Piano-Drum Aggression

John Blum & Jackson KrallDuplexity (Relative Pitch, 2020)

Drummer Jackson Krall played with Marco Eneidi who played with Cecil Taylor. John Blum channels his inner Cecil Taylor on these two long duo improvisations. Somewhere in there is a common thread, one that I am not simply imagining (Blum’s bio does reference Taylor and Borah Bergman as mentors), and it’s an obvious ingredient to Blood and Bone, even if it’s awkward to articulate in print.

When I reference Cecil Taylor here, I don’t just mean that Blum is aggressive and abstract and slaps the piano a lot. It’s true that his stabbed chords match Cecil’s percussiveness on a surface level, but much of the track “Blood and Bone” also touches on Cecil’s rich harmonic language, at least to my ears.

If you picture a horizontal avalanche, an ocean made not of water currents but of endlessly tumbling, frictionless rocks — that’s the kind of flow Blum produces. Krall’s drumming maintains the energy. Even when he steps back, letting Blum drive solo, Krall adds occasional fills and crashes that let you know it’s not time to rest yet.

“Wind and Wing” opens with an aggressive splashing — a shower of needles — that becomes a dramatic entrance with the help of Krall’s drum roll and some very low-register piano rumbling. It never fully dies down. Even the “quiet” moments are fidgety, a continual flow of activity.

You could call the continual energy “monochromatic,” but that would miss the point and the intended mood of the album. You’re signing up for a workout. Be ready to sweat.

Grex’s Art-Rock Gets Heavy

GrexEverything You Said Was Wrong (Geomancy, 2020)

In a record-store sense, Grex falls in the catch-all “rock” bin. The East Bay band, consisting of Karl Evangelista (guitar, vocals) and Rei Scampavia (keyboards, vocals) is founded on pop and psychedelic rock and occasional funk, all of it bent with free jazz and experimental sounds. The influence of hip-hop was probably in there all along, and they’ve brought it to the fore on their newest, Everything You Said Was Wrong.

This album has the same Grex elements as before, such as light melodic tunes alternating with stern guitar-shredding, sometimes within the same track. But the mood gets darker and angrier this time. “Criminal,” a protest song about Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, is a rap with Evangelista in full street growl, prodigious F-bombs and all, and delivering a guitar solo of urgent squealing, all against a slow 11/8 drumbeat.

“Criminal” has a personal connection. “Evangelista’s family has a long history with Filipino poilitics, with his aunt having run for President a number of times, including against the now-sitting leader Duterte,” SLUG Magazine notes in a feature on Grex.

It’s cathartic that Grex came out swinging with Everything You Said Is Wrong last summer, in the midst of such a difficult year. Not all of the dark edge is directed toward protest, though. “The Other Mouses,” sung by Scampavia, has some enjoyably sinister overtones but appears to be a song about (or for) their pet rats. (It’s a much different posture than “Mal and Luma” another rat tune from Electric Ghost Parade.)

One change on this album is the frequent absence of Robert Lopez, who has drummed behind the duo for years. He’s there on “Criminal,” providing that spare, authoritarian snare tapping, but his absence elsewhere leaves Grex to experiment with drum machines and synths — a sparer sound but a wider palette. It works well on tracks like “KD” (another hardened rap, this time about Kevin Durant’s departure from the Golden State Warriors.)

The whole album is not as dark as the cover, though. “Walking Ayler in Tarzana” is a gentle guitar-led lullabye, the environmentally minded “Beepocalypse” is tuneful and sad, and “Margot Tenenbaum” combines rap, airy pop melody, and a touch of guitar freak-out — the full package.

As I mentioned in November, Grex in 2020 took the role of community organizers, gathering musical allies for a series of Lockdown live-streamed shows benefiting the Black Organizing Project, Asian Improv aRts, and Milford Graves (who would eventually pass away early this year). Everyone played sets in their own living spaces or provided archival clips of live performances, with the production values generally getting more ambitious as the year went on. Each set is on the artists’ individual YouTube channels, so there’s no single link to view the whole thing. On the other hand, this means you can build your own festival. A few starting points are Grex’s own April 2020 set, their New Year’s Day 2021 set for Lockdown IV, Scott Amendola’s trio of abstract/ambient projects including an actual trio, and Jordan Glenn’s solo performance on drums and sundry.

The Minimalism of Ocean Swells

Michaela Antanová feat. OKJOSnethuns: music for 14-piece ensemble (Dugnad, 2020)

The 39-minute standalone piece “nethuns” opens minimally: members of chamber orchestra OJKOS playing independent long tones, spread at intervals to create cross-current patterns like steady ocean waves. Group improvisation and some “soloing” show up occasionally but at a restrained level, never upsetting the surface tension. Each major phase of the piece lingers in a slow simmer.

The temperature does rise eventually. Shortly after the 20-minute mark, the percussion has formed a beat, and a few instruments are improvising against that backdrop of ocean swells, with saxophonist Signe K. Emmeluth taking the lead and driving toward a dynamic, free-jazzy crescendo. (Here’s a sample of the calmer, introductory phase of that improvisation.)

Nethuns is indeed based on the ocean, as the name comes from the Etruscan god of waters. On her website, composer/drummer Michaela Antanová describes the structure as “long and percussive shapes that gradually merge and overlap, creating polyphonic layers throughout its narrative.” Musicians were given only their own parts, not the score for the surrounding piece, and conductor Magnus Murphy Joelson controlled the overall form. In that sense, it’s an exercise for the musicians in listening, and the overlapping tones do have an “In C” feeling of loose, independent parts combining to form a structure.

The album is a concert recording. I’m especially drawn to the flute (Henriette Eilertsen) in those early segments. It’s played and miked in a way where the breath and tone combine percussively, adding an organic touch. This piece could be orchestrated to resemble smooth-as-glass orchestra, a glossy landscape stretched to the horizon — and maybe, given a large budget, it would be what Antanová intends. But I like nethuns the way it is. It sounds organic and makes me harken back to the days of attending concerts like this one.

Kyle Bruckmann, Live from CNMAT

Some weeks back, CNMAT live-streamed a solo Kyle Bruckmann concert — oboe, English horn, and/or electronics — performed at their studio in Berkeley. With multiple camera angles and video cards that provide the program notes, it’s a professionally produced set that made for a satisfying afternoon show — one you can relive on YouTube.

Bruckmann played five pieces in the experimental/avant-classical vein, including two of his own, including a world premiere.

Linda Bouchard’s “DROP” (2018) magnified the sound of air through the tube of the oboe (or English horn; I didn’t try hard enough to discern them), turning a whispery sound source into an avalanche. The piece progressed into a cavalcade of extended technique — lots of circular breathing, buzzing rows of notes, and klaxon blares — creating a space full of urgency, a voice a rush to speak.

A quick dose of more conventional oboe playing was featured in “Arachne” (2013) by Helen Grime. The composition follows the Greek myth of a woman eventually turned into a spider, and it appropriately ended with a scurrying of small high notes.

Bruckmann’s own “A Spurious Autobiography for John Barth” (2015), which appears on his Triptych album, produced the concert’s first full dose of electronics, with an overhead camera capturing the view of Bruckmann’s pedals and wires. The piece addresses the pitfalls of solo improvisation — falling into “the same damn things over and over again,” as Bruckmann writes in the program notes, by having a computer spit back fragments of Bruckmann’s 2000 solo album, entymology. His job is to react.

It’s fun watching this kind of “game” play out in real time. The oboe fragments came out in processed form, sometimes chopped up, sometimes blurred or smeared, sometimes spotty like a radio drifting out of range. Bruckmann built a rushed chaos out of it all, ending with a calm finish and a touch of “pure” unadulterated oboe sound.

The first of the premiere pieces was Hannah A. Barnes’ “Dis/inte/gration,” based on electronics playing back the oboe “through a phase vocodor at (impossibly) slow speeds.” That meant long tones occasionally coming back like long-ago echoes, ghostly and ringing. As Bruckmann sped up the pace, the feedback started feeling more like an urgent dialogue with voices from some other plane.

One of the on-screen cards that served as program notes.

For his own premiere composition “Proximity,” Bruckmann disassembled the oboe, removing the mouthpiece and blocking the other end with his hand. With the help of electronics, he built a narrative of sounds — deep didjeridoo tones and ultra-high hearing-test notes in unison, followed by successive plateaus of mood ranging from electronic scribbles to calm, slow brushstrokes of air. Apparently inspired by our current “gerbil ball” state of existence (Bruckmann’s phrase, and a good one), “Proximity” felt intimate, full of close, small gestures.

Deeper in the CNMAT archives is another of Bruckmann’s solo concerts, this time from 2017 with a live audience. You can view that one here.

I Miss Live Shows (But You Knew That)

Craig Taborn New Trio, at Roulette. From left: Ches Smith, Mary Halvorson, Taborn.

There’s no ignoring the devastation COVID-19 has laid on musicians’ livelihoods. On a more selfish note, it’s also put a pause on live music. I’m trying to buy more recordings, but I do miss live shows. Not just seeing them, which I was doing less frequently anyway — I miss reading about shows, even just looking at tour schedules of all the shows I wouldn’t be able to see anyway. It all gave me a sense of activity, of Things Going On Out There, that I found inspiring.

Virtual concerts are not the same, but there are some good sincere efforts happening. Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia of Grex have organized a few Lockdown Festivals. I caught the third installment recently, which included a Grex set featuring their terrifically cool new album, Everything You Said Was Wrong, and an archival concert recording of Jordan Glenn’s sax/drums trio Wiener Kids. The three Lockdown Festivals are archived on YouTube. Each set was broadcast to the performers’ own channels, but you can find links here and here.

Noise is one musical form that works rather well in social isolation, given that so many acts are solos or duos anyway. You don’t get to feel the noise, but it still works. The Godwaffle Noise Pancakes series (“pancakes” is literal; they do live brunch shows, as I understand it) is continuing on Twitch. Bran(Pos), aka Jake Rodriguez, has been broadcasting shows at soundcrack.net and archives them in podcast form.

Virtual shows do have an upside. I couldn’t have traveled to Brooklyn to see Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson, and Ches Smith playing at Roulette. It was part of JazzFest Berlin, which split between Germany and New York and included pre-recorded clips of some of the acts. Had this festival not gone virtual, I would never have found the Philipp Schiepek Quartett, whose set I enjoyed quite a bit.

Still, it’s not the same. This issue has come up in my day job, where real-life conferences have been replaced by virtual ones, or even pre-recorded talks. It’s stupefying. At least with a concert, experiencing it at a distance isn’t a far cry from catching the video a couple of years after the fact. I’d previously enjoyed a lot of Tim Berne’s work from the 2010s that way. It’s a diluted experience, but the music is there.

Humans thrive on shared experience, whether it’s in a movie theater or at a music show, whether it’s a World Series crowd or just a few of us at an improv show in an art gallery. We all miss it. That’s no reason to get impatient with lockdown — please don’t go out of your way to make things worse, like they’ve done in other parts of the United States! — but the sadness is understandable. Just look back at 1918 and realize we’ve been here before (it’s never been correct to call this “unprecedented”) and that we’ll all be back together at shows, eventually. For now, I’ll get ready to check out Kyle Bruckmann’s CNMAT solo online recital in a few hours.

Death of a Piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmed Abdul-Malik and the Oud

abdulmalik-sahara-cropI had been vaguely aware that Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Thelonious Monk’s onetime bassist, had made strides in mixing “world music” with jazz back in the ’60s, but never investigated the specifics. Coming across his 1965 album Spellbound in a store one day, I decided to give it a try.

Turns out it’s the wrong place to start, but it got me on the right path eventually.

From hanging out at a college radio station, I certainly had heard of the oud, a lute-like instrument that’s ubiquitous in Mediterranean music of the Arabs, Turks, and Greeks. Jazz-minded oud is not hard to find. Oud player Anouar Brahem has gotten a lot of good exposure from ECM Records. There’s also Ravish Momin’s Trio Tarana, an oud-violin-drums band applying jazz soloing ideas to its calmly acoustic Middle Eastern grooves. (More recently, Momin has ventured into electronica with a duo simply called Tarana.)

Spellbound‘s attempt at world jazz, though, is heavy on the jazz. It’s primarily an evening-bop album, well executed straightahead stuff. Oud player Hamza Aldeen appears on only two of the LP’s four original tracks (a bonus track on the CD is an oud-less blues), and his lone solo, on “Song for Delilah,” is treated like an externality — the lone oud with very light bass and a whispered hi-hat beat.

Turns out, Spellbound was Abdul-Malik’s final album as a leader. His previous albums were more involved efforts at introducing the oud and Middle Eastern musical styles to a jazz audience.

malik-spellboundJazz Sahara, from 1958, is the one that’s called out by Jazz Times in this 2012 article. This is a full-out Middle Eastern band complete with Abdul-Malik on oud; Jack Ghanaim on the kanun (qanun), a jangly stringed instrument; and Mike Hamway on the goblet drum (darabeka) — plus saxophone solos by Johnny Griffin. Track times are around 10 minutes each, providing plenty of space for a chantlike groove to simmer.

Griffin, of course, adds the key “jazz” element to the setting. He has a grand time soloing over the changes but hits the novelty angle a bit too hard by quoting, at various times, “Salt Peanuts,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” or the opening shadows of “‘Round Midnight.”

Quotes aside, Griffin’s solos work well, but I get more out of Lee Morgan’s trumpet solos on East Meets West, Abdul-Malik’s 1960 date. Morgan seems more willing to let the surrounding single-chord rhythm steep and flow around him. The carefully emerging trumpet solo on “El-Lail (The Night)” is particularly delicious.

With its longer track times, Jazz Sahara leaves more space for that Middle Eastern sound to brew, and in that sense it feels more authentic. But I find I like many of the shorter, tune-length tracks on East Meets West, partly for the contributions of Morgan. It seems clear, though, that Jazz Sahara was Abdul-Malik’s shot at a real “world music” kind of album. East Meets West feels like it has some business compromises, not only the mainstream-friendly track times but also the inclusion of one straightahead jazz number, “Searchin.'”

Maybe Spellbound represented further compromise. Then again, Abdul-Malik never stopped playing normal jazz; you could also view the album — two of its tracks, anyway — as a true melding of the oud into a full-on jazz setting, rather than a more comfortable environment.

Spellbound is a more-than-competent album, with some eye-opening violin solos by Ray Nance (better known as a cornetist for Duke Ellington), but I’ll stick to the more world-music sounds of Abdul-Malik’s earlier albums.


Surplus 1980, Back at the Starry Plough

dscn3540moeMoe Staiano’s brainy punk band Surplus 1980 has been playing gigs again. I finally caught up with one — at the Starry Plough on Saturday night.

The band’s music, documented on the album Relapse in Response and the EP Arterial Ends Here, works from often stomping rhythms, sometimes with tricks like the occasional odd time signature. Math rock and jazz aren’t far removed from Surplus 1980’s explosive punk. In the studio, Moe can bring in guest musicians to flesh out the jazzy ideas, but there’s no substitute for seeing the band live and getting caught up in those infectious rhythms.

Mark Pino plays drums for the band, and Staiano occasionally joins him on a second drumkit. I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to watch Staiano on the drum kit, bashing away in a state of manic control. A couple of songs on Saturday night had the two of them bashing away at unison phrases while the two guitars provided chunky riffs as well as bouts of electric noodling and triggered keyboard sounds.

This was bassist Steve Lew’s last gig with the band. On a sadder note, the whole night was overshadowed by the tragic warehouse fire in Fruitvale, news of which had spread earlier in the day; Surplus 1980 gave their proceeds to the victims and passed out a donation jar as well.

I regret that I missed the previous set, of John Shiurba’s Vegan Butcher. It’s guitar-based slowcore, and I like what I’d heard of it on Bandcamp. Hopefully there’ll be more chances to see both of these bands in the coming year.

(Photo, left to right: Moe Staiano, Melne Twf, Steve Lew.)

Reconnaissance Fly at the Octopus

img_2633-reconn-fly-cutIt looks like prog band Reconnaissance Fly picked up a few new fans Wednesday night.

The audience was sparse, sure. It was a Wednesday night and the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland doesn’t look like it has room for much of a crowd anyway. But the people there were open to the music and happy about what they heard. A couple of conversations about the Canterbury sound formed after the show.

I’ve seen Reconnaissance Fly a few times now, so while the music was good, the novelty for me was in seeing the Octopus for the first time. It’s a cozy and modern bookstore and cafe with several shelves of tantalizing books and a menu with microbrews and panini sandwiches.

It seems like a great place to just hang out, which is exactly what was happening — the audience seemed to be folks from the neighborhood who just happened to be out, checking out what the Octopus had to offer. I like that.

The band’s set included most of the new Off By One EP and three new songs by vocalist and flutist Polly Moller. (Most of the EP’s songs were written by bassist Tim Walters.) Given the nature of the venue — small, relaxed, surrounded by books — they did lean more toward their Canterbury side. Lots of relaxed melodies and odd time signatures.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t rock a little. From the drumkit, Larry the O again pumped a lot of energy into the music.

Hopefully some of those new fans (including one who was aware of prog history and early Genesis) really will take time to check out more of the band’s music. And hopefully I’ll take more opportunities to visit the Octopus. Not sure I’m cut out for the literary events that make up the bulk of their live entertainment, but it looks like they book a pretty healthy music calendar.

Back to Roots

logoWe visited the Monterey Aquarium last weekend, and it wasn’t until we were nearly in Monterey that I remembered one reason why I love that drive so much. It isn’t the thick tourist traffic or the trucks on two-lane roads. It’s the chance to tune in KPIG.

Based near Santa Cruz, at 107.5-FM on the dial, KPIG doesn’t play avant-garde music, but its style might be considered shocking by today’s standards: Actual DJs select the music without regard to marketing data. As the station’s website puts it:

We’re an anachronism – a throwback to the days when real DJs picked out the music, and listeners expected something more from a radio station than just a couple of hundred songs repeated over and over, with some “big voice” guy yelling about how great it all is.

I’ve noted before that I’ve backed away from the classic rock of my younger days. KPIG is different. The programming has roots music as a base — country-rock and bluegrass, you might say — but with liberal doses of blues, funk, jam bands, and lots of obscurities or corner-case artists that you wouldn’t find on mainstream radio of any stripe. And when an overly familiar tune shows up, it’s the exception, not the rule. Check out a playlist and see what you think.

KPIG is a rare gem. Even college radio is losing this spirit, this willingness to challenge the listener and serve as a gateway for musical discoveries. KPIG charges a nominal amount to listen online — $5 per month or $50 per year — and it’s so worth it, just to know that radio like this can still survive in this cold cruel world.

As for the drive to Monterey, I caught wind of two songs that have become new favorites of the moment — John Fullbright’s “All the Time in the World” and Abigail Washburn’s “Chains.” Neither one is brand new, sure. But KPIG was there to tell me about them.