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Yes, I’m still here. This month had what I think is my biggest-ever gap between posts, and June is likely to have some slow times as well, but I’m hoping to kick things into gear during the summer.
Blogging about why-you’re-not-blogging is a trope older than The Powerpuff Girls, but the gap in May happened for a reason beyond the usual kids-and-work excuses.
It does start with a kid: I have one who’s into theater. These productions are serious. They take place in a municipal center for the arts — a real, plush theater with a professional staff — and even the smallest ensemble parts are packed with responsibilities. It’s a rewarding experience for me as a parent volunteer, but unfortunately for me, most children/teen theater programs focus on Broadway-style musicals. After a show, I usually rush for an antidote — either Brotzmann-style screaming or lower-case improv. Something as far from showtune melody as possible.
This time, I worked backstage. Being behind the scenes while my teenager was performing was a thrill, but it also meant listening through a full week’s worth of dress rehearsals as well as five performances. I heard the complete show eight times, heard certain portions rehearsed again and again, and actually watched the show in the audience twice.
Luckily, the music was modern and more than tolerable, even catchy in a good way. No saccharine Andrew Lloyd Webber nursery rhymes, no mothball-scented Rogers & Hammerstein. I was able to actually enjoy the songs, aided by the fact that it was my kid out there.
But early in dress rehearsals, I hit a kind of musical fatigue. In addition to being way too bouncy and commercial-jingley (even by my kid’s standards), the music was loud, because it had to fill a theater. When we got home from rehearsals after 11:00 p.m. (I told you they were serious), I just didn’t want to hear music any more. I needed silence.
That extended into my days as well. The car commute, if I used the radio at all, was all about NPR, podcasts, and afternoon baseball — even pregame shows, which are 90 percent commercials.
Bottom line is, I’ve listened to hardly any music all month. This wasn’t a permanent condition or anything, just a need for some mental rest. (Physical fatigue probably played a role as well, because I was running the fly rail — the ropes that bring scenery up and down. Again: serious.)
It was interesting, unintended experiment. In the past, I’ve needed to escape a particular genre for a while — jazz included — but I never knew I had a hard limit for music in general. It was a rewarding experience, though, and I’ll gladly do it again. Just, please, not for any Andrew Lloyd Webber shows.
This week, Myra Melford has been performing at the Village Vanguard in New York, showing off her four-year-old working quintet, Snowy Egret. It’s her first stint at the Vanguard as a bandleader — a nice milestone in a career that’s already varied and accomplished. And it’s a nice follow-up to her recent residency at The Stone, which yielded a series of videos and a free digital EP.
The band is a nice choice for the Vanguard, too. Snowy Egret, the band’s self-titled debut album, is a good showcase for the snappy creative jazz that Melford has been perfecting since her piano-trio days in Chicago.
The compositions are engaging and thought-provoking as always, and the instrumentation makes for some intriguing sounds. The writing seems tailor-made for the clipped syllables of the trumpet, executed by Ron Miles. Liberty Ellman‘s guitar adds a liquidy quality; on “Ching Ching/For Love of Fruit,” it mixes with Melford’s harmonium (an accordion-like instrument that once caught her eye in India) for a folksy sound that’s hard to identify at first.
Tyshawn Sorey‘s drumming, varying from subtle shading to vicious attack, is stellar as always. He has a way of saying a lot with even the lightest of touches.
Here’s a good trio moment from “The Kitchen,” with Melford soloing, backed by robust acoustic bass guitar from longtime compatriot Stomu Takeishi.
Like all great artists, Melford has a wide variety of influences and has taken her music in many directions. But I’ll always have a soft spot for her crisp, articulate “jazz” playing. Snowy Egret has that in spades.
Snowy Egret, the band, will be at the Village Vanguard through March 6, and will also tour in Europe starting in late October.
David James’ GPS performs at the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd Street @ Mission, San Francisco) on Thursday, Feb. 25.
David James’ GPS — Billionaire Blues (self-released, 2016)
David James, the guitarist in Beth Custer’s jazz group, has put together an album of his own, following the same contemporary muse that mixes jazz with sophisticated rock grooves and an open mind for creativity.
The album has a cohesive, polished sound — the mood reminds me of Custer’s album, Roam, which also features James — but under the surface, James’ band skims through a variety of musical styles.
You can hear a stomping tango in “Powell Doctrine” or springy, bluesy guitar work against a stiff beat and airy jazz leads on “2 Zs, 2 Ps.” Shades of happy, old-time jazz pop up in “Grip” and “Wag the Puppy,” but their paths take some swerves. “Grip,” in particular, tilts into a light guitar groove worthy of a jam band, featuring one of my favorite guitar solos on the record.
“Black Ops” uses a slightly jagged 7/8 rhythm to set up a sunny South African vibe with breezy solos. It’s a good showcase for the band, including Dina Maccabee’s airy viola, and it gives drummer Jan Jackson a subtle showcase as the energy level gradually builds.
The title track is a relaxed, back-porch blues led by James’ drawling guitar chords, with perky clarinet and trombone solos. And “Obama Hop/Prayer” starts out with an upbeat melody out of a black-and-white movie; it’s so happy, it almost has to have a touch of sarcasm in it.
This is one of those albums that’s fun to listen to because you can tell how much fun they had making it. Saying someone “played with Beth Custer” can mean a whole variety of things (a testament to her versatility) — and Billionaire Blues offers a good swath of those possibilities itself.
You can hear the album over on Bandcamp.
Matt Davignon — Pink Earth (self-released, 2015)
Using tools such as a drum machine distorted beyond recognition, Matt Davignon paints abstract landscapes at once eerie and comforting. Pink Earth is the latest in that sequence, this time aiming for a warm and relaxing vibe.
It’s lazy to describe the album’s blend of liquid chimes and mildly ominous waves as an alien world, but in this case, that’s the artist’s intent. Pink Earth is built around the concept of a team of explorers landing on an alien planet. The sounds represent the flora and fauna they discover.
Pink Earth sounds like a peaceful place. Its geography and slow-moving inhabitants are just outside the margins of human comprehension, but they’re not dangerous. The track “We came to a small clearing with insects and lizards” even opens with bird calls — a rare familiar reference — before adding some distant springy sounds, something between a bell and a radar blip.
Davignon’s source materials are well hidden under layers of mutation and distortion. As on his 2010 album, Living Things, you’d never guess that a drum machine created many of the sounds. It’s been a favorite tool if his, its pulsing twisted into the stuff of ghostly soundscapes.
For Pink Earth, Davignon added his voice to the mix, again in forms barely recognizable if at all. It’s in a tinny oscillation on “Arrival/Pink Earth,” like a static haze lingering in the air — or maybe in the ominous dull, foreboding roar underlying “Under a moss cathedral.”
Some of my favorite sounds are generated by the drum machine. “Lepidoptera” is built around a kalimba-like tickle, non-repeating, over which a quavering tone becomes a soloing instrument or monologuing voice. “Arrival/Pink Earth” features deep chimes, like water dripping in a cave, that play against synth-like non-melodies.
Davignon describes Pink Earth as music suitable to fall asleep to. That’s true, but it also presents plenty of fuel for a wakeful imagination.
You can hear and purchase the album on Bandcamp.
Marco Eneidi Streamin’ 4 — Panta Rei (ForTune, 2014)
Marco Eneidi’s alto sax is commonly associated with Jimmy Lyons’ fleet, liquid playing, so it’s unexpected to hear “Can’t Stop, Won’t Start” open Panta Rei with austere emotional wails. Eneidi and tenor saxophonist Marek Pospieszalski take turns overblowing in slow, ragged screams that sound like pure emotion unbounded — whether despair, anger, or even unfathomable joy is partly up to you.
That kind of raw-nerve emotion abounds on this quartet album, which pairs Eneidi with a trio of Polish musicians in a muscular improvised-jazz session. Things do heat up later. On tracks like “White Bats Yodelling” [sic] and “Arco M.,” we get a long, unadulterated doses of Eneidi spattering quick, fluid phrases in an exciting diatribe. “Made in Pole Land” gives us Eneidi’s slickest solo, followed by Pospieszalski demonstrating his own aggressive style.
Back on “Can’t Stop, Won’t Start,” Eneidi and Pospieszalski’s sparse choice of opening salvo provides us with a clearer introduction to Ksawery Wójciński on bass and Michał Trela on drums. Trela, in particular, plays a rapid-fire patter that arguably becomes the center of attention, a lead line behind the “rhythm” of the slow saxophone peals.
Though it’s an improvised record, Panta Rei walks along the border of spontaneous composition, with near-unison phrases materializing between the two saxophones, or from Pospieszalki and Wójciński on tenor sax and bass. It’s possible these are actually composed (although every track is credited to all four musicians) or communicated on-the-fly through hand signals — or maybe it’s a follow-the-leader exercise that the musicians consciously utilized.
In any event, these moments provide some guideposts in a couple of the album’s four long tracks, each clocking in at 9 to 18 minutes.
One sticking point for me — and it’s a small one — involves one of Eneidi’s go-to riffs: a fluttering between a root note and a scale progression, like a pianist keeping the thumb on one note while the other four fingers wander. It’s a trademark of his, but here, it seems to appear a little more often than it should. That I can even recognize this might simply be a sign that I’ve listened to that much of Eneidi’s music. Given the sparseness of his recorded output, that’s not a bad thing.
Having spent a decade in Vienna, Eneidi has now taken up residence in Mexico, where he’s been working with a trio called Cosmic Brujo Mutafuka — here’s some video of what they’re up to.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil — You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015)
By the time I had opened Snakeoil’s You’ve Been Watching Me, I had seen the band twice, including one show that ran through all the major tracks on this, their third CD. So I wasn’t expecting any surprises — but I’d forgotten that this session adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira.
He blends in well. He’s often featured playing the unison lead, adding a new color to the themes. And sometimes he adds David Torn-like effects, as in the distant rumble he builds during the ominous ending to “Embraceable Me,” with its one-note piano chime holding the tension for the mad group solo to follow.
Tim Berne is an artist who churns through bands and compositions rapidly, always anxious to move on to the next thing. It’s nice, then, when something sticks. As with the Bloodcount quartet, it’s been good to see Snakeoil get time to settle, to find its own equilibrium.
“Comfortable” probably isn’t a word Berne wants to hear, but yes, I’ve grown comfortable with this band. It doesn’t feel stale, and the addition of Ferreira adds a fresh challenge without disbalancing the band’s chemical equation. But for me as a listener, what’s nice about “comfortable” is that this third Snakeoil album is heightening my awareness of what I like about this band.
Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet brings a chamber-music delicacy to those long, quiet stretches. He’s especially good during a long, spare stretch of “Small World in a Small Town,” playing opposite Matt Mitchell‘s piano and Ches Smith on vibes and drums.
Mitchell’s piano can play the role of a hard, punishing bassline, but his higher calling here is to add another dimension of tangle and complexity to Berne’s tangly, complex composing. Compositions such as “Small World in a Small Town,” “Embraceable Me,” and “Semi-Self Detatched” (excerpted below) feature cross-current melodies played by separate factions of the band — something Berne did with Bloodcount, too, but it feels like he has more options and more density with this band.
We enjoyed Ches Smith’s music here in the Bay Area for years, so it’s not surprising that he has an intuitive grasp for what this band needs. His drums are a catalyst for building the tension leading to those big, dramatic composed segments, while the vibraphones and timpani let him add to those quieter stretches.
And then there’s Ferreira’s guitar, filling a role similar to Marc Ducret‘s part-time role with Bloodcount: sometimes doubling up the melodies, sometimes adding rugged, scratchy effects to the mix. Over the quick, heavyhanded patter of “False Impressions,”he cuts a nice solo, choosing a skinny, echoey sound, from the Robert Fripp end of the spectrum. And he gets center-stage on the brief title track, a solo-guitar composition reminiscent of the Ducret pieces on Berne’s album, The Sevens.
Above: Snakeoil, minus Ferreira, performing “Embraceable Me” at The Stone.
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.
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.