Larry Ochs and Aram Shelton

Larry Ochs & Aram Shelton QuartetContinental Drift (Clean Feed, 2020)

Aram Shelton was a fixture on the Bay Area scene before moving overseas, first to Copenhagen and more recently to Budapest. He teams up with ROVA stalwart Larry Ochs on Continental Drift, a free-jazz session where we get to listen in on distant friends enjoying one another’s company. The album has a bright, flowing energy, aided by drummer Kjell Nordeson, another familiar face on the local scene, and two bassists — Mark Dresser or Scott Walton — who rounded out the quartet during the two separate recording sessions, five years apart, that make up the album.

Ochs and Shelton alternate composing duties track-by-track, emphasizing their contrasting styles — Ochs tending toward rougher textures and abstract territory, Shelton often starting closer to traditional jazz forms but bending them to his taste. Ochs’ “Slat” delves into more abstract territory and a freer improvisation — some terrific sparring here between the two horns — whereas Shelton’s “Switch” shows off his trademark blend of modern composing and aggressively swingy rhythm.

Shelton puts a sweet composure into “Anita.” But even that track goes off the melodic rails after a while; it’s far from sappy. Ochs shows off his snappy sense of rhythm on the outright catchy “Strand,” which starts innocuously but builds into a furious group jam that eventually stops on a dime, a nice dramatic moment.

Shelton and Ochs mix well and it’s often hard to tell who has played or even composed which pieces. (For me, anyway. My ear for different musical styles is still a work in progress.) They combine for a tremendous, hard-digging double solo during “The Others Dream,” Ochs’ 19-minute closer. That one feels epic, opening with somber drumming and Ochs’ ecstatic sopranino solo, then later getting into a hard-driven segment that also feels wide open, a broad landscape unrolling.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve met most of these players in person, but the whole set just feels friendly, with an optimistic outlook. Composition-led free jazz is alive and well, and it’s a soothing balm against stressful times. Shelton and Ochs execute well on Continental Drift, but more importantly, it feels like everyone is having fun. That kind of thing comes across on a record.

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.

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.

Portraits of the Artists: Kyle Bruckmann’s Triptych (tautological)

Kyle BruckmannTriptych (tautological) (self-released, 2020)

bruckmann-triptych-1Kyle Bruckmann’s latest album, releasing on June 1, mixes electronics with extended techniques on oboe and English horn. It’s a different kind of composing from his genre-jumping Dear Everyone or the long-form Pynchon-inspired suite, … Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire and right in line with his solo improvising of the past and his electronics work of the recent present.

Improvisation is involved here, but Triptych (tautological) is comprised of pieces, compositions previously performed live and shaped for studious listening. They tie into a theme of three artists who have influenced Bruckmann’s work from different directions: literature, music, and the visual arts.

The electronics version of “A Spurious Autobiography for John Barth” is built from the chattering of small sounds — tightly wound vibration, some apparently sourced from extended techniques on the oboe. You can recognize air through the horn, or high-pitched overblowing filtered into a distant ghostly shriek. It’s quiet in volume but tight with tension.

That same piece reappears later on the album in an oboe and English horn version. The aesthetic of tight scribbles is still there, but coming from the horns themselves, in the form of squeaks and twiddles, sometimes overdubbed. Some seem to be electronically enhanced, too — or, more likely, it’s Bruckmann adding mic effects while wresting impossible sounds out of the instrument. At times, it’s an exotic zoo.

The 21-minute “An Extruded Introversion for Blixa Bargeld” is anchored in silence — a concrete-thick silence, with the oboe sketching the barest outlines of melody. A good portion of the piece is backed by the tiniest of electronic pulses, an irregular whisper behind the slowly unfolding piece. Late in the piece, things explode outward; an extended-technique blare and a circular-breathing segment turn the mood more aggressive before leaning back toward near-silence and a coda of long, resigned microtones.

The most conventionally “musical” piece is dedicated to James Turrell, an artist who works in light and is preparing an outdoor celestial-minded piece built in a crater. Appropriately, “A Fuzzy Monolith for James Turrell” works in minimalist arcs. Its sustained notes range from low buzzing to cleanly cut high whistles. Physically, it’s an exercise in control and restraint; aurally, it suggests the slow, grand clock of the stars. At some moments, the high oboe tones take on the air of Native American flutes, again conjuring images of the wide timeless sky.

These pieces represent distinct moods that reward concentrated listening. As the liner notes mention, it’s good contemplative fodder for the times of sheltering-in-place.

Triptych (tautological) will be available June 1 on Bandcamp.

 

Inward Creature

Inward CreatureInward Creature (self-released, 2020)

Inward-Creature_LP_Album-Art_Digital-SQ_v24Inward Creature spins giddy but smart pop songs where the musicianship is on point and the ideas are flinging madly from all sides, from the outright absurd to the earnest (I think) pop love song “Carly.” The attitude skews toward class cloud but ranges all the way to sincere singer-songwriter. The genre influences run from metal to lite rock, with an honestly catchy country melody thrown in (“Pull Over to Pray,” which is musically so straightforward it seems out of place).

If you start with “Liar” — where the chorus is “I’m such a f**king liar” repeated eight times — you’ll think you’ve stumbled onto a novelty band. But that’s not the right box for these guys. “Jilly Jolly” is heavy in guitars and mood (the opening has shades of “Dirty Boy” by Cardiacs) and “Everybody Nose” (yes it’s a pun) turns out to be a mini-suite with a serious middle amid the stomping cleverness.

Farther out on the goofiness axis, “My Time in the ’60s” sounds just like its title, musically conjuring up TV game shows and explosive yellow and orange fashions. “Little Things” takes a nursery-rhyme 6/8 melody and packs it to the gills with lyrics for a cute, likable package. “Reptile Tears” is part smart-alecky prog, part skate-punk, part cartoon, with a moody avant-jazz sax solo.

If you’re looking for a more direct link to avant-garde jazz, note that the drummer here is Jordan Glenn. He plays heavy improv in the Fred Frith Trio, artsy folk/prog with Jack o’ the Clock, and jazz in any number of ensembles — and he has an offbeat sense of humor himself. He named a band Wiener Kids and named one of their albums Why Don’t You Make Me?

You can hear the whole Inward Creature album on Bandcamp. But first, you gotta take 2 minutes and hear “My Time in the ’60s.” You just do. And as long as “Pull Over to Pray” is stuck in my head, I might as well try to stick you with it too.

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.

 

SF Tape Music + sfSound

The San Francisco Tape Music Festival runs January 10-12 at the Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street, San Francisco).

photo-1527332900615-32bb872f6b62 (1)-crop
Source: Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

For Bay Area creative music, the first big happening of the calendar year tends to be the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. “Tape music” refers to an early type of electronic music that wasn’t performed live, but was instead committed to reel-to-reel tape. The pieces today are digital recordings, played to the Tape Music Festival audience across 24 speakers in near-total darkness (minus any legally mandated EXIT signs). It’s an audio adventure.

Sunday’s program (7:00 p.m.) features pieces that combine pre-recorded parts with live musicians (presumably not in total darkness). One example would be “Clarinet Threads,” a 1985 composition by Denis Smalley (below). It’s a format that’s fairly common, but I think it’s a first for the Tape Music Festival.

Smalley’s piece is on the Sunday program, along with new or recent pieces by sfSound members Matt Ingalls and Kyle Bruckmann and the world premiere of local composer Ken Ueno’s “Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes.” There will also be two 1964 pieces by Mario Davidovsky, who died in August and whose composing advanced the musician + electronics format.

Here’s the complete Sunday program, taken from the sfSound site:

Sunday January 12, 2020 (7:00pm)
a special 3-set concert of works for instruments and fixed media featuring sfSoundGroup

KEN UENO – Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes (2020)
– interval –
DENIS SMALLEY – Clarinet Threads (1985)
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY – Synchronisms #2 (1964)
MATT INGALLS & SFSOUND – Blue Sedan (2020)
– interval –
JONTY HARRISON – Force Fields (2006)
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY – Synchronisms #3 (1964)
KYLE BRUCKMANN – Clutterfields (2019)

A few other program items that stand out at first glance:

  • Very classic pieces by Pierre Schaeffer (1948!) and and Toru Takemitsu (1956) (Friday 8:30 p.m., Saturday 9:30 p.m.)
  • A 1992 piece by Pauline Oliveros, who was feted at the 2017 festival (Friday)
  • A 2011 piece by Ken Nordine, who died in February (Saturday, 7:00 p.m.)
  • A piece by bran(…)pos, a personal favorite and a Day of Noise veteran (Friday).

The complete four-show program is here.

Back Pages #5: Amy X. Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I don’t have much of a story to go with this one. What I have is the spatula:

amyxspatulaIt’s from an Amy X. Neuburg and Men concert at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. They were promoting the album Sports! Chips! Booty!, which came out on the Racer label in 1998. The spatula, made of simple flexible plastic, lasted from then until November 2019. That’s possibly 20 years of flipping kid-sized pancakes and frozen hash browns patties — multiple uses per week, with breaks only for vacations.

I’m not exaggerating. This thing got mileage, and I like to believe it was the last of its litter still in active use. It finally cracked this past November, and after some tense moments in the trauma center (Krazy Glue station), it’s been retired to a place of honor atop my CD cabinet.

Looking at that spatula, really looking at it for the first time in years, made me think about the band. Oh wow, the band.

Amy X. Neuburg has built an impressive career mixing songwriting, electronic percussion, dense loops of precise harmonizing (a one-woman choir), and a prog-rock degree of difficulty. Catchy melodies, thoughtful introspection, and a giddy sense of humor permeate her work, including The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax, 2009), the tour de force suite she wrote for herself and three cellists.

Amy X. Neuburg and Men was a playful prog-pop outfit with Neuburg fronting on lead vocals and percussion while the all-“men” band added backing vocals, usually as a unified block. Her husband, Herb Heinz, played guitar (he released some worthy records himself during this era), and Joel Davel added MIDI-driven xylophone and marimba. In good ’90s prog fashion, the band had a Chapman Stick, played by Micah Ball. J.T. Quillan III didn’t play an instrument but looked good in a tux (and sang), which was part of the whimsy.

Following the more serious Utechma album (Racer, 1995), Sports embraced the band’s goofy side, with tongue-in-cheek artsy tunes like “The Shower Song” But the band was also about crisp musicianship and Neuburg’s gift of rich melody, as on the languid “Orange County.” Live, the band was joyous and bouncing, and I’m sure I saw them at the Starry Plough at least twice.

The spatula was a nod to Sports single, “Big Barbecue.” But the track that really sold me was “Naked Puppets.” It opens with some electronics improvising, then bursts into King Crimson-worthy guitar, some fun rhymes, and a prog-circus finale.

You can hear tracks including “Shower Song” and “Big Barbecue” on Amy X. Neuburg’s website. The band’s albums are available on CD Baby and Amazon, where you can sample other treats such as the cover of King Crimson’s “Waiting Man.”

Real Life Rock and Roll Band

reallife-hollerin

Real Life Rock and Roll BandHollerin’ the Spirit (Geomancy, 2019)

Nothing fancy here, and that’s a good thing. Oakland-based Real Life Rock & Roll Band play guitar-guitar-bass-drums rock that feels like sunlight over wild grasslands, filling space with upbeat, fuzzed-out guitars, strong-snap drumming and ghostly vocals. Their album is out on the Geomancy label, which has done strong work documenting some of the Bay Area’s experimental-leaning music (Grex, Surplus 1980, Jordan Glenn).

The music unfolds into extended jams, sometimes with parts made of overlapping polyrhythms, but it can be enjoyed at a simpler level — it’s electric folk descended from psychedelia. Chris Forsythe might be a point of comparison.

“Singing the Freedom of Utopic Space” eventually develops a guitar chime in 5/4 and a keyboard loop in what I think is 15/8. It breaks for a pleasantly quiet, clicking groove in the middle, then ends with anthemic group shouting that reminds me of some of the alt-folk rock from earlier in the 2000s (The Circulatory System? Akron/Family?)


Even though the music is composed, it has a spontaneous feel, like being in the center of an idea that is just starting to unfold. The spinning hypnotic cycles of jangly guitar set you down in a comfortable place and encourage you to enjoy the view. One miscue, for me, is the use of autotune; for a band that describes themselves as “favoring the spirit of the music over the evasive monolith of perfection,” it feels too inorganic.

Take a listen to the ending moments of “Earthbound Phantoms Not Numerous.” The rest of the eight-minute song has played out at this point, shifting into an abstractly flickering cooldown — the band showing off its abstract side — the drops into “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California.” The latter is the album’s de facto single, in my mind — a 1975 Terry Allen song transformed from gritty highway blues to a low-key haze and a thousand-yard stare. Below, I’m including an excerpt of the transition between the songs, because I think it sounds cool, followed by all of “There Oughta Be a Law.” You can hear the whole album on Bandcamp.

Lords of Outland at 25

Lords of Outland play a house concert Saturday, Dec. 21, at a venue called Sunnyvale — venue details here.

Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland25 Years Under the Mountain (Edgetone, 2019)

romus-25The band has undergone many personnel changes, but the name continuity of the Lords of Outland survives as a bread-crumb trail through time. 25 Years Under the Mountain includes some compositions from the Lords’ back catalog, but it is not a retrospective CD — it’s the latest permutation of the Lords, a quartet with Alex Cohen joining on guitar.

Lords of Outland is a free-jazz collective that also takes cues from the darkness of H.P. Lovecraft; the alternating hopefulness and despair of science fiction; and the joyful open-mindedness of free improvisation. You have to admire saxophonist/leader Rent Romus’ drive, keeping his music and this band going. (He also runs the annual Outsound New Music Summit, which I ended up missing this year. He organizes and runs this thing every year, and I sat out a year from my exhausting duty of sitting and listening.)

Where previous Lords albums dabbled in electronics, 25 Years features Cohen’s prickly, springy guitar (he also plays viola da gamba for the gently free-form sprint “Homeward Bound.”) The rhythm section remains the same as in recent years: Ray Schaeffer on fluid, hardy six-stringed electric bass and Philip Everett adding constructive clatter on drums. You get a taste of their combined freedom and bombast in the intro to “Grown out of Stone:”

 
Lords of Outland has always spread out its influences both toward and away from the jazz tradition. “Systemic Fault is a breathless free-jazz sprint, while “Like tears in ice” has Romus playing in a smoky and even romantic mode. That track jumps straight into the bumpy rhythm of “Ape of God,” colored by standalone thwacks by Everett on drums. (The album includes a second take with fluid drumming that serves as a more conventional free-jazz launching pad.)

 
You can hear more of the album on Bandcamp.