144 Strings

Christy Doran144 Strings for a Broken Chord (Between the Lines, 2018)

doran-144During the course of Christy Doran’s suite for 24 guitars (four of them basses), you’re rarely listening to all 24 guitars — or if you are, they’re playing with restraint. This isn’t an barrage of shredding, and even when dense riffage-upon-riffage moments come up, they’re well coordinated and cleanly executed. The sound often resembles jazzy prog. It proudly showing its blues and rock roots, and it’s executed with the precision of a chamber orchestra.

The band includes drums, and they’re crucial, adding a tiny bit of sonic variation that provides a focal point. The four electric basses often get buried in the mix, but they have plenty of good moments, including solos. The passages of many guitars playing small parts together, often as the backing to a solo, create a lushness, a crunch that can only come from lots of strings being plucked at once. “Broken Chords” is brimming with that sound. The bluesy “Bad News Babe” is another good example, with the little chiming harmonics played as a group backing.

“Andromeda” is an exercise in grooving counterpoint — think of the overlapping lines of Steve Reich or later King Crimson with a jazzy beat set down by the drum kit. It has a sparkling sound that tickles my prog center.

“Gunslingers” has some appropriate showing off, in the form of tickling, speedy riffs adorning the corners of the sound while a chiming guitar figure occupies the center. It’s a fun exercise in precision, including what sounds like a “solo” played by multiple guitars in unison:

Doran was fortunate enough to present 144 Strings live in a theater, with the guitarists seated in a gentle arc spanning the stage. It just plain looks fun, and based on the excerpts he’s posted, the concert was a blast as well.

Monk: The Work

Miles OkazakiWork (self-released, 2018)

From Kevin Whitehead’s book, New Dutch Swing, regarding Thelonious Monk’s “deliberate lack of polish”:

What some heard as fumbling, thick fingers crushing so many adjacent notes, Misha [Mengelberg] heard simply as a liberal use of minor seconds. Monk in a way took diatonic harmony to its extreme, hiding every basic triad in an obfuscatory thicket.

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Early on, I encountered the assertion that Monk’s hand size made him imprecise on the keys, and that his genius was to turn those would-be mistakes into stunning special harmonies. Over the years, I’ve learned that idea is more or less debunked. Monk was purposefully crafting something that was his. He was innovating.

So, when someone plays Monk on an instrument other than piano — a non-chordal instrument like a saxophone, or even a guitar, where those piano chords might be challenging to replicate — what happens then? It seems to me that you would get a very personal reading.

First, it would be Monk heard through the layer of translation from piano to a different instrument. But more than that, the solo aspect would provide a “purer” version of that musician’s take on the material. Broccoli tastes different to you than it does to me. I can say this confidently because other people seem to actually enjoy the stuff. Maybe Monk sounds different to you than it does to me — or, more clinically, maybe the details that stand out to your ear aren’t the same ones that stand out to me.

These ideas linger in my head when I listen to Miles Okazaki’s Work, a six-volume collection of all of Monk’s compositions performed on solo guitar. Certainly, Okazaki gives some songs novel treatments. But I like to think that underneath it all, there’s a chance to peek into a musician’s brain for a “clean” read of what Monk could sound like — the Monk that Okazaki hears.

That feeling is particularly strong on Work because of the rules Okazaki set for himself. No funny time signatures (every song was originally in common time, it turns out). True, recognizable readings of the melodies. One guitar for the entire project, with one amplifier and no effects. There was leeway to experiment, but the goal was to present Monk as Monk, keeping that translation layer thin.

The familiarity of Monk’s songbook gives any jazz musician a preset level of expertise, much like the tens of thousands of pitches thrown by a baseball player by the time he makes the Major Leagues. Okazaki started out knowing how to play around with these tunes. The challenge was how to present them as a whole, and how to vary them enough to create a compelling 70-track album. I’m especially grateful for Okazaki’s liner notes, which detail the evolution of the project and include track-by-track comments that nod to musicians and recordings that inspired him. 

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Of course, Okazaki is a modern artist full of tricks and angles. He’s part of the regular crowd on the Pi Recordings label. So these aren’t meant to be pristine, sober readings of Monk. Some, like “Think of One,” dabble and stray as Okazaki’s improvisation progresses. Others, like “Misterioso,” dive down for a new, undiscovered perspective. (“Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through,” he writes in the liners.)

 
Monk’s Mood” opens with some dissonant dabbling that feels out the chords and melody of the song. That’s normal for any solo jazz piece, I suppose, but there’s a closeness to the homebrewed recording, as if you’re in the workshop watching Okazaki think his way through the piece, decoding its mathematics and deciding which elements to wring out. On other tracks, the sound is almost tactile — close enough to feel the delicious tension on the strings as he chops his way through “Bright Mississippi.”

 
I’m skipping around Work rather than powering through all the tracks in sequence. I’m surprised at the sheer number of Monk songs that I’ve never heard of. I can’t point to specific revelations about any given composition yet, but it’s fun hearing Okazaki pick the tunes apart. There are more lessons to be found in there.

One last thing. Yes, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp. But please consider purchasing it, at the fair price Okazaki is asking. Musicians should be compensated for projects like this — after all, it was work.

Real Life Rock and Roll Band

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Real Life Rock and Roll BandHollerin’ the Spirit (Geomancy, 2019)

Nothing fancy here, and that’s a good thing. Oakland-based Real Life Rock & Roll Band play guitar-guitar-bass-drums rock that feels like sunlight over wild grasslands, filling space with upbeat, fuzzed-out guitars, strong-snap drumming and ghostly vocals. Their album is out on the Geomancy label, which has done strong work documenting some of the Bay Area’s experimental-leaning music (Grex, Surplus 1980, Jordan Glenn).

The music unfolds into extended jams, sometimes with parts made of overlapping polyrhythms, but it can be enjoyed at a simpler level — it’s electric folk descended from psychedelia. Chris Forsythe might be a point of comparison.

“Singing the Freedom of Utopic Space” eventually develops a guitar chime in 5/4 and a keyboard loop in what I think is 15/8. It breaks for a pleasantly quiet, clicking groove in the middle, then ends with anthemic group shouting that reminds me of some of the alt-folk rock from earlier in the 2000s (The Circulatory System? Akron/Family?)


Even though the music is composed, it has a spontaneous feel, like being in the center of an idea that is just starting to unfold. The spinning hypnotic cycles of jangly guitar set you down in a comfortable place and encourage you to enjoy the view. One miscue, for me, is the use of autotune; for a band that describes themselves as “favoring the spirit of the music over the evasive monolith of perfection,” it feels too inorganic.

Take a listen to the ending moments of “Earthbound Phantoms Not Numerous.” The rest of the eight-minute song has played out at this point, shifting into an abstractly flickering cooldown — the band showing off its abstract side — the drops into “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California.” The latter is the album’s de facto single, in my mind — a 1975 Terry Allen song transformed from gritty highway blues to a low-key haze and a thousand-yard stare. Below, I’m including an excerpt of the transition between the songs, because I think it sounds cool, followed by all of “There Oughta Be a Law.” You can hear the whole album on Bandcamp.

Lords of Outland at 25

Lords of Outland play a house concert Saturday, Dec. 21, at a venue called Sunnyvale — venue details here.

Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland25 Years Under the Mountain (Edgetone, 2019)

romus-25The band has undergone many personnel changes, but the name continuity of the Lords of Outland survives as a bread-crumb trail through time. 25 Years Under the Mountain includes some compositions from the Lords’ back catalog, but it is not a retrospective CD — it’s the latest permutation of the Lords, a quartet with Alex Cohen joining on guitar.

Lords of Outland is a free-jazz collective that also takes cues from the darkness of H.P. Lovecraft; the alternating hopefulness and despair of science fiction; and the joyful open-mindedness of free improvisation. You have to admire saxophonist/leader Rent Romus’ drive, keeping his music and this band going. (He also runs the annual Outsound New Music Summit, which I ended up missing this year. He organizes and runs this thing every year, and I sat out a year from my exhausting duty of sitting and listening.)

Where previous Lords albums dabbled in electronics, 25 Years features Cohen’s prickly, springy guitar (he also plays viola da gamba for the gently free-form sprint “Homeward Bound.”) The rhythm section remains the same as in recent years: Ray Schaeffer on fluid, hardy six-stringed electric bass and Philip Everett adding constructive clatter on drums. You get a taste of their combined freedom and bombast in the intro to “Grown out of Stone:”

 
Lords of Outland has always spread out its influences both toward and away from the jazz tradition. “Systemic Fault is a breathless free-jazz sprint, while “Like tears in ice” has Romus playing in a smoky and even romantic mode. That track jumps straight into the bumpy rhythm of “Ape of God,” colored by standalone thwacks by Everett on drums. (The album includes a second take with fluid drumming that serves as a more conventional free-jazz launching pad.)

 
You can hear more of the album on Bandcamp.

’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)

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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.