Posts filed under ‘Bay Area music’

Two Sides of Rent Romus

Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood EnsembleRogue Star (Edgetone, 2018)

Rent Romus’ Lords of OutlandIn the Darkness We Speak a Sound Brightness and Life (Edgetone, 2018)

Saxophonist Rent Romus has been more prolific than ever in the last couple of years, or at least it seems that way to me. He has a spate of new material out on his Edgetone Records label, including these two CDs from a couple of longstanding bands.

 
Rogue Star, by Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble, presents his more formalized side — compositions rooted in concert-hall jazz styles, with dynamic multi-horn themes, the cool touch of Mark Clifford on vibraphone, and, of course, plenty of space for group improvisation.

The Life’s Blood Ensemble started in 1999 as a trio including drummer Timothy Orr, and the group was introduced to the world on Blood Motions (Edgetone, 2001), built around compositions from Romus’ time in Copenhagen. The band has since grown in size and ambition, becoming a three-horn septet playing backed by the dual basses of Max Johnson and Safa Shokrai, who get an unaccompanied duet to start “Cassini” and in the middle of “Think!” Tracks like “Emotism” are intelligently plotted, with polished unison lines and crisply energetic solos.

“Think!” operates in bursts of ’60s-feeling energy, interspersed with composed lines shaping cohesive group improvisation. “Space Is Expanding” features big-band-style solos and drumming, possibly a nod to Sun Ra. And I love the way the title track blossoms into a loose multi-horn improvisation with a relaxed, sunny feel.

 
romus-darknessI think of Lords of Outland as Romus’ more gutteral outlet, rooted in jazz but with a contrary streak. This is one of Romus’ earliest bands, created more than 20 years ago and reviewed on this blog multiple times.

In recent years, with the steady rhythm section of Ray Schaeffer (six-string electric bass) and Philip Everett (drums), the Lords have moved into the territory of prog and cosmic rock and, increasingly, electronics played by multiple band members.

The electronics get an even bigger role on In the Darkness, mainly from the hands of Collette McCaslin. She plays trumpet and sax as well, but many of her contributions are in the form of analog blasts and bleeps, an extra touch of aggression and flamboyance. I presume it’s her delivering the solo electronics showcase on the track “Interstellar Deletion.”

The “darkness” of the title often feels like a joyous darkness, as on the nine-minute “Open Your Hand and Walk Away,” with Romus’ tenor sax calmly testifying among the din. That track also includes a good spacey showcase for Schaeffer’s bass and effects.

Many of the tracks are outright bright, really.  “From a Trunk Buried in My Closet” develops into a chaotic, celebratory flow underlaid by squelchy bass and subtle garnishes of electronics. “A Pile of Dust We Emerge” has McCaslin adding soprano sax tones for additional color.

 
“See the Path Before You” adds a touch of mysticism — a spirited sax-and-electronics duo, followed by ceremonial somberness between trumpet (also McCaslin) and sax. “As Water We Emerge Toward Us” is a more disjoint kind of free-jazz, fast-paced but with plenty of white space for a more contemplative mood.

These albums have a lot in common, starting with Romus’ fleet sax work, but they represent different angles on the process of making music. They just happen to have come out at around the same time, and they do make for a nice set.

June 17, 2018 at 10:55 am Leave a comment

Air and Light: The Chamber Music of Portrait Maker

UPDATE 3/28: The whole album is now available on Bandcamp, and there’s a new video for “Franny and Zooey in the Snow.”

Portrait Maker — Portrait Maker (Self-released, 2018)

rogerkim-portraitGuitarist Roger Kim has created an uplifting style of experimental chamber music with the group Portrait Maker. An eponymous 30-minute EP, officially coming out on March 24, features a group anchored by Kim’s acoustic guitar (and a bit of banjo) and adorned with flute, glassy strings, and light, wordless female vocals — but Portrait Maker has been around for a few years in permutations that have included a varying cast of instruments and sometimes dancers, an appropriate touch given the visual possibilities in the music.

A track like “Franny and Zooey in the Snow” feels pastoral and quiet, with a gentle intensity added by Kim’s guitar solo. But that doesn’t mean the melodies on Portrait Maker follow predictable, pretty paths. “I Knew This Would End Badly” is built around a guitar in tumbling meters — you can hear it at the start of Kim’s promotional video, at bottom. (It includes some “studio footage” that he had fun editing.)

Songs like “Believe Me” and “A Coleman in Every Home,” add touches of abstraction and improvisation to the mix. The latter still feels feathery, but with a heavier melody tracked by one vocalist and violin in unison, followed by a quavering flute backed by what might be the clacking of violin bows.

Here’s the buildup to that flute segment:


One superficial comparison that comes to mind is Eberhard Weber’s Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), specifically the side-long suite, “Quiet Departures.” Both have “nice” music and a dual female vocal — I’m thinking of this segment in particular. But Weber’s piece is a drifting suite, meant to evoke an atmosphere. It’s like an outline, whereas Kim’s music tells a story, each piece evoking purpose and direction.

The 10-minute “Life According to Andrea Wang” is the trickiest composition here. There’s an airy chamber passage for a clarinet solo, backed by a spare bass clarinet line that’s repetitious but doesn’t seem to stick to a strict timing. The song flicks back into a more regular rhythm (though not a strictly 4/4 one) for Kim’s crisp, articulate guitar solo, backed by a series of short phrases, not always in even rhythm, that keep the walls shifting like a maze.

Portrait Maker will have two CD release shows this month — one in Los Angeles on March 24, and another on March 29 back in San Francisco, at the Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St. at 23rd St.).

March 14, 2018 at 7:39 am Leave a comment

Echoes of a Lost Civilization, and Kazoos

Brett CarsonMysterious Descent (self-released, 2017)

carson-descentMysterious Descent does indeed feel like a descent, as it starts in a dream space, slowly drawing you in to its disorienting flow. The first scene has the four musicians acting a scripted dialogue that slowly unravels out of normal conversation and into trancelike dialogue, and out of English into a language imagined by composer Brett Carson.

So begins a song cycle drawn from the only surviving texts of the lost (fictitious) Koktimô civilization. With piano, violin, and percussion, Carson mixes modern classical music, traditional song form, and old-timey melodrama. It’s all presented with a sense of high drama but there are also touches of silliness and absurdity, such as a final processional of kazoos, or repeated mentions of elephants. (Carson has a previous project called Quattuor Elephantis — you can sense a theme here.)

Over the course of the album, small shimmers of a plotline emerge like an anthropological puzzle, guided by long stretches of English lyrics suggesting ancient mysticism and lost sciences. “Song of Anori” presents elements of courtly ritual in formalized, theatrical form. “Song of Vurvmôprinka” starts with long, twining lines of melody before shifting into surreal lyrics.

 
The tale of “The Fisherman” seems to be a dramatic turning point. Less obscure than the other tracks, it’s a spoken fable about a proud fisherman who goes to woo the queen of the lake. The song cycle hits a dramatic high point with the grand, sweeping piano chords of “Song of Dzochanibralk.”

 
Below is the performance of Mysterious Descent at last year’s Outsound Music Festival, with the same ensemble as on the album: Carson on piano, Nava Dunkelman on percussion, and Mia Bella D’Augelli on violin, with David Katz doing the narration and singing. I’m especially fond of this key passage from “The Fisherman.” You can also view a November performance at the Center for New Music.

 
You can hear the studio version of Mysterious Descent on Bandcamp. Among Carson’s next project is an opera scheduled to premiere in Oakland in August.

February 25, 2018 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

KZSU Day of Noise: This Saturday, Feb. 10

dayofnoise2018

The Day of Noise us upon us! Or, it will be, in a few days! Click the image above to go straight to kzsu.stanford.edu/dayofnoise/2018 to see the musicians who will be playing live, on-air, from midnight to midnight Pacific time on Saturday, Feb. 10.

Tune in at 90.1 FM if you’re in the Bay Area, or online at http://kzsu.stanford.edu.

Don’t sleep on the Day of Noise archives, either. The past two years’ installments include audio recordings of the entire event. Check it out.

February 9, 2018 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

Animals & Giraffes, Text & Music

Animals & GiraffesJuly (Edgetone, 2017)

animals-july.jpgAnimals & Giraffes is a project combining the poetry of Claudia La Rocco with sound-based improvisations by Bay Area musicians. It’s music for thinking, with La Rocco’s deadpan delivery as a central point, orbited by the stillness of the music.

That’s music in an abstract, sound-based vein most of the time. There are some tones, such as Evelyn Davis’ prepared piano on “Night Harbor,” but most tracks are closer to the slaps, scrapes, and clacking of John Shiurba’s guitar on “Grammar.”

The project is the brainchild of saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, who was looking for an avenue for mixing text and music. He appears two tracks, and he was at the remixing board for a few others, but his real contribution is the shaping of the overall project, recruiting Bay Area musicians to contribute — different players and different sounds for just about every track.

 
Tim Perkis was a inspired choice. His electronics create the perfect punctuation around two shorts: “A Partial Philosophy of the World” and “Instruction Manual.”

He also appears on “The Ferry Is Turning Course Now, Away From the Sun,” pitting small scribbles against Karen Stackpole’s muted bells and gongs. At the song’s peak, the music builds patiently against La Rocco’s traffic jam of run-on sentences and tiny bits of repetition.

 
Public Access” is an interesting departure. It appears to be a straight conversation between David Boyce and La Rocco, couched as a two-way interview. The backing of Boyce’s saxophone and electronics starts at an innocuous level but intensifies as Greenlief, at the mixing board, warps it into more sinister shape by the end of the 7-minute piece.

The poetry itself is inscrutable to me, a patchwork of mostly immediate images: settings and actions taking place now or in recent memory. But it doesn’t follow a linear flow, feeling more like stream-of-consciousness. Jennifer Krasinski summarized it well for Bomb magazine:

“One of the many things I love about her writing is how it records the particular flicker of her synapses, swerving between subjects, veering in many directions in order to find the sharpest views, no matter if fractured or fleeting.”

For me, Animals & Giraffes works better as an experience than as a document. The lingering atmosphere could be captivating in a live performance, as in the video above. The text’s shifting landscape takes a kind of concentration that I’m having trouble latching onto in CD form — but I do enjoy the variety of musicians on the disc, and the “Public Access” experiment works well.

January 28, 2018 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

A Night at the Octopus

IMG_3464 dialectic imagination cropI did make it up to Oakland for the Dialectical Imagination show that took place the day after Christmas. The Octopus Literary Salon is a small place, with a capacity of maybe a few dozen in SRO conditions, but when it fills up, as it did on this night, it makes for a cozy, lively atmosphere. Certainly a lot of people were friends and family of the musicians, but that’s OK — it’s community, and it felt good.

Dialectical Imagination is the duo of Eli Wallace on piano and Rob Pumpelly on drums, building grand towers of classical and jazz. In support of their second album of 2017, they played three long compositions, filling the little space with sound.

The first included a row of sleigh bells as an instrument, kind of a nod to the season. The piece maintained a highbrow, regal sound, taking a stance of grace and nobility.

 
If that first piece came from one direction — from a place of grace and nobility — the second, “Hatch,” seemed to come from all angles at once. It was more aggressive and featured a powerful drum solo, where Wallace got up from the piano, hopping and dancing in place while shaking bells madly, his hair disheveled from the beanie he’d been wearing.

They closed with a song that included some lovely and borderline new agey melody — but with enough intensity to be Not Safe for the Hallmark Network. Lots of chromatic soloing that veered off the rails.

One of the opening acts was Wallace’s Brooklyn roommate, saxophonist Ben Cohen, fronting a trio calling itself 1_lu_1. Cohen and a guitarist fronted the music, but I found myself really impressed by the drummer. His style looked physically awkward at first, but he did just fine and brought a good flow to the music. The individual choices made by Cohen and the guitarist didn’t always work for me, but even at those moments, the trio melded well, making for some satisfying improvisations.

Solo electric guitarist Jack Radsliff, from Eugene, Oregon, led off. He played pretty, melodic pieces augmented by some loops — all of it stemming from some involved, fancy fingerwork. His short set held the audience’s attention and was a nice, relaxed way to kick things off.

You can get a taste of Cohen in a polished trio on the album Viriditas (check out “Front Country”), but this live duo track with drummer Tim Cohen is closer to what we heard at the Octopus:

 
Radsliff, meanwhile, has an ensemble album called Migration Patterns. Here’s the track “The Wick:”


 

January 8, 2018 at 11:31 pm Leave a comment

More Grand Gestures for Piano and Drums

Dialectical Imagination performs Dec. 26 at the Octopus Literary Salon (2101 Webster St., Oakland), 7:00 p.m.

Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath (Atma Nadi, 2017)

dialectical-wrath.jpgNote the subtle difference in title. Dialectical Imagination’s previous album referred to “Songs of Rapture,” while this new one is about songs of wrath.

The strategy remains the same: High-energy improvisations that mix classical precision with free-jazz-like abandon. Dialectical Imaginations is the piano-drums duo of Eli Wallace and Rob Pumpelly, both hammering away ecstatically.

The new album, which officially releases on Christmas Day, can be pre-ordered on Bandcamp. And on a personal note — it’s hard to find good music shows during the holidays, so I’m glad to see the Octopus cafe in Oakland booking these guys for the day after Christmas.

The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath is full of lengthy high-energy segments, but it’s not just random bashing. Both players execute a deliberate accuracy even when they’re bashing away — as on “Autopoietica I,” which combines a flurry of piano sticklers with some stormy drums.

 
“Autopoietica II” shows off the duo’s more subtle side. It’s still full of bombast, but at lower intensity, with Wallace splashing fluidly around the keyboard and Pumpelly battering furiously but quietly at the toms. The piece ends with a slower movement, with the kind of drama that evokes the crashing ocean surf.

“Strength and Presence” is where the “wrath” really kicks in — a 13-minute musical attack, with both players relentlessly filling space. It’s a signature moment, albeit a long one.

The track that’s available for early sampling on Bandcamp is “Hatchling,” which builds from a quiet opening where Wallace’s jazz influences, including possibly Cecil Taylor, are more clearly on display.

December 22, 2017 at 12:52 am Leave a comment

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