Hooray for John Finkbeiner

Guitarist John Finkbeiner passed away a little more than a year ago. On a Sunday early in October, his friends took over the Ivy Room, a neighborhood bar in Albany, to celebrate his life and music. The event was co-organized by his partner, Lisa Mezzaappa, and one other musician (possibly John Schott, who emceed?). Many, many groups played in mostly abbreviated sets, stretching from the late afternoon well into the evening. It was a happening full of community and love, and it was wonderful.

The evening’s schedule.

Of course, I’d known Finkbeiner through his creative-music side. He was part of the quartet Go-Go Fightmaster and the Lisa Mezzacappa Quartet (same personnel, different bands). He applied a sense of humor to these efforts, evidenced by the album he and Aaron Bennett made making music out of drinking straws. The Quiet Storm All-Stars, a trio including Bennett, played one of those songs at the Ivy Room; the straws have holes, so they can play notes like a kazoo or a raspy recorder. Serious silly fun.

But another side of Finkbeiner was his love of traditional music, dub, and Caribbean dance rhythms. I’d actually known about some of this this already. I encountered him once, long ago, playing as part of a small ensemble — was it during New Year’s Eve? — playing some form of conventional jazz, and during a break, I introduced and explained myself. He was surprised. It was rare for an audience member to cross those two worlds, especially in that direction.

So, John Finkbeiner crossed boundaries, and the Ivy Room event was a chance to mingle among all those worlds. Meaning in addition to some excellent creative jazz, we got treated to acts like Hiroshi Hasegawa’s Poontang Wranglers, who took the stage decked out in orange long-johns. Their vaudville-like set featured exuberant old-timey music with a washtub bass, washboard percussion, and a bunch of ukeleles, among other instruments. It was great fun, although Hiroshi himself was in Japan and unable to make it. (I get the feeling Hiroshi is always “in Japan.” The band had that kind of absurdist bent.)

Setup for Aaron Novik’s band Kipple. Moe! Staiano, center, prepares to play an instrument built by Tom Nunn (another musician who recently left us). Graham Connah on keys; Tim Bulkley on drums, I think; Lisa Mezzacappa back there on bass; and John Schott helping set up.

The passing of a loved one is sad, but it’s also a chance for family and community to connect, recognizing that person as the intersection of so many lives. I can’t claim to have been one of John’s friends, but I was still able to celebrate his life and celebrate being there, watching so many of the musicians whose work I’ve enjoyed over the past two decades or more. It felt good to be reminded that community isn’t dead. John’s parents were there. A childhood friend who now runs a boutique ice cream truck parked outside the Ivy Room for most of the afternoon and gave out cones and cups.

And then there was Joseph’s Bones.

This was a highlight for me, Jason Levis’ instrumental dub band with three horns and two guitars: John Schott and Myles Boisen (who both appear on the band’s album, along with Finkbeiner) plus Levis on drums and Mezzacappa on bass. Lots of energy behind mid/fast grooves, and one brilliant solo after another, from the horns certainly but also the guitars, spitting bluesy psychedelic joy. The kind of music that just makes you smile. Drummer/leader Jason Levis had a poignant moment at the end of the set, talking about Finkbeiner’s loss. “We didn’t know if would ever get to play this music again,” he said.

At the merch table, we were encouraged to help ourselves to posters and pins made for the occasion, as well as music — including Joseph’s Bones’ Nomadic Pulse/Pulse in Dub, a vinyl double-album, gracefully packaged (and still available on Bandcamp). I balked a bit at that, knowing vinyl is a pricey endeavor.

But Levis told me something to the effect of, “If there’s an empty turntable out there, I want this to fill it.” He wants the music to live on. Who wouldn’t? People make music because it fills the soul, yes, but it means a lot to the musician to know it’s reached somebody, and it’s possibly more important to know this for a fellow musician who’s transitioned on. That album is spinning on my turntable as I write this. I hear you, John.

Read John’s obituary in BerkeleySide.

Guerilla Hi-Fi, the night’s closing act.

Whimsy and the Cosmos

Lisa Mezzacappa SixCosmicomics (Queen Bee, 2020)

I love that this document exists for this music. Cosmicomics is Lisa Mezzacappa’s small book of jazzy pieces that were workshopped in a series of live shows at Bird & Beckett Books in San Francisco back around 2018. The sextet was staged comfortably between the stacks and some of the audience was scattered about the shop — these were shows, but with the intimate feel of a rehearsal.

The songs are based on Italo Calvino’s book of the same name, in which cosmology is contorted into surreal stories about people and relationships. Members of Mezzacappa’s regular Bay Area cohort make up the Six — John Finkbeiner (guitar), Aaron Bennett (sax), Tim Perkis (electronics), Jordan Glenn (drums), and Mark Clifford (vibraphone) — and my recollection is that the songs began as improvisational ideas that were sculpted into full pieces over time.

Mixing jazz harmony and twisty creativity, the music is tightly executed and often cheery, the defining mood being the swinging cool of Clifford’s vibes. As on many a Mezzacappa project, Perkis’ electronics add coloring that feels organic. They’re sometimes even difficult to identify; “that sound” might be neither guitar nor buzzy arco bass, but Perkis laying down some low-key noise.

Many if not most of the songs work through multiple small phases, which gives drummer Glenn plenty of room for creative choices, moving from one set of sounds to another. Every drummer has a bag of tricks to draw from, but Glenn’s is particularly varied and is always executed with a springy energy that especially works with these good-natured pieces.

One track I was especially curious to hear, having experienced it live, was “All at One Point,” which opens with slow single notes representing the pre-big-bang universe existing in a single zero-dimensional dot. (I thought this was a Calvino invention, but it turns out to be part of the actual Big Bang theory, a detail I had somehow never grasped. Thanks to Katie Mack and her book The End of Everything for teaching me.) It’s about the people living in that dot and their decision to spread out, represented musically by a burst into some cooking, swingy jazz.

This isn’t ponderous stuff. It’s whimsical, often light, and — like a good book — stacked with ideas. I wrote up more of my initial impressions, along with more of Mezzacappa’s explanations of the stories and music, after seeing one of the Bird & Beckett shows back in 2018.

Jazz and the Beginning of the Universe

Something interesting has been happening this year at Bird & Beckett, a bookstore in San Francisco’s tranquil Excelsior neighborhood. Lisa Mezzacappa‘s latest sextet has been running an extended workshop, putting on jazz salons every couple of months around a new set of material. It’s going to culminate in a two-set performance of the polished pieces on Nov. 3.

The songs are based on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a clutch of stories reimagining cosmology in Calvino’s fantastical way. Based on Mezzacappa’s descriptions and one passage she read aloud, the stories are both philosophical and whimsical, sometimes knowingly absurd.

It’s the latest in a series of terrific theme-based projects by Mezzacappa. In 2017, she released avantNOIR (Clean Feed), cool and jazzy pieces inspired by Dashiell Hammett. Glorious Ravage, based on the journals of 19th-century female explorers, was a spellbinding live performance that was eventually captured on CD (New World, 2017).

The sextet for Cosmicomics is a crew who have worked with Mezzacappa and one another for years: Aaron Bennett (sax), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums), Tim Perkis (electronics), Mark Clifford (vibes), and Mezzacappa on bass. These are springy, dancing free-jazz compositions with strong themes and plenty of room for exploration. The vibes add shimmering atmosphere, and Perkis’ laptop sounds slide into the music naturally, whether as accompaniment or soloing.

There’s an abstract element to setting written-word “moods” to music, but Calvino’s stories gave Mezzacappa some hooks to follow literally. “All at One Point” (and you’ll have to forgive me if I’m getting the story titles or plots mixed up) supposes that before the big bang, when all of the universe was condensed into a zero-dimensional dot, all of the people were living together in that one point. Don’t worry about the physics; this is a fairy tale! Anyway, it’s a crowded place, but one popular, beautiful woman comes up with the idea of spreading out, to create space. And they do — hence the big bang — but no one ever sees the woman again.

Musically, this gets realized with a single note played by band members in unison. Then they gradually diverge, matching the concept of the universe separating, creating freedom while losing the comfortable order of the single point.

Another of the stories concerns three particles endlessly falling in the pre-matter void of the universe. Mezzacappa read a passage that pointed out the particles could, in fact, be rising instead of falling — who’s to say, considering there’s no universe? The story is a love triangle, with the narrator particle dreading that he might be falling away from his would-be mistress. Mezzacappa turned this into a trio improv game of pursuit and pursuers.

Other songs follow a more conventional jazzy flow, as with “The Soft Moon” in the video above. It’s a bit light, a bit swingy, a bit off-center. If I remember it right, the namesake story is based on the “theory” that the moon is a thick semifluid, and portions of it occasionally glop down onto Earth to form things like the continents.

The only Calvino I’ve managed to read is Invisible Cities, but that gave me a good feel for his imagination. He’s way out there, but with a matter-of-fact voice that’s almost folksy, miles away from the usual tones of sci-fi or fantasy. I’d sought out Calvino because so many musicians seemed to be dedicating pieces to him — Ken Vandermark, among them — and I can see why his voice, like an Alexander Calder sculpture, would be inspiring to artists of any stripe.

Mezzacappa’s next Bird & Beckett performance will be on Thursday, Sept. 13.

It Was Half of 20 Years Ago Today

Recently I found this: a promo bookmark from the Hotel Utah, a cool little bar and music venue in San Francisco’s SoMa district:


I believe it’s from 2007. Click here for a full view. Then take a closer look at this entry:


Search my blog, and you’ll find references to three of those four bands. This would have been one amazing show: punk energy (Mute Socialite, led by Moe Staiano and featuring Ava Mendoza), tangly free jazz (Go-Go Fightmaster, who are the same people as Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch), fast-and-fluid prog (miRthkon). I’ll give Mezzkill the benefit of the doubt and assume they were awesome, too.

Don’t take my word for it. Check them out on Bandcamp! Mute Socialite, Go-Go Fightmaster, miRthkon.

Hell of a show. Wish I’d gone.

mutesocialite2007 predates this blog, so this seems like a good time to mention I had an older, primitive site — basic HTML text — where I used to recap my KZSU radio playlists. You’ll find, for example, a short writeup about Mute Socialite, complete with a ghastly formatting error.

In fact you can look up these bands on my old KZSU playlists by using the Find It! utility on Zookeeper, our music database. Type a word or phrase, and it will call up lists of artists, albums, and songs from the KZSU library, as well as relevant playlists. Give it a whirl.

Lastly — Special shoutout to Aaron Novik’s Kipple, who can be seen at the top of the bookmark. They’re on Bandcamp, too.

Shipwreck 4

Bennett / Johnston / Mezzacappa / RosalyShipwreck 4 (NoBusiness, 2016)

shipwreck4-stOakland’s Shipwreck Studios was devoured in a fire two months after this recording session, but its name will live on through this improvising quartet, featuring three ace Bay Area performers along with Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly.

In an improv context, familiarity can be productive, and you can hear it in the way this group just clicks. Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) are all integral to the Bay Area scene, and they’ve played together in many combinations, including the bands Bait & Switch and Go-Go Fightmaster (which are actually the same quartet under different contexts).

With Rosaly, they spin up some terrific jazz-influenced structures, from the gospel-tinged sunset mood of “The Face Consented, at Last” to the alternating muted/unmuted trumpet melody that Johnston develops at the end of “Bloom.”

“The Storm We See, the Storm We Saw” demonstrates the easy interaction the quartet enjoys. Rosaly lays down an easy, free groove, and the others jump on board — Mezzacappa laying down the mood of the rhythm, with Bennett and Johnston fitting tightly together with congenial thought lines. It all comes together so naturally.

There’s a tunefulness to many of the pieces.”Everything’s Coming Up Rosaly” builds from a quiet drum solo into a brief tumult that knits together like a tight composition, with the two horns following one another’s leads.

Intertwining, sleepy melodies characterize the first part of “When Not Night,” supported by appropriately sparse bass and drum parts. The track retains its quiet atmosphere as Bennett lifts off into a long circular-breathing run, burbling and babbling as part of the undertow, with Johnston gradually increasing the intensity in his trumpet phrases.

These kinds of rich musical conversations make Shipwreck 4 a strong album and (apologies to Rosaly) another nice document of the Bay Area scene.

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and SwitchWhat Is Known (Clean Feed, 2010)

This is a long-standing Bay Area band that plays Mezzacappa’s compositions, but the same people (including Mezzacappa) also form the band Go-Go Fightmaster, another awesome slice of free jazz.

(INTERLUDE: Go-Go’s got a gig Sept. 6 at the Make-Out Room. Go!)

But Go-Go is more slash-and-burn, while Bait and Switch is rooted in the free jazz of Henry Threadgill and Eric Dolphy (two choices among the influences Mezzacappa lists in the liner notes).  Songs here do include untethered free improvising, but many of them are cemented by swingy heads that recall the best of ’60s/’70s jazz.

I don’t want to make too much of the retro connection, though, because the album doesn’t sound retro. These are modern originals, with composing that stems from Mezzacappa’s exercises in transcribing solos. (Some of these pieces might also be derived from the group’s improvisations; I remember hearing her saying something to that effect.)

John Finkbeiner’s guitar certainly reaches beyond jazz, especially when he adds distortion and fuzz, as in his solo on “Zzllzzpp.”  Aaron Bennett’s subsequent sax solo on that track might sound friendly and swingy, but it’s accompanied at first by a bumpy bass (Mezzacappa) and drums (Vijay Anderson) rhythm, and later by an evil and raucous set of riffs from the band.

For cover songs, you’ve got nonobvious choices. Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” is appropriately stabbing and buzzing, with a head that’s got an infectious rolling swing to it. “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting” is a composition by Steve McCall (drummer of the trio Air, among other groups), turned into a reverent bass solo.

A couple of quieter tracks later in the album, like “Catalypsoclysmic,” are a treat. Then, near the end, there’s “What Is Known,” where the band really blows off the doors, creating a wail that draws back on the passionate, political style of free jazz.

Here are two takes on a bright, catchy song called “The Aquarist” — one from Sacramento’s In the Flow festival, and one from a house concert. It’s got a bright, swingy theme and some space for sax and guitar solos. You can also catch early recordings of Bait & Switch songs on Mezzacappa’s Myspace page.

… And, if you care, I saw this band live about a year ago. Really glad that they found a good home for their first album.

Ivy Room Mondays

Lisa Mezzacappa, John Finkbeiner - Ivy Room, May 2009I wasn’t at Kingman’s Ivy Room tonight, but I was a few weeks ago, and what better excuse to write a blog.

The Ivy Room is a mid-sized bar, plush and casual and friendly, located in Albany just blocks north of Berkeley, or so it felt to me as I drove up. The place is being kind enough to let the improv crowd take over on Monday nights, either for a few short sets or an all out Improv Hootenanny Night that has its own MySpace page.

It’s a fun atmosphere. There’s no cover, and the Ivy Room is airy and clean — the kind of place where you’re welcome to sit on the carpeted floor in front of the music area, and you don’t worry if anything’s been spilled there. (Caveat: Monday night crowds aren’t usually the spilling type.)

Some photos from my May 25 excursion. Yes, the date on my camera was wrong.

Up top, you’ve got Lisa Mezzacappa‘s Bait and Switch, the successor to Before and After. It’s free jazz, with compositions derived from the best segments of group improvisations. The result is like Ornette Coleman taken a step further into abstract territory and noise rock at the same time, with a mood that jumps like ’60s free jazz. That’s Mezzacappa on bass and John Finkbeiner on guitar.

Aaron Bennett, John Finkbeiner, Ivy Room, May 2009At left is a second picture of the band, with Aaron Bennett (sax) at left. In this one, Vijay Anderson (drums) and Mezzacappa are obscured, making it look like the two white guys are all that matters. Hey, it was dark. All I do is point the camera and hope.

Jacob Felix Heule, Aurora Josephson, Damon Smith / Ivy Room, May 2009The trio of Jacob Felix Heule (drums), Aurora Josephson (vocal), and Damon Smith (bass) did one long improvisation, a dark and keening piece with Josephson’s voice spiking in anguish. Nice stuff.

Ivy Room, May 2009I don’t recall the details of the quartet at left. I’m pretty sure that’s Tony Dryer on bass at the far left, and two of the four members were from Norway (the guitarist and other bassist?). They, too, played a single long piece, concentrating on smaller, quieter spaces; the guitarist, in particular, buckled and thrashed to the music but was producing small crackles and crinkles, a kind of studied intensity.

It’s always nice to see a bar or restaurant take a chance on experimental music. A good cluster of these series has sprung up, maybe because venues are more willing to take chances in the face of recessionary crowds. The Make-Out Room (San Francisco, Mission District) has been hosting creative jazz on the first Monday of each month, and The Uptown (Oakland, downtown) is letting Weasel Walter curate an avant-garde program on third Tuesdays. The next of those will be tomorrow, and I’m hoping to be there, sleep cycle permitting.