RIP, Dr. Tim Smith

I was saddened last month to hear that Tim Smith, the brain and heart of the band Cardiacs, had died.

Rhodri Marsden wrote a touching and succinct tribute for The Guardian. Cardiacs’ stage persona was built around a tyrannical Tim who himself was a slave of the shadowy Alphabet Business Concern, but as Marsden writes:

His bandmates speak of a generous hippy, a man who made everyone feel good about themselves. He was no extrovert, but was certainly a magnet. He ran an open house, welcomed you in, and offered limitless reserves of enthusiasm and support. He always said that his favourite music was his friends’ music. He’d go to your gigs, and he’d stand at the front.

I owe local musicians Amy X. Neuburg and Polly Moller for introducing me to Cardiacs, on separate occasions. I believe they also indoctrinated Moe Staiano, and his social media posts helped get me hooked, too.

I could link to any number of Cardiacs songs (R.E.S., Tarred and Feathered, Come Back Clammy Lammy, Flap Off You Beak, Is This the Life) or recount the cover band called ReCardiacs Fly.

But here’s something I didn’t know, and perhaps you didn’t either: Tim Smith received an honorary doctorate from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in late 2018. He was honored in person, in Scotland, at a ceremony that included speeches and lots of music — and they captured it on film, thankfully:

Tim went through an inconceivable ordeal with dystonia — a condition involving, among other things, continual involuntary muscle contractions — for something like 12 years following a stroke. His mind was still sharp, by all accounts, leaving him a prisoner in his body that entire time. In a 2017 interview, he described it as: “Imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you, with electrical pulses going all the time.”

He could only communicate by pointing to letters on a board, and yet he was still thinking in sentences like that. Imagine.

In contrast to his stage persona, Tim was apparently a kindly soul, making it all the more sad that so many people outright loathed the band. Their catalog has been available online for some time, and it’s now on Bandcamp as well. It’s not too late to drop them a little love.

Eddie Gale Memorial Livestream: Saturday, August 8

I think I saw Eddie Gale perform only once or twice, which is sad. I did get to interview him on the radio, however, and while I don’t remember the details, the impression in my head is that he was engaging and entertaining, and that we ran long.

It’s always been a point of pride for me that Eddie was from the South Bay, and that he carried the title of San Jose’s Official Ambassador of Jazz, bestowed for real by then-mayor Norm Mineta. Eddie Gale passed away on July 10, and as you can see from the tributes posted to forevermissed.com, he was generous with his time and energy and was a mentor to many a Bay Area musician. (WARNING: That link might launch with audio playing.)

Do yourself a favor and check out his albums. He might be best known for having appeared on Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, but Eddie also blazed his own path as a leader. His albums Ghetto Music and Black Rhythm Happening take free jazz in a spiritual direction heavy in civil rights activism, with lots of revolutionary choral vocals. Around the turn of the century, he frequently played with the funky jam band Mushroom. His recurring band in modern years was called the Inner Peace Jazz Orchestra, a reflection of the kind of world Eddie was striving for.

There will be a memorial livestream for Eddie on Saturday, August 8, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. The forevermissed link above will have the link.

Help the Starry Plough

Having written about Barbès last week, it occurred to me that there are venues here at home that could use help too…

It’s not as though I’ve built a thorough list, but the Starry Plough in Berkeley came to mind quickly. Over the years, they opened their doors to creative music, willing to occasionally put experimental jazz or rock acts in front their usual roots-music and pub-music audiences. (A few examples: Toychestra, Amy X. Neuburg, Surplus 1980, Jack o’ the Clock.) Economic reality being what it is, those shows became more infrequent over the past decade, but I still remember the Plough fondly and still checked their listings once in a while, just in case.

They serve food but have no outdoor seating, so they’ll have to subsist on take-out for a long while. Small bars and clubs will be among the last businesses to reopen, and the Plough has set its GoFundMe rather high in realization of this.

There are so many other venues in a similar plight, and even if you have the resources, it’s difficult to support all of them. I’m just mentioning this one for the same reason Brooklynites are banding together for Barbès: The Starry Plough is a source of community, and I’ve had some really good times there. Maybe there’s a similar venue in your life. Understandably, not everyone has the means, but if you do, at least consider dropping them the price of the beer and burger you would have gotten.

Photo via thestarryplough.com.

Songs for Barbès

Here’s something fun: New York City venue Barbès posted a month’s worth of video performances from musicians, little love notes to celebrate the bar’s 18th birthday (on May 1, 2020) and maybe draw a little attention to the Barbès fundraiser.

A jewel of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Barbès hosts a lot of music that would land in the “world” category. Eastern European or Latin American or African, traditional or modern, folky or jazzy or even classical — every permutation seems to come up. They also host frequent shows out of New York’s avant-jazz scene, which is how I got introduced. The bar is a tight squeeze on a crowded Saturday night, but it’s a cozy, welcoming spot, and for my friends who lived in that neighborhood for a few years, it was an anchor.

The homemade videos are all sheltered-in-place and often charming, sometimes including spoken well-wishes to Barbès. Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey (who I believe are married) stitched together two improvisations for their four-minute tribute.

Jenny Scheinman, who was part of the early-’00s Bay Area scene, plays a friendly “Little Calypso” on violin. It still amazes me how much sound a violin can produce with so little actual motion.

The New Mellow Edwards, a quartet led by trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, recorded separately to produce their piece. Watch bassist Trevor Dunn — the look he gives to camera at the end is perfect.

Ben Monder contributes “Never Let Me Go.” The first comment on the YouTube page refers to Monder’s “impossible” playing, which to me is the perfect word. I’m impressed with the harmonic vocabulary of jazz guitarists in particular, but Monder is other-dimension-ly — I’m thinking especially of the gorgeous, baffling, dense chording on parts of his 1998 trio album Flux (with Drew Gress on bass on Jim Black on drums).

Finally, the ensemble called Anbessa Orchestra made a slickly edited video of their song “Lions.”

And so on. There are a few dozen videos stacked up on Barbès’ YouTube site, and they went along with a GoFundMe campaign that was successful but could still use a little more love.

A Cavalcade of Solos

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While music sales can’t make up for the loss of gigs, recordings are the main product musicians can offer right now. Assuming social distancing stays in place for months to come — which it should — what happens when the backlog of ensemble/band album releases dries up?

A pop band can record an album piecemeal in home studios. But jazz and improv, even chamber music, rely more on the artistry and strength of real-time interaction. Track-by-track recording doesn’t seem ideal. It’s certainly possible, as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra shows with “Quarantine Blues.” Likewise, group performances (and therefore group recordings) over the internet are certainly possible. Mark Dresser has been researching that angle for more than a decade with his Telematics project, and technology has largely caught up to the ideas he was first envisioning.

But the more likely route for most improv-heavy, free-form experimental music, especially given the budgets involved, is a burst of solo recordings.

It’s already started. Saxophonist Steve Lehman fired an early salvo with Xenakis and the Valedictorian, recorded literally in his car. (His wife, filmmaker Olivia Newman, caught some of the magic on video.) As Nate Chinen explains on his WBGO blog, Lehman’s EP one of several solo/duo projects that Pi Recordings plans to issue in the coming weeks, with all proceeds going directly to the artists.

On the local front, clarinetist Ben Goldberg is recording an ongoing Plague Diary, measuring 56 tracks and counting. Kyle Bruckmann likewise recorded a quarantine sketchbook called Draußen ist Feindlich. Both are available on Bandcamp.

 

Tim Berne even recorded his first-ever solo album, Sacred Vowels.


Of course, solo performance is an established genre of its own. Just about every free-improv performer puts out at least one solo record, it seems. And computers and looping can turn live solo performance into a multi-layered experience; Goldberg started doing that with even the earliest Plague Diary tracks.

Stray thought: On the rock/pop end of the spectrum, music is recorded piecemeal in the first place, so it’s easy to envision a band recording all their parts at home and engineering them into a normal-sounding album. What if you tried the same thing with free improvisation — passing a recording from one musician to the next, layering something together “exquisite corpse” style? There must be a recorded example of this out there somewhere, but whether there is or not, it would be fun to see someone try.

Photo: kylejglenn on Unsplash.

SF Tape Music + sfSound

The San Francisco Tape Music Festival runs January 10-12 at the Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street, San Francisco).

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Source: Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

For Bay Area creative music, the first big happening of the calendar year tends to be the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. “Tape music” refers to an early type of electronic music that wasn’t performed live, but was instead committed to reel-to-reel tape. The pieces today are digital recordings, played to the Tape Music Festival audience across 24 speakers in near-total darkness (minus any legally mandated EXIT signs). It’s an audio adventure.

Sunday’s program (7:00 p.m.) features pieces that combine pre-recorded parts with live musicians (presumably not in total darkness). One example would be “Clarinet Threads,” a 1985 composition by Denis Smalley (below). It’s a format that’s fairly common, but I think it’s a first for the Tape Music Festival.

Smalley’s piece is on the Sunday program, along with new or recent pieces by sfSound members Matt Ingalls and Kyle Bruckmann and the world premiere of local composer Ken Ueno’s “Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes.” There will also be two 1964 pieces by Mario Davidovsky, who died in August and whose composing advanced the musician + electronics format.

Here’s the complete Sunday program, taken from the sfSound site:

Sunday January 12, 2020 (7:00pm)
a special 3-set concert of works for instruments and fixed media featuring sfSoundGroup

KEN UENO – Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes (2020)
– interval –
DENIS SMALLEY – Clarinet Threads (1985)
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY – Synchronisms #2 (1964)
MATT INGALLS & SFSOUND – Blue Sedan (2020)
– interval –
JONTY HARRISON – Force Fields (2006)
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY – Synchronisms #3 (1964)
KYLE BRUCKMANN – Clutterfields (2019)

A few other program items that stand out at first glance:

  • Very classic pieces by Pierre Schaeffer (1948!) and and Toru Takemitsu (1956) (Friday 8:30 p.m., Saturday 9:30 p.m.)
  • A 1992 piece by Pauline Oliveros, who was feted at the 2017 festival (Friday)
  • A 2011 piece by Ken Nordine, who died in February (Saturday, 7:00 p.m.)
  • A piece by bran(…)pos, a personal favorite and a Day of Noise veteran (Friday).

The complete four-show program is here.

Steve Dalachinsky Tribute and a History Lesson

Downtown Music Gallery, in Manhattan, hosted a concert in honor of poet Steve Dalachinsky, shortly after he died in September. The event was lovingly filmed by Robert O’Haire.

While the music and poetry are good, the most valuable parts for me were the brief talks by DMG proprietor Bruce Lee Gallanter about Steve and the original Knitting Factory, the nexus for the “downtown” avant-jazz scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Skip ahead to the 26:30 mark for Gallanter’s story of one of the greatest solos ever taken.

I came to the scene only at the tail end of that era, and while I knew Dalachinsky’s name, I didn’t fully appreciate his place in the canon. Drawn into the music as a teenager after hearing Cecil Taylor, Dalachinsky was more than a fan; he chronicled the scene through his stream-of-consciousness poetry and also served as a friend, critic, and collaborator. I can see why he’s missed.

KZSU’s Day of Noise: Saturday, February 9, 2019

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It’s here again: The KZSU Day of Noise, 24 hours of live noise/improv performances, broadcast across the free airwaves, streamed over the Interwebs, and stored for posterity on YouTube.

From midnight to midnight (Pacific time) on Saturday, February 9, 2019, musicians will be performing live at the KZSU studio, playing laptop electronics, analog electronics, acoustic instruments, electric guitars, and whatever other noisemakers they decide to bring. Artists will perform for 30 or 60 minutes apiece. See the full lineup here.

In the Bay Area, tune in to KZSU on the good old-fashioned radio at 90.1 FM. Elsewhere in the world, stream the show live at kzsulive.stanford.edu. We’ll probably have a live video feed running as well (in the past, it’s been on YouTube).

The last few Days of Noise have been archived on the KZSU site in both audio and video forms, so you have plenty of material to get acclimated for the big event.

We have loads of fun putting this on every year, and I’m so grateful to the KZSU staffers who make it happen. Abra masterminds the whole thing — many thanks to her for keeping the idea alive — while Smurph does the bulk of the audio engineering and Jin documents the event in video and photos. Other DJs like me chip in where they can, moving gear, delivering food, giving directions over the phone. And the musicians have loads of fun. Please do tune in, any way you can.

I’ve posted Day of Noise photos a few times before. Have a look:

2017
2013
2012

RIP Alvin Fielder

I came to know drummer Alvin Fielder’s name through his improvised-jazz work with pianist Joel Futterman and saxophonist Ike Levin, as several of those CDs crossed KZSU’s transom in the early 2000s. Later, Bay Area bassist Damon Smith moved to Texas along with his Balance Point Acoustics record label, released a series of recordings involving Fielder. 

Here they are in a robust duo improvisation:

And while I’m there, here’s a look at Fielder’s quiet side, backing up Smith on the Johnny Dyani composition “Roots” and taking a long solo at the end:

But of course Fielder, who died this month at 83, had an accomplished career long before I “met” him. He was a co-founder of the AACM and appeared on one of its first albums, Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound in 1966. He stayed in his native South rather than doing the free-jazz thing of traveling Europe but remained active, recording with saxophonist Kidd Jordan for more than 30 years. This 2013 release on NoBusiness Records features the two of them in concert with bassist Peter Kowald:

He also had a long association with trumpeter Dennis González and his sons Aaron and Stephen González. They played on A Measure of Vision (Clean Feed, 2007), technically Fielder’s only recording as a leader — although it’s no stretch to call him the co-leader of the many improvises sessions he recorded. Most of the album puts Fielder in a trio with with Chris Parker (piano) and Dennis González (trumpet). “Max-Well” is a bright Fielder composition quoting “A Love Supreme” and, with its free use of snare accents, probably nodding toward Max Roach as well (Fielder cited Roach as a key early influence), while “The Cecil Tayler – Sunny Murray Dancing Lesson” is a beautiful dirge with flowering piano and, in place of a bass, Fielder’s toms. (Spotify login required to hear entire tracks — apologies for that.)

Writer Clifford Allen is a longtime champion of Fielder’s and published a lengthy interview with him on the All About Jazz site in 2007. Allen apparently introduced Fielder to Damon Smith. It’s through Allen’s blog, “Ni Kantu,” that I found this: a fiery 1976 TV appearance by the Improvisational Arts Quintet, a band that included Jordan and Fielder. Their recorded output is limited to one obscure LP (1983) and one side of a Rounder Records compilation (1988), so it’s nice to have this document available.

To end on a cathartic note, here’s a live take on “Max-Well” with Kidd Jordon on sax and London Branch (of the original Improvisational Arts Quintet) as one of two bassists. It’s from a 2009 tribute to Fielder in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

Death of a Piano

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 8.57.47 AMMoe! Staiano is reviving “Piece No. 1: Death of a Piano,” a piece that really does culminate in the destruction of a piano, via sledgehammer. He’ll be talking about it on the radio Thursday night, Aug. 9, in a interview on KFJC sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Pacific time, during Max Level’s show.

As the name implies, “Death of a Piano” was Moe!’s first long-form composition for a large ensemble. I can’t remember if he was calling the group Moekestra at the time, but that’s the name that eventually stuck. Incarnations of the piece that I’ve seen have featured lots of electric guitars, along with a smorgasbord of other instruments — horns, strings, drums. The upcoming performance sounds like it could be different, as it features The San Francisco Third Eye Orchestra Long Tone Choir using pitched percussion.

The performance will be on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8:00 p.m. at First Church of the Buzzard (2601 Adeline St., Oakland).

The piano above looks small, but other performances have included grand pianos or upright pianos. It all depends on what kind of decrepit, disposable piano is available.

Regardless of size, these pianos are pretty darned resilient and take longer than you’d expect to dismantle. The soundboard, in particular, doesn’t always come apart. And surprisingly, the orchestra can overwhelm the sound of the sledgehammer. But there’s always some fun destruction to be had. I still have a light piece of wood that I keep at my desk — a piano-key hammer from a past performance.

The first time I saw Moe! perform, he took a sledgehammer to a TV set, sending powdered glass all over the stage to end his show. Afterward, he thanked the audience and noted, “I always clean up after myself” — which he did, diligently tidying up the stage. Likewise, Moe! wears safety goggles while attacking a piano. It’s a responsible kind of destruction. I like that.