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).

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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

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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.

The Rumble of Euphoniums

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Jeffrey Lievers, setting up

I left the Luggage Store Gallery with the rumble of euphoniums in my ears. Brian Pedersen and Courtney Sexton had heavily processed the instruments through microphones and pedals, creating a deep-tissue bass rumble. Jeffrey Lievers added more electronics, a white-noise sheen using the other players as source material.

This is the band Dancin’ Baby, a quartet completed by Kit Young projecting abstract analog video onto the stage. On this night in May, they played a single long-form piece, a wall of noise maybe an hour long.

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Courtney Sexton

The euphonium looks like a small tuba, with four valves instead of three. But of course, we didn’t hear any conventional euphonium playing. Sexton played a euphonium strapped to an E-flat alto horn, with both mouthpieces close together so that he could feed them with the same breath, doubling the foghorn blasts. Pedersen used a saxophone mouthpiece on his euphonium — and, later, on a trumpet and an actual saxophone.

And there were drums. The drum kit was Lievers’ primary instrument, when he wasn’t at the electronics console, and Pedersen sometimes pounded a tympani to add to the rumble.

Dancin’ Baby creates a thick lava flow of drone and doom. Bits of free jazz popped up from Pedersen’s horns and Liever’s drumming, but really it was all about keeping the wave of sound going — to the point where the drum kit sometimes sounded frail against the storm. The drums got their moments though — such as as an effective blast timed with Pedersen’s first, shrieking notes on the saxophone.

The long-form piece never got quiet but did have moments of evenness, where the rumble settled into low tones and opened the atmosphere for the next phase. Throughout the show, analog video feedback artist Kit Young covered the band in abstract psychedelic projections, colors crawling with oversaturation.

You can taste the noise for yourself on Bandcamp. Pedersen also performs with free jazz unit Key West, while both Lievers and Sexton are members of Extra Action Marching Band.

’60s Jazz and a Finnish Connection

The Life’s Blood Ensemble will be performing May 25 and 26 at the Berkeley Finnish Hall, (1970 Chestnut St., Berkeley, just off of University) at 8:00 p.m.

Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood EnsembleSide Three: New Work (Edgetone 2019)

romus-side3The Life’s Blood Ensemble has become Rent Romus’ vehicle for ’60s-style free jazz, using the versatile format of multiple horns, two basses, drums, and vibraphone. The new album Side Three conjures that era with some strong composing and an easygoing flow of improvisatory ideas.

Romus and Joshua Marshall play saxophones, and Vinny Golia joins the group for this album, but the album’s spotlight often falls on Finnish musician Heikki Koskinen on e-trumpet, a compact instrument that sounds like the real thing, maybe with some extra smoothness to those high-register flutterings. At different junctures, Koskinen recalls the bristling electricity of Bitches Brew or a cool-swinging easygoing vibe.

Separately from Side Three, Koskinen and Romus have composed Manala, a suite that infuses the Life’s Blood Ensemble’s jazz with Finnish folklore. They’ve performed Manala before — samples of that show are in a Soundcloud file — and will be reprising it for two shows in Berkeley this weekend, in preparation for taking the music to Finland.

Manala, referring to the netherworld of the dead, is “inspired by the mythic prose of cultural liberation and identity found in the Finnish National Epic known as the Kalevala as well as folklore of Finno-Ugric shamanic traditional stories.” It’s a product of Romus’ ongoing research into Finnish culture and music, and it sounds like an epic and inspiring work.

Getting back to Side Three — it seems like a good proxy for what to expect from Manala. Tight horn parts frame the pieces in bright energy, complemented by the cool splash of Mark Clifford’s vibraphone. Koskinen’s composition, “The Humming of Trees,” is bold and purposeful, with an anthemic feel and a cool-stepping space for a bright solo on e-trumpet. Among Romus’ compositions is “Downbeat for the Forgotten,” a funky strut that again features Koskinen’s blowing.

Golia contributed “Area 52,” a composition that pulses along lightly behind some lively group improvising. And for ’60s-style titles, you can’t beat Marshall’s “Three Rites of Recombinance,” a suite dedicated to figures from different literary/sci-fi circles: Fred Moten, Jamie Delano, and A.A. Attanasio.