The Rumble of Euphoniums

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Jeffrey Lievers, setting up

I left the Luggage Store Gallery with the rumble of euphoniums in my ears. Brian Pedersen and Courtney Sexton had heavily processed the instruments through microphones and pedals, creating a deep-tissue bass rumble. Jeffrey Lievers added more electronics, a white-noise sheen using the other players as source material.

This is the band Dancin’ Baby, a quartet completed by Kit Young projecting abstract analog video onto the stage. On this night in May, they played a single long-form piece, a wall of noise maybe an hour long.

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Courtney Sexton

The euphonium looks like a small tuba, with four valves instead of three. But of course, we didn’t hear any conventional euphonium playing. Sexton played a euphonium strapped to an E-flat alto horn, with both mouthpieces close together so that he could feed them with the same breath, doubling the foghorn blasts. Pedersen used a saxophone mouthpiece on his euphonium — and, later, on a trumpet and an actual saxophone.

And there were drums. The drum kit was Lievers’ primary instrument, when he wasn’t at the electronics console, and Pedersen sometimes pounded a tympani to add to the rumble.

Dancin’ Baby creates a thick lava flow of drone and doom. Bits of free jazz popped up from Pedersen’s horns and Liever’s drumming, but really it was all about keeping the wave of sound going — to the point where the drum kit sometimes sounded frail against the storm. The drums got their moments though — such as as an effective blast timed with Pedersen’s first, shrieking notes on the saxophone.

The long-form piece never got quiet but did have moments of evenness, where the rumble settled into low tones and opened the atmosphere for the next phase. Throughout the show, analog video feedback artist Kit Young covered the band in abstract psychedelic projections, colors crawling with oversaturation.

You can taste the noise for yourself on Bandcamp. Pedersen also performs with free jazz unit Key West, while both Lievers and Sexton are members of Extra Action Marching Band.

Motoko Honda at CJC, Berkeley

Previously, I had only heard the experimental side of Motoko Honda’s music. That was in Los Angeles, where I’d seen her perform live in the improvised setting of Polarity Taskmasters, a quartet co-led by Emily Hay on flute and vocals.

But Honda has a classical background and a rigorous interest in jazz, and those sides take the fore with her band, Simple Excesses. The music is genteel enough to fit the programming at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory, where Honda’s band was presented recently by the Northern California nonprofit Jazz in the Neighborhood, but it also had exploratory and subversive sides — creative fusion at work.

Late in the set, a piece called “Umba” really caught my attention. I remember Honda hammering away at fast triplets and continuing that pattern during Wright’s solo — manic stuff, until it ran into a shift in mood. This video excerpt, from a different concert in Los Angeles, must begin after that shift, but it gives you a feel for Honda’s skill at scattery jazz spontaneity applied with classical precision.

Getting back to the Berkeley show: Cory Wright provided a lead voice on a battery of woodwinds — saxes and clarinets, but also flute. One piece early in the first set combined piano and harmonized flute in a fast-running river of notes — a nice effect, sonically, and chiseled out with precision.

Like Wright, Jordan Glenn on drums was a familiar face that was good to see. (I haven’t been out to many shows in the past year or so.) He played a support role loyally, adding different shades of color and a spark of personality to each track. His spotlight moment came on “The Jumping Mouse,” the closer, where he and Honda dueled in a joint solo that had them bounding rhythms off one another with increasing intensity.

I hadn’t heard bassist Miles Wick before, but he was a strong presence throughout both sets. He got a long solo during the opening piece, full of rubbery melody; maybe it was the strength of that solo that prodded me to keep him in focus for most of the show.

Honda’s brand of jazz comes with a firm grip and confident strides in her chording and soloing, but we also got generous samples of her traditional classical side, the kind of piano evoking images of gentle snowfalls or wide, quiet fields. I’m thinking especially of one emotional piece about her late music teacher.

Jazz in the Neighborhood also supports emerging artists, granting them a stipend and a chance to perform with the concert artists. Under those auspices, violinist Eva Piontkowski sat in on a couple of songs, adding the airy melody that a violin can offer but also showing some edgy creativity in her soloing. She also got to play a challenging duet with Honda: a graphical score, around which they built a piece that was warm and lyrical but far from sappy. It later turned out this was Piontkowski’s first attempt at playing a graphical score, and she’d received no prior instruction — which is a legitimate and, if you think about it, once-in-a-lifetime way to perform this music.

Jazz and the Beginning of the Universe

Something interesting has been happening this year at Bird & Beckett, a bookstore in San Francisco’s tranquil Excelsior neighborhood. Lisa Mezzacappa‘s latest sextet has been running an extended workshop, putting on jazz salons every couple of months around a new set of material. It’s going to culminate in a two-set performance of the polished pieces on Nov. 3.

The songs are based on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a clutch of stories reimagining cosmology in Calvino’s fantastical way. Based on Mezzacappa’s descriptions and one passage she read aloud, the stories are both philosophical and whimsical, sometimes knowingly absurd.

It’s the latest in a series of terrific theme-based projects by Mezzacappa. In 2017, she released avantNOIR (Clean Feed), cool and jazzy pieces inspired by Dashiell Hammett. Glorious Ravage, based on the journals of 19th-century female explorers, was a spellbinding live performance that was eventually captured on CD (New World, 2017).

The sextet for Cosmicomics is a crew who have worked with Mezzacappa and one another for years: Aaron Bennett (sax), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums), Tim Perkis (electronics), Mark Clifford (vibes), and Mezzacappa on bass. These are springy, dancing free-jazz compositions with strong themes and plenty of room for exploration. The vibes add shimmering atmosphere, and Perkis’ laptop sounds slide into the music naturally, whether as accompaniment or soloing.

There’s an abstract element to setting written-word “moods” to music, but Calvino’s stories gave Mezzacappa some hooks to follow literally. “All at One Point” (and you’ll have to forgive me if I’m getting the story titles or plots mixed up) supposes that before the big bang, when all of the universe was condensed into a zero-dimensional dot, all of the people were living together in that one point. Don’t worry about the physics; this is a fairy tale! Anyway, it’s a crowded place, but one popular, beautiful woman comes up with the idea of spreading out, to create space. And they do — hence the big bang — but no one ever sees the woman again.

Musically, this gets realized with a single note played by band members in unison. Then they gradually diverge, matching the concept of the universe separating, creating freedom while losing the comfortable order of the single point.

Another of the stories concerns three particles endlessly falling in the pre-matter void of the universe. Mezzacappa read a passage that pointed out the particles could, in fact, be rising instead of falling — who’s to say, considering there’s no universe? The story is a love triangle, with the narrator particle dreading that he might be falling away from his would-be mistress. Mezzacappa turned this into a trio improv game of pursuit and pursuers.

Other songs follow a more conventional jazzy flow, as with “The Soft Moon” in the video above. It’s a bit light, a bit swingy, a bit off-center. If I remember it right, the namesake story is based on the “theory” that the moon is a thick semifluid, and portions of it occasionally glop down onto Earth to form things like the continents.

The only Calvino I’ve managed to read is Invisible Cities, but that gave me a good feel for his imagination. He’s way out there, but with a matter-of-fact voice that’s almost folksy, miles away from the usual tones of sci-fi or fantasy. I’d sought out Calvino because so many musicians seemed to be dedicating pieces to him — Ken Vandermark, among them — and I can see why his voice, like an Alexander Calder sculpture, would be inspiring to artists of any stripe.

Mezzacappa’s next Bird & Beckett performance will be on Thursday, Sept. 13.

Beat Kitchen

Back in May, I found time in Chicago to check out the weekly music happening at Beat Kitchen, a friendly dive restaurant well northwest of the tiresome Magnificent Mile area. A singer-songwriter type with a decent following was playing in the basement. But I was there for the upstairs jazz show — with Jim Baker (piano/electronics), Ed Wilkerson (sax), Brian Sandstrom (bass), and Steve Hunt (drums).

The group is called Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and it’s a rotating-cast show that Baker brings to Beat Kitchen every Monday night. Here’s an example of them in a mellower moment, with Mars Williams on sax:

 
There’s a slightly more intense video available with better sound, but it’s filmed in what I assume is the Beat Kitchen’s basement space. I wanted to provide a taste of what the upstairs is like. It appears to be a kitchen and small restaurant space — maybe even a former studio apartment — with stools and chairs scattered about. Only a handful of us were in the audience, and the waitress downstairs seemed pretty happy when I said I was there for the jazz show.

IMG_3840 beat kitchen cutExtraordinary Popular Delusions released at least one CD on Okka Disk (2007), based on compositions, but the M.O. for these shows appears to be long-form improvisation. I got upstairs just as the band was reaching a crescendo — not a super frenzy but definitely a high energy point. Wilkerson was dealing on sax, Baker splashing with abandon at the digital piano.

They ended up playing one long piece. One of the cooldown phases dropped into a piano-drums duet, with chording from Baker that could have been mistaken for a jazz ballad. Sandstrom’s acoustic bass work was something to savor, but soon he switched to electronic guitar effects while Baker moved over to his analog synthesizer and its impossible tangle of cables. Hunt’s drums kept the pace brisk throughout.

Wilkerson later contributed some popping, clicking acoustic guitar, and Sandstrom moved to an amplified toy guitar (or possible a ukelele; it was hard to tell in the dark).

Even though it’s predictable that the energy would rise up to a climax, they did it in a way that was miraculous and beautiful. Piano and drums were cooking — and then the acoustic bass came back in, pushing the intensity up several notches. Hunt locked into an almost swingy non-groove, egging the others to ratchet it up even more. Wilkerson let the energy build and build, then made his grand entrance with passionate overblown wails on the tenor sax, a clarion call, before launching into big, throaty tenor-sax riffs and calls.

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Long notes from Wilkerson signaled the end, and as the sound settled back into silence, Baker started choosing chords in sympathy with Wilkerson — and the music came to a peaceful stop, as if it were meant to do that all along.

The players agreed that was a perfect ending, and opted not to play another piece. That was the right call — everything clicked, in a way that doesn’t always happen, not even for a band of this caliber.

Finding this kind of music is always a challenge. Avant Music News is a good resource, as it reprints some of the local calendars around the world. And in the Bay Area, we still have the Bayimproviser site and accompanying Transbay Calendar app.

A Night at the Octopus

IMG_3464 dialectic imagination cropI did make it up to Oakland for the Dialectical Imagination show that took place the day after Christmas. The Octopus Literary Salon is a small place, with a capacity of maybe a few dozen in SRO conditions, but when it fills up, as it did on this night, it makes for a cozy, lively atmosphere. Certainly a lot of people were friends and family of the musicians, but that’s OK — it’s community, and it felt good.

Dialectical Imagination is the duo of Eli Wallace on piano and Rob Pumpelly on drums, building grand towers of classical and jazz. In support of their second album of 2017, they played three long compositions, filling the little space with sound.

The first included a row of sleigh bells as an instrument, kind of a nod to the season. The piece maintained a highbrow, regal sound, taking a stance of grace and nobility.

 
If that first piece came from one direction — from a place of grace and nobility — the second, “Hatch,” seemed to come from all angles at once. It was more aggressive and featured a powerful drum solo, where Wallace got up from the piano, hopping and dancing in place while shaking bells madly, his hair disheveled from the beanie he’d been wearing.

They closed with a song that included some lovely and borderline new agey melody — but with enough intensity to be Not Safe for the Hallmark Network. Lots of chromatic soloing that veered off the rails.

One of the opening acts was Wallace’s Brooklyn roommate, saxophonist Ben Cohen, fronting a trio calling itself 1_lu_1. Cohen and a guitarist fronted the music, but I found myself really impressed by the drummer. His style looked physically awkward at first, but he did just fine and brought a good flow to the music. The individual choices made by Cohen and the guitarist didn’t always work for me, but even at those moments, the trio melded well, making for some satisfying improvisations.

Solo electric guitarist Jack Radsliff, from Eugene, Oregon, led off. He played pretty, melodic pieces augmented by some loops — all of it stemming from some involved, fancy fingerwork. His short set held the audience’s attention and was a nice, relaxed way to kick things off.

You can get a taste of Cohen in a polished trio on the album Viriditas (check out “Front Country”), but this live duo track with drummer Tim Cohen is closer to what we heard at the Octopus:

 
Radsliff, meanwhile, has an ensemble album called Migration Patterns. Here’s the track “The Wick:”


 

NYC Part 2: Strings & Halvorson

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Ha-Yang Kim, at the Irvine Music Festival, 2015.

In February 2018, The Stone will end its run at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. Programs will apparently continue elsewhere, but the cozy little black box (a friend of mind considers it stifling, actually) will be given up. I assume it’s the usual gentrification story, with the landlord having found a more profitable use for the lot.

I don’t get to pick and choose my visits to The Stone. Usually, it’s a matter of dropping in during the one evening I have free, and seeing what’s going on. This time, during my July visit, it was an improv session with three strings players.

They included Miya Masaoka, which was a treat. I’d seen her perform many times when she lived in the Bay Area, and I’ve appreciated the daring approach she takes to creating new music and to advancing the range of the koto, the Japanese floor harp. Her jazz album, Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997) is a lost masterpiece, and I’ve been meaning to write something about her latest classical release, Triangle of Resistance (Innova, 2016). She’ll be back in the Bay Area for an Aug. 20 reunion of the trio Maybe Monday, with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs.

The session was led by cellist Ha-Yang Kim, who was finishing a week-long residency at The Stone, and was fleshed out by Stefan Poetzch on violin.

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Miya Masaoka, from a 2016 Vimeo video of a piece called “Stemming,” using a setup similar to what she had at The Stone.

They played two improvisations. The first, longer one — probably about 40 minutes — was less focused and took longer to really coalesce. I did enjoy the melding of sounds, as the use of amplification sometimes made it hard to tell which instrument was creating which part, especially when it came to the koto and violin and the use of electronics. Masaoka also brought an array of percussive toys, sometimes nicely augmenting the group structure, sometimes creating a distraction.

But it was all in earnest. One thing about live improvisation is that you can gauge the performers’ reactions and feel almost like a participant (really more an eavesdropper) in the creative process. It makes for a more sympathetic listening experience.

The second piece, maybe 15 minutes long, was actually more successful and easier for me, as a listener, to lock into. This might have been because the performers no longer felt the pressure to get particular instruments, techniques, or sounds into the mix. Sometimes, a long improvisation feels like it carries that pressure — you sense the players trying to find a spot for every horn or every percussive device, much like a baseball manager trying to get every player into the game.

Any feelings like that were used up in the first piece — and maybe, just maybe, the players were a little bit spent as well. Either way, they chose to stick with ideas for longer stretches. While I enjoyed the opening piece, I got more entwined with the second.

I had Tuesday evening free, and while another trip to The Stone wouldn’t have been bad (it was the start of Kevin Norton’s residency, I think), Mary Halvorson was bringing her octet to the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard is always a pricey trek but with good reason, when the music is this good.

While I can’t name them off the top of my head, several recognizable numbers from Halvorson’s albums appeared, especially from Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016, reviewed here.) The band was positioned in pretty much the arrangement you see in the video below, with Halvorson and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn both sitting and virtually invisible to a lot of the audience.

I was OK with that. The four horn players, each bandleaders in their own right, stood tall front-and-center.

I remember enjoying the contrast between the saxophonists — Jon Irabagon (alto) with his fluid style informed by the jazz tradition but peppered with skronks and squeals, and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor) spinning tight patterns built from sharp turns and rapid-fire pronouncements.

I’d never seen bassist Chris Lightcap live, and I found myself paying a lot of attention to him, not just during bass solos but also during ensemble passages. I liked his choices for enhancing the melodies and solos.

The set, filled with mid-length pieces (modest song lengths have been a hallmark of Halvorson’s groups) got a warm reception from a full house, as you’d expect. This being a midweek show, we got the opportunity to stay for the second set, free of cover charge. It was a blast, and I was even able to move forward to a seat with an occasional view of Halvorson and her guitar.

A really nice New York trip, all told.

NYC Part 1: Clarinets

Had it really been five years since I last visited New York City? Feels about right.

I’ve had family members living in Brooklyn for at least the past decade, but sadly, the thing that really gets me out to the city is work. So this trip, like its predecessors, was a whirlwind. The subway is convenient and cheap but not particularly fast, so it takes effort to make it to events on time. It’s worth the sweat and the energy drain.

IMG_3009 novik dtmgallery 300xI arrived in Manhattan late on a Sunday afternoon, with barely enough time to catch the end of a free show at Downtown Music Gallery, the store that’s been a mandatory stop on every visit. DMG hosts a free set every Sunday, but I’d never seen one, since I tend to start my east-coast trips on Mondays.

DMG is also well off the subway routes, down in Chinatown between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. After checking into my hotel, I grabbed a cab, willing to pay the extra cash for the sake of taking the FDR expressway directly downtown.

I arrived for the tail end of a clarinet trio of Guillermo Gregorio, Aaron Novik, and Stan Zenkoff. The lights were down, with the audience of about 10 people seated in tiny chairs filling the browsing aisles.

One of the clarinet sounds I enjoy the most is the low burble, a quiet, mid-register fluttering of fast notes. Novik got a number of moments like that, backed by stark landscapes drawn by Gregorio and Zenkoff. But really, each of the three players cycled through moments of screeching abandon and moments of more conventional musicality, alternating roles among themselves to create that ever-shifting landscape that free improv can create.

An added bonus: Novik, formerly from the Bay Area and now living in Queens, actually recognized me. We never knew each other that well, but it was nice that he remembered me — and I certainly remember him.

We had a good chat. Then I purchased a couple of items (because I can’t visit DMG and not buy anything) then caught the F-train back to the Lower East Side for what was probably my last visit to The Stone.