NYC Part 1: Clarinets

Had it really been five years since I last visited New York City? Feels about right.

I’ve had family members living in Brooklyn for at least the past decade, but sadly, the thing that really gets me out to the city is work. So this trip, like its predecessors, was a whirlwind. The subway is convenient and cheap but not particularly fast, so it takes effort to make it to events on time. It’s worth the sweat and the energy drain.

IMG_3009 novik dtmgallery 300xI arrived in Manhattan late on a Sunday afternoon, with barely enough time to catch the end of a free show at Downtown Music Gallery, the store that’s been a mandatory stop on every visit. DMG hosts a free set every Sunday, but I’d never seen one, since I tend to start my east-coast trips on Mondays.

DMG is also well off the subway routes, down in Chinatown between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. After checking into my hotel, I grabbed a cab, willing to pay the extra cash for the sake of taking the FDR expressway directly downtown.

I arrived for the tail end of a clarinet trio of Guillermo Gregorio, Aaron Novik, and Stan Zenkoff. The lights were down, with the audience of about 10 people seated in tiny chairs filling the browsing aisles.

One of the clarinet sounds I enjoy the most is the low burble, a quiet, mid-register fluttering of fast notes. Novik got a number of moments like that, backed by stark landscapes drawn by Gregorio and Zenkoff. But really, each of the three players cycled through moments of screeching abandon and moments of more conventional musicality, alternating roles among themselves to create that ever-shifting landscape that free improv can create.

An added bonus: Novik, formerly from the Bay Area and now living in Queens, actually recognized me. We never knew each other that well, but it was nice that he remembered me — and I certainly remember him.

We had a good chat. Then I purchased a couple of items (because I can’t visit DMG and not buy anything) then caught the F-train back to the Lower East Side for what was probably my last visit to The Stone.

August 1, 2017 at 9:59 pm Leave a comment

The Brain-Frying World of Brandon Seabrook

Brandon SeabrookDie Trommel Fatale (New Atlantis, 2017)

I’ve previously written about Brandon Seabrook’s aggressive approach to guitar. I’d observed that he adds a keen edge to Mostly Other People Do the Killing and a choppy energy to Eivind Opsvik’s albums.

That was before I heard his solo stuff. Good gawd.

That’s from the 2014 album Sylphid Vitalizers, and it consists of Seabrook on many overdubbed banjos — each played in real time — with the help of a drum machine. Two of the album’s five tracks also include the menacing shred of Seabrook’s guitar.

seabrook-dieIf Seabrook slows down a little on his new album, Die Trommel Fatale, it’s only because he’s now painting with a wider range of colors, making use of a full band that includes three string players.

But the craziness is not dialed down. His guitar still throws ninja stars at your face, complex and intentionally ugly melodies that are going to hurt if you don’t brace yourself. The rough edge gets even rougher with the contributions of vocalist Chuck Bettis — grunting and shrieking in Yamataka Eye mode — and the doomsday drumming of Sam Ospovat and Dave Treut.

The strings sweeten the mix here and there (Marika Hughes on cello and Opsvik on bass), but they, too, can be applied to aggressive effect, as you can hear deep in the mix on “Clangorous Vistas.”

I wrote the other day about Burning Ghosts, the band adeptly mixing jazz and metal. Seabrook is doing the same, you might say, but drawing from different pools of “jazz” and “metal.”

Burning Ghosts is about metal, with its stonewall guitars and rumbling demonic aesthetic. Seabrook taps a cousin music that’s closer to punk and noise. It’s just as hardcore but more trebly, with high-strung guitars articulating melodies that dig up as much darkness and discomfort as possible.

Some guys, when they play this kind of stuff — you think “Whoa. Where’d that come from?” Bill Frisell in Naked City comes to mind. Not Seabrook. I’d seen only a few pictures of him before, but once I dropped the needle on Die Trommel Fatale, it was like: “Oh yeah. I shoulda guessed.”

Moments not to miss include the digitized voice “solo” on “Quickstep Grotesquerie,” the lingering prog/metal of “The Greatest Bile, Part 2,” and the channel-flipping blend of jazzy strings, gloopy electronics, and shredding guitar on “Abscessed Pettifogger.”

I’ll leave you with a promo video for “Emotional Cleavage.” Be warned: It’s a little bit gruesome, although the ending is priceless.

Seabrook also has a trio album coming out in October. Catch a preview on Bandcamp.

July 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm Leave a comment

9 Artists and a Treasure Trove on Bandcamp

Not sure how long this has been on Bandcamp, but it’s a cool idea: Nine artists have joined forces to offer a ton of releases under the collective name of Catalytic Sound.


Ab Baars, Mats Gustafsson, Ig Henneman, Terrie Hessels, Joe McPhee, Andy Moor, Paal Nilssen-Love, Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley make up the Catalytic collective.

vandermark-drinkCatalytic Sound was founded in 2011, according to their Facebook page. That’s probably referring to the group’s web site,  which appears to be a vehicle for selling CDs. In fact, much of what’s on the Bandcamp site is available in physical form only — CD or vinyl.

Bandcamp, though, makes it easy for the artists to sell music digitally — which means Catalytic Sound dips deep into into the artists’ back catalogues. That’s the part I’m really excited about. Vandermark, in particular, has stacks of out-of-print 1990s CDs represented — such as Drink Don’t Drown, a live recording from the famed Empty Bottle jazz series in Chicago.

One oldie worth checking out is Caffeine, an obscure trio with Jim Baker on piano and Steve Hunt on drums. It’s one of so many “lost” CDs I remember sampling in the KZSU-FM library.

Combined with the Destination: Out store, which is re-releasing the old FMP catalogue of European improv classics, Catalytic Sound is turning Bandcamp into a dangerous vacuum for discretionary dollars. Not that I’m complaining.

July 14, 2017 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Masada String Trio


No, I haven’t sampled all of the Book of Angels CDs in John Zorn’s Masada series. Haven’t even come close.

So, despite the players’ pedigrees, I hadn’t yet heard the Masada String Trio.

Then this popped up. Posted to YouTube just last month, it appears to be a French TV broadcast of a live String Trio performance. Greg Cohen on bass, Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Zorn doing the conducting and grinning ear to ear. There’s some brilliant playing here.

This combination seems dear to Zorn’s heart, because Masada String Trio was granted two entries in the Book of Angels series (wherein each band in succession got to pick from Zorn’s “Masada Book Two” compositions). They also recorded the inaugural CD in Tzadik’s series celebrating Zorn’s 50th birthday in 2003. All of those discs are concerts recorded at the late, lamented Tonic.

Well, why not? Three downtown NYC veterans playing good music at a beyond-expert level — who wouldn’t be game for that? Glad I finally took the time to listen.

July 9, 2017 at 8:38 pm Leave a comment

Metal-Jazz Done Right

Burning Ghosts play at the Hemlock Tavern (1131 Polk St., San Francisco) on Thursday, May 13. Openers include The Lake Millions, veterans of KZSU’s Day of Noise.

Burning GhostsReclamation (Tzadik, 2017)

burning-reclamationNot every moment of Reclamation as in-your-face as the promo video suggests, but Burning Ghosts‘ new album, released last Friday on Tzadik, does deliver on its claims of mixing metal with jazz.

Descriptions like that always leave me skeptical, since the mixing of any two genres tends to select the weakest tonics from either side, particularly the jazz. (That was especially true of jazz/hip-hop mashups, as I often discussed with KZSU DJ M-Smooth in the mid-2000s.)

But this mix works. Daniel Rosenboom‘s trumpet is at the center of the music, played in bright, crisp tones that very much signal “jazz.” On the metal side, it’s Jake Vossler and Richard Giddens swimming in the throttling smoke of guitar and bass, driven by Aaron McLendon on the drum kit.

Rosenboom has explored similar territory with the Los Angeles band DR. MiNT, mixing jazz horns and outer-limits guitar. He’s at home here, as you can hear on “FTOF,” a track that gets Reclamation off to a zooming start.

The opening of “Harbinger,” meanwhile, is a slow drag through thick brambles, leading to a shredding attack:

Rosenboom describes Burning Ghosts as an activist band, and you can hear traces of that in the dire urgency of “The War Machine” and the scorching grandeur of “Revolution.” There’s anger in here, but it’s packed with brainy and adept musicianship.

I get a jazzier vibe from the band’s 2016 Curve Line Space performances, with Tina Raymond on drums and Tim Lefebvre (of Donny McCaslin’s band) on bass. On Reclamation, Rosenboom and Vossler are more intent on going for the jugular, airing the band’s metal side. But don’t discount the jazzy moments like the bass-drums shuffle of “Gaslight” and even the light-touch rhythm section backing the guitar shredding on “Catalyst.”

July 5, 2017 at 11:14 pm Leave a comment

A Glimpse of Frank Lowe

Here’s a 2003 interview with Frank Lowe, months before his death from lung cancer.

He offers some terrific insight into his early musical education, living in Memphis. Musically, Lowe grew up influenced by the jazz and R&B greats of the ’50s but also by the rising New Thing, and he describes how he doesn’t even separate the two in his mind.

For example, he cites a deep respect for Hank Crawford and for Ray Charles’ band as a whole. “It was like R&B going into progressive jazz,” he says. “They were playing hip stuff, just as hip as anybody playing with the big bands.”

He goes on to cite Crawford’s “Four Five + Six,” which appears on Lowe’s album Inappropriate Choices (ITM, 1991) with the Saxemple. Here’s James Carter blowing baritone sax over that track’s blues changes:

The Saxemple was a heck of a project: Four horns and a drummer, reveling in the pre-rock-‘n’-roll sounds of early R&B and dosing it with the occasional modern touch. Lowe, Carter, Michael Marcus, and Carlos Ward swung together in tight unison, aided by drummer Phillip Wilson. The joy in the music shines through.

A jazz musician’s life isn’t an easy one, and Lowe’s was cut short unfairly. But based on that interview and albums like the Saxemple’s, it sounds like he had a lot of fun playing his music. That’s a triumph.

Hat tip: Richard Scheinin on Twitter.

June 29, 2017 at 10:50 pm Leave a comment

Nicole Mitchell & Afro-Futurism

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth EnsembleMandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2016)

Mandorla-Awakening-cover-2.jpg“Egoes War,” a seething fog of darkness eventually cut by Alex Wing’s distorted, yelping guitar, is a dramatic and fitting opening to Mandorla Awakening II, Nicole Mitchell’s latest sci-fi-inspired album. Mitchell’s flute is a key part of the tumult, dancing in aggressive spirals.

This is familiar turf for Mitchell. I remember being impressed by her album Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008), based on Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, in which Earth encounters an alien race that advances itself by swapping genes with other species. The track “Adrenalin,” with its wordless vocal wails, reflects the disorienting madness that would have to come with this transformation, and the conflicting emotions of humanity being simultaneously invaded and improved. The album’s grand finale “seems like the opening to a grand unknown, rather than a resolution,” as I wrote back then.

Mandorla Awakening presents a similar other-worldliness, though ritualistic beats (including swinging, danceable ones), ecstatic free jams, and chaotic eddies of sound.

But it also draws from soul, gospel, and funk with poet avery r. young singing Mitchell’s lyrics about perseverance. “Staircase Struggle” delivers a straight beat with flute and guitar tracing free spirals behind the jam. “We keep on doin’ the same thing / Over and over, and over again,” young sings, eventually leading into a Mitchell poem about social change.

If Mandorla‘s music seems earthbound compared to Xenogenesis, it’s because the story is, too. A global pandemic has left the remains of civilization under totalitarian rule, but a group of survivors has escaped to an isolated island, where they’ve built a happy, functioning society. The central conflict comes with the arrival of two people from the outside world. As Mitchell told the Chicago Reader, “I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world. Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”

The story culminates with the cooldown jam of “Mandorla Island” and the clackety, celebratory funk of “Timewrap.” The latter is a bit like an encore piece — the album was recorded live in 2015 — and it’s a highlight. But rather than “give away” the musical ending, I’ll finish with “Dance of Many Hands,” an earlier track that’s a small story in itself. It opens with an airy, optimistic jam followed by a brief tribal drum solo by Jovia Armstrong and elegiac cello by Tomeka Reid.

June 25, 2017 at 9:32 am Leave a comment

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