Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Ken Thomson’s Slow/Fast

Ken Thomson and Slow/FastSettle (NCM East, 2014)

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

I’m familiar with Ken Thomson because of Gutbucket, the sharp-attitude quartet that uses his sax as an offensive weapon. Their shows are full of exciting, pinpoint jazz, but they’re also raucous events, more rocking than a lot of rock shows, with Thomson drenched in sweat before the set is half over.

Slow/Fast isn’t like that — and yet, it’s still got Thomson’s personality and presence. The group, shaped like a jazz quintet, is a showcase for Thomson’s compositions, which occupy that zone straddling jazz and modern music. The writing is full of elegant and complex melodies, sometimes seasoned with a warm, jazzy solo.

Some pieces almost feel like games, built up from an exacting geometry. I want to say “minimalism,” but it’s closer to proggy jazz; in either case, the hallmark is a not-quite-regular construct of time signatures.

As an example, “Welding for Freedom” starts off with a scripted dialogue of sax and trumpet statements, short blips like a puzzle. Then it bursts into this pretty, flowing theme — a not-quite-waltz — and gives way to a warm and blossoming trumpet solo from Russ Johnson.

“We Are Not All in This Together” likewise pairs bass clarinet and single-note guitar in unison stop/start lines, tracing a winding path accompanied by slow, earthy bass from Adam Armstrong.

That gives way to a spider-fingered guitar solo by Fender, backed only by Armstrong’s bass and Fred Kennedy’s drums — a sublimely jazzy segment.

“Settle,” the bright and forceful title track, is the only one that reminds me of Gutbucket. It features Thomson in a darting solo against a hyperactive rhythm section: Armstrong’s brisk walking bass and Kennedy’s light, fast cymbal taps. It’s got fuzzed-out guitar and an aggressive stance overall, and the Spanish-tinged, two-horn theme is bold and dramatic. (The whole track is up on Soundcloud — be warned that the audio starts automatically.)

Finally, one of my favorite moments of zen on Settle comes during “Spring,” where a long bass solo gives way to the butterfly-flapping theme as played by Thomson and Johnson. The fingerwork is quick and sounds difficult, but the mood is airy and slow, very much evoking the feeling of a sleepy spring meadow.

February 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

Vicky Chow and the One-Bit Army

Tristan Perich [Vicky Chow, piano] — Surface Image (New Amsterdam, 2014)
Vicky Chow (Tristan Perich) -- Surface Image (New Amsterdam 2014)“One-bit electronics” refers to a speaker that either beeps or doesn’t. Only one tone is possible, and it’s on or off — much like the bell on an Apple II computer or IBM PS/2, if anyone remembers those.

Put a bunch of one-bit speakers in a room, set to different tones, and you’d have a programmable music box. Set those tones to a bright, minimalist major/suspended chord and play them really fast, and you’d have a hyperkinetic, jumpy music box — and a captivating, forceful musical experience, if you did it right.

Now add a pianist who can either augment or cut across the flow — and you’ve got Tristan Perich’s “Surface Image,” where pianist Vicky Chow does battle with (or leads the march of) 40 one-bit speakers all chattering away for a little more than an hour.

As you can see in the preview video, it’s an assault of bright, insistent tones blasting forth.

At its peak, the music is a maximal minimalism. It’s in your face, bouncing you around like a bumper-car ride. I think the piece is best experienced in one sitting — yes, your attention wavers, but as it does, your experience shifts from a pinpoint shower (lots of individual notes hurtling forth) to a shimmering haze (everything blurring together).

That first half really is fun, with Chow and the electronics playing in an upbeat frenzy with a stiff rhythm. It feels light even as Chow bears down on the keyboard, hammering away at marshmallow-puff harmonies or playing impressive runs against the speakers’ pulsing. The inevitable change of mood is a welcome break, though, one that’s key to molding the music into a story. It’s a story with a mostly predictable trajectory (hey guess what: it slows down in the second half), but it’s a good one, and the conclusion was not really what I’d expected.

The one-bit speakers are split between the listener’s left and right stereo speakers, so when they really get going, there’s an odd sensation of the left and right sides blinking on and off in opposite phases. (Fans of Bang on a Can, of which Chow is a member, might recall the Louis Andriessen piece “Hocketus.”) It’s an interesting effect that makes you wonder what the piece would be like in a live performance — especially one like the SF Tape Music Festival, with speakers around the room.

For a more academic yet still captivating example of one-bit electronics, in a venue where your exact location really matters, check out Perich’s 1,500-speaker microtonal wall:

January 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm 1 comment

Eat the Sun

Eat the SunThe Djerassi Sessions (Edgetone, 2014)

Eat the Sun -- The Djerassi Sessions (Edgetone, 2014)

Source: Edgetone. Click to go there.

Straddling between melody and abstraction, the improvisations on The Djerassi Sessions build a cloaked mystery but feature more color than the gray-on-gray cover art suggests. The all-strings trio (koto, acoustic bass, and electric guitar) have produced an album of dark shadings that open the way for some fast, captivating playing.

Eat the Sun seems to have Hoopes’ bass miked as a lead voice in general, with his pizzicato work cutting through the groundwork of crunchy guitar noise and rustling koto. Even one note amid the din becomes a clarion call, as happens on “Postfeasttwo” and “Prefeastone.” I’m also partial to this busy passage from “Prefeast Three,” with Hoopes’ bass taking the lead.


Most of the pieces track atonal or cross-tonal melodies. Gretchen Jude’s koto often conjures up the most pleasant patterns of the three instruments (a Japanese motif, obviously) giving Hoopes room to rattle off some impressive jazzlike soloing. She also flits from meditation to rock-like rhythm to frenzied attack. The final seconds of “Postfeasttwo,” with koto and bass slashing viciously, make for a particularly fine moment.


Noah Phillips’s guitar often treads in noisy territory or, as on “Prefeastfour,” winds a path through newly defined scales of its own. It’s a ground fog that defines the mood: never quite pretty, even amid the playing of “normal” notes, and often thick with distortion. “Postfeastone,” for instance, flickers in and out of melodic logic, with the koto riffing against the sour tomes of a detuned guitar.

Eat the Sun is a trio that has definitely found an aesthetic and a sound. It’s territory ripe for more exploration.

January 2, 2015 at 5:00 pm 1 comment

Two from Aerophonic

Ballister [Rempis, Lonberg-Holm, Nilsson-Love] — Worse for the Wear (Aerophonic, 2014)

Wooley, Rempis, Niggenkemper, CorsanoFrom Wolves to Whales (Aerophonic, 2014)

Two new releases from Dave RempisAerophonic label place the Chicago-based saxophonist in different jazz-improv settings, both magnetic and full of energy. Both albums have their fast and slow parts, their quiet and loud parts, but the differences in personnel give each project a distinct atmosphere.

Ballister -- Worse for the WearBallister is the more forceful of the two, teaming Rempis with the noisy hands of percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and the crunchy electric cello of Fred Lonberg-Holm.

The 21-minute “Fornax” is an unabashed frenzy, all flames and smoke from the first seconds. Lonberg-Holm’s amplified cello essentially fills the role of an electric guitar, helping to push the edgy sound, but the session stays red-lined even after he slips into acoustic mode to provide backing plucks to a Rempis/Nilssen-Love attack. Someone even adds a metal-like grumbly vocal. That’s all in the first five minutes.

The track does slow down, as you’d expect from a piece of that length, ending with a quiet crawl. The closing track, “Vulpecula,” is on the slower side as well — a darker, more gradual energy, inhabiting murky caverns rather than bustling cities. It’s energy jazz with a sinister air.

In between the two is “Scutum,” another high-energy piece, but a slimmer model. It’s got some exciting Nilssen-Love work on hi-hat (his jazz chops on the drum kit shine throughout the album) and a twangy bowed cello keeping the intensity up. Rempis enters shortly with ecstatic flares. It’s a terrific exercise in free jazz, and in the passages where the sound gets quieter, Rempis’ sax only gets more frenzied and eccentric.

wooley-wolvesThe quartet on From Wolves to Whales works into high-energy frenzies, too. But with Nate Wooley (trumpet) on board, there are also nods to lower-case improv, for moments of spacious contemplation. It’s a more expansive sound than Worse for the Wear.

“Slake” opens the album with whispered trumpet crinkles and takes its time building to a healthy boil, with Wooley shifting to quick-lipped and crisp playing. “Count Me Out” likewise starts out with Wooley’s quiet, airy sounds; this time, the band picks up with a restrained energy, building a conversation that culminates in dark, scowling form.

There’s an enjoyable sense of space to Rempis’ squawks and honks on “Serpent’s Tooth,” backed by Chris Corsano‘s insistent drumming and patient bass from Pascal Niggenkemper. It builds nicely from some unaccompanied warbling by Rempis, a first-principles statement that sets up a respectful, drawn-out jam as the other players follow suit. After a few minutes, Rempis blossoms into brighter free-jazz mode, opening up the piece.

Worse for the Wear and From Wolves to Whales have official release dates of Jan. 6, but you can get then now from Aerophonic.

December 30, 2014 at 6:25 pm Leave a comment

Singing Pynchon’s Song

Kyle Bruckmann‘s Wrack… Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire (Singlespeed, 2014)

Kyle Bruckmann's Wrack: "...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire"Boisterous and raunchy, with generous doses of off-the-rails confusion, A.S.T.E. is Kyle Bruckmann‘s tribute to Thomas Pynchon’s first three novels. I haven’t read the novels — except for the first third of V, and the music seems to capture the spirit of the book well: It’s fun and appropriately chaotic, mostly bouncing off the walls but revealing some deep thought, too.

And hey — the album has gotten noticed by Magnet Magazine, where Bill Meyer, who’s written about jazz for a variety of publications for years, picked it as the No. 1 jazz/improv album of the year. Kudos!

I got to see the hour-long suite, which includes movements devoted to The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, performed live last year at the Outsound New Music Summit, so I knew what I was in for.

The instrumental pieces, performed by a septet version of Wrack, Bruckmann’s longstanding Chicago-based group, are partly built around the imaginary songs that permeate Pynchon’s books. Bruckmann takes the lyrics and applies Great American Songbook-style melodies; it’s up to you to figure out which tunes go with which words.

This results in exuberant, singalong themes with touches of nuttiness, a damn-the-torpedos sound. Most episodes branch off into exciting solos or dissolve into stretches of improvising; there’s plenty of out-jazz goodness to be had in here.

I can’t speak to how well the pieces represent the novels, aside from V, represented by an appropriately alcohol-soaked swagger in Part One of Bruckmann’s suite — especially in the final theme, where Bruckmann’s oboe goes impossibly high and intentionally off-key.

“Part Two,” representing The Crying of Lot 49, presents a more sleek and sober approach. An early theme is just as catchy and jazzy as anything in “Part One,” but played with clean violin-and-oboe lines. It does give way to some jazz abandon later, with a buzzy sax solo over a driven, exciting rhythm.

All I know about Gravity’s Rainbow is that it sounds intimidating, but “Part Three” has its share of upbeat, showtune-style melodies as well.

Note that if it’s Wrack that’s doing the “awaiting” in the album title, then W.A.S.T.E. becomes a full acronym, just like in Pynchon’s book. And the album cover art is drawn in such a way that Wrack itself looks like an acronym too, so that you would have an acronym within an acronym. I don’t know if these things mean anything or even if they’re really there. As Bruckmann writes:

But that’s exactly Pynchon’s game: daring you to succumb to paranoid systems. There’s a dimension of reading his work that’s like firing a blunderbuss into a barrel of red herrings. No matter what your field is – rocket science, colonial history, organic chemistry, hermetica and the occult – he somehow knows just enough of your specialist knowledge to ensnare you in webs of ‘Kute Korrespondences.’

Physical and virtual copies of Awaits Tristero’s Silent Empire can be had at Bandcamp.

December 22, 2014 at 12:29 pm 2 comments

Henry Plotnick Goes Blue

Henry PlotnickBlue Fourteen (Blue Tapes, 2014)

Henry Plotnick: Blue Fourteen (Blue Tapes)Often compared to Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, Henry Plotnick is a modern composer using synthesizer loops to build dense pieces, packed with layer upon layer of fascination. He came to KZSU’s attention with his album Fields and is now back with a cassette and download release, blue fourteen. (That’s how the Blue Tapes label names its albums.)

Plotnick’s music verges on new age, I have to admit. For all its mystery, it’s got that calming-yet-upbeat mood, full of clockwork bell sounds, mostly in major keys. Still, I’ve really enjoyed his two albums and his willingness to explore long-form works. At this time of year, all the chiming sounds even make Plotnick a pleasant alternative to Christmas music.

Blue fourteen doesn’t rely on sheets of orchestral strings as much as Fields did — which I guess is another way of saying Plotnick has been expanding his vocabulary of sounds. Some catch my ear better than others. The foundation of “Izles” includes a couple of 8-bit loops that can get on the nerves after a while.

But his new strategies work, and they show off Plotnick’s strength in building and retracting layers to create a 10- or 15-minute story arc. “Wapati” is a particularly exciting piece, where Plotnick glitches up some of his samples, kind of like noise soloing, and even improvises on piano for a spell. I’m also partial to the organized chaos of “Mechanolatry,” where the loops don’t build a fully melodic form and the rhythms criss-cross unevenly. It’s perpetual-motion factory, happily clicking and whirring away.

Then there’s the scattershot feel of “Sun,” which keeps up the happy, floaty mood but in a series of disconnected rhythms, like multiple tracks colliding. It coalesces into a warm, soothing wash to finish the album.

Blue fourteen is a limited-edition cassette and a download; you can sample it on Soundcloud. You can read more about Plotnick on Wondering Sound, upvote him on the Dazed 100 poll (where readers have pushed him up to No. 25 from No. 94), and hear him live on KZSU’s 2015 Day of Noise on Sat., Feb. 7.

December 7, 2014 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment

Bristle: A Jazz & Strings Prospectus

Bristle plays Fri. Dec. 6 at Maybeck Studio (1537 Euclid Ave., Berkeley) and Sat. Dec. 7 at Luna’s Cafe (1414 16th St., Sacramento).

BristleFuture(s) Now(s) (Queen Bee, 2014)

Bristle: Future(s) Now(s)

Source: Bandcamp. Click to go there.

Packaged amusingly to look like a corporate annual report, Future(s) Now(s) is an upbeat mix of chamber music (in a fun, bopping mode), stretched-out improv, jazz, and surprising touches of folk music. And you get a bit of corporate swag if you buy the hardcopy CD version.

It’s a strong second outing for Bristle, an album where you can sense how much they enjoyed playing this music. Reeds player Randy McKean, who lives outside the usual Bay Area orbit, in Grass Valley, Calif., has retained the band from the first album, titled Bulletproof, and will be showing off the new tunes at shows in Berkeley and Sacramento, Dec. 6 and 7.

Songs on Future(s) Now(s) were all written by either McKean or fellow reeds player Cory Wright. Combined with Murray Campbell on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass — no drummer — the quartet strides through mostly playful and upbeat compositions that show some intelligent twists and turns and often give way to short stretches of improvisation.

“Whistle Tune” features a relentlessly happy but complex melody led by piccolo. Most of the piece seems to be composed, with piccolo and clarinet popping up with tiny bursts in front of a lumbering, almost smart-alecky, arco bass by Mezzacappa. “Escherish” shows off more of the band’s jazz proclivities, with an early sax solo over a quietly bubbling rhythm line. That piece gives way to a more serious stretch of unaccompanied solos connected by somber composed phrases.

The band’s sense of fun comes out in some of the bouts of pure improvsation. “Butts Up” includes moments of almost slapstick clacking and whistling; “Conference Call” includes some high-pitched improv moments that sound like a flight of birds.

But the best improvised moments come early in “Hick,” where all four players criss-cross ideas, like friends skipping stones on a beach, all clinging to a folky idiom that eventually gives way to the country violin riffs that give the song its title.

The most serious of the pieces, “Sie Sev Lah,” combines low strings with what are apparently two half-clarinets; McKean and Wright took their instruments apart and attached the mouthpieces to the bottom halves. The result sounds close to regular clarinets, but maybe more tart, like a trumpet. Even this track, amid the dead-serious violin/bass chords, includes some joy in the form of buzzing and trilling clarinets.

December 2, 2014 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment

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