Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

Ochs-Robinson Duo

Drummer Donald Robinson will be playing on Thursday, April 2, in a duo with saxophonist Marco Eneidi at the Luggage Store Gallery (998 Market St., San Francisco).

Ochs-Robinson DuoThe Throne (Not Two, 2014)

Ochs-Robinson Duo: The Throne (Not Two, 2014)In purely physical terms, this sax/drums duo is a stripped-down version of Larry OchsSax and Drumming Core, a trio that included Scott Amendola as a second drummer. But there’s a special element to a duo. It becomes a straight dialogue, a two-way interview, and when the players have known each other as long as Ochs and Donald Robinson have, you end up sitting in on an enlightened conversation.

Ochs is well known for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, not to mention his solo work. Robinson, a fixture of the Bay Area scene, is a free-jazz drummer well steeped in the sound of the ’60s, and he deserves a lot more recognition for his work. His sound is characterized by a deliciously light touch — tight, delicate rolls on the snare and small but effective touches on the toms. It’s a subtle approach that can build to a blistering attack when the moment warrants.

A great example is “Red Tail,” which opens with a Robinson blast and a fast groove, Ochs providing a floating, warbly statement on the sax.

 
“Breakout,” starts with a funky, catchy snap and builds into a frenzied attack. “The Throne” is another high-energy track, opening with Ochs ping-ponging some riffs, digging deep while Robinson frames the choppy melody.

Much of the album is characterized by Ochs’ tart and aggressive sound on tenor sax and some sopranino. On the quieter side, “Failure” has a very calm, processional feel — an elegant exercise in restraint — while “Song 2″ has a touch of Mississippi blues in its casually sparse step.

 
“Open to the Light” is worth a special mention, as it’s dedicated to Glenn Spearman, the late tenor saxophonist who helped drive the Bay Area scene in the ’90s. Ochs and Robinson both played in Spearman’s Double Trio, and Spearman and Robinson were a duo themselves back in the day. “Open to the Light” is brisk and hopeful, an uplifting nod to a kindred spirit, with a touch of the kind of soaring, heavy tumult that Spearman was so good at building.

 
Robinson will be playing in a duo format with Marco Eneidi, a close friend of Spearman’s, on April 2 in San Francisco, as noted above. Robinson and Eneidi have played together quite often, including in a session called Straight Lines Skewed — which is, to my knowledge, the only album that has Robinson listed as the leader. It’s a trio session with Lisle Ellis on bass, an improvised jazz session that reveres silence as much as energy. Worth seeking out; Downtown Music Gallery seems to still have copies, as does Klompfoot (the former Cadence Jazz store).

March 29, 2015 at 5:36 pm Leave a comment

Screaming in Color

HypercolorHypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)

Hypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)It’s easy to categorize Hypercolor as a prog power trio, one with metal leanings in the blistering guitar. But drummer Lukas Ligeti (yes, the classical percussionist; all of these guys have roots in jazz/classical) describes the band’s style as something looser. It’s about “learning complex arrangements and playing them back completely wrong,” he states in the press flier.

The music still has a proggy feel and a sense of structure; this isn’t the kind of free-form quasi-rock you’ll find on Mirakle, the Tzadik album that pitted Derek Bailey’s alien syntax with the grooves of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. But as Ligeti promises, Hypercolor breaks from the prog mold by foregoing pinpoint complexity for jamming and discovery.

The music still retains a rhythm and a spiky, edgy rock/jazz sound with, as bassist James Ilgenfritz explains it, a dash of no-wave attitude. Here, for example, is the ending of “Squeaks:”

 
The structures aren’t hidden. You can hear the bluesy roots in “Transit” and the pop-song flow behind “Chen,” at least before Eyal Maoz‘s guitar shifts into noisy hyperdrive. The relatively mellow “Ernesto, Do You Have a Cotton Box?” works from something resembling a country/roots framework, chopped up into incorrect measures and backed by Ligeti’s indifferent torrent of snare and hi-hat; it has the sound of a song falling apart.

“Palace” even opens in an outright punk/rockabilly spasm. Fun!

 
Hypercolor, the album, has its quiet side too. “Forget” is a pretty tune, although it bursts into an anthemic, thundering solo, and “Quixotic” is a slice of jazz introspection, liquidy and patient.

Then there’s the powerful 11-minute epic, “Little Brother.” Abandoning the abandon of other tracks, it digs into some reverent guitar riffing. The tone is serious but aggressive:

 
This is an album with a lot of facets and some blurred boundaries. Hypercolor, the band, has many more facets than just ear-splitting rock — but the ear-splitting is a lot of fun on its own.

If you’re in NYC, catch Hypercolor at The Stone on April 3, part of Lukas Ligeti’s week-long residency.

March 24, 2015 at 4:48 pm Leave a comment

XYQuartet: Jazz and Classical Intersect in Italy

XYQuartetXY (Nusica, 2014)

XY Quartet: XY (Nusica, 2014)The combination of vibraphone and sax gives XYQuartet an airy feel, tracing geometric lines with a modern shade of swing.

That’s the idea, of course; the name represents the axes of classical and jazz. It also brings to mind the cross-currents of Nicola Fazzini’s saxophone and Saverio Tasca’s vibes, representing the lead voices (although it’s Fazzini and bass guitarist Alessandro Fedrigo who founded the band).

It’s an enjoyable set of cleanly modern tunes, mostly upbeat. You’ll hear touches of minimalism and the complexity of serialism, but on most tracks, there’s always somebody — often, drummer Luca Colussi — infusing some healthy jazz abandon into the music. A good example is “Spazio Angusto,” with its stark 11/8 briff backed by light, swingy drumming.


On the more classical side, you’ve got “H2O,” which opens as a nearly academic exercise in rhythm but quickly veers into a jazzy phase, and “Tatami,” an exercise in futuristic minimalism with a dose of wide-open free improv.

Overall, though, the jazz axis tends to win out.¬† “Futuritmi” is a pumping straight-jazz tune built around an odd time signature, which seems appropriately quirky. “Doppio Sogno” likewise falls far to the jazz side of the chart:


XY and a previous album, Idea F, are available for free download at nusica.org. Nusica is a nonprofit, so a tip or even a CD purchase would be a nice gesture. You can also hear the band on Soundcloud.

March 23, 2015 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

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

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