Posts filed under ‘Bay Area music’

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage

Lisa Mezzacappa performs Glorious Ravage one more time: tonight, Oct. 2, at Brava Theater Center (2181 24th St., San Francisco).

steampunkGlorious Ravage is Lisa Mezzacappa’s “panoramic song cycle,” a set of ambitious tunes inspired by the writings of pioneer women — scientists, explorers, and adventurers.

It might sound incongruous, pitting modern jazz styles against words written a century ago. But with an ace 15-piece band; some thoughtful video from four artists; and Fay Victor on vocals, Mezzacappa has created an exciting an uplifting production.

It really is a production, as I saw on Thursday night. Mezzacappa developed the song cycle during the course of this year, a process that included not only writing and rehearsals, but live previews at the de Young Museum and a research visit to the Louise Arner Boyd archives in Marin. She blogged about it all, and it sounds like it’s been quite a rush for her.

The band combines top-notch musicians from northern and southern California. Alongside a team of Bay Area favorites, it includes Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, and Vinny Golia, along with Nicole Mitchell, a stalwart of Chicago’s AACM scene who now teaches at U.C. Irvine.

Lisa Mezzacappa performing Glorious Ravage, 1 October 2015
Then there’s Fay Victor, who inspired the project after impressing Mezzacappa during a 2011 performance together. Based in New York, Victor sings with a voice like Betty Carter’s but also has a penchant for experimenting. Her albums in the mid-2000s includes elements of psych rock and free improv, and she’s more than willing to experiment with sounds.

The lyrics she’s singing are taken from the writings of women who broke with the customs of the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore, whether for science, for adventure, or “for anything but awaited them in their suffocating Victorian parlors,” as Mezzacappa writes in the show program:

“The fact that there was no contemporary precedent for how they chose to live their lives, and the great lengths they went to live so fully off-script, resonated with me enormously.”

The show got its official debut Sept. 25 at U.C. Irvine, followed by a performance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. The Oct. 1 and 2 shows at Brava Theater might sound a little less prestigious, but it’s a lovely theater with an expansive stage that suits the video projections well.

Some highlights of the music:

“Heat and Hurry” displayed a quick-stepping, sophisticated kind of jazz. It was one of a few songs backed by the cut-out animations of Kathleen Quillian — think Terry Gilliam with less silliness and with varying landscapes in the background (jungle, mountains, Hawaiian lava bed). The song was inspired by world traveler Isabella Bird, who “literally fell ill whenever she returned home to the British Isles of her birth,” as Mezzacappa’s program reads.

“Taxonomical” made use of Victor’s creative use of sounds and inflections, because the lyrics are just scientific names of plants in Greenland. It’s from the journal of Louise Arner Boyd, a biologist who lived in Marin and developed a fascination for the Arctic Circle. Her list made for some creative vocal babbling, after an introductory duet that contrasted eerie laptop sounds by Tim Perkis with some brisk vibraphone statements by Kjell Nordeson.

victoBoyd and Bird showed up again in “Shut Out the Sun,” which set one of Bird’s poems against actual video footage that Boyd took in the Arctic Circle. The song featured swaying horn harmonies and attractive piano chords — and later, a sublime flute solo from Mitchell to go with the ice floes and glaciers of Boyd’s journey.

“Soroche” drew from the weird rivalry of Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman, mountain women who were intent on setting world records and got into some heated arguments in the Scientific American letters-to-the-editor column. Victor read just a few phrases, repeating them and twisting them all about with her voice. Later, Mezzacappa and Dresser got into a brief duet, the two basses battling in a frenzy as if to replicate the argument. That was a fun moment, and Dresser continued playing for an equally fun duet with Victor.

“City of Wonders” closed the show with some upbeat music and somber thoughts. The writings, by Ida Pfeiffer and Marianne North, reflected on the negative aspects of the California gold rush and the carving up of redwood forests, respectively — two subjects familiar to anyone who grew up around here. The bouncy and brisk piano/vibraphone lines soon cut away to a swinging, old-timey jazz theme with some cool solos from John Finkbeiner (guitar) and Dina Maccabee (violin).

With professional lighting by Allen Willner and with Bay Area musician Suki O’Kane controlling the video, Glorious Ravage had the look that a major work deserves. There’s one more chance to catch it. And check out Mezzacappa’s interview with KALW-FM to learn more about the show’s historical aspects.

October 2, 2015 at 2:15 am Leave a comment

Whole Lotta Ornette Goin’ On — Saturday

How much Ornette Coleman can you take? Myles Boisen has organized an Ornette Coleman tribute for the afternoon and evening of Saturday, Sept. 26, at Berkeley Arts (2133 University Ave., Berkeley).

ornette-inallIt promises to be a great sampling of local artists and a full celebratory evening, from 4:00 p.m. to whenever. Don’t sleep on the Jon Raskin set that concludes the festival. Raskin is a member of ROVA Saxophone Quartet and certainly has lots to say with his horn.

Here’s the program, as copied from

Ornettology big band, led by Myles Boisen
featuring Steve Adams – saxes
Phillip Greenlief – saxes
Chris Grady – trumpet

Sheldon Brown Trio:
Sheldon Brown – saxes
Richard Saunders – acoustic bass
Vijay Anderson – drums

Steve Adams/ Scott Walton Duo:
Steve Adams – saxes/ flute
Scott Walton – acoustic bass

MiniWatt String Trio:
Myles Boisen – guitar
Jon Preuss – guitar
Joh Ettinger – violin

Steven Lugerner Quartet:
Steven Lugerner – Saxophone
Danny Lubin-Laden – Trombone
Matthew Wohl – Bass
Britt Ciampa – Drums

Rob Ewing/ Jason Levis Duo:
Rob Ewing – trombone
Jason Levis – drums

Jon Raskin – solo sax.

September 26, 2015 at 1:00 am Leave a comment

Aram Shelton’s Resounder

Aram Shelton, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Frank RosalyResounder (Singlespeed, 2015)

Shelton, Lonberg-Holm, Rosaly -- Resounder (Singlespeed, 2015)Resounder is a bustling trio improv session with electronic enhancements added by saxophonist Aram Shelton after-the-fact. But the effect can be subtle. In fact, the players are so adept at wringing sounds from their instruments that you have to wonder if some of the exotic sounds are coming from the original session.

I say that because I first listened to Resounder blind, not knowing about Shelton’s post-processing. Once I knew it was there, my ears started playing tricks on me, particularly on “Bring Focus.” That buzzing tinge in the sax — is it acoustic or electronic? Did the sax just echo a few notes artificially, or was that my imagination? Now there, that was definitely a sax looped back into the mix … you get the idea.

“Fading Memory,” with Fred Lonberg-Holm‘s cello altered to spit ribbons of metal — that’s a more obvious example. Drummer Frank Rosaly gets his turns too, I think. One segment (which I now can’t find) has his toms and bass drum melted together into a low-flying tonal hum. Or was that just my imagination again?

Some of the electronics are more overt, which is good fun. Longberg-Holm gets plenty of electronics treatment to create dull roars and guitar-hero antics. There’s a passage later on “Bring Focus” that’s a long ramp to a crescendo, a nice slow burn of rumbling with a buzzy edge to the cello. And when it’s done, the band drops out, leaving behind a tinny sine wave — it’s a good dramatic moment.

Shelton had planned this to be a regular trio recording, just three good friends getting together in Chicago, and they turned in a crackling set. It’s only afterward that Shelton started considering enhancing the sounds, and it adds depth to what was already a densely packed session. Sometimes there’s some playback that literally adds another voice to the group. More often, though, it just sounds like more than three people, as Shelton’s processing creates new surfaces for the ear to cling to.

Listen to an excerpt of “Hope of Symbioses” on YouTube:

… Or to “Fading Memory” on Soundcloud:

September 23, 2015 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

ROVA & Saxophone Special

ROVA Saxophone Quartet will pay homage to Steve Lacy with a performance of his album Saxophone Special on Wednesday Sept. 16 at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco).

Lacy is the band’s collective hero and was also a friend. And for them, Saxophone Special stands out in Lacy’s catalogue because it’s a saxophone quartet album, recorded from a one-time concert with three other sax players, guitar, and synthesizer. The “three others” aren’t just others — they’re giants of the improvised music genre: Evan Parker, Steve Potts, and Trevor Watts.

Released by the Emanem label in 1976, Saxophone Special was one of the albums that “led to the formation of Rova in 1977-78,” according to the band’s press blurb.

The Sept. 16 concert, with Kyle Bruckmann on electronics and Henry Kaiser on electric guitar, serves as both an encore and a warm-up, because ROVA performed Saxophone Special once already, in July, and is scheduled to record its own version of the album next week.

Saxophone Special is out of print — both the orignal LP and Emanem’s expanded CD version. Close to its orbit, however, is the newly reissued ROVA album Favorite Street, a 1984 collection of Lacy tunes. Here’s a link to that album on eMusic.

Sax Special Card_08.2015

September 13, 2015 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Slowest Monk Ever

Closing out a week’s worth of concerts at The Stone, Ben Goldberg tried something different with his sextet. They played what’s probably the slowest Monk rendition you’ve ever heard.

Goldberg has posted the 44-minute piece to Bandcamp, and it’s amazing.

The slow piece ended a 12-show series that must have been exhiliarating and exhausting. When I read Goldberg’s explanation of this final concert, I figured it was going to be either academically intriguing (i.e., boring but with an honorable purpose) or humorous, but it’s neither — it’s an amazing piece of group improvisation.

For starters: It’s mainly Goldberg who is playing the melody at an impossible 13 seconds per beat or thereabouts. The other players are making sounds at a more normal “slow” pace, which was a relief. No one’s doing a Starbuck’s run or finishing a Sudoku between bars.

But the melody lingers and lingers. I actually lose track of it within about five notes.

The amazing part comes much later, as the energy builds and the players settle into this environment. They use the languid atmosphere to launch some stunning improvisations. Things do speed up as the piece intensifies, but the overall effect is like a slow sunburst. It really is something.

I suspect this is the kind of thing that only works once. That is, if they were to get into the studio to record a slow “Let’s Cool One,” the results would fall flat. It’s an excellent example of music created by the moment, and we’re lucky enough to have it on tape.

Check it out; it’s downloadable for free.

August 23, 2015 at 3:01 pm Leave a comment

microspoke and the Day of Noise Archive

Here’s a new Bay Area duo in the “lower-case” vein of quiet improvisation. Quoting directly from the Bay Improviser calendar:

Thu 5/21 9:30 PM Studio Grand [3234 Grand Ave, Oakland]

microspoke is a new duo project from Phillip Greenlief and Tim Perkis that uses quiet, microscopic noise as a landscape to explore highly detailed electro-acoustic improvisation. the duo made their west coast premiere at this year’s KZSU’s Day of Noise.

… Here’s the awesome part: KZSU recorded the 2015 Day of Noise and posted all 24 hours to So you can get a preview of microspoke. They’re No. 28 on the program, listed under Greenlief and Perkis’ names.

It’s a half-hour set, sometimes prickly and abrasive, especially from the saxophone side, and sometimes calm and ambient. Actually, “ambient” might be the wrong word, considering the music changes character and direction readily — this is a dynamic set of improvisation, using the light touch of restraint to keep the mood spectrum on the contemplative side.

Skip to around 13:20 for a nice passage that surges to a high point, then retreats back into small sounds. When Greenlief moves into small scribbles, Perkis responds with some rubber-band sine-wave noises — a nice choice that displays his ability to wring musicality out of his laptop sounds.

Go have a listen to microspoke and more:

And yes, the duo will be playing on May 21 in Oakland, as noted above. Also on the bill is the trio of Amy Reed (electric guitar), Phillip Greenlief (woodwinds), and Shanna Sordahl (cello and electronics).

May 6, 2015 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

Lords of Outland, Keeping It Dark

Lords of OutlandLords O Leaping (Edgetone, 2014)

lordsPowerhouse saxophonists make good foils for Lords of Outland, the free-jazz group that’s been a vehicle for saxophonist Rent Romus for more than 15 years, possibly 20. Vinny Golia made his contribution on the Lords’ Edge of Dark, and it’s Josh Allen’s big tenor sound that adds a jolt to Lords O Leaping.

Lords of Outland — now without Romus’ name on the cover — has explored the more ominous side of free jazz, often inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and the heavies of old-school sci-fi. Romus’ compositions often conjure images of gruff rebellion, but on many track’s it’s electric bassist Ray Schaeffer adding the dark shading, an ominous, liquid low end.

The title track gives each of the three horns — Allen, Romus on alto, and Collette McCaslin on trumpet — a chance to play over a quick-handed bass/drums backing. It’s a terrific exercise in free jazz. Allen’s composition “Plan 9” seems to show a bit of the Albert Ayler influence that’s always driven Romus. It launches abruptly, with the three horns grappling in a way that adds up to an Ayleresque marching band filing into the room:

“Miasma” is a slower track with Allen in powerhouse mode, ending his solo with long screaming notes. Allen also gets to show off some raspy volume in “Rhetoric,” a track that starts with some silky group improvisation.

The Lords’ experiments with analog electronics figured heavily on previous albums, but the pedals and wires (probably performed by McCaslin, although Schaeffer gets a credit for them, too) are limited here to the track “Ara.” Amid the song’s gentle, even-handed setting, the retro bloops and buzzing play out as a solo against the bass and drums.

Throughout the album, Phillip Everett’s drums keeps the energy level up, filling space with quick wrist snaps on cymbals and toms. Romus spends long stretches comping alongside Allen, but of course he gets turns showing off his own darting, agile playing as well. McCaslin’s fleet trumpet adds a steely touch to the sound, although she’s often drowned out by the saxophones. It all adds up to another nice entry from a long-standing edition of the Lords.

April 17, 2015 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

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