Jakob Pek, Shoebox Orchestra @ The Make-Out Room, 2/24/20

Back before shelter-in-place took effect, I found myself in San Francisco for work one evening, and it happened to be one of the jazz nights at the Make-Out Room in the Mission District. So I took advantage, for the first (and for now, probably last) time in a long while.

Performing on solo guitar, Jakob Pek played one long solo piece built of heavy sounds, starting with some bowing and moving later to prepared guitar. It was a gradual progression, moving from dark and abrasive to conventional strumming and picking to close it out. Of course, the Make-Out Room is a bar, a setting that doesn’t lend itself to the quietude of, say, this Pek performance, so while the overall performance was pensive and spacious, Pek kept the amplifier amped to fill the room.

The Spotlight Orchestra was a jazz quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums) playing one long “out” improvisation, sticking mostly to jazz idioms and letting the music wander where it may. Trumpeter Erik Jekabson was the name on the bill, but he stressed that this was really a gig for the group as a whole.

They kept up a high energy throughout, good late-night bar fare, staring with close orbits around a Monk tune and then spiraling outward. The two horns had a couple of nice moments blending together, including one accidental phrase that came out in harmony and in step, the kind of small surprise that makes jazz improvisation click. They invited vocalist Lorin Benedict to step in as well, to contribute his new-language scat singing. He picked the right moment, too, starting a new phase after a stormy-seas drum segment full of cymbal washes.

I did not see the duo of Benedict (vocals) and Tim Perkis (laptop electronics), who started the evening. That would have been fun — two musicians each with a distinct language to speak, performing apparently for the first time together. Hopefully there will be a next time, sometime after the urban environment goes back to normal.

 

KZSU Day of Noise 2020: Photos

The 2020 edition of KZSU’s Day of Noise happened back on February 8. “The best day of the year,” according to Abra, who diligently organizes the whole affair every year, including catering. I helped out during the midday hours, running sound (under the direction of Smurph) and announcing acts on-air.

We also streamed the event live again, engineered by Jin. You can find the recordings here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

You can correlate that with the schedule, posted at http://kzsu.stanford.edu/dayofnoise/2020/. That same page will eventually have the audio recordings of the performances as well.

Finally, you can see results from previous Days of Noise.

David Tudor’s Rainforest V

IMG_5800-cut1One experience from my recent New York trip hasn’t made it into here yet. MoMA was exhibiting David Tudor’s installation, Rainforest V (variation 1).

Rainforest is a sound installation that’s very tourist-friendly. Conceived in 1968 and re-imagined many times since, it’s an abstract jungle of shapes and industrial artifacts suspended at different heights and adorned with speakers emitting chirps and splashes and gentle roars. Much of the installation is built of wood or metal, the idea being that the materials’ resonant qualities contribute to the sound, especially when you put your ear up to a plank or stick your head in an oil drum.

This MoMA page has a virtual rendition of Rainforest V, complete with audio. It works in a browser and can apparently be played on a VR device as well. It’s nice to experience in solitude, but it was also worthwhile to be there, with other people making their own discoveries.

The bad news is that it closed on Jan. 5, so you can’t go see it there. But it’s a traveling exhibit, so maybe it will come to a town near you.

Nicole Mitchell at Happylucky No.1

IMG_5786 brooklyn nostrand ave.I’ve stayed in Brooklyn multiple times and try to visit any time I’m in New York, but I don’t really see Brooklyn. I’m usually in the Park Slope area — quiet and gentrified, lots of trees, lots of bars and hip eateries. At twilight, the sidewalks fill with young couples pushing strollers. It’s not a far walk from Barclay’s Center and downtown, but it feels a world apart to me.

IMG_5792 thestone marqueeFarther east, you get into neighborhoods like Crown Heights, which is more old-school Brooklyn: a little grittier — or, really, just more well-worn. On a commercial street called Nostrand Ave. is an art gallery called happylucky no.1, where The Stone presents shows on weekends. I ventured out there to see Nicole Mitchell (flute) in an ebullient trio with Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Liberty Ellman (guitar) — three musicians whose recordings I’ve enjoyed but whom I’d never seen perform.

This was the weekend of an unseasonable arctic chill, and temperatures hovered near freezing all evening. That might have kept the audience low. Only four or five of us, not counting the two curators at the door, were on hand, but we got to see a vivacious set built around Mitchell’s compositions.

Even internationally known names like these three have faced small crowds before and still give it their all. They’re pros. This felt like something more, though, like a small party, with all three players in high spirits even before the show started and eager to dig into the work and share the music, even if only with a few people. The music was alive and fun, brimming with the energy of three players locked into the same zone.

Just down the block, on the other side of Nostrand, is a little burrito grill that serves empanadas. Someday, when it’s warmer, I’ll grab a bite there before stepping into happylucky no.1 for another show.

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Sound check, seen from the outside.
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Nicole Mitchell’s stage.

 

Binging ‘The Stone:’ Peter Evans, Nicole Mitchell, Aurán Ortiz

Early in November, for the first time in a few years, I was in New York with enough free time for some music. I didn’t intend to only see shows at The Stone, but it worked out that way.

I hadn’t been to The Stone since it moved. Originally a black-box venue on the lower east side, it’s struck up a partnership with The New School, an arts college up on West 13th Street, where The Stone now gets to occupy a comfortable streetside performance room. I got to see two shows there: Trumpeter Peter Evans with a chordless trio, and pianist Aurán Ortiz in trio demonstrating his Afro-Cubism concept.

The Stone also presents weekly or monthly shows at some ancillary venues. So on a Saturday night, I ventured deeper into Brooklyn than I’ve ever gone before, to Nostrand Avenue, for a chance to see Nicole Mitchell.

The usual Stone rules apply: No food or drink allowed inside, and no photography during the shows.

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Peter Evans can do plenty with extended technique and sound experimentation, but he’s also adept in contexts closer to the jazz tradition, as with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This set showed off both sides but leaned toward more traditionally “musical” sounds, using Evans’ compositions as a foundation and presenting lots of experimental twists (one piece focused heavily on air-through-the-horn sounds, for instance). Evans’ fast fast playing showed up quickly during the first piece — a flood of crystal-precision tones flowing over long unison tones from Alice Teyssier (flute) and Ryan Muncy (sax).

The three of them had performed together in a 50-person George Lewis concert where they apparently played the prankster role, moving through the mass of other musicians and generally causing trouble. Some of that attitude showed up here. One piece gave an unaccompanied solo to each player, and Muncy’s consisted of one long multi-tone wrested from the sax.

I wish I could remember more about the compositions themselves, but I remember it being a bright, easygoing set overall, with some challenging but pleasant assignments in the music. At times it felt like a casual chamber-music set, which I suppose was the theme of the concert in general.

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Source: Sound It Out NYC

Aruán Ortiz performed with Darius Jones (sax) and Ches Smith (drums) as the trio Firm Roots, presenting one long-form improvisation. Afro-Cubism, featured on his solo album Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017), comes across to me as a patient style of free playing, where pauses and quietude darken the dense, gnarled harmonies. I don’t mean to say it’s all slow — Ortiz does get into rapid, splashy playing. But he relishes the journey in getting there.

On a macro scale, the piece followed a fast-slow-fast progression — with plenty of deviations, of course, but the opening segment featured Jones in a forceful, declarative mode, favoring long herading tones, and the end built up to a more quick-handed intensity.

The Evans and Ortiz shows bookended my trip. In between there was Nicole Mitchell, and I’ll devote the next blog entry to that.

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:”