Posts filed under ‘shows (past)’
Glancing at the stage before a performance of Glenn Kotche’s Wild Sound, we got a good idea what to expect. All the detritus, tools, stray wood pieces — a suburban garage exploded — suggested a Cageian experience in sound and improvisation.
Turns out, Wild Sound is a lot more than that. It’s structured and partially composed, including melodies. And gets the audience involved, both literally (we got to make noise) and figuratively, in the sense that the piece involves the sounds and sights of instruments being built.
It’s a piece by Glenn Kotche, who’s best known as the drummer from Wilco but is also a classical composer with a respectable discography on labels such as Nonesuch and Canteloupe. Wild Sound was the last in a short series of hip, modern-classical evenings called Pivot, which on this evening was hosting Third Coast Percussion, a creative quartet that’s also the ensemble-in-residence at Notre Dame University. The performance, in early April, was also my first visit to the SFJazz complex in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.
Wild Sound progresses through the four elements of water, air, fire, and earth, with a coda that transcends all four and could be called just “civilization.” At the same time, the “settings” of the piece start out primitive — Water draws inspiration from jungle rainfall, Air from the swirling winds of deserts and chapparel — and eventually shift into urban society. After a surprisingly quiet Fire segment, Earth went all-in with steel girders and concrete.
The whole piece was backed by abstract video projections, occasionally overlaid with real-time video of the performers, and a backing soundtrack of field recordings Kotche made on tour. I don’t think we were meant to think of the nature-to-civilization progression as a bad thing. It felt more celebratory, and the Earth and Civilization sections included some of the most engaging segments of the piece.
The best part, and the most pleasant surprise, was the realization that the players were assembling instruments as they went. Wild Sounds does include a lot of Cageian randomness, as expected — one segment has a guy rattling large marbles in a bowl, and he eventually dumps them on top of two other musicians who are busy performing the actual composed melody. But along the way, you start to realize that some of the “randomness” is productive work.
It’s sneaky, and it adds to the fun. One guy loudly slapping wood blocks onto a table turned out to be building an honest-to-goodness marimba, finely tuned. A more subtle bit of work is the guy who was cutting wire at another table. That became a kind of slide violin: one hand (or person) plays the string, the other sets the tuning.
The sounds of construction also factor into the piece. Early on, one player was slapping packing tape onto the end of a tube, unrolling the tape as loudly as possible. Obviously, this was going to be used as a tribal drum later on — but during the construction, the unraveling of the tape contributed to the surrounding noise.
By the time the Earth section came around, it wasn’t any surprise to see the power tools come out, complete with safety shields. Drills, power screwdrivers, and even a welding torch, I think, got applied in small amounts — because one power tool makes enough noise to make the point. The piece was created with help from Notre Dame’s engineering department, by the way.
We got to participate, too. During Water, one Third Coaster pantomimed instructions for us to rub our hands and slap our thighs, emulating rainfall. Everyone was also handed small, ribbed balsa-wood sticks when we entered the theater. These became percussion instruments during Earth, when we got instructed to scrape out certain rhythms.
This concert was co-sponsored by The Exploratorium, which was so fitting — it all felt like the kind of “performance” exhibit they might host. In a post-concert talk, one of the Third Coasters (was it David Skidmore?) pointed out how inviting the instruments were. Anybody in the audience could wander on stage, pick something up, and make music. The group takes particular glee in that aspect of the piece, he said.
The first four movements of Wild Sound are quite a feast, but there’s still a major surprise in store for the dessert course. (This is a SPOILER. If you’re reading this in advance of going to see Wild Sound, you should probably stop here.)
The four large brackets at the back of the stage were, predictably enough, used for hanging sheet metal and other implements, which got bashed around for the raucuous parts of Earth. Turns out they have another purpose in Civilization — they hold synthesizers built inside transparent plexiglass. These are essentially keyboards that get played vertically, and the conclusion of Civilization is a long, through-composed melody for a quartet of these instruments. (You can see them for a moment in this promo video.) The sci-fi sound of the synths, and the fact that you can see the circuitry inside, create a futuristic air. The melody itself is pleasant and relaxing, suggesting that yes, this is our home today. Spotlights indicate who’s playing at any given time — and there have to be a lot of rest breaks for each musician, considering this segment is rather long and the blood is running out of their arms whenever they’re playing. It’s a peaceful ending and a chance to digest everything that’s happened in the preceding hour.
Wild Sound was written specifically for Third Coast. They performed it only about 10 times in the past year, Skidmore said — because it’s such a production. In addition to all the equipment, tools, and materials required, the performance needs a videographer, a lighting technician, and a soundboard engineer (some of the instruments’ sounds get enhanced with a computer) who are familiar with the piece.
That makes Wild Sound all the more rare. I don’t think it’s an experience that can be captured well enough on DVD. If it’s coming to your town, go see it.
Early this month, I made my first-ever trip to the UK, visiting London on business. There wasn’t much time to get around, especially considering we were near the London ExCel conference facility, well to the east of anything in London that I’d heard of.
But I did sneak out on my final night to visit the Vortex Jazz Club, a cozy second-story music space and bar that’s been a cornerstone of creative jazz worldwide. Saxophone legend Evan Parker performs there once a month on a kind of permanent residency.
Both venues are in the neighborhood of Dalston, one of those formerly low-rent areas where ethnic foods and skateboarders collide with redevelopment money and hipsters. The area has that city grime to it, and the surface similarities to Manhattan’s Lower East Side were actually a little comforting.
The Vortex itself is off the main drag, in a small plaza that’s now named Aim Bailey Place after Derek Bailey. The shot at left, from the Hackney Hive site, gives you a pretty good impression.
It’s a friendly place where they didn’t mind that I wasn’t drinking alcohol that night. (I honestly felt bad about that and contributed to the till via multiple mineral waters and couple bags of crisps.) The place filled up by showtime — many attendees being friends of the band, certainly, but not all. I wasn’t the only one who’d staked out a table early, and music fans’ reservations filled out the front row.
The Markov Chain is a free improvisation group that infuses plenty of jazz idiom into their playing — although extended technique did show up a bit during the show, particularly with bassist Tim Fairhall.
Pianist and bandleader Adam Fairhall (Tim’s brother) has had a couple of other projects out, including The Imaginary Delta, a septet suite released by Slam Productions. Possibly the best known member of the trio is drummer Paul Hession, who’s recorded frequently for Slam and Bruce’s Fingers — the latter having also put out The Markov Chain’s eponymous CD.
The show at the Vortex started with Adam Fairhall doing a solo piano piece lasting maybe 20 minutes. It was a stunning mashup of old and new jazz styles, bursting with references to boogie-woogie and ragtime. Lots of blues colors, and some near-classical, concert-hall-style jazz, and sprinklings of free improv.
One particularly memorable stretch built off of a rolling 6/8 boogie-woogie theme in the bassline, with right-hand playing that was tonal and massive, built from fistfuls of chords.
After a break, the Markov Chain played two pieces — a long improvisation tracking maybe 40 minutes, and a 10-minute “encore” piece.
The longer piece was an exercise in sustained energy — not one solid wall of music, but a fast-paced series of episodes. I don’t recall any long quiet stretches, although there were plenty of passages where one player dropped out, leaving the other two in an extended duet.
Hessian is an excellent drummer, a whirlwind with a feather touch. And Tim Fairhall was captivating on bass — lots of pizzicato with big intervallic leaps, and later, a string-mashing bowing style.
The 10-minute followup stared in a mode crystalline and careful, one of the few settings they hadn’t explored in the longer piece.
I liked these guys. I’ve been enjoying their CD, where every track is an anagram of The Markov Chain. (“Monk Crave Hi Hat” is a particularly catchy title.) I was exhausted from the work week, but I was glad to see the Vortex and to experience this music. I’m rarely unhappy after I’ve taken the extra effort to go find out what’s out there.
Glorious 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.
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.
Boyd 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.
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 …theoretically, 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 19 — Zagreb, Croatia
Feb. 20 — Göppingen, Germany
Feb. 21— Vienna, Austria
Feb. 22 — Budapest, Hungary
Feb. 23 — Bolzano, Italy
Feb. 24 — Middelburg, Netherlands
Feb. 25 — Brussels, Belgium
Feb. 26 — Konstanz, Germany
Feb. 27 — Berlin, Germany
Feb. 28 — Dortmund, Germany
March 1 — Wels, Austria