Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

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

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

Frantz Loriot and the Big Picture

Frantz Loriot Systematic Distortion OrchestraThe Assembly (OutNow, 2016)

loriot-assemblyThese are big-concept pieces executed by an 11-piece band including some stars of the Brooklyn out-jazz scene. They go through long stretches of improvising, and as you’d expect, they can produce quite a bit of sound.

But there’s organization: Each of the four mid-length tracks seems to focus on executing a central idea, a particular mood. Violist Frantz Loriot sends his group on an improvisatory mission every time, with volume and cluttery chaos applied to a purpose.

For example, I think of “Echo” as the “blare” piece. Starting from the rudiments of silence, it builds in the form of unison horn notes, serious and slow, backed by clattering percussion (produced by three drummers) and an ominous bass drone. It all builds to a violent climax, but for me, there’s a sense of stillness that pervades the piece.

“The Assembly,” on the other hand, is built to produce a dense rustle. Again starting from practically nothing, it builds up into a jumble of scraped and plucked strings, eventually adding up to an abrasive buzz almost like a noise piece, even though the Systematic Distortion Orchestra is an all-acoustic group.

“… Maybe … Still …” is an exercise in quietude, a poem spoken in dramatic tones by bassist Sean Ali against a backdrop of small, sound-based improvisation — a minimalist industrial vibe that continues in lower-case fashion after Ali has had his say.

And then there’s “Le Relais,” a percussive forest that gives way to the full orchestra, with plenty of emphasis on strings. An octave chord on Loriot’s viola signals the change to the new landscape of quiet rustles and night sounds.

The Assembly nicely pairs planned structure and the glorious chaotic blur of large-group improvising. Thanks to saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer and his OutNow label for giving it an outlet.

October 8, 2016 at 4:07 pm 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

Tyshawn Sorey’s Epic

Tyshawn SoreyThe Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi Recordings, 2016)

Quoting George Grella on Sequenza21 and The Big City (link temporarily unavailable):

Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: [Tyshawn] Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis.

That’s the explanation of why Sorey’s album landed on Grella’s 2014 Best-of list for post WWII composition. Grella goes on to discuss Alloy‘s curious lack of time, likening Tyshawn Sorey to John Cage or Morton Feldman but with a compositional persona of his own. The music floats, guided not by Sorey’s drum kit but by Cory Smythe’s patient, drifting piano.

sorey-innerJazz fans know Sorey for his thunderous drumming in a variety of bands, but his own albums reveal he’s a serious composer. Serious enough that he’s on track to earn a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia University in 2017. Serious enough that Wesleyan University has already hired him to replace Anthony Braxton, who recently retired.

Sorey’s latest, The Inner Spectrum of Variables, uses piano, drums, and a quartet of strings to invoke the frills of traditional classical music, the sawing and hard-digging enthusisasm of new classical, and even, yes, elements of modern jazz. Spanning six-plus movements and more than two hours, Inner Spectrum is an epic not only in length, but in feeling. The music is a journey, and the weight of it builds up as you go.

Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing in one sitting — and I didn’t, I admit — you should listen to it in order. You’ll catch the contrast between the oh-so-classical elements of “Movement II” — tropes such as weepy violin vibrato (Chern Hwei Fung) and piano trilling (Smythe) — and the more modern atmosphere of “Movement III,” with Smythe and Sorey hammering out piano/drums Morse code with a backbeat.

You’ll also get to feel the transition from the surprise ending of “Movement III” to the dour, heavy viola (Kyle Armbrust) to kick off “Movement IV.” And you’ll hear “Movement V” in its proper place, with a grand string segment that makes for a climactic moment in the narrative, a mid/heavy pulse layered with forceful improvising. It’s a majestic mid/slow segment that’s just a little heavy, just a little sweet, and it works best if you’ve been along the entire journey up to this point.

“Movement VI,”is a slow heavy conclusion that’s appropriate for Inner Spectrum‘s scope — but the whole thing wraps up with a reprise of “Movement I,” which I’ll let you discover for yourself. That theme is a surprise at the beginning — not at all the mood I was expecting — and it’s a welcome visitor at the end.

Wedged in there is an unnumbered “Reverie” moment that is as dreamy and surreal as the title suggests, opening with a corridor of gongs and building up to a frenzied violin cadenza.

Inner Spectrum is less experimental than Sorey’s previous albums. The challenge he seems to have set for himself is to amalgamate some older styles of Western music into his work. The results are colossal, and worth hearing.

September 3, 2016 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Yoni Kretzmer Five

Yoni KretzmerFive (OutNow, 2016)

kretzmer-fiveLike a lot of musicians, saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer spans a range of styles, including some intriguing free improv and the strings-laden jazz of his New Dilemma band.

But it’s nice to hear him in a good old free jazz format. With Five, he’s assembled an all-star quintet that delivers brisk, exciting music across five tracks.

A taste of ’60s influence runs throughout the compositions. “Quintet I” launches you right into it, as drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Max Johnson kick off a fast-patter attack, quickly followed by a pulsing lead line from the horns. From there, it’s off to the races, with solos backed by bits of composed riffs and long passages of Johnson and Taylor delivering the heat.

Most of the compositions consist of a few riffs played as demarcation points that define a mood and a context, but the rest is left to the players, a nicely brewing stew of improvisation.Kretzmer himself is in fine form, with blazing, burning solos full of expression and variety. He’s an expert storyteller on his horn — tenor sax throughout this album. And he’s recruited top-notch bandmates in Steve Swell (trombone) and Thomas Heberer (cornet).

“Feb 23” is another quick-paced study: Kretzmer dealing a raspy, buzzing solo over Taylor and Johnson, the brass entering with a sneaky, simple whisper and a nod to spy jazz. It also includes a nice mental break, with the two brass horns and Johnson scribbling happily, occasionally accented by small sounds from Taylor. That leads into a Johnson solo and a serious, surging, slowish theme for a big, big ending.

Rounding out the five tracks: “July 19” opens the album with nearly five (!) minutes of criss-crossed group improvising. “Quintet II” starts with a quiet experimental crouch before launching into a boisterous free-jazz tumult. The theme comes at the end, a playfully halting back-and-forth swing.

And “For DC” ends the album with a slow, ritualistic composition, against which Kretzmer monologues fiercely. Swell’s trombone solo, late in the piece, plays up the drama — a big climactic scene before the piece winds down.

I’m particularly taken by Kretzmer’s solo in “Quintet II.” He’s pumped full of energy and builds up to an appropriately dramatic ending. You also get a little bit of a feel for the quintet’s full interaction. Have a listen.


August 23, 2016 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

Thumbscrew Anew

ThumbscrewConvallaria (Cuneiform, 2016)

thumbscr-convMary Halvorson’s chiming, calculating guitar; Michael Formanek’s earthy, free-grooving bass; Tomas Fujiwara’s colorful, almost melodic drumming. It’s not that Convallaria is predictable. It’s more that the result is. You know this mix of colors is going to be vibrant and creative.

Which makes it good to see this trio of veterans reconvene as Thumbscrew to follow up their 2014 group debut. Convallaria is a creative panorama centered on compositions contributed by each group member. Graced with a two-week residency to hone the material, they’ve come up with a solid album and a collective voice that flows smoothly.

“Sampsonian Rhythms” lives up to its name with a burly, melodic foundation laid by Formanek. It’s an upbeat track with a peppy sense of swing — in terms of attitude, rather than formal rhythm. Definitely a highlight.

On the title track, Halvorson delivers long runs of fingerwork, complete with the glitchy note-bending that’s become a hallmark of hers. That gives way to a rich Formanek solo nicely grounded in a jazz sound, enhanced by Halvorson’s faint chording. Then it’s Fujiwara‘s turn, with a solo that starts with feather-light, rapid-fire snare and builds into a tumult of toms and cymbals.

Just as you’re getting used to the trio’s upbeat demeanor, Halvorson pulls out the effects for a shadowy mood on “Trigger” and “Screaming Piha.” The latter turns into almost an industrial improv piece, a gray sheen of guitar noise with Fujiwara’s drumming furiously coloring the scene. He keeps up the ferocious pace as the piece suddnly shifts into a calm guitar-and-bass conclusion.

Even with moments like that, the album does have a welcoming feel to it, an overarching sound full of controlled intensity and camaraderie. In terms of other bag-of-tricks moments, Halvorson turns on a bit of echo box to add to the tumbling chaos of “Tail of the Sad Dog.” And “Danse Insense” includes a fun percussion solo with Fujiwara testing out what seems to be a kit full of bowls and blocks.

Thumbscrew will be on the west coast on Oct. 16 for an appearance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. According to Formanek’s website, they might pop around for a few other west coast dates as well.

August 21, 2016 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

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