Posts filed under ‘Bay Area music’

Aram Shelton’s Last Bay Area Shows

Gold Age performs at the Woods Bar & Brewery (1701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Friday, Oct. 28.

Gold AgeGold Age (Singlespeed, 2016)

goldageFor the past several years, the Bay Area has been graced with the presence of Aram Shelton, a saxophonist out of the Chicago scene who came here to study at Mills College. He’s moving to Copenhagen in November, so the past few weeks have seen him perform one last spate of shows, kind of a victory lap.

His musical work spans from free improvisation to nearly straight jazz, as a leader and as a sideman. His final shows here have toured different parts of that history, including Wiener Kids, the trio led by drummer Jordan Glenn (it was standing room only, reportedly) and Tonal Masher, Shelton’s experimental project based on saxophone feedback and computer-generated sound.

Gold Age is up next, with a show at the Woods Bar & Brewery this Friday. The band, whose debut album came out in July, is a free-jazz quartet with all four members contributing compositions and showing off plenty of improvisational prowess.

Their easy, liquid sound is colored by the cool hand of Mark Clifford on vibraphone. But it’s also a product of the expert work of Safa Shokrai on bass and Britt Ciampa on drums, holding that balance between a straight groove and outright anarchy.

A good example is “The Docks,” where the solos fly over a rhythm that’s bustling and full of sparkling details.

That track and Clifford’s “Levity Faction,” with its broken-swing melody, might be the album’s closest examples to conventional jazz. One of the more swerving departures is “The Hand That Might Mend Itself,” written by Ciampa, which breaks into full-on group improv that intensifies until it’s coalesced into the song’s final theme. It’s a nice display of creative energy honed toward a purpose.

“Show Jumping” is a nice chance to hear Shelton’s bass clarinet in a bouncy, lively setting. “Peach Orchard,” written by Shokrai, opens with sour-toned fluttered notes that slowly build a melodic line; it’s the jumping-off point for a lively midtempo vibraphone solo, followed by Shelton doing some of his most adventurous playing on the record.

You can sample the entire Gold Age album at Bandcamp. Here’s the itinerary for Shelton’s final three shows — until he comes back for a visit, of course.

October 28: Gold Age. Woods Brewery, Oakland. 9pm
October 30: Shelton/Ochs/Walton/Nordeson. The Back Room, Berkeley, 8pm.
November 1: Aram Shelton, Chris Brown, Jordan Glenn. Tom’s Place, Berkeley, 8pm.

October 24, 2016 at 11:09 pm Leave a comment

Counting Narayana’s Cows

Tom Johnson composes pieces that are mathematical almost to the point of parody. The most extreme example is The Chord Catalogue, consisting of literally every possible chord in a particular octave. As I’ve noted before, he plays the chords in order, and the result, depending on your mood, is either amusing or maddening.

“Narayana’s Crows” tilts more toward the amusing side. It’s still a math piece, but it can be presented with some humor, and it builds a melody that’s dynamic and engaging.

I found this one on the Soundcloud page of Splinter Reeds, the all-reed quintet I wrote about a little while ago. The composition is based on an algebra problem credited to 14th-century Indian mathematician Narayana, and it has to do with the number of cows in a herd after successive generations of breeding. It’s a modified Fibonacci series, essentially.

The piece itself consists of a narrative (a little hard to hear in this recording) explaining the setup of the problem. The music itself consists of long and short notes representing each adult and calf in the herd — Morse code for cows. You get the idea pretty quickly.

As with all of Johnson’s compositions, the structure is clever and is a big part of the fun. I love his ideas, even the simple ones like The Chord Catalogue. In this case, though, there’s enough rhythmic and tonal variety to produce some interesting music as well — although I’m glad they didn’t do the 20 generations of Narayana’s original problem. The 17th generation alone consists of 872 notes and takes 3 minutes to play.

October 22, 2016 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

Shipwreck 4

Bennett / Johnston / Mezzacappa / RosalyShipwreck 4 (NoBusiness, 2016)

shipwreck4-stOakland’s Shipwreck Studios was devoured in a fire two months after this recording session, but its name will live on through this improvising quartet, featuring three ace Bay Area performers along with Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly.

In an improv context, familiarity can be productive, and you can hear it in the way this group just clicks. Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) are all integral to the Bay Area scene, and they’ve played together in many combinations, including the bands Bait & Switch and Go-Go Fightmaster (which are actually the same quartet under different contexts).

With Rosaly, they spin up some terrific jazz-influenced structures, from the gospel-tinged sunset mood of “The Face Consented, at Last” to the alternating muted/unmuted trumpet melody that Johnston develops at the end of “Bloom.”

“The Storm We See, the Storm We Saw” demonstrates the easy interaction the quartet enjoys. Rosaly lays down an easy, free groove, and the others jump on board — Mezzacappa laying down the mood of the rhythm, with Bennett and Johnston fitting tightly together with congenial thought lines. It all comes together so naturally.

There’s a tunefulness to many of the pieces.”Everything’s Coming Up Rosaly” builds from a quiet drum solo into a brief tumult that knits together like a tight composition, with the two horns following one another’s leads.

Intertwining, sleepy melodies characterize the first part of “When Not Night,” supported by appropriately sparse bass and drum parts. The track retains its quiet atmosphere as Bennett lifts off into a long circular-breathing run, burbling and babbling as part of the undertow, with Johnston gradually increasing the intensity in his trumpet phrases.

These kinds of rich musical conversations make Shipwreck 4 a strong album and (apologies to Rosaly) another nice document of the Bay Area scene.

October 21, 2016 at 6:44 am Leave a comment

Reconnaissance Fly Flies Again

Reconnaissance FlyOff by One (self-released, 2016)

reconfly-offby2The lighthearted and consciously nerdy prog group Reconnaissance Fly is back with an EP (available at Bandcamp) and a couple of shows: Oct. 15 at the Berkeley Arts Festival space and Oct. 26 at the the Octopus literary salon in Oakland.

The core elements are still there: Polly Moller’s operatic vocals (and occasional flute), Amanda Chaudhary’s jazzy electric piano, and bassist Tim Walters’ brainy, Canterbury-inspired prog compositions. He wrote four of the songs on Off by One, with Chaudhary contributing the fifth.

Some changes have been afoot. Some of it is in the personnel — since recording the EP, Chaudhary has left the band, replaced by Brett Carson on keys — and some in the songwriting.  Not all the lyrics are “poetry” taken from spam emails; “Everyone Sang” is a poem by British WWI solder and antiwar activist Sigfried Sassoon, set to a pensive, artsy melody.

And while prog is still at the band’s core, other musical styles are poking out. “Itzirktna” uses a mix of loungy jazz and a funky break to get its musical point across. “Dressed for Yesterday’s Weather” is an instrumental that opens with a pastoral Canterbury feel that includes Moller on flute, but it builds into a segment with a guitar line that’s a cross between surf jazz and courtly Renaissance melodies.

“Undeciphered” has a snappy, jazzy feel as it plays around with time signatures. The title apparently comes from the lyrics, which seem to be truly undeciphered jibberish that Moller happily chirps through.

Reconnaissance Fly certainly has a sense of humor and a touch of goofiness. But they produce seriously good prog rock with a side of jazzy swing. Great to see them back.

October 7, 2016 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

SFEMF: Electronic Animals and Painted Deserts

img_2479-tujurikkuja-cropMy daughter and I compared notes after seeing Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, two acts that were helping to close out the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

I felt that Merkey’s piece had more activity, while Tujurikkuja’s was more about drones and walls of sound. In terms of volume, I could deal with Merkey’s piece but wished for earplugs during Tujurikkuja’s.

My daughter had the opposite reaction: Her ears had a harder time with Merkey. And between the two pieces, she found Tujurikkuja’s drones more fascinating, while I’d thought Merkey’s piece was the richer experience. It just goes to show how differently music can be perceived.

Merkey’s piece, “Stained Air,” was a stroll through forests of different individual sounds, a journey tied together by a recurring element of a tone that would rise in pitch gradually — not the same tone every time, but the same concept of a “revving-up” sound. (Since this was the first Sunday of the NFL season, it was hard not to think of kickoffs.)

According to the program notes, the bulk of the piece was built of tones that were changing, according to pre-set rules, during the course of the piece. The music did seem to move in phases, clustering certain “types” of noises while also never overlapping too many at once. One phase I remember in particular had springy, squelching sounds like small electronic animals making their puzzled way around the landscape.

Markey built the piece for a 4.2-speaker setup to create some stereo effects — side-to-side swooshes, for instance. Being over to the side, we lost some of the effect, but we could still catch the sense of an added dimension.

Tujurikkuja (the J’s are pronounced like H’s, Spanish-style) put a descriptive poem in the program described a scorching hot desert (First clue: The opening line, “It is hot.”) But my daughter and I found the music evoking wide, dark caverns and glassy walls of sound — it felt cold, not in an emotional sense but in a literal sense.

Either way, theirs was a more drone-based set, although there was plenty of sound-shifting, with new elements coming and going. They ended it by simply walking off the stage, allowing the final droney buzz to continue on its own, in darkness, until they cut it off remotely.

These were two thoughtful and contrasting pieces and made for a good program. My daughter admitted she wouldn’t seek out this kind of music, but she paid attention through both pieces, and we talked about both of them quite a bit afterwards. Therein lies the real power of music and the arts.

September 17, 2016 at 12:57 pm Leave a comment

Lisa Mezzacappa Organelle – Sep. 11 & 16


Mezzacappa, from

In June, Lisa Mezzacappa performed three concerts in Europe with different ensembles, showing off ORGANELLE, her latest concept for an improvising ensemble.

Mezzacappa has initiated so many interesting projects over the years. The electro-acoustic chamber ensemble Nightshade comes to mind, and more recently she adapted her Bait and Switch quartet for a concept called avant-NOIR.

Last year’s Glorious Ravage was an ambitious and successful project combining composition, history, narrative, and visual elements. Parts of it are preserved on the website, captured with professional photography and video.

Now there’s ORGANELLE, an improv concept that draws from the natural sciences and, in a physical sense, the universe. Here’s how she describes it on her news page:

ORGANELLE is a “set” of pieces inspired by diverse scientific processes – some enormous and unfathomable, others impossibly microscopic – that form a whole through the insights and explorations of fantastic improvisers. The composition draws its musical ideas from the different ways that the human body, the natural world, and the cosmos mark the passing of time. The rhythms, the musical relationships, the melodies, and structures in the work are each connected to a theory of cell biology, astrophysics, paleontology, zoology, or neuroscience, exploring these otherwise-imperceptible phenomena through sound.

Performances took place in Naples, Rome, and Cologne in June, and now Mezzacappa is going to perform ORGANELLE here in the Bay Area. There’s an open rehearsal on Sunday, Sept. 11 at the Berkeley Art Museum, followed by the full performance at the museum on Friday, Sept. 16 (a show that includes ’90s dub/funk stars Broun Fellinis).

Each performance has featured a different set of four or five local musicians alongside Mezzacappa. Here’s the lineup for the Berkeley Art Museum shows:

Darren Johnston, trumpet
Kyle Bruckmann, oboes
Cory Wright, reeds
John Finkbeiner, guitar
Jordan Glenn, drums
Lisa Mezzacappa, bass

It’s a busy week for Mezzacappa, who’s also performing some solo compositions tonight (Sept. 10) as part of Philip Gelb’s music and food series. (In an intimate setting, a small audience is served a vegan gourmet meal during the show — it’s an intriguing concept.) She’s also appears with an improvising quartet on a newly released CD called Shipwreck 4, which sounds really good (more on that later).

September 10, 2016 at 10:41 am Leave a comment

Larry Ochs, Donald Robinson & a Lot of History

ochsrob2Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) will play a rare show as a duo on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

They put out a CD fairly recently, called The Throne, which I wrote up here. (Was that really more than a year ago?) I also find myself thinking about Robinson’s recent duo concert with Oliver Lake — a highlight of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit.

Ochs and Robinson have played together for more than 20 years in more ensembles than I can count. In the Throne writeup, I’d neglected to mention What We Live, the improvising trio (or more) spearheaded by bassist Lisle Ellis, with Ochs and Robinson. Then there’s also Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, with Ochs and Robinson joined by second drummer Scott Amendola. And going back to the ’90s, they were both in the Glenn Spearman Double Trio.

That’s a lot of history, not to mention a nice scenic path through the last two decades of Bay Area creative music. Their show on Thursday will be just another in a long series — but in a way, it’s also worth celebrating.

Here are Ochs and Robinson live from a show three years ago hosted by GRIM (Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales — which actually translates nicely into Group for Research and Musical Improvisation). It’s a brief excerpt with a regal, Coltrane-shaded feel.

And Ochs himself has posted a track from The Throne on Soundcloud. Called “Breakout,” it’s an Ochs composition enhanced by a nice hard snap by Robinson.

September 7, 2016 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

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