Posts filed under ‘shows (past)’

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage

Lisa Mezzacappa performs Glorious Ravage one more time: tonight, Oct. 2, at Brava Theater Center (2181 24th St., San Francisco).

steampunkGlorious Ravage is Lisa Mezzacappa’s “panoramic song cycle,” a set of ambitious tunes inspired by the writings of pioneer women — scientists, explorers, and adventurers.

It might sound incongruous, pitting modern jazz styles against words written a century ago. But with an ace 15-piece band; some thoughtful video from four artists; and Fay Victor on vocals, Mezzacappa has created an exciting an uplifting production.

It really is a production, as I saw on Thursday night. Mezzacappa developed the song cycle during the course of this year, a process that included not only writing and rehearsals, but live previews at the de Young Museum and a research visit to the Louise Arner Boyd archives in Marin. She blogged about it all, and it sounds like it’s been quite a rush for her.

The band combines top-notch musicians from northern and southern California. Alongside a team of Bay Area favorites, it includes Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, and Vinny Golia, along with Nicole Mitchell, a stalwart of Chicago’s AACM scene who now teaches at U.C. Irvine.

Lisa Mezzacappa performing Glorious Ravage, 1 October 2015
Then there’s Fay Victor, who inspired the project after impressing Mezzacappa during a 2011 performance together. Based in New York, Victor sings with a voice like Betty Carter’s but also has a penchant for experimenting. Her albums in the mid-2000s includes elements of psych rock and free improv, and she’s more than willing to experiment with sounds.

The lyrics she’s singing are taken from the writings of women who broke with the customs of the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore, whether for science, for adventure, or “for anything but awaited them in their suffocating Victorian parlors,” as Mezzacappa writes in the show program:

“The fact that there was no contemporary precedent for how they chose to live their lives, and the great lengths they went to live so fully off-script, resonated with me enormously.”

The show got its official debut Sept. 25 at U.C. Irvine, followed by a performance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. The Oct. 1 and 2 shows at Brava Theater might sound a little less prestigious, but it’s a lovely theater with an expansive stage that suits the video projections well.

Some highlights of the music:

“Heat and Hurry” displayed a quick-stepping, sophisticated kind of jazz. It was one of a few songs backed by the cut-out animations of Kathleen Quillian — think Terry Gilliam with less silliness and with varying landscapes in the background (jungle, mountains, Hawaiian lava bed). The song was inspired by world traveler Isabella Bird, who “literally fell ill whenever she returned home to the British Isles of her birth,” as Mezzacappa’s program reads.

“Taxonomical” made use of Victor’s creative use of sounds and inflections, because the lyrics are just scientific names of plants in Greenland. It’s from the journal of Louise Arner Boyd, a biologist who lived in Marin and developed a fascination for the Arctic Circle. Her list made for some creative vocal babbling, after an introductory duet that contrasted eerie laptop sounds by Tim Perkis with some brisk vibraphone statements by Kjell Nordeson.

victoBoyd and Bird showed up again in “Shut Out the Sun,” which set one of Bird’s poems against actual video footage that Boyd took in the Arctic Circle. The song featured swaying horn harmonies and attractive piano chords — and later, a sublime flute solo from Mitchell to go with the ice floes and glaciers of Boyd’s journey.

“Soroche” drew from the weird rivalry of Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman, mountain women who were intent on setting world records and got into some heated arguments in the Scientific American letters-to-the-editor column. Victor read just a few phrases, repeating them and twisting them all about with her voice. Later, Mezzacappa and Dresser got into a brief duet, the two basses battling in a frenzy as if to replicate the argument. That was a fun moment, and Dresser continued playing for an equally fun duet with Victor.

“City of Wonders” closed the show with some upbeat music and somber thoughts. The writings, by Ida Pfeiffer and Marianne North, reflected on the negative aspects of the California gold rush and the carving up of redwood forests, respectively — two subjects familiar to anyone who grew up around here. The bouncy and brisk piano/vibraphone lines soon cut away to a swinging, old-timey jazz theme with some cool solos from John Finkbeiner (guitar) and Dina Maccabee (violin).

With professional lighting by Allen Willner and with Bay Area musician Suki O’Kane controlling the video, Glorious Ravage had the look that a major work deserves. There’s one more chance to catch it. And check out Mezzacappa’s interview with KALW-FM to learn more about the show’s historical aspects.

October 2, 2015 at 2:15 am Leave a comment

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.

But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from Meanwhile, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.

It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.

The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.

Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell.

Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.

I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).

Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.

May 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

Trance Mission Rides Again


A side note to that Fred Frith Trio show back in January …

While I missed Jack o’ the Clock, I did catch the show’s other opening act, a longtime Bay Area favorite called Trance Mission. It’s a world-music kind of trio whose grooves combine a droney sound with danceable beats — insistent music with a relaxed vibe.

Sometimes a quartet, Trance Mission has always featured Stephen Kent on didjeridu and percussion and Beth Custer on clarinets, vocals, and sundry (a bit of trumpet for this particular show, surprisingly enough). The latest version also included Peter Valsamis on the drum kit.

Of course, Kent and Custer have been involved in myriad other projects over the years. Trance Mission was a ’90s thing for both of them, but they still convene the group every now and again. I’d never seen them before that show at Slim’s, where I got a taste of what I’d missed all these years.

The didjeridoo allows for vocals and tongue slaps, so Kent often became the rhythm as well as the backing bass drone, freeing Valsamis to sprinkle the brighter colors of the drum kit. Kent also used a baby cello as an ersatz guitar on a couple of songs, for a different sound and a fun effect.

It was a really good time. I’m glad I finally caught up with them.

Trance Mission Duo (Kent and Custer) will be performing on March 21 at Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St, San Francisco).

Kent will be performing with the Del Sol String Quartet at the Other Minds Festival on March 6, at the SF Jazz Center (201 Franklin Street, San Francisco).

February 22, 2015 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Cheers for Henry Threadgill

Threadgill at Yerba Buena. Via fullyaltered on Instagram.

Threadgill at Yerba Buena. Via fullyaltered on Instagram.

Henry Threadgill didn’t play a note at his recent Yerba Buena Center for the Arts performance, but the audience didn’t mind. He was rewarded with enthusiastic applause before and after his performance as he grinned ear-to-ear.

Threadgill can still play, of course. It’s just that his new septet, Double-Up, puts him in he role of composer and director rather than sax player. It’s not much different from the concert I saw with The Dreamers, a John Zorn band where Zorn composes and conducts, rather than playing.

In concept, Double-Up (two pianos, two saxophones, cello, tuba, and drums) is a tribute to Butch Morris, a friend of Threadgill’s who pioneered conduction, the shaping of orchestral improvisations into cohesive, on-the-spot pieces. But as Threadgill pointed out to journalist Andrew Gilbert, Double-Up isn’t meant to be conduction. Threadgill provides composed charts and is on hand more like a base coach than a conductor.

The applause he received was certainly directed at the performance — two long suites full of life — but it was also a pent-up outpouring for a man who plays out here only rarely, if ever. Threadgill was getting a little extra joy from people like me who were just glad he was there.

Threadgill was happy to be there, too. Minute before opening curtain, he was still wandering the lobby, smiling broadly as he spotted and greeted old friends.

He’d been coaxed to San Francisco by former student Myra Melford and Yerba Buena music curator Isabel Yrigoyen to open the New Frequencies Fest, a three-day celebration of creative jazz. The stage would later be occupied by big-name guests such as Matana Roberts and Satoko Fujii, and also by generous cross-sections of Bay Area talent: Karl Evangelista and Grex; Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch; Melford herself, performing with Joëlle Léandre and Nicole Mitchell; and Ben Goldberg’s Orphic Machine.

Source: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Source: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

But opening night was all Threadgill. It was short — I overheard someone commenting they would have enjoyed hearing a third piece, and I have to agree. But it was grand.

The first piece was a colossal jazz suite. The tonalities had that Threadgill flavor to them, partly through the composing and partly through the use of two low-end players steeped in Threadgill’s music: cellist Christopher Hoffman and tuba player Jose Davila.  The two pianists were allowed nearly free reign, however, so David Virelles and a second pianist (who wasn’t listed in the program) sometimes dipped into small stretches of velvety, lush colors you’d associate more with straightahead jazz. They started the piece with a lengthy free improvisation, just the two of them, each keyboard taking the lead for a long stretch to paint an angular, contemplative canvas.

At shows like this, people struggle with the dichotomy between the jazz listener who applauds the solos and the art patron who stays patiently silent while the artists make their statement. The Yerba Buena audience took a while to decide which way to go. So, as the piano segment gave way to the composed piece, and as Davila took the first solo — some rock solid work on tuba — everyone stayed silent. It wasn’t until later in the piece that we all decided we’d applaud the solos, and the theater warmed up considerably from there.

Threadgill dictated the sequence of solos — I think he might have chosen every soloist, in fact. I remember Curtis Macdonald delivering a particularly rowdy alto sax solo, as if to stir the crowd into action, and Hoffman sawing mightily on the cello. Craig Weinrib’s drum solo, played off of the crowd’s early silence, starting with isolated taps and long pauses before very slowly building into a firestorm.

That first piece had plenty of jazz swing in it — of the Threadgill variety, anyway. The second piece added a dose of academia. It was just a bit slower and followed a more deliberate melodic path, calling upon a different set of instincts for players and listeners alike. It wasn’t an overly difficult piece, just different, an exercise of a different muscle.

What’s interesting is that neither piece felt entirely like a Henry Threadgill piece. Or, more specifically: Double-Up sounds distinctively different from Zooid, Threadgill’s ensemble of the past few years. My guess is that by giving the players such free reign, he aims to create a new sound amalgamated from all their ideas. The group’s personality seemed to pull in different directions at times — that uncomfortable feeling that Piece A and Piece B don’t really mesh to form a suite — but maybe that’s part of the formula.

Double-Up, plus Melford and Yrigoyan. Photo posted by David Bryant (@dblaque_MUSIC) on Twitter.

Double-Up, plus Melford and Yrigoyan. Photo posted by David Bryant (@dblaque_MUSIC) on Twitter.

February 19, 2015 at 11:43 pm 4 comments

Fred Frith Warms Up a New Trio


Glenn, Frith, and Hoopes. Source:

Fred Frith‘s new trio will be touring around Europe late in February. As a prelude, they’ve played a couple of shows here in the Bay Area, including one at Slim’s that I got to see recently.

It’s a long-form improvising trio — you could certainly call it a power trio — with Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. Electronics and loops help the bass and guitar build a screen of lingering sound, often dark and heavy. Listening to Hoopes in the band Eat the Sun was good preparation, actually.

In front of that curtain of sound, each player adds virtuosity to color the piece. The first of three long pieces they played started with a blast zone created by Frith and especially Hoopes, who was sawing away at one high note on the bass. That put Glenn in the spotlight quickly, with fluid drum rolls and high-precision hammering.

Hoopes stayed in a supporting role for a long while before finally taking a lead voice with a thick, bubbling stew of bass soloing. Hoopes is terrific on electric bass, and it’s always a treat to hear him really cut loose. This trio offers him a lot of space to do that, although you get the sense that he directs more energy toward shaping the overall sound.


Hoopes, Glenn, Frith

Of course, Frith contributed too, with many of his usual tools, such as bows and other implements against the guitar strings. Recently, I was reading a critic raving about Frith’s detuning of the guitar during solos — about how he was able to make that “wrong” sound fit just right. I hadn’t thought about that too much, but as Frith untuned his low E string during one span, it struck me that it really was just right and in “tune” with the logic of what he was doing. Frith added a lot of conventional playing as well — crisp and chirpy sounds harkening back to his prog days.

It was a terrific set, although I have to admit I lost the thread at times. The drone or roar of the guitar and bass sometimes overwhelmed the sound for me; there was always something going on underneath it, but sometimes my mind had trouble penetrating that roar. That’s not always a bad thing (“drone” is a legitimate musical form, and this was certainly not a sleepy drone) but I could have used some more dividers in the music. It’s possible I was just too worn out on a Thursday night.

Frith’s choice of bandmates is significant. Like Art Blakey, he’s teaming up with younger musicians to infuse fresh ideas into his music. Glenn and Hoopes are part of a wave of accomplished artists he’s inspired while teaching at Mills College, where he was a mentor not only for improvisers but for songwriters pursuing thoughtful, complex pop/prog ideas — Jack o’ the Clock, the local band I’ve been raving about, being a prime example. (They opened the Slim’s show, but I didn’t make it to the city in time for their set, alas.)

The Frith Trio is going to spend a lot of time in Central/Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary) with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a good chance to see Frith, of course, but also to check out some of the strong talent the Bay Area has been nurturing. Here’s the tour schedule, as found on Hoopes‘ and Frith‘s web sites:

Feb. 19Zagreb, Croatia
Feb. 20Göppingen, Germany
Feb. 21Vienna, Austria
Feb. 22Budapest, Hungary
Feb. 23Bolzano, Italy
Feb. 24Middelburg, Netherlands
Feb. 25Brussels, Belgium
Feb. 26Konstanz, Germany
Feb. 27Berlin, Germany
Feb. 28Dortmund, Germany
March 1Wels, Austria

February 1, 2015 at 11:53 am 1 comment

Bartok at the Deli

greenlief wright bartokI can’t say I’m “into” Bela Bartok, but I tapped into some of the string quartets. I was egged on, unintentionally, by a friend who mistook the stern violin-pulsing intro to King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Part 1” for a Bartok piece. This wasn’t a friend who’d be into King Crimson. I figured I had to check out Bartok.

The string quartets didn’t scream Crimson-ness to me. What Bartok is better known for, apparently, is his use of Hungarian folk idioms. That side is the basis for a duo project that Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright have been working on — two clarinets playing selctions from Bartok’s 44 duets (originally written for violins), adding stretches of solid improvisation.

They’re playing Monday, Nov. 17, at Saul’s Delicatessen in Berkeley. It’s a restaurant that hosts live klezmer music regularly — and Greenlief and Wright have played their Bartok music there before.

I saw them perform some of these pieces in April, at Studio Grand in Oakland. It was a fun session, and relaxed. Greenlief and Wright had the whole book of 44 duets ready to pick from. Between pieces, they’d briefly huddle and pick which of the short duets they’d string together to form the next song.

What few notes I scribbed down are lost to time, but what I remember is that the set was fun. You really could hear the elements of folk music in the themes, and Greenlief and Wright used those springboards to spin long improvisation, wringing the jazz out of Bartok’s notes.

Given the amount of variation that’s possible with this project, it’s good to see them performing it multiple times. Monday’s show will be their last performance in 2014, though.

November 16, 2014 at 10:47 pm Leave a comment

Human Feel in Santa Cruz

Human Feel at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa CruzHuman Feel got a predictably enthusiastic response at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, thanks to the turnout of fanboys (and girls) like me. But they also won over the Santa Cruz regulars and Kuumbwa members who’d come not knowing what to expect. I heard at least a couple of them walking away happy, in a chattering and giddy mood.

The band’s music, full of sharp-angled melodies and spans of loud improv abandon — certainly doesn’t fit the normal jazz arc, which is what attracted me to the band in the first place. But their tunes often have pleasant and traceable themes, and the band performed with convincing punch and verve. I’m sure they made a few new fans that night, and they didn’t disappoint the old ones.

The set was good, of course, and packed with energy and sweat, but Andrew D’Angelo‘s stage banter won the crowd over, too. He’s got good stage presence, but he was also gifted with some material in the form of a three-hour flight delay out of Seattle and a couple of lost bags. Airline troubles are nothing new to veteran musicians, but they still provide good stories to tell on stage.

Live soundcheck.

Live soundcheck.

The upshot was that the band, minus Kurt Rosenwinkel‘s guitar pedals and Jim Black‘s drumsticks, got into Santa Cruz just after the designated 7:00 p.m. start time. They rushed through a “live” sound check, testing out borrowed gear while we in the crowd finished our dinners and desserts.

As reward for our patience, we got D’Angelo’s spasmodic sax energy, the heavier guitar-hero side of Rosenwinkel (who spends most of the time in the background with this band, but it’s a hard-working, space-filling background) and of course Jim Black’s drumming, which quite a few people came for, judging by the crowd response. I chose to sit on Black’s side of the stage, so he drowned out the others sometimes (which is why I don’t have much to say about how Chris Speed sounded) but that was a conscious tradeoff, and I wasn’t the only one making it. We got to savor Black’s shapeshifting grooves, full of explosions, torrents, and subtle clinks and clanks.

They tried something really different on “Numer Ology,” a piece D’Angelo said was inspired by cosmic questions about the meaning of existence and the arbitrary nature of fate. Most people took it as a joke, but D’Angelo was diagnosed with brain cancer seven years ago and defeated it without chemo or radiation therapy, so these questions mean a lot to him.

The song consisted of short phrases and short improvisations, all separated by long, weighty pauses. It was at one highbrown and good-humored — and then at one point, D’Angelo picked up the mic and cued us to shout out our meaning-of-the-universe theories after the next phrase. Apparently most crowds just blurt it all out at once; we kind of did it one at a time, classroom-style. It wouldn’t have sounded great on a record, but people got into it.

If Human Feel has anything like a hit single, it’s “Sich Reped,” D’Angelo’s poking, sharp-angled 7/8 tune, and that was their closer. Most of the tune went by at a slightly slower pace than on the album Welcome to Malpesta, making for a sound that was still fun but not as jabbing as it could have been — until the end, when D’Angelo and the others opened up the throttle and poured it on. It was a great crowd-pleaser, and of course it got them an encore — a piece that D’Angelo dedicated to the airline they’d flown and that opened with a roaring, screaming improvisation.

Despite having four successful careers to juggle, Human Feel has now gotten together for two post-’90s albums — Galore, and the soon-to-be-released new album. I treated this show as my only chance to see the band, but now I’ve got my fingers crossed for the future.

July 6, 2014 at 12:03 am Leave a comment

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