Jordan Glenn’s BEAK

Jordan GlennBEAK (Geomancy, 2018)

jordanglenn-beakJordan Glenn is a ubiquitous Bay Area drummer, playing in so many jazz/improv contexts including the prog band Jack o’ the Clock and his own pranskerish trio Wiener Kids. With BEAK, Glenn showcases himself as a composer, leaving the playing up to others. It’s a set of coordinated rock jams thick with guitar and percussion — four percussionists! Sometimes they combine for a glorious stomp; sometimes it’s an intricate exercise in counterpoint.

Compositions build off of riffs and rhy, with guitars (Will Northlich-Redmond and Grex‘s Karl Evangelista) drenched in fuzz and surrounded by hand drums. Mark Clifford’s vibraphone adds splashes of extra melody. The percussion barrage, so vital to the album’s overall mood, comes from Geneva Harrison on the drum kit and Robert Woods-LaDue and Robert Lopez on hand percussion. Max Judelson on bass rounds out the band.

Glenn’s trademark sense of humor is found more in the song titles than in the music itself. Sublime moments come in the trilogy of “Coda” pieces, with the easygoing odd-time beat of “Coda 2 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and the lingering haze of “Coda 3 – The Games Chickens Play.”

Some of the album’s most satisfying moments are the quieter ones. “Coda 2” is worth another mention in that regard; it’s a slow burn, a moderate tempo that builds momentum as the odd rhythm latches into your brain. That said, the full-blast bombastic tracks are fun. “Flower Fashion Fantasies” announces the band: “We’ve got guitars! We’ve got four percussionists!” and builds into a frenzy. Later, the track returns in a higher-energy reprise.

Day of Noise 2019 Video

KZSU’s Day of Noise — 24 hours of live on-air performances in the studios of Stanford’s college radio station — came and went last month, but you can see and hear the whole thing. Jin, who’s videoed and photographed the event for the past several years, went all-out this time, with two cameras per studio and lighting filters to boot. The full 24 hours were streamed live in two 12-hour segments (YouTube sets a 12-hour limit on streams) that are available now.

Bonus: That’s my voice at the start or Part 2. I was asked to stall for time, to make sure no music got lost as we made the transition between video streams.

Smurph, who handled sound engineering for all 24 hours, made an audio recording of each act separately, and you can find those files on KZSU’s Day of Noise web page.

Surrealist Poet Jazz

Sheldon Brown GroupBlood of the Air (Edgetone, 2018)

brown-bloodoftheairNate Chinen’s excellent book, Playing Changes, devotes a chapter to the many innovations of Jason Moran, including his visual art and his business model post-Blue Note. Among them is Moran’s practice of transcribing spoken word into melodies based on that fluctuating pitches and emphasis of the voice.

I can understand the fascination with exploring the necessarily melodic qualities of speech. I always appreciate the results even if I don’t fully enjoy them — as with many types of art, the process sometimes interests me as much as the final output.

Anyway, I doubt Moran was the first to try setting music to speech, and plenty of others have done it since.

But here’s Sheldon Brown doing something I don’t think I’ve heard before: He adds swing. On “Oraibi,” the two-part opener to Brown’s Blood of the Air, he sets a clarinet melody in step with Lamantia’s recital and gives it a bounce that creates the illusion of Lamantia himself swinging.

(Love the soaring Tyner-esque piano chords after the intro, too, and the feathery sung vocal — that’s Lorin Benedict‘s vocalese.

Blood of the Air is a tribute to Lamantia, and I admit, I dreaded the thought of an overbaked poetry-music casserole. But creative touches (such as a moody theremin introducing “First Star”), along with the bursting enthusiasm and spinning inventiveness of Brown’s band, keeps the mix fresh and intriguing.

Here’s the theme from “To Have the Courage,” built from another of Lamantia’s readings and sped up into a punchy ensemble line. The vocal here is Benedict again, inserting vocalese into the melody of Lamantia’s speech patterns. There’s something very meta about that.

A San Franciscan by birth who would later hang out with the Beat movement, Lamantia is described as “surrealist,” but he wrote in normal English phrases and sentences, not the random word clusters I was expecting. His recital voice is homey, less stern than I expected, with an affected accent, equal parts Oxford and Brooklyn.

Here’s a full Blood of the Air set from the group, performed at the 2017 Outsound New Music Summit, with Lamantia contributing via recordings. You can sample much of the album on Bandcamp.

Motoko Honda at CJC, Berkeley

Previously, I had only heard the experimental side of Motoko Honda’s music. That was in Los Angeles, where I’d seen her perform live in the improvised setting of Polarity Taskmasters, a quartet co-led by Emily Hay on flute and vocals.

But Honda has a classical background and a rigorous interest in jazz, and those sides take the fore with her band, Simple Excesses. The music is genteel enough to fit the programming at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory, where Honda’s band was presented recently by the Northern California nonprofit Jazz in the Neighborhood, but it also had exploratory and subversive sides — creative fusion at work.

Late in the set, a piece called “Umba” really caught my attention. I remember Honda hammering away at fast triplets and continuing that pattern during Wright’s solo — manic stuff, until it ran into a shift in mood. This video excerpt, from a different concert in Los Angeles, must begin after that shift, but it gives you a feel for Honda’s skill at scattery jazz spontaneity applied with classical precision.

Getting back to the Berkeley show: Cory Wright provided a lead voice on a battery of woodwinds — saxes and clarinets, but also flute. One piece early in the first set combined piano and harmonized flute in a fast-running river of notes — a nice effect, sonically, and chiseled out with precision.

Like Wright, Jordan Glenn on drums was a familiar face that was good to see. (I haven’t been out to many shows in the past year or so.) He played a support role loyally, adding different shades of color and a spark of personality to each track. His spotlight moment came on “The Jumping Mouse,” the closer, where he and Honda dueled in a joint solo that had them bounding rhythms off one another with increasing intensity.

I hadn’t heard bassist Miles Wick before, but he was a strong presence throughout both sets. He got a long solo during the opening piece, full of rubbery melody; maybe it was the strength of that solo that prodded me to keep him in focus for most of the show.

Honda’s brand of jazz comes with a firm grip and confident strides in her chording and soloing, but we also got generous samples of her traditional classical side, the kind of piano evoking images of gentle snowfalls or wide, quiet fields. I’m thinking especially of one emotional piece about her late music teacher.

Jazz in the Neighborhood also supports emerging artists, granting them a stipend and a chance to perform with the concert artists. Under those auspices, violinist Eva Piontkowski sat in on a couple of songs, adding the airy melody that a violin can offer but also showing some edgy creativity in her soloing. She also got to play a challenging duet with Honda: a graphical score, around which they built a piece that was warm and lyrical but far from sappy. It later turned out this was Piontkowski’s first attempt at playing a graphical score, and she’d received no prior instruction — which is a legitimate and, if you think about it, once-in-a-lifetime way to perform this music.

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.

Grex: Many-Faceted Rock

GrexElectric Ghost Parade (Geomancy, 2018)

Grex appears at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., San Francisco) on Jan. 23, 2019.

grex-electric-500The art-rock band Grex charms you with upbeat indie-pop melody and then blasts you with psych-driven guitar grit, often in the same song. That mix anchors the band’s personality, honed over years by founders Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, and their steady drummer Robert Lopez. Each album or live show is a workout for multiple brain centers: rock, prog, free jazz, even goofy whimsy.

Scampavia’s airy vocals can make for charming melodic leads. “Martha” is one of the highlights, a sad little tribute to the last of the passenger pigeons. “Mal and Luma” has the slightly silly sound of a kids’ TV theme. Both songs then get a dose of more searing guitar — mournful on the former ebullient on the latter (with some Beatlesesque applause randomly added to contribute to the silliness). “Transpiration” uses guitar blasts in a satisfying power-pop mode before slipping into a tougher psych-rock attack.

That rougher side, with Evangelista’s growly vocals, makes for some satisfying excursions too, with crunchy guitar leading the way on “Husk” and the soulful, pumping riff of “Saints.” Guest horns sometimes add choppy free jazz to the mix, but they also arrive in melodic form, strengthening the rolling pop sounds of “Round Trip” and “Quicksilver.”



Even as any given song flips through disparate ideas, it doesn’t lose its core feeling. Grex knows where it wants to go. There needs to be a place for this kind of pop/rock: music that can smartly flip through many influences to build something exciting.