More Grand Gestures for Piano and Drums

Dialectical Imagination performs Dec. 26 at the Octopus Literary Salon (2101 Webster St., Oakland), 7:00 p.m.

Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath (Atma Nadi, 2017)

dialectical-wrath.jpgNote the subtle difference in title. Dialectical Imagination’s previous album referred to “Songs of Rapture,” while this new one is about songs of wrath.

The strategy remains the same: High-energy improvisations that mix classical precision with free-jazz-like abandon. Dialectical Imaginations is the piano-drums duo of Eli Wallace and Rob Pumpelly, both hammering away ecstatically.

The new album, which officially releases on Christmas Day, can be pre-ordered on Bandcamp. And on a personal note — it’s hard to find good music shows during the holidays, so I’m glad to see the Octopus cafe in Oakland booking these guys for the day after Christmas.

The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Wrath is full of lengthy high-energy segments, but it’s not just random bashing. Both players execute a deliberate accuracy even when they’re bashing away — as on “Autopoietica I,” which combines a flurry of piano sticklers with some stormy drums.

 
“Autopoietica II” shows off the duo’s more subtle side. It’s still full of bombast, but at lower intensity, with Wallace splashing fluidly around the keyboard and Pumpelly battering furiously but quietly at the toms. The piece ends with a slower movement, with the kind of drama that evokes the crashing ocean surf.

“Strength and Presence” is where the “wrath” really kicks in — a 13-minute musical attack, with both players relentlessly filling space. It’s a signature moment, albeit a long one.

The track that’s available for early sampling on Bandcamp is “Hatchling,” which builds from a quiet opening where Wallace’s jazz influences, including possibly Cecil Taylor, are more clearly on display.

December 22, 2017 at 12:52 am Leave a comment

Back Pages #4: Tim Berne’s Bloodcount

berne-bloodcount(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I might have been the first mail-order customer for Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records, only because I couldn’t accept an invitation to drop by his house.

Screwgun is Berne’s second record label. He’d cut his teeth on Empire Records starting in 1979, having learned from the example of Julius Hemphill. In 1996, he was ready to give it another go.

Screwgun’s first release was Bloodcount Unwound, a gloriously DIY effort: three CDs in a cardboard package with a gloriously insane fold-up card that combines credits, track listings, and a vegan cookie recipe by Jim Black. Artist Steve Byram‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.

bloodcount

I was in New York some weeks prior to Unwound‘s release, and I struck up a conversation with Berne after a gig — at the old Knitting Factory, I think. He was talking about getting a mail-order label started, with a live Bloodcount album as the first release. “But you know,” he said, “you could just drop by my house tomorrow and pick one up.”

Two problems. First: Berne lives in Brooklyn. Being new to the New York experience, I was nervous about wandering outside Manhattan, not out of snobbery, but because we didn’t have GPS devices and cellphone maps back then. Stepping a few blocks off the grid to find the Knitting Factory was disorienting enough; I didn’t think I stood a chance at navigating Brooklyn.

More importantly, I had a flight to catch the next day. I theoretically had time, but — I would have to find Berne’s house in one try, then find a cab (I was savvy enough to assume Brooklyn wouldn’t be swarming with them), and hope for forgiving traffic along the slog to JFK.

I honestly considered it. But with my trip nearing its end, the grown-up in me took over. I declined.

I don’t recall what happened next, but most likely, Tim provided me instructions for mailing a check. (Berne had no website at the time, and online credit-card processing wasn’t in the hands of most DIY types anyway.) Some time later, Bloodcount Unwound found its way to our little townhouse in San Jose.

Unwound is the best of the Bloodcount albums, capturing the band at their fiery best. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (It’s at the top of the photo above, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts and got pretty good audio out of them — another practice that’s common today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.

The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older tracks like “What Are the Odds?” and “Bro’ball” (a combination of “Broken” and “Lowball” from the 1993 trio album Loose Cannon). You get all the subtleties of Bloodcount’s long improvisational phases as well as moments of sheer, oversaturating power, particularly from Jim Black’s drums. Check out “Mr. Johnson’s Blues:”

 
This is what happens when a band gets familiar with each other in a good way. If you want to learn why this band remains so popular, Unwound  is the place to look.

My recollection is that Unwound‘s original run of 2,000 sold out, and Berne eventually printed more. DIY CDs were looking like a promising business model for independent musicians.

But that dream got chipped away, first by piracy (despite what pop-music fans seem to think, “touring” isn’t a substitute for selling records) and more recently by the paltry royalties of streaming services. Berne found haven in the form of an ECM contract — in fact, his Snakeoil band has a new album that I’m overdue to pick up.

Screwgun, despite tougher odds, lives on; screwgunrecords.com remains Berne’s home page, where he still sells CDs and now offers MP3s of some out-of-print titles. (Unwound isn’t among them yet, but you can find it on Bandcamp.) The label recently produced a Matt Mitchell solo CDForage, and a Berne/Byram art book called Spare. Long live DIY.

December 17, 2017 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

Exploring Helmut Lachenmann

solo

Once in a while, I like to dip into UbuWeb: Sound. Part of the Ubu online collection of avant-garde art and video, it was originally conceived as a library of sound poetry but now encompasses a generous spectrum of experimental music, too.

I cherish the idea that these mostly out-of-print works have a home, but I have to admit, I also revel in the obscurity of it all. So much art from so many unfamiliar names. So much history! It’s a playground for hipsters of the avant-garde: “I was into Laurie Anderson back when she was doing actual songs! On vinyl!” (Check out “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”)

So one day — the day I found that Laurie Anderson page, actually — I decided to spin the big wheel. Push the cursor blindly, investigate a name. It could have been someone extremely famous like Phillip Glass or Don Cherry. But I lucked out and got a modern classical composer of great renown who had so far escaped me: Helmut Lachenmann.

His purview is “musique concrète instrumentale,” meaning the extramusical sounds that can be squeezed out of musical instruments. His pieces are like noise sculptures, full of extended playing and improv-like atmosphere. The sound of “a beetle on its back,” the Guardian says, quoting the instructions from one of Lachenmann’s pieces.

089

Ubu’s collection includes two of his works, from a 1986 recording on the Col Legno label; it’s still available on eMusic. A string quartet called “Gran Torso” fills the space with creaks, scrapes, bow bouncing, and the occasional wisp of an open-stringed tone. I can see how pieces like this might have informed works like Elliott Sharp’s “The Boreal.”

Even abstract noise can be used to carve a trajectory, a pacing, as “Gran Torso” does. The activity ebbs and flows in a storytelling fashion. It’s enjoyable.

The secon piece is “Saut für Caudwell” for two acoustic guitars, played in clackety percussive style that I would have mistaken for violins. It gets into a snappy rhythm with the guitarists chanting in German — simple stuff, a 1/4 time signature in a sense. That’s followed by a dynamic segment of springy, scraping sounds.

Exploring elsewhere, I’ve found that when Lachenmann’s aesthetic is applied to an orchestra, the result is pretty much as I expected — lots of sparse abstract sounds, but a wider variety that comes at you from a multitude of directions. I’m also trying to get into his solo piano piece, “Serynade,” which combines moments of fluid virtuosity; sudden, shrill bursts; and long bouts of silence.

I know there’s a whole world of musique concrète to discover, but for now, I’m happy exploring Lachenmann’s corner of it. His work essentially involves extended techniques on acoustic instruments, a milieu I’m more than familiar with, but I’m finding fresh aspects to his music. Despite the abstractness of it all, I think I can feel a common style and personality in the pieces I’ve heard so far.

Here’s a performance of “Serynade” by Mexican concert pianist Anna Paolina Hasslacher. It’s also on her Soundcloud page, but I like the way this camera angle reveals the techniques involved.

November 28, 2017 at 11:07 pm Leave a comment

Rocking A Love Supreme

Karl Evangelista/GrexA Love Supreme (Brux, 2017)

coversmallYou can tell from the start that this isn’t a conventional reading of A Love Supreme, and not just because it’s guitar-based. Karl Evangelista and the band Grex start the piece with the same kind of wide-open introduction as the original, but in a voice that suggests what’s to come: a hard-digging psychedelic guitar opera.

With guitar and keys, bass and drums, and a couple of sparkling trumpet solos, it’s a satisfying treatment — a 25-minute EP being released as precursor to Grex’s next album. The structure of the four-movement piece remains intact, and there’s even a drum solo to open “Pursuance,” as on the original. What’s different is the transformation of the themes into rock form. Check out “Resolution,” where Evangelista plays the snakey composed line while Grex backs him with sinister chords.

 
The seminal moment of the original piece is Coltrane singing the “a love supreme” chant at the end of “Acknowledgement.” I can’t believe I never noticed this, but Coltrane sings his phrase in each of the 12 different keys. On Grex’s version, it’s the band who plays that theme, hopping from key to key while Evangelista’s guitar dances over the fast-shifting landscape.

The rock treatment is interesting when you consider that the original is based on wide-open modal playing — no ostinato, no riffs to clutch onto. Rock, of course, relies on repeated themes and rhythms that back the solos. It’s a fun translation, as “Pursuance” turns into a head-bobbing rocker with a solo of fuzz and feedback. “Psalm” becomes a cooldown study in slow-burning guitar and electric piano.

Listen to (and buy) the whole album at Bandcamp.

November 23, 2017 at 12:39 pm Leave a comment

Greedily Gobbling ECM

ecm grayblackI’ve avoided Spotify all this time. I already have too much music that I don’t listen to. I’m not interested in the pop stars and generic categories (“relaxing jazz for the office!”) offered on the service. And I have a problem with the fact that artists aren’t compensated fairly — Spotify, like many net economy startups, is a bit of a freeloader.

What’s changed my mind is that ECM Records joined the fray. As of Nov. 17, the label is offering its catalogue on a variety of streaming services. Apple and Amazon are included, but I give those guys too much money already. Spotify has the advantage of in-home tech support through my teenage daughter, who uses the app relentlessly.
ecm block

Limitations of the service became apparent quickly. I was disappointed to find out you can’t just shuffle-play an entire label. (As iTunes should have taught me, things like record labels — or songwriters, or musician identities in general — are not valued in a webstreaming world.)

And I don’t trust Spotify to build me a “radio station” using an ECM album as a seed. I still remember the Last.fm experience — I asked it to play artists similar to a particular jazz leader, and it picked jazz artists who played the same instrument. Start with Charles Mingus, and you ended up with Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, and so on. To be fair, I did accidentally hit the Spotify “radio” button next to an ECM album, and it started me off with a Rune Gramofone track. Not a bad guess. Still — I’ll save the algorithms for when I start exploring Spotify’s free-improv catalogue, which is surprisingly extensive.

The solution to getting what I really wanted — a pseudorandom sampling of ECM goodness — was to built a playlist. I’m just throwing albums into it, as if I’m a game-show contestant with a shopping cart and a time limit. I’ll add and delete as the whim strikes, or as I find that a particular album doesn’t suit me. Interestingly, the playlists are the one feature my kid hasn’t experimented with. So much for tech support.

Here’s a smattering of what I’ve thrown into there, or plan to:

Mal WaldronFree at Last (1970) — From 1970, ECM catalogue number 1001: The very first. I’m not sure we even had this on vinyl at KZSU (and the KZSU library itself is a trove of ’70s and ’80s ECM vinyl).

Jan GarbarekSelected Recordings (2002) — Part of the :rarum series of compilations that ECM put out around the turn of the century. I figure the series will be a good way to survey some of the artists I’ve paid short shrift to, like Garbarek.aec-niceguys-185

Vijay Iyer SextetFar From Over (2017) — Because I haven’t gotten around to hearing it yet. What? Stop judging me!

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys (1979) — Because I’ve never heard it, and it’s listed in Len Lyons’ 101 Best Jazz Albums book. Lyons openly admits that doing a “best jazz albums” book is rather ridiculous; in reality, the book is a chronicle of the major jazz movements. It helped me understand why Coltrane and Miles are so revered, for instance. Anyway, in the “Free Jazz” chapter, he uses Nice Guys to introduce the Art Ensemble. I should listen.

The Codona Trilogy (1979, 1981, 1983) — Simply titled CodonaCodona 2, and Codona 3, these albums tapped the “world music” thing before it was a thing, featuring Collin Walcott on sitar, hammer dulcimer, and tabla. Along similar lines…

Jan Garbarek, Anouar Brahem, Ustad Shaukat HussainMadar (1994) — Sax, oud, and tabla. I added a few Brahem albums to the playlist, following up on my explorations of jazz oud.

Andy Sheppard QuartetSurrounded by Sea (2015) — Never tapped into Sheppard after getting early exposure to him in a freely improvised context. I knew his regular stuff wouldn’t be so far out, but it’s nice, especially with that ECM touch.

November 22, 2017 at 11:13 pm Leave a comment

Things Lost

IMG_8767There’s plenty of heartbreak in the aftermath of the fires that ripped through Sonoma recently. So, in no way is this the saddest of the fire stories — but it’s still poignant.

KQED science editor Craig Miller did a story once on the field recordings of Bernie and Kat Krause. Their Wild Sanctuary project captured more than 4,500 hours of audio, documenting the “soundscape” of the planet.

The audio is backed up, but the studio that helped make it all happen is gone, along with troves of original tapes.

Miller and the Krauses visited the remains of the studio. Text, photos, and audio here: Amid the North Bay Fire Ruins: A Lost “Sanctuary” for Nature’s Music.

November 18, 2017 at 10:21 am Leave a comment

Tim Berne (and Paul Motian) in 1983

Tim BerneMy First Tour: Live in Brussels (Screwgun, 2017)

berne-firstIt’s a lo-fi cassette recording but wholly satisfying, and a nice little slice of history.

My First Tour is a 1983 recording that Tim Berne is giving away on Bandcamp. It’s in the same spirit as the Unwound triple-CD that documented Berne’s Bloodcount quartet in concert (more on that in a later post).

“Why am I doing this?” Berne writes. “Because I think this has a side of Paul Motian that maybe isn’t well documented and worth hearing.”

True. Motian is often raucous and aggressive in this session, capped by his solo at the excerpt of “Mutant of Alberan.”

 
It’s not as if Motian hasn’t played loudly before. I remember him having a similarly dynamic solo on Keith Jarrett’s The Survivors’ Suite. That “Alberan” solo gets outright vicious, though. You get to hear the rawness behind the performance, and that’s an aspect that elevates this recording, as it did with Unwound.

Elsewhere, Herb Robertson delivers a tremendous trumpet solo on “Flies,” going absolutely nuts, backed by Motian’s high-speed brushwork. And if you want to hear Motian in a more contemplative mood, there’s “No Idea,” which lingers pensively around Motian’s sense of open non-timekeeping.

“Tin Ear” is one of the songs that I don’t think ever made it onto an album, and it’s a blast. After a swingy start, Berne kicks into fast free jazz, with Motian’s furious rhythm. That track has another raucous Motian solo as well.

I enjoy hearing alternate versions of tunes, so this collection is a treat from that standpoint as well. There’s more where this came from, on the 5-CD Empire Box that documents Berne’s early albums with Robertson, Motian, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, Vinny Golia, and more. Discs 4 and 5 are on Bandcamp.

UPDATE 11/22: Discs 1 through 3 are now on Bandcamp as well: The Five-Year Plan, 7X, and Spectres.

November 4, 2017 at 11:24 am 1 comment

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