious silly fun.

But another side of Finkbeiner was his love of traditional music, dub, and Caribbean dance rhythms. I’d actually known about some of this this already. I encountered him once, long ago, playing as part of a small ensemble — was it during New Year’s Eve? — playing some form of conventional jazz, and during a break, I introduced and explained myself. He was surprised. It was rare for an audience member to cross those two worlds, especially in that direction.

So, John Finkbeiner crossed boundaries, and the Ivy Room event was a chance to mingle among all those worlds. Meaning in addition to some excellent creative jazz, we got treated to acts like Hiroshi Hasegawa’s Poontang Wranglers, who took the stage decked out in orange long-johns. Their vaudville-like set featured exuberant old-timey music with a washtub bass, washboard percussion, and a bunch of ukeleles, among other instruments. It was great fun, although Hiroshi himself was in Japan and unable to make it. (I get the feeling Hiroshi is always “in Japan.” The band had that kind of absurdist bent.)

Setup for Aaron Novik’s band Kipple. Moe! Staiano, center, prepares to play an instrument built by Tom Nunn (another musician who recently left us). Graham Connah on keys; Tim Bulkley on drums, I think; Lisa Mezzacappa back there on bass; and John Schott helping set up.

The passing of a loved one is sad, but it’s also a chance for family and community to connect, recognizing that person as the intersection of so many lives. I can’t claim to have been one of John’s friends, but I was still able to celebrate his life and celebrate being there, watching so many of the musicians whose work I’ve enjoyed over the past two decades or more. It felt good to be reminded that community isn’t dead. John’s parents were there. A childhood friend who now runs a boutique ice cream truck parked outside the Ivy Room for most of the afternoon and gave out cones and cups.

And then there was Joseph’s Bones.

This was a highlight for me, Jason Levis’ instrumental dub band with three horns and two guitars: John Schott and Myles Boisen (who both appear on the band’s album, along with Finkbeiner) plus Levis on drums and Mezzacappa on bass. Lots of energy behind mid/fast grooves, and one brilliant solo after another, from the horns certainly but also the guitars, spitting bluesy psychedelic joy. The kind of music that just makes you smile. Drummer/leader Jason Levis had a poignant moment at the end of the set, talking about Finkbeiner’s loss. “We didn’t know if would ever get to play this music again,” he said.

At the merch table, we were encouraged to help ourselves to posters and pins made for the occasion, as well as music — including Joseph’s Bones’ Nomadic Pulse/Pulse in Dub, a vinyl double-album, gracefully packaged (and still available on Bandcamp). I balked a bit at that, knowing vinyl is a pricey endeavor.

But Levis told me something to the effect of, “If there’s an empty turntable out there, I want this to fill it.” He wants the music to live on. Who wouldn’t? People make music because it fills the soul, yes, but it means a lot to the musician to know it’s reached somebody, and it’s possibly more important to know this for a fellow musician who’s transitioned on. That album is spinning on my turntable as I write this. I hear you, John.

Read John’s obituary in BerkeleySide.

Guerilla Hi-Fi, the night’s closing act.

Ben Goldberg in the great outdoors

Ben Goldberg’s Jewish Leftist Intellectual in Salesforce Park. Most of the crowd was off to the left or the right, because all those colorful chairs were in the direct afternoon sun.

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg named his new trio Jewish Leftist Intellectual — it’s meant to be a little bit whimsical and certainly political. The band performs Goldberg’s compositions, combining his clarinet with accordion (Rob Reich, a frequent collaborator) and bass (Daniel Fabricant), all three exchanging pebbles of melody and rhythm in a free-form tumble.

It’s still a band-in-progress, to the point where Goldberg sprang ideas at the others shortly before their first-ever performance, about a month ago in San Francisco’s Salesforce Park. Several other songs were taken from Goldberg’s work during the isolation of the pandemic, when he spent several months of creating and recording a composition per day. (You can hear those results on Bandcamp, in an “album” called Plague Diary.)

Salesforce Park is an urban oasis, a four-block stretch of greenery elevated above the financial district’s traffic and bustle. It’s does feel a bit corporate, but it’s new and admittedly pretty and offers a space to contemplate the sun and sky against the glassy skyscrapers. Jewish Leftist Intellectual was the last in a small run of summer jazz concerts, held out in the open — and it was nice to see that the bill included creative music acts, such as Larry Ochs/Gerald Cleaver, Rova, and Citta di Vitti (the trio of Phillip Greenlief, Lisa Mezzacappa, and Jason Levis).

The open-air venue, suffused with the quiet of a Sunday afternoon, was well suited for the show’s laboratory nature. Goldberg had a concept of how this band could operate and what it could become, but the specifics were still vague, he admitted to us, and the trio had rehearsed just once. But of course, “jazz” inherently involves making things up as you go, and it also relies on teamwork; the fact that Goldberg and Reich have worked together on so many projects certainly made the whole setup less risky. The trio transitioned seamlessly from composed themes to group improvising to solos. You would never have guessed that the band, and two of the songs, were so new.

In addition to selections from Plague Diary, the show included two of Goldberg’s “Porch Songs,” themes written for a porch concert where Goldberg did not communicate any of the music to the musicians ahead of time; he started playing, and the others were obligated to jump in. (Those were the rules for the original porch concert. Jewish Leftist Intellectual used sheet music.) If you’re wondering how that might work, consider “Porch Song 2.” It’s a brain teaser, hopping around the chord wheel in a pattern that I’m guessing professional musicians can work out quickly — but only after hearing a complete cycle. (The cycle also ends with a bout of old-timey clarinet jazz, which is nice.)

It’s interesting to think of this band as not only a part of the renewed spring of live music and community, but also as a way to apply and extend Goldberg’s work of the past two years. Plague Diary is free in its entirety at the link above, and you can hear more of the Porch Songs on Ben Goldberg School Vol. 2: Hard Science, on Bandcamp.

A Happy Blues Story

Owen MaercksKinds of Blue (Feeding Tube, 2019)

I wish I’d noted the DJ’s name, because I know firsthand how gratifying it is to hear you’ve turned someone on to something new. So to whomever was on-air at KALX that evening — the midnight of a Saturday/Sunday transition, just a few weeks ago, I think — thanks.

That show replayed an interview with Owen Maercks that was probably conducted in 2019. Maercks, a guitarist living in the East Bay, had come out of musical retirement to record a blues record with quite a cast: local giants Henry Kaiser, Larry Ochs, Scott Amendola, and Plunderphonics creator John Oswald. Maercks clearly hung out with the right people. He came across as intelligent and engagaing, and the one track I heard (I surrendered to sleep shortly after) was bright, springy excitement. I promptly bought the album.

Until now, Maercks’ sparse discography included only one record as a leader, released in 1978. Much like Duane Kuiper’s lone home run, that isolated album was enough of a story to bring Maercks some notoriety years later. Teenage Sex Therapist was reissued by Feeding Tube Records in 2014, generating some overdue press for Maercks. Here’s an example, if you can tolerate SFGate’s smothering advertising. Even better, that album includes Ochs and Oswald and especially Kaiser, who’s been Maercks’ compatriot for decades — making Kinds of Blue a reunion of sorts.

Whereas that first album was rock, informed by punk and no-wave but sounding like neither, Kinds of Blue is rooted in blues, with Maercks’ low, growly singing invoking hot sunlight on lush Southern riverbanks. It’s a twisted blues, though. The opening instrumental, “Wild Time,” features a time-signature glitch as a hook and a dive-bombing Kaiser solo.

Kaiser’s sonic webspinning appears throughout the album. (Maercks takes solos as well, speaking the same psychedelic language.) And Ochs, on the folky “Beautiful to Me,” revels in retro rock-‘n’-roll blasts crinkled with skronk.

“Beautiful to Me” is also fun for its giddy, absurd lyrics (“I don’t care what the manatees say, you’re beautiful to me.”) “Burnin'” is rich in a different way, telling an epic, vague story about “the burnin'” in Saturn, Alabama (a nod to Sun Ra). As on Therapist, Maercks displays a knack for imaginative lyrical themes and a sense of humor.

Released solely on vinyl, Kinds of Blue‘s two sides are named “Inside” and “Outside,” and the descriptions are accurate. “Inside” has plenty of adventure; in fact, every track mentioned above is on that side. “Outside” rockets immediately to distant orbits with the dissonant, thorny “Iceland Boogie.” That side also includes two of the album’s three covers. One is a Picasso-filter version of “Blue Monk” — big fun. The other is “Wrong,” an obscure song by 1960s bluemsan Robert Pete Williams that starts out spare but ignites into a groove that provokes some of the most heated soloing and singing on the album. It’s not to be missed.

Kinds of Blue is bluesy, noisy, outside-y, and just plain fun. I’m happy that Maercks got back on the map, and I’m also grateful for the DJs out there who keep the spirit of college radio alive.

Feeding Tube is on Bandcamp, but to find Kinds of Blue, you’ll need to visit their website.


Our narrator/guide, Jed, with Andy working in a silvered storefront studio.

On a recent trip to New York, I had the good fortune to catch Chasing Andy Warhol, an outdoor theater experience on the streets of the East Village. Staged by the Bated Breath company, the play uses immersive narration, dance, music, and a good deal of visual poetry and humor to explore Warhol’s life, work, and public-facing persona. What counts as art? As meaningful? How much of the “real” Andy was left at the end, and to what extent did he himself become the kind of consumer object that Pop Art once criticized? It was a fascinating and fun little tour through Warhol’s history and psyche, underscored by the displacement of wandering the neighborhood. (The final showings are on Sunday, July 31, so if you’re in New York, plan accordingly.)

In the week before the trip, I prepared by thumbing through Warhol, Blake Gopnik’s 900-page biography published in 2020. Warhol produced more work than I’d ever realized, particularly in film. I knew about Empire, but he had more than 500 other films (the count might include the 440-plus Screen Tests, which are three minutes apiece).

Empire, filmed in 1964, is an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building at sunset. The “action” consists of the sun going down and the tower’s floodlights coming up. The camera never moves. I’m never going to watch all of Empire, but the concept of a large space where seemingly nothing happens, where the endurance is the story — I’m immediately drawn to parallels in music.

Gopnik writes that Warhol was intrigued by the long-drone electronic works of LaMonte Young, that experience of being lost in an expanse. John Cage was in the public consciousness and crossed Warhol’s path socially, multiple times. I suppose there could be a 4:33 quality to Empire, where your own surroundings define the experience — but I don’t think that was Warhol’s intention.

For me, arriving decades later, the obvious touch point is classical minimalism. Einstein on the Beach and even Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 hadn’t come into being yet, but the seeds must have been in the air in the early ’60s.

In that way, Warhol’s film mirrors takes a cue from experimental music. It felt rewarding to discover that.

But his films also show why not all experiments succeed.

Sorting through Andy’s childhood. The use of puppets was just one facet of the creative variety in Chasing Andy Warhol.

Warhol’s later films strike me as sloppy and downright careless. The cast are hangers-on at The Factory (i.e., non-professionals and barely-professionals), often clumsily filmed. Warhol also experimented with multi-screen films — playing two not-necessarily-related things on adjacent screens and letting the film operator show reels in random order. I can understand why the concept had appeal. It’s worth trying once. But the results are unbearable. His celebrated film The Chelsea Girls amounts to found footage of Factory regulars hanging out — except, they’re all painfully aware that they’re on camera. (Here, have a look at Gopnik calls it “murderously difficult,” and he’s right.

(Of course, my family thinks the music I listen to is “murderously difficult,” so there’s that. They enjoyed Chasing Andy Warhol, by the way.)

I enjoy elements of randomness in art, but Warhol’s “uncontrolled actuality” leaves too much to chance. The difference, I would argue, is ego versus collective intent.

The Factory actors were a self-centered bunch, and Warhol intentionally didn’t tell them his goals for any given film. (It’s possible there often weren’t any.) So, their own spontaneous ideas would would rule the day. You can say that’s also true of freely improvised music, but an improv ensemble is built around a giving spirit. Everybody is contributing to a greater whole. I don’t see that spirit in Warhol’s films, and I don’t sense it in Gopnik’s description of Warhol’s scene, nor in Warhol himself. There’s too much ego on both sides of the camera.

Now, there’s evidence that Warhol did try. A fascinating 2021 lecture at The Whitney Museum doesn’t shy away from Warhol’s missteps and his shortcomings as a filmmaker, but it also emphasizes that he did not just point the camera and walk away. Outtakes do exist — here’s a keen explanation of one — indicating that Warhol, an amateur in this milieu, had ideas and was striving to educate himself. In that way, the films are a useful window into his artistic mind. But there’s also a level of intentional carelessness, echoing Warhol’s assertion that “everything” can be considered art. I can’t agree with him.

So, is there a “there” there? It’s the same question provoked by the Campbell’s Soup paintings in 1962. Gopnik’s book gave me a new appreciation of that work, by the way. The paintings are portraits, as Warhol said, and they represent an obsession with repetition that, again, makes me think Warhol would later appreciate classical minimalism. They’re also more painstakingly precise than I realized. I’m reminded of Blue, the note-for-note reproduction of Kind of Blue by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. I think the Soup paintings open up healthy questions about what constitutes art and meaning. I’m inclined to say that isn’t true of The Chelsea Girls, but then again, I wrote about those exact questions just a few paragraphs ago. In that sense, the film succeeded — but was it because of the end product, or only because of who made it?

That spiral of thinking is Warhol’s legacy. You could play those mind games with any moment in modern art, but for laypeople like me, Warhol’s work and notoriety get the process started. Andy is the labyrinth’s doorman.

Max Johnson Trio

Max Johnson TrioOrbit of Sound (Unbroken Sounds, 2022)

I pick up a comforting late-night vibe on Orbit of Sound. Maybe it’s the way the improvisations build around a earthy sax-bass-drums conversation, or the rich intensity of Anna Webber’s flute on “Too Much Tuna” (excerpt below) — or maybe it’s just the placement of Max Johnson‘s bass in the mix.

On this 2021 live recording, bandleader and composer Johnson often takes the lead in defining melodies, whether composed or improvised. His bass is up-front with the other instruments, carried with volume (both literal and figurative), delivering propulsion without sounding hurried or heavy-handed. For me, the prevailing image is of an intimate space where the musical creativity is flowing strongly as the city outside winds down.

Orbit of Sound documents a trio that was founded in 2018 and had nearly competed a European tour in 2020 when pandemic restrictions struck. (They got another stab at Europe earlier this year.) Anna Webber, fresh off some successful albums with Pi Recordings and an invigorating big-band release co-led with Angela Morris, plays tenor sax and flute. On drums is Michael Sarin, who’s been on the scene for decades in settings like the Thomas Chapin Trio and Myra Melford’s The Same River Twice. Sarin and Johnson teamed up at least one other time that I know of, backing pianist Simon Nabatov on the crackling album Free Reservoir (Leo Records, 2017).

Combining Johnson’s compositions with well balanced improvising, the band explores broadly while maintaining a loose sense of groove. “Over/Under” features an percolating Johnson solo, backed in a steady rhythm by Sarin, that’s just sublime and becomes stronger when Webber finally joins in. Then there are the experimental stretches — arid expanses that revel in silence and concentration before building back into Johnson’s compositional structure.

You can catch Johnson in other contexts on June 20 at Roulette. The program, which Roulette will livestream for free, consists of Johnson’s classical compositions followed by a performance with a three-sax quintet.


DunkelpeK Fire’s Hush (AKP, 2022)

While Fire’s Hush has its noisy points, the duo of Nava Dunkelman (percussion) and Jakob Pek (guitar) spend much of the album building stillness. On tracks like “Unknown Memory” and “Threshold,” Dunkelman’s feathery touches on percussion, whether bowed or delicately ringing, build the foundation. “Unknown Memory” is a relaxing zen haze, whereas “Threshold” lingers tensely.

Dunkelman operates with a gem cutter’s precision. Listen to the quick-handed “Anurakti,” a track built from small motions and generous blank space.

On the noisier side, the track “無” — I think the translation means “nothing” or possibly just “no” — shows off Dunkelman on drum kit, explosively breaking up a passage of rugged industrial grind. Pek’s guitar gets a showcase on “Lila,” a bouncy avant-garde hoedown combining jazzy rhythms and snippets of folky melody.

Finally, there’s “Ode to the Dream,” a dialogue showing off a wide range of percussive taps, chimes, and groans, with occasional blips of piano. It’s busy yet spacious — listen below or watch the abstract video of liquid digital distortion.