’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.

The 99 Voices of Kyle Bruckmann’s Dear Everyone

A trio version of Kyle Bruckmann’s Degradiant (I’m assuming sans voices) performs at Uptown Nightclub (1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Tuesday May 14, 2019 and at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) on June 13, 2019.

Kyle Bruckmann’s DegradiantDear Everyone (Not Two, 2017)

bruckmann-deareveryone

The introductory movement to Dear Everyone is called “Overt? Sure,” and the first words spoken, two minutes into the 7-minute piece, are “lather up.” That pretty much sets the tone — that, and the horns jackhammering like an alarm clock out for revenge.

At its core, Degradiant is a quartet — two horns, electric bass, percussion, and some electronics — mixing free jazz with heavy math rock. But its debut recording brings in a huge cast for a large-scale concept: 99 voices reading poems by Matt Shears. For bandleader and composer Kyle Bruckmann, it’s kind of a follow-up to “… Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” (Singlespeed, 2014), his zany, ambitious Thomas Pynchon tributeDear Everyone brings a similar touch of absurdity, again framed by Bruckmann’s own Pynchonesque flair for language and love of words.

The readers aren’t pros, by design, and Bruckmann’s liner notes suggest many of them were ambushed with the idea. The result is a collage of voices and tones, some smooth, some self-conscious: male, female, varying accents, and at least one child handling the big words with some adorable stumbles.

Narrators come and go rapidly,  sometimes overlapping with an intentionally confusing intensity, leaving fragments of ideas lingering in your ears. This effect can be mysterious or, as on “Significant Details,” a little silly.

Musically, Dear Everyone ranges from humorous to disturbing, mixing the planned-and-intricate with freewheeling improvisation. Bruckmann sometimes ditches his oboe for analog electronics for darker spells of uneasy tension, and Jason Hoopes (Jack o’ the Clock, Fred Frith Trio) turns up the acidity on bass for the tough-fisted math rock passages. It all mashes together gloriously on “Sound Byte Culture,” including a nifty Hoopes solo.

There’s a sense of fun throughout the 2-CD album, but it ends on a jarring note with “Recessional and Postlude.” It’s sparse and somber, with a slow electronic pulse backing two voices formally reciting a full poem.

An Explosion of Happy

David DominiqueMask (Orenda, 2018)

daviddominique-mask-500A manic, cartoony jazz sound is always welcome, but sometimes it can be a little too much. Mask is full of tricky octet charts that toy with you: a theme will repeat way too many times, or slow down again and again to the point of absurdity. Grooves get cut off abruptly. Electric guitar makes a screaming appearance and then just vanishes.

It’s all executed with crisp, geometric precision, as on the staggering hot-jazz explosion of “The Wee of Us.” But you’ve got to be in the mood for this stuff. The joy in here is relentless, and the cleverness can start to grate, especially when Dominique plays games with repetition. Any song in this collection would be a delightful surprise if snuck into a mainstream set. Together, they teeter between exhilarating and exhausting.

Dominique means well, though. Mask amps up certain elements from his previous album, Ritual, and I do like where his ideas are coming from. There’s an upbeat sense of rebellion here, and a risky dash of humor.

The flute line in “Gotta Fumble” keeps shifting just slightly, for the kind of pleasant disorientation you get from prog rock. “To Dave Treut” is my favorite track, flipping between a buzzy sprint and a swingy, slower-tempo theme. A calmer soloing section features tangly improvising on viola while a steady beat soldiers on in the background.

That violist is Lauren Elizabeth Baba, who runs a big band of her own, the BABAorchestra. It’s a more concretely “jazz” project but it shares a touch of the irreverence of Dominque’s band and is worth hearing.

Jordan Glenn’s BEAK

Jordan GlennBEAK (Geomancy, 2018)

jordanglenn-beakJordan Glenn is a ubiquitous Bay Area drummer, playing in so many jazz/improv contexts including the prog band Jack o’ the Clock and his own pranskerish trio Wiener Kids. With BEAK, Glenn showcases himself as a composer, leaving the playing up to others. It’s a set of coordinated rock jams thick with guitar and percussion — four percussionists! Sometimes they combine for a glorious stomp; sometimes it’s an intricate exercise in counterpoint.

Compositions build off of riffs and rhy, with guitars (Will Northlich-Redmond and Grex‘s Karl Evangelista) drenched in fuzz and surrounded by hand drums. Mark Clifford’s vibraphone adds splashes of extra melody. The percussion barrage, so vital to the album’s overall mood, comes from Geneva Harrison on the drum kit and Robert Woods-LaDue and Robert Lopez on hand percussion. Max Judelson on bass rounds out the band.

Glenn’s trademark sense of humor is found more in the song titles than in the music itself. Sublime moments come in the trilogy of “Coda” pieces, with the easygoing odd-time beat of “Coda 2 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and the lingering haze of “Coda 3 – The Games Chickens Play.”

Some of the album’s most satisfying moments are the quieter ones. “Coda 2” is worth another mention in that regard; it’s a slow burn, a moderate tempo that builds momentum as the odd rhythm latches into your brain. That said, the full-blast bombastic tracks are fun. “Flower Fashion Fantasies” announces the band: “We’ve got guitars! We’ve got four percussionists!” and builds into a frenzy. Later, the track returns in a higher-energy reprise.

Surrealist Poet Jazz

Sheldon Brown GroupBlood of the Air (Edgetone, 2018)

brown-bloodoftheairNate Chinen’s excellent book, Playing Changes, devotes a chapter to the many innovations of Jason Moran, including his visual art and his business model post-Blue Note. Among them is Moran’s practice of transcribing spoken word into melodies based on that fluctuating pitches and emphasis of the voice.

I can understand the fascination with exploring the necessarily melodic qualities of speech. I always appreciate the results even if I don’t fully enjoy them — as with many types of art, the process sometimes interests me as much as the final output.

Anyway, I doubt Moran was the first to try setting music to speech, and plenty of others have done it since.

But here’s Sheldon Brown doing something I don’t think I’ve heard before: He adds swing. On “Oraibi,” the two-part opener to Brown’s Blood of the Air, he sets a clarinet melody in step with Lamantia’s recital and gives it a bounce that creates the illusion of Lamantia himself swinging.

(Love the soaring Tyner-esque piano chords after the intro, too, and the feathery sung vocal — that’s Lorin Benedict‘s vocalese.

Blood of the Air is a tribute to Lamantia, and I admit, I dreaded the thought of an overbaked poetry-music casserole. But creative touches (such as a moody theremin introducing “First Star”), along with the bursting enthusiasm and spinning inventiveness of Brown’s band, keeps the mix fresh and intriguing.

Here’s the theme from “To Have the Courage,” built from another of Lamantia’s readings and sped up into a punchy ensemble line. The vocal here is Benedict again, inserting vocalese into the melody of Lamantia’s speech patterns. There’s something very meta about that.

A San Franciscan by birth who would later hang out with the Beat movement, Lamantia is described as “surrealist,” but he wrote in normal English phrases and sentences, not the random word clusters I was expecting. His recital voice is homey, less stern than I expected, with an affected accent, equal parts Oxford and Brooklyn.

Here’s a full Blood of the Air set from the group, performed at the 2017 Outsound New Music Summit, with Lamantia contributing via recordings. You can sample much of the album on Bandcamp.

Trio HLK

Trio HLKStandard Time (Ubuntu, 2018)

triohlk-standardYou can see why Steve Lehman and Evelyn Glennie want to hang out with these guys. Trio HLK is full of glitches in the matrix, playing smoothly rapid clockwork music that’s full of hiccups. With all the start-stop unpredictability, it’s fitting that one song is titled “Stabvest.”

The effect comes from rapid-fire shifts in time signatures — take a look at the blips of 13/16 and 15/16 in the sheet music for “Extra Sensory Perception Part II,” below (full score available here). Pianist Richard Harrold, guitarist Ant Law, and percussionist Richard Kass run this obstacle course with slick aggression, with Law’s eight-string guitar doubling as bass. The effect is like a sped-up minimalism, with lots of jump cuts between phrases that are repeating but not really repeating.

trio hlk sheet music

The result is music that feels ultra-modern but still sounds pleasant, between the chiming jazz-club chords and the occasional acrid-but-friendly touch of guitar. “TWILT,” a brainy twist on a jazz standard (you can figure out which one), is a good demonstration of what the trio can do. But their guest musicians add some sparkling fun. Lehman add his angular sense of cool to three tracks, and Glennie dances airily on songs like “Extra-Sensory Perception,” a thrill ride that culminates in a hard-driving succession of rising chords shared by piano and guitar.

Here’s a video of the gentle Part I of “Extra-Sensory Perception,” followed by the more intense Part II.

 

Secret Codes of Guitar and Drums

The Lie DetectorsPart III: Secret Unit (Chant, 2018)

maoz-3The Lie Detectors could be classified as a jazz duo, but in fine downtown fashion, it’s jazz with hefty shots of bombast: the heavy crunch of “Rice;” the light touch of “Go” that descends into a sinister, shamanistic guitar sounds; the echoey and folky strains of “Closer” mixed with sparse improv. Punk and metal get their say in the next track, “Here and There.” Those four track are the way Secret Unit starts.

Eyal Maoz (guitar) and Asaf Sirkis (drums) have known each since age 10. Now living in New York and London, respectively, they’re charting impressive musical careers. Maoz is a member of the Lemon Juice Quartet and Shanir Blumenkranz’s Abraxis (which got to record one of John Zorn’s Masada Book II albums), and he leads bands including Edom, Wild Type and the eclectic power trio Hypercolor. Sirkis has been playing with jazzsters including Larry Coryell, Dave Holland and John Abercrombie.

They’ve released two other duo albums: Elementary Dialogues (Ayler, 2006) and Freedom Has Its Own Taste (Fasson, 1998). They don’t seem to have used the Lie Detectors name with those releases, and maybe with good reason — the name is the top secret organization that they formed at age 10. Apparently they’ve decided it’s time to reveal the secret.

Maybe that means more Lie Detectors records to come. Secret Unit‘s varied styles are held together by a cosmic constant of jagged energy and wide-grinned attitude. “Flying Horse” gets into a catchy little groove, but not after a nifty intro of spackled non-rhythm. “Circles” plays like an improv-minded mutation of surf music, with Maoz echoing away against Sirkis’ continuous wave of rolls and snare.  Then there’s the relatively quiet noodling of “Sting” and the choppy rock anthem of “Green Shirt.” But it feels cohesive, like two people speaking the language of a decades-old secret society.