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The Robert Pollard / Free Jazz Intersection

Source: Ibeam.

Source: Ibeam.

I can’t claim to be an elite-level Robert Pollard obsessive, but I enjoy his music quite a lot. I was drawn into the circle when a friend introduced me to Guided by Voices sometime around 2000. There are some close communities of GbV fans out there, and I was lucky enough to be welcomed into one. Several years of really fun concerts and surprising, warm friendships ensued.

GbV is best known as an indie-rock band, but Pollard has a taste for weird, noisy music. Producer Todd Tobias has added plenty of noisy shimmer to GbV and Pollard solo albums. The weirdest stuff seemed to be saved for Circus Devils, a collaboration between Pollard, Tobias, and Tobias’ brother Tim (who played bass for GbV for a short spell). There’s some seriously crazy stuff on those records.

Fast forward to 2015, and a drummer named Kate Gentile happens to toss out Robert Pollard among a list of influences. It’s in an interview she did with Jazz Right Now.

Her reasoning isn’t necessarily tied to noise music; instead, she cites Pollard’s volume of work, with I think averages about an album per month. I’m just happy to see Pollard mentioned in a jazz interview. These worlds intersect, they really do.

Gentile’s list also includes Tim Berne‘s Paris Concert trilogy (the albums that got me into creative music in the first place) and two albums close to the Berne orbit: the debut from Jim Black‘s Alas No Axis (which, for me, has its own backstory), and Marc Ducret‘s recent Tower Two.

I’d never encountered Gentile before. Turns out, her music has a Berne-like tilt to it — or at least it does in this track that she’s posted to Soundcloud:

That’s Jeremy Viner on sax, channeling a bit of Berne during the theme before going off into his own mode for the solo. On piano is Matt Mitchell, who of course is in Berne’s Snakeoil band. Adam Hopkins on bass and Gentile on drums round out the sound.

h/t: Avant Music News.

September 12, 2015 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

Brett Carson and Noertker’s Moxie

I went to the SIMM series concert on Aug. 9, seeing Brett Carson on solo piano and Noertker’s Moxie, the SIMM house band.

Brett Carson, pianoCarson leads the band Quattuor Elephantis, which happens to be performing a CD release show on Saturday, Aug. 15, at Studio Grand (Oakland).  But that band’s aesthetic is far from solo piano; it’s built on vibraphone, electric guitar, and electric keyboards, combining intricate composing, liquid improvisations and some moments of jazz serenity (check them out on Bandcamp.)

Carson, by contrast, showed off his piano chops in long stream-of-consciousness pieces where ideas and motifs overlapped like dreams. He played hard — fast, loud hammering that was still graceful as he splashed rivers of notes up and down the keyboard, sometimes sprinkling bits of jazz or classical ideas into the mix, occasionally settling on a spiky riff. Avant-garde inside-the-piano plucking and scraping featured heavily in one piece and was interesting, but it’s his conventional playing that really sold me.

The piano pieces were interspersed with readings of Carson’s poetry, equally dense and complex, spoken in a humble, unassuming voice.

Noertker’s Moxie is a name that more Bay Area jazz fans should know. Bassist Bill Noertker‘s band, with a varying cast of characters, does use elements of free improvsation and some experimentalism, but the foundation is the full spectrum of jazz composing and soloing. Annelise Zamula has been an able front woman on sax and flute, fitting the multiple personalities that Noertker’s compositions call for: swing, bop, abstract improv, and a touch of cartoony humor.

noertker-IMG_1348Noertker’s Moxie was a quartet this time, including Jordan Glenn on drums. Eli Wallace was a monster on piano, pulling out all the stops on “Flood Mood.” The song is based on a nice ’40s swing, but Wallace’s solo went for kind of an incongruous double-time, a 78 r.p.m. flow in an 33-1/3 world. A couple of “haiku” compositions followed 5-7-5 patterns in terms of note counts (not time signatures, but simply the number of notes); one was quiet and thoughtful, while the other was surprisingly upbeat.

The set opened with the bright, catchy “Feathers in a Cap,” part of Noertker’s cycle of songs inspired by Antoni Gaudi, and ended with “Wig,” a fun, silly polka that accelerated until (of course) exploding into fragments. Actually, they did an encore as well — a little 30-second composition with an abrupt ending.

SIMM is a Sunday-evening concert series held twice monthly at the Musicians Union Hall in San Francisco — right downtown at 116 9th St. near Mission. (For those of us who drive, parking is luxuriously easy.) Noertker’s Moxie will be performing there again on Sept. 13, in a quartet format that will include Amber Lamprecht on oboe.

August 15, 2015 at 12:03 pm Leave a comment

Yoni Kretzmer’s Two-Bass Band

Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet — Book II (OutNow, 2015)

2bass+book+II+front+small+wsThe bass can get swallowed up in free-jazz settings. Clashing drums and blaring horns tend to obscure those low-end tones, even with amplification on the bassist’s side.

I think that’s why you often see bassists revert to fevered bowing. It certainly fits the intensity of the moment — but it’s also a way to simply be heard.

So you might ask what the effect is when a second bass is added. It’s been done plenty of times, Ornette Coleman’s bands being a familiar example — but don’t you risk both basses being equally swallowed up?

Saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer has been trying the format for a few years now with his 2Bass Quartet, which released one previous album, Weight, in 2012. It’s true that during furious passages, the basses combine into a generalized rumble, where you get the sense there’s some pinpoint execution going on but can’t make it all out. But the doubled-up bottom line, crossed with Mike Pride‘s often fierce drumming, makes a solid foundation for Kretzmer’s improvising, and the relatively small size of the group means both Reuben Radding and Sean Conly get a chance to really say something with the bass.

The pieces are guided improvisations, based on Kretzmer’s structures and snippets of composition. That kind of guidance is how they can deliver tracks like “Haden,” which sings in reverent tones between joy and mourning — an appropriate wake for Charlie Haden. One bass bows an anthemic improvised melody while the other holds down the steady rhythm.

Most of the songs do seem to have assigned parts. The two basses take center stage on the stark “Metals,” where their deep, metallic sawing plays against Kretzmer’s scratchy curls of sound, as if he’s emulating a bowed instrument himself. “Polytonal Suite” pits a 5/4 bassline against a calmer, slow-walking bass, the combined rhythms backing the attack mode of Kretzmer and Pride. It’s also a little bit polyrhythmic (both basses seem to be on the same rhythm, but Pride is doing something else completely) and adds up to a fun listening exercise.

I like the trajectory of “Stick Tune,” based on a dark sax melody. Early on, one bassist bows ferociously, joining the tumult of sax and drums, while the other plucks a slow, steady pace. The song breaks for a quiet segment — some tenderness from that main melody but also some air time for one bassist to go ballistic with a pizzicato solo — before building back to a soaring conclusion. It’s the common fast/slow/fast structure, but it delivers a narrative feel, a real story. Here’s the fast/slow transition:

The album culmintes with “Number Four,” a 19-minute opus that’s pushed to a second CD in order to fit the physical format. Patient pedal tones from the basses underlie a continuous scratchy surface painted by Kretzmer. Then there’s a pause, a dark and gloomy moment for the two basses alone, followed by a brisk midtempo jazz jam.

The running theme is Kretzmer’s free blowing, of course. He’s adept at carving twisty paths of narrative, sometimes using a feathery voice for a lighter mood (as on “Soft”), more often focusing energy into high-tension wailing or tight, darting growls. Later this fall, he’s planning on recording another album with his New Dilemma, a strings-based band that recorded a captivating debut album a few years back. Definitely something to look forward to.

August 9, 2015 at 11:44 am Leave a comment

Myra Melford: Videos from The Stone

Berkeley-based pianist Myra Melford is uploading a series of professionally produced videos from her March 2015 residency at The Stone in New York. They’ll feature one song from each of the 12 concerts, spanning 10 different bands that represent most of her career.

“I’ve just gone from the next thing to the next thing, and I’ve never really looked back,” Melford says in the introductory video. That’s what makes The Stone’s residencies so special. An artist has the option to re-present a spectrum of work that might otherwise never resurface.

I think about the rows and rows of CDs we have at KZSU, and how many will never be played again. Some artists don’t want to rehash old ground, which is fine, but others have back catalogues that deserve another chance on stage. It always felt good to give some air time to an album that I knew hadn’t been played in years. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to this series of videos.

Melford’s career has been tremendous: bouncy and edgy jazz from her Chicago days; Indian influence and harmonium with the Be Bread band; sensitive duets with Marty Ehrlich and more recently Ben Goldberg; and the spiritual and soaring beauty of her recent solo album, Life Carries Me This Way. The dozen-or-so videos from The Stone won’t cover it all, but there’s already a rich variety painted in the first few installments.

Here’s a snappy duet with drummer Allison Miller:

And here, a trio performance for departed violinist Leroy Jenkins, played not in mourning tones, but with verve and crackle. Nicole Mitchell is on flute and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

This one is Dialogue, Melford’s duo with clarinetist Ben Goldberg. They perform Melford’s thoughtful “Chorale” followed by Goldberg’s swinging “9 + 5.”

The videos present one song per concert and seem to be arriving in the order performed. So the next installment should be Melford’s trio with Miya Masaoka (koto) and Mary Halvorson (guitar), and the twelfth and final one will feature that sparkling Chicago trio with Lindsay Horner (bass) and Reggie Nicholson (drums). Can’t wait for that one.

July 9, 2015 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Oh By the Way

A side-effect of this blog’s longevity is the way it reflects changes in my personal life. As the kids have gotten older, and their activities (school and otherwise) have become more serious, it’s left me with less time for music. My radio gig was the first thing to go, and lately, I’ve cut down on listening to music and, especially, going out to shows.

I don’t like blogs that are about themselves, which is why I’m burying this entry amid a small flurry of activity — the point being, the day job has eased up a bit, allowing me to get to a backlog of reviewing and listening. Seemed like a good juncture to speak up and say, “I’m still here.”

This is a normal aspect of online life, one that people are discovering slowly as we all get older. I’m thinking in particular of Real Life Comics, which began posting daily at the end of 1999 but had to slow down as the artist’s real real life got more complicated (and that was before he and his wife had a kid.) He still manages to soldier on, and so will I.

March 24, 2015 at 4:43 pm 1 comment

Fieldwork in the 2010s

Vijay Iyer is in residency at The Stone in New York City this week, and one of the many bands he’s featuring is Fieldwork, the trio with Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on sax, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

All three have worked with Pi Recordings, separately and as the full trio. That label has found a niche in a very modern jazz of exciting complexity; I’ve read at least one review that wondered if the sound is too cold or abstract, but I love that sound. Fieldwork, with albums on Pi dating back to 2002, certainly fit the bill, with heavy-handed piano chords and drum-machine-inspired percussion (originally by Elliot Humberto Kavee, a late ’90s Bay Area transplant to New York). For an acoustic trio, they had a stunningly futuristic sound, one that I referred to as “steel and glass.”

Of course, times change, and the music Iyer, Lehman, and Sorey play today is necessarily the descendant of last decade’s creations. Here’s the trio in another appearance at The Stone, filmed earlier this year. It’s one long improvisation, with flashes of steel-and-glass at the 5- and 9-minute marks, and a terrific slow groove that starts just after 17:20, but the core sound has shifted, and the fierceness feels more dissipated. (Which, mathematically, isn’t a surprise in a 53-minute piece.)

While it would have been cool to see Fieldwork reprise those earlier compositions, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t. It’s part of the evolution of the music — and on a simpler note, re-learning and re-rehearsing the tunes just might not be worth the time. You don’t have to know the old Fieldwork to feel the excitement in their current incarnation, though. I like to think these particular “reunions” are more about friends enjoying some music together (while giving one another a paying gig, of course). That’s also what I was envisioning with Jim Black’s “Not Bloodcount” gig of a year ago.

Fans are a double-edged sword. The good ones want to believe in the progress of the music, and yet, even they want to pull musicians back into playing the old stuff. We’re a difficult lot.

January 19, 2015 at 11:39 pm Leave a comment

Alvin Lucier in Santa Clara

Alvin Lucier, "I Am Sitting in a Room"

See Alvin sit.
A still from the Biennale Musica 2012 performance on Youtube.

Related to that prior posting about the SF Tape Music Festival: Alvin Lucier is coming to perform at Santa Clara University, down here in the South Bay.

In fact, there are three new-music concerts coming Santa Clara’s way this month. First, as previously noted, SCU professor Bruno Ruviaro will present “Cinema for the Ears” on Friday, Jan. 23. Billed as “a film without images,” it’s an electronics presentation similar to the Tape Music Festival, but with a specific mission: creating the aural equivalent of a movie:

In this immersive surround-sound concert, SCU faculty Bruno Ruviaro becomes an acousmatic DJ guiding you through a full evening dedicated to your ears. Is this music, cinema, radio? With this unusual, genre-defying combination of dialogue, sound, music, and ambience, let your imagination to boldly go where it has never gone before.

Then, on Jan. 29 and 30 (Thursday/Friday), SCU is hosting a New Music Festival. I haven’t found an itinerary, but a mailing from Ruviaro says the Jan. 30 concert will focus on Lucier’s work, with the composer on hand to perform “I Am Sitting in a Room.”

A classic piece of experimental sound, “Room” consists of Lucier reading text, recording it, then playing it back into the same room — and recording the playback. The text is an blank-faced explanation of what’s going on: Lucier is recording his voice, then plays back the recording and records the playback. He iterates this process to create copies of copies, each one more degraded than the last (“Room” predates digital recording). Eventually, the series converges on what are supposedly the resonant frequencies of the room, with Lucier’s voice and words an imperceptible blur. What’s left, in a sense, is the room’s natural sound. It emerges as ghostly, ringing tones, like bowed harmonics on a violin.

The point, of course, is the descent — the disintegration of the words, and the gradual slipping-away of rational sound. Yes, you can hear the piece on LP or CD (or in the Vimeo clip below), but just as seeing a movie in the theater is different from watching on Netflix, it might be something special to experience “Room” live, as a shared experience. And of course, it’s a performance that comes out differently every time.

January 11, 2015 at 5:52 pm Leave a comment

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