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.

Musical Crash

2-cropYes, 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.

Melford Takes Manhattan

Myra MelfordSnowy Egret (Enja/Yellowbird, 2015)

melford-snowyThis 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’ Billionaire Blues

David James’ GPS performs at the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd Street @ Mission, San Francisco) on Thursday, Feb. 25.

David James’ GPSBillionaire Blues (self-released, 2016)

james-billionaireDavid 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.

Ambient Electronics, Alien Worlds

Matt Davignon appears on KPFA radio tonight (Sun. Jan. 16, 2016, between 10:00 p.m. and midnight) to discuss Pink Earth with Dean Suzuki, host of “Discreet Music.” Tune in at kpfa.org.

Matt DavignonPink Earth (self-released, 2015)

davignon-pinkearthUsing 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

Marco Eneidi Streamin’ 4Panta Rei (ForTune, 2014)

eneidi-pantaMarco 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.