The Big Catchup: Recent Shows

Unintended consequences: When I saw a spate of shows in late July/early August, it ate up the time I would normally use to blog about them. Only now am I catching up, by typing things here and adding pictures to my Flickr account. (Because it occurred to me about two weeks ago: “Oh yeah… whatever happened to my Flickr account?”)

So, here’s my really busy week-or-so, or, How I Spent My Summer.

Necessary Monsters
@ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
July 30, 2011

As noted here and very briefly here, I did manage to see the staging of this very special project from Carla Kihlstedt. Neither a play nor a concert, it’s a theatrical musical experience that will hopefully have a continued life on the stage.

The stage was set to resemble a dissheveled office or attic, with storage boxes and papers everywhere, as if we were sorting through the discarded paperwork of the mind. There’s no storyline; the central character and narrator, played by Denmo Ibrahim, introduced each of nine songs based on monsters from fables and folklore. Her lines were in the form of extended definition, like encyclopedia entries, with dramatic and sometimes funny text that was poetically rendered.

Kihlstedt shaved her head for these performances, an edgy look that worked well with the richly rough-edged look of the costumes that transformed each band member into one of the monsters.  Kihlstedt played violin and sang most of the lead vocals, often harmonized by Theresa Wong, who hit some high high notes and did an overall amazing job. Wong was also playing cello and got an early showcase as the Squonk (no relation to the Genesis song, other than using the same legend as a source).

Most of the songs were in Kihlstedt’s style of mixing emotional Eastern European folk with classical and jazz elements. Her husband, Matthias Bossi, got to perform something closer to a showtune as the One-Eyed Being, a highlight that hit in about the middle of the show. The Being got played up as quite the narcissist, as Bossi ate up the stage, crooning in an old-timey jazz growl, with jazz hands and high kicks, even. It was a crowd favorite.

Or so I assume, because the audience didn’t clap between songs, and we should have. It’s one of those things: Do you clap after each piece, like you would in normal theatre, or wait for the completion of all movements, as in the symphony? People didn’t clap after the first number, “Squonk,” so that sort of set the tone. I think it would have been a more engaging performance for us and for the performers if we had applauded. In any event, the show got a standing ovation at the end, so people were obviously into it.

What’s next for the project? A recorded version will eventually come out, and Kihlstedt’s Kickstarter page mentions the possibility of a touring life for the show. That would be exciting. It would also be great if Kihlstedt has time to start fleshing out the other half of the Imaginary Beings Project, where the fans help craft new mythologies.

Photography wasn’t allowed at the show, but Pak Han took some crisp shots that are viewable here.

Time Is Now, Not Money
@ Bird & Beckett Books
July 31, 2011

Already blogged here.

Libertas and z_bug
@ Luggage Store Gallery
Aug. 4, 2011

Libertas is an improvised-jazz trio, fierce and loud. Sometimes a bit too loud; Wade Driver’s drums tended to overpower the music, but that’s partly a function of the Luggage Store’s bright sound. I did like the forcefulness, though. Tom Griesser is a saxophone whose resume includes a lot of nice inside-jazz projects; Libertas seems to be his outlet for doing something edgier and cathartic. He was terrific, bouncing with energy both in his playing and in his stage presence. The third member was Liz Byrne — of the Kirby Grips, I think, which is so cool — playing electronics and samplers from gizmos laid out on an ironing board. It’s good punk jazz with some technical chops. Here, go listen for yourself.

z_bug, formerly a quartet, was pared down here to a duo, with Sheila Bosco on drums and David Leikam playing synths and/or electric bass, with high volume and heavy distortion. They turned the lights down for these slabs of industrial jazz. I remember thinking of the pieces as spacey psychedelic jams, roaring and blistering and even hypnotic. A great couple of sets from both bands.

Lisa Mezzacappa & Nightshade
@ Old First Church
Aug. 5, 2011

Already blogged here.

Bait & Switch Octet
@ Berkeley Arts
Aug. 10, 2011

I couldn’t resist the chance to see Mezzacappa’s band expanded to an octet, with the addition of vibraphone, electronics, and two more horns. It was a grand overlapping of Bait & Switch, Mezzacappa’s Nightshade, and the jazz quartet Cylinder. From the latter camp, I remember trumpter Darren Johnston getting a lot of soloing time.

The show started with just the quartet, playing some old favorites off the What Is Known album and some new tracks hopefully destined for another album. Then came the octet, which offered the chance to try some more expansive charts, including one really experimental-looking one, and some longer, suite-like pieces. (That’s how my ear remembers it, anyway; I could be mistaken.) The band’s aesthetic — free jazz based on some catchy composing and a garage-band attitude — still came across.

This performance was part of the Berkeley Arts Festival, which is presenting a few dozen music acts at an art gallery near U.C. Berkeley during the summer and fall. They’re really pouring it on from Sept. 15 to Oct. 31, with a lot of edgy jazz — it’s worth checking out.

I would imagine this was a one-time performance, but they did record it, so … you never know.

Upcoming: Yoshi’s

Two Yoshi’s shows that shouldn’t be missed:

Mon., March 28, San FranciscoLisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, six months removed from an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, will be playing two sets of different music, at 8:00 p.m. and approximately 10:00 p.m.

Suffice to say, they’re a really good free-jazz quartet with some great ideas (sometimes radical, sometimes extensions of the jazz tradition) and a deliciously evil alter-ego as the band Go-Go Fightmaster. They also just might be the most frequently mentioned band on this blog, which is a function not of my stalking them, but of their appearances in high-profile circles, such as Monterey and the Village Voice. Here, look:

Wed., March 30, OaklandTrio M stops by on their way to the Brubeck Festival in Stockton. It’s the combination of Myra Melford (piano), Mark Dresser (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums), who showed their collective stuff on a 2007 album, Big Picture (Cryptogramophone). It’s modern jazz with an agile personality, where the solos take wide turns at the curves and keep only a loose grip on the road. They’re all busy and don’t get together often. Just sayin’.

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.