Back Pages #7: Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems

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

Banner for the Knit in its second home, the one I visited. Photo: Alicia Bay Laurel, aliciab4.com

On my first visit to the Knitting Factory, I needed a souvenir. This was the late ’90s, after the club had become famous as New York’s avant-jazz nexus, and I was quick to fall in love with it — the multiple performance stages, the free music at the basement bar, the (to me) gritty feel of TriBeCa. Oh, and the fliers stacked on tables and posted on walls, DIY photocopies advertising midweek gigs in unknown lofts and art spaces. This was my first exposure to a live-music scene. Shortly after, I would be tapping the Bay Area’s own scene heavily, but this was my first glimpse of this whole new universe. I needed a souvenir.

So I stared at the shelves of CDs for sale. Tim Berne was my touchstone, so maybe something different — something away from the saxophone direction. Piano, maybe, especially once the cover of Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) caught my eye. It promised the kind of abstract language that I wanted to explore. That’s the one that I took home. 

Symbol Systems has been rereleased on Hatology, but for me, this minimal abstract album cover will always be the “real” one.

On first listen, I remember Symbol Systems feeling truly alien, brimming with this rich new vocabulary. From the clipped chords that open “Clocks,” to the wandering lines later in the piece, to the machine-like hammering in “Harmonic Oscillator,” to the fluid babble of the title track.

I think it helped that Shipp’s instrument is piano, because that meant no microtones. The album doesn’t even feature extended techniques or prepared piano, as I recall. That made it easier to explore. All these years later, the “alien” feeling has worn off — I’m accustomed to the idiom’s of Shipp’s unique language, like the heavy notes matched with the sustain pedal, and the dialects of avant-garde and free improv aren’t as alien to me. But back then, the album was an exciting trip into the unknown.

Excerpt from “Clocks”

I don’t remember the exact timing of all this. This visit must have happened in 1996 or 1997, when my new job led to a week in New York, my first trip on my own, and I took advantage of the summer evenings as much as possible. I might have already heard David S. Ware’s Cryptology by then, as it was the lead album review in a Rolling Stone issue circa 1995, and I’d eventually been intrigued enough to eventually try it out (but too green to really digest it). If that’s the case, maybe I bought Symbol Systems because I recognized Shipp’s name.

Of course, my memories of the Knitting Factory are romanticized. I arrived on the downside of its peak. And while I loved the idea of a club built to foster the avant-jazz scene, it turns out to have all been a happy accident that we have Wayne Horvitz to thank for. Check out the oral history that Jazz Times ran in May.

Back Pages #6: Beaver Harris

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

harris-earsThe most heartbreaking CD in my collection is Thank You for Your Ears (Dizim, 1998) by the Beaver Harris Trio. It’s not the music — which is joyous, powered by Hamiet Bluiett on sax/flute and Vincent Taylor playing steel drums. It’s the liner notes, written by Harris’ widow, Glo.

I was in Paris in 1999, ambling through every CD store I could find. Of course, the shoddy-looking small stores had the best selection of obscure jazzy stuff (this being an era when such stores were still plentiful). One had its avant-jazz collection in boxes, arranged not by artist but by record label — a sign that they catered to a knowledgeable crowd. Among the dividers was Rastascan Records, the Bay Area label run by Gino Robair. I hope he managed to get paid for those CDs.

I picked up a CD from the Eric Barret Quartet, because it had guitarist Marc Ducret on it, whom I knew from Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and also a cover of Yes’ “Five Percent for Nothing,” a 30-second blip of a song that Barrett’s band expanded to five minutes. Fun stuff, and it’s interesting to hear Ducret in a more conventional setting (but still not “inside” jazz). I bought a disc called Terra Nova mainly because the artwork looked interesting — kind of artsy and mildly abstract. Turns out it was modern classical with heavy jazz influences. The disc’s highlight is a catchy 15/8 theme in a concerto for bandoleon (an instrument like the accordion), written by guitarist David Chevallier.

But also … I found Thank You for Your Ears. It was on a short-lived German label called Dizim, which I knew from Monk’s Japanese Dream Song, a jazz trio led by Miya Masaoka on koto, backed by Reggie Washington and Andrew Cyrille. That album includes energetic jazz covers and zen-like improvisations, and it got a lot of attention from me both at KZSU and at home.

So I recognized the Dizim packaging and was eager to hear what else they were into. I didn’t know who Beaver Harris was, I’m sorry to say. But I did recognize Hamiet Bluiett‘s name, and I was excited at the thought of having found more output from this new label. I gave it a shot.

Back at the room, I read Glo Harris’ liner notes:

Towards the end of Beaver’s life he was still practicing on the drum pad. (Could he have been preparing for the music he would create as he moved on …?) He never stopped practicing and he wanted to play until his breath ceased and he would finally be at peace. For his desire to keep playing was so powerful and he was so sad that his dreams were to be shattered by the cancer that took his life [at age 55]. I saw a man, the last six months of his life, fight to stay alive, to keep the music happening. His optimism never ceased.

He even wanted to play with Sonny Rollins again. I remember when he called Sonny when he was very ill and he finally began to tell his colleagues that he wasn’t well. Several days later, a photograph of Sonny arrived in the mail inscribed: “To Beaver, My Drummer, All the Best, Sonny Rollins.” As Beaver introduces the members of this trio at the end of the concert he tells the audience “… and thank you for your ears,” an expression he learned from Sonny Rollins and a sentiment that led our daughter, Portia, to name this recording.

The night before Beaver passed away he came to terms with his anger in a complex, spiritual way and he thanked God for making him “new and well again.” He closed his eyes forever not long after that.

Beaver, thank you for making my life with you a unique experience. We have your music to always keep close to our hearts … forever lasting. I knew another side of you, a gentle man that always thought of others first.

I knew that jazz was a difficult life, but this essay really drove the message home. Here was a man who, as I would learn later, had accomplished quite a lot but was still underappreciated and still wanted more.

Recorded at a 1984 concert, Thank You for Your Ears serves as a fine send-off for Harris. With steel drums (an instrument that factored into his 360 Degree Musical Experience), it can’t help but be happy. And as Glo mentions, Harris thanks the audience at the end: “Thank you for your ears.”

harris-africanIn the following years, I pieced together more about Harris. I discovered The 360 Degree Musical Experience and his work with Don Pullen and his lengthy relationship with Archie Sheep. I bought African Drums (Owl, 2002; originally released 1978), an album of mostly solo drumming, to get the “full” Beaver Harris experience. I pay attention anywhere I encounter his name. It’s a pittance, but it’s also all I can do. I can remember Beaver Harris and lend him my ears.

Here’s the longest track on Thank You for Your Ears: an ebullient 23-minute rendition of “African Drums.”

 

Back Pages #5: Amy X. Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity

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

I don’t have much of a story to go with this one. What I have is the spatula:

amyxspatulaIt’s from an Amy X. Neuburg and Men concert at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. They were promoting the album Sports! Chips! Booty!, which came out on the Racer label in 1998. The spatula, made of simple flexible plastic, lasted from then until November 2019. That’s possibly 20 years of flipping kid-sized pancakes and frozen hash browns patties — multiple uses per week, with breaks only for vacations.

I’m not exaggerating. This thing got mileage, and I like to believe it was the last of its litter still in active use. It finally cracked this past November, and after some tense moments in the trauma center (Krazy Glue station), it’s been retired to a place of honor atop my CD cabinet.

Looking at that spatula, really looking at it for the first time in years, made me think about the band. Oh wow, the band.

Amy X. Neuburg has built an impressive career mixing songwriting, electronic percussion, dense loops of precise harmonizing (a one-woman choir), and a prog-rock degree of difficulty. Catchy melodies, thoughtful introspection, and a giddy sense of humor permeate her work, including The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax, 2009), the tour de force suite she wrote for herself and three cellists.

Amy X. Neuburg and Men was a playful prog-pop outfit with Neuburg fronting on lead vocals and percussion while the all-“men” band added backing vocals, usually as a unified block. Her husband, Herb Heinz, played guitar (he released some worthy records himself during this era), and Joel Davel added MIDI-driven xylophone and marimba. In good ’90s prog fashion, the band had a Chapman Stick, played by Micah Ball. J.T. Quillan III didn’t play an instrument but looked good in a tux (and sang), which was part of the whimsy.

Following the more serious Utechma album (Racer, 1995), Sports embraced the band’s goofy side, with tongue-in-cheek artsy tunes like “The Shower Song” But the band was also about crisp musicianship and Neuburg’s gift of rich melody, as on the languid “Orange County.” Live, the band was joyous and bouncing, and I’m sure I saw them at the Starry Plough at least twice.

The spatula was a nod to Sports single, “Big Barbecue.” But the track that really sold me was “Naked Puppets.” It opens with some electronics improvising, then bursts into King Crimson-worthy guitar, some fun rhymes, and a prog-circus finale.

You can hear tracks including “Shower Song” and “Big Barbecue” on Amy X. Neuburg’s website. The band’s albums are available on CD Baby and Amazon, where you can sample other treats such as the cover of King Crimson’s “Waiting Man.”

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.

He started with 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 peak. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (In the photo above, it’s at the top, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts with a DAT recorder — another practice that’s commonplace today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.

The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older pieces 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 for Berne and other musicians, that dream would be chipped away in the coming years, 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.

Back Pages #3: 66 Shades, 27 Years Later

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the first and second installments.)

Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard66 Shades of Lipstick (E.G., 1990)

tippett-66The first fully improvised album I ever bought was probably 66 Shades of Lipstick. Pianist Keith Tippett had already had a distinguished career by then, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard was an up-and-comer, but to me in 1990, they were just blokes who happened to have an album on E.G. Records, the short-lived but vital label that produced Bill Bruford’s first Earthworks albums and the King Crimson Discipline trilogy that I so treasure.

Moreover, 66 Shades got picked by Jazziz magazine as the top album of the year. This was a bit unusual, as Jazziz had been a champion of the then-hot smooth jazz trend. Something this far off the beaten path seemed worth exploring.

For me, it was just a lark. My sincere interest in improvised music wouldn’t develop until later in the decade.

So how does this same album hold up, with all that experience now packing my ears?

I have to admit that back in 1990, I didn’t listen to 66 Shades very carefully. I liked the sound and I appreciated the experiment of it all, but my ears, trained by prog rock, were still seeking patterns and time signatures. I was watching a 3-D movie and trying to detect scents.

So, I gravitated toward the tuneful and catchy. “Shade 1” was the right start, with a wood block to putting percussive tickle on Tippett’s opening piano riff. That, and Andy Sheppard’s overly sweet soprano saxophone, were elements I could relate to.

 
What stuck with me most was this description of the improvising process, from Tippett’s brief liner notes: “The music had to be carved like sculpture from the air.” I love that metaphor, and I’ve stolen it on occasion. But comparing the results to the other improvised music I now own, whether jazz-oriented or more abstract, 66 Shades is below average.

“Shade 13” is a bare snippet but doesn’t have to be. I guess it’s believable that the improv ended organically there, but it also smacks of, “We’d better includes some short ones to show how spontaneous this was.” Likewise for “Shade 6,” which is a brief soulful melody, the kind that’s pretty but not at all special. Assuming they recorded 66 takes (which is where I’m assuming the title comes from), there must have been something more deserving of album space.

On the other hand, “Shade 9” is a hardy improvisation with prepared piano and some bass-note flourishes by Tippett, with Sheppard pursuing a robust stream-of-consciousness trail.

 
“Shade 3” is the first track on the album that made “sense” to me, in that Tippett presents a linear idea — ocean waves of tumbling notes, sticking to one musical mode — over which Sheppard adds grand flourishes. But with today’s ears, I’m more drawn to the fluttering and scribbling of “Shade 2,” a track I completely didn’t remember.

 
“Shade 5” is like a serious attempt at a symphonic film noir piece; it’s not bad but not something I’d return to frequently. “Shade 14” is a more appealing idea of taking a simple concept — a rapid-fire swirling, in this case — and just building from it. After a dervish-like start, it settles on a more moderate pace but keeps up that looping, swirling feel.

 
The E.G. label didn’t last long, so everything I own from its catalog is a keeper. 66 Shades might not top my list of favorites, but I’m proud of myself for giving it a shot, so long ago.

Back Pages #2: Toychestra and My Brief Music-Writing Career

Toychestra & Fred FrithWhat Leave Behind (SK, 2004)

Toychestra is back, about to play a 20th-anniversary show at the Ivy Room (860 San Pablo Ave, Albany) on Saturday, March 4.

Does that ever bring back memories.

For a couple of years starting in 2002 or 2003, I moonlighted as a music reviewer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I had a full-time job but thought it might be fun to write blurbs for the SFBG entertainment calendar in my spare time. By the time I called, the job opening had been filled, but they did need live-music writers. Do something on spec, and we’ll see what happens, they said.

That’s how I joined their stable of music freelancers. I took pride in the position and scrutinized calendars for suitable creative-music shows. My editor, Summer Burkes, held my copy to high standards, sending back drafts with stacks of questions poking holes in my writing — but she liked my work and kept nudging me for more. She even started feeding me assignments in the pop realm. (Ledisi was one.)

The best review I filed, and the one that earned me a handshake from Burkes’ boss, was about the noise/drums duo Compomicro-Dexall. (Half of that duo was bran(…)pos, whom I just saw, for the first time in years, at KZSU’s Day of Noise.) That review ended with: “Bring earplugs and drink decaf.”

But my best and most satisfying story was Toychestra.

“Like Santa’s sleigh crashed into a garage sale” is how I described them, with their grandma’s-attic collection of instruments set on ironing boards, the Christmas lights threaded about the stage, and their crazy kitchy wigs and outfits.

Toychestra was a group of five female artists, mostly non-musicians, hammering out pre-written songs on toy instruments. The music was clanky and innocent but, because it was written without awareness of keys or modes, also bore an uneasy shadow: “It’s Miranda July conducting the Residents in the Twin Peaks Elementary School symphony,” I wrote.

Dan Plonsey, who curated the Beanbenders series of shows starting in the mid-’90s, has a taste for the absurd and took a liking to the group. He couldn’t resist pairing them with an improv pro who would appreciate their musical naivite — and thus, Plonsey wrote What Leave Behind, a concerto for Toychestra and guitarist Fred Frith.

The sounds are dry and mostly bassless, as you’d expect — these are literally toy instruments. But they’re in tune. Toychestra member Lexa Walsh told me one of their biggest challenges was finding instruments that played a true major scale. Toymakers, realizing most parents had no musical ear, had stopped bothering.

With coordinated rhythms and syncopated melodies, What Leave Behind plays out like a sinister circus overture. Frith’s contributions are subtle at first — a buzzing in the opening movement (“The Dub”), a choppy composed melody in the second movement (“Fellini”). He gets to cut loose during “3 Elephants and a Cow,” backed by animal-noise toys.

The 24-minute piece ends with the five women singing a ghostly melody.

I can’t remember the details of what happened, but Toychestra was compelling enough that Summer let me write it as a straight feature rather than a concert review. I did attend one of the live performances of What Leave Behind, at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, and interviewed Walsh afterwards. The resulting story is still viewable on Toychestra’s press page.

What Leave Behind and two other Toychestra albums are now available on Bandcamp.

band50After Summer Burkes left the Bay Guardian, I was still welcomed as a reviewer but wasn’t nearly as prized. This is normal when a publication changes editors, and I was OK with it. With a toddler and a grade-school kid at home, my showgoing needed to slow down anyway.

My final Bay Guardian review must have run at the start of 2006. I had gone dark by then, but one day, Summer’s successor sent a desperation email blast — she needed someone to find a review-worthy show during the week after Christmas. I wrote up the multi-instrumental duo of Chaos Butterfly — experimental stuff that involved Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven fame, giving my story a connection to mainstream readers. (The other player, Dina Emerson, is no slouch either.) My piece was good, but the experience confirmed that my heart wasn’t in it any more.

Mildly Amusing Epilogue: I talked to the Bay Guardian only once more — to the finance department. I was getting paid for my work, but between the day job, the kids, and my KZSU radio gig, I honestly didn’t notice that the checks had never arrived. I know that sounds awful to anyone who’s a struggling freelancer out there, but we’re talking about small sums spread out months apart, and I’m terrible at keeping up with the mail. The light bulb went on a couple of years later, when — and I’m still dumbfounded that this actually happened — the IRS tracked me down to ask about this chunk of money that I’d never paid taxes on.

Turns out the Bay Guardian had transposed two digits of my home address. We figured this out on the phone within a couple of minutes, and they immediately issued a new check. They were iconoclasts and hellraisers, but the Bay Guardian that I encountered was also quite professional. I have fond memories of my short time with them.

For more on Toychestra, check out this edition of KQED’s Spark: http://ww2.kqed.org/spark/toychestra/.

For an explanation of the Back Pages series, see here.

Back Pages #1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

earthworks3

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)

The first song I ever played on the air at KZSU was “Bridge of Inhibition” by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks.

It starts like a declaration of purpose. Hey, listeners, it’s JAZZ time.

 
But it’s also symbolic. Earthworks was a key discovery in my early explorations of jazz, bridging the gap between prog rock and what would come next.

I bought Earthworks’ self-titled album on vinyl from a short-lived Cupertino record store, where it caught my eye in a display. This was during a time when I’d been scouting for solo prog projects, picking up albums by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett and, the most treasured find of them all, Chris Squire. It intrigued me to think that Bill Bruford had formed a jazz band, so I gave it a chance.

Earthworks songs like “Thud” trace crooked melodies educated by Monk — unusual stuff that throws you off balance but becomes easy to process on a second or third listen. That’s part of what I liked about prog — the process of “decoding” a song to find out what was going on. Earthworks turned out to have just the right mix to tickle the prog and jazz portions of my brain.

My favorite tracks had bouncy melodies and odd time signatures. The 13/8 of “My Heart Declares a Holiday” is really not so complicated, but I sure loved tapping my fingers along to it, especially the bassline in the “chorus.”

earthworks-pic
Source: Discogs

Earthworks also gave me a dose of the untethered improvisation that would be in my future. “Emotional Shirt,” in particular, goes through a speedy jazz-improv stretch before plunging back into Django Bates’ heavy-handed composition. It’s not 100% free, as it’s anchored by Mick Hutton’s furious bass rhythm, but it’s still something that was just outside my grasp at the time.

Future Earthworks albums didn’t capture my attention the way the debut did. I appreciated Bruford’s synth-drum experiments, which were producing new rhythms not possible for regular keyboardists, but the ’80s were ending, and the synths were already sounding a bit dated. And the melodies on future albums generally didn’t click with me the way something like Iain Ballamy’s “Thud” did.

In that sense, Earthworks contributed to the musical restlessness — the dissatisfaction with “jazz” — that eventually led me to Tim Berne and creative music. But this wasn’t a dead end. I’m a fan of the band’s first three albums (the ones with Ballamy and Bates — Bruford had essentially co-opted their band to form Earthworks), and at KZSU, I went back to “Bridge of Inhibition” occasionally to kick off the start of Stanford’s academic quarters. If I’m ever on the air again, even for a one-off show, it’s almost certain to get a spin.

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

Back Pages

I’ll be devoting a series of occasional blog posts to some of the albums that I found early in my creative-music travels.

We’re mostly talking about a period between 1996 and 2004 — in terms of when I discovered the albums, not in terms of when they were released. Some predate my conscious interest in creative music. Many of them are out of print. Some were lucky finds, others more deliberate, but all of them helped further my education in creative music and jazz.

What they have in common is that they have stories.

The very first story — the zeroth album on this list, in a sense — is Low Life: The Paris Concert (Part 1), by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. That’s the album that really catapulted me into avant-jazz — and it’s a story that I’ve already told.

I’ll be doing 10 or 20 of these “back pages” posts at irregular intervals in the coming months or years. The first official installment is about a bridge between my prog-rock and free-jazz lives, and you’ll find it written up here.

#7: Matthew Shipp (in progress)
#6: Beaver Harris
#5: Amy X Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity
#4: Tim Berne’s Bloodcount
#3: Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard
#2: Toychestra and My Brief Music-Writing Career
#1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks
Prequel: Human Feel and the Magic of Discovery
Prequel: Jim Black’s Alas No Axis