Slowest Monk Ever

Closing out a week’s worth of concerts at The Stone, Ben Goldberg tried something different with his sextet. They played what’s probably the slowest Monk rendition you’ve ever heard.

Goldberg has posted the 44-minute piece to Bandcamp, and it’s amazing.

 
The slow piece ended a 12-show series that must have been exhiliarating and exhausting. When I read Goldberg’s explanation of this final concert, I figured it was going to be either academically intriguing (i.e., boring but with an honorable purpose) or humorous, but it’s neither — it’s an amazing piece of group improvisation.

For starters: It’s mainly Goldberg who is playing the melody at an impossible 13 seconds per beat or thereabouts. The other players are making sounds at a more normal “slow” pace, which was a relief. No one’s doing a Starbuck’s run or finishing a Sudoku between bars.

But the melody lingers and lingers. I actually lose track of it within about five notes.

The amazing part comes much later, as the energy builds and the players settle into this environment. They use the languid atmosphere to launch some stunning improvisations. Things do speed up as the piece intensifies, but the overall effect is like a slow sunburst. It really is something.

I suspect this is the kind of thing that only works once. That is, if they were to get into the studio to record a slow “Let’s Cool One,” the results would fall flat. It’s an excellent example of music created by the moment, and we’re lucky enough to have it on tape.

Check it out; it’s downloadable for free.

Favorite Street: Steve Lacy Remembered

ROVAIt’s hard to believe Steve Lacy passed away 10 years ago this week. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

For many musicians in the Bay Area, Lacy was a contemporary, a peer, a mentor, a correspondent, and even a fan. They knew him and admired his work, and his passing at the age of 70 was like a color dropping from the spectrum.

So when the members of ROVA Saxophone Quartet arranged a commemorative concert, it also served as a 10-year wake and a community catharsis. Held at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, back on June 6, the show was a celebration of Lacy’s music, a chance to share memories, and a repainting of Favorite Street, ROVA’s 1984 album of Lacy compositions. (The CD is even back in print, part of a re-emergence of the Black Saint record label, although ROVA noted it might be hard to find in stores.)

Steve Lacy and Don Cherry: EvidenceI wanted to see the show not just for the music, but to learn a little more about Lacy and his influence.

Bruce Ackley did a lot of the talking for ROVA, explaining how Lacy’s influence had crept into their musical lives. ROVA members would attend many a Lacy show — and he would attend theirs in turn. (Lacy, a native New Yorker, spent most of his career in Paris and was a frequent Bay Area visitor. ROVA probably encountered him in both places.)

Ben Goldberg talked about the album Evidence, which he and ROVA both mentioned as a key influence. It’s got Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, but more importantly, it came out in 1961, when Lacy wasn’t as well known. His records weren’t numerous and were hard to come by. Evidence was a portal into a new sound world and a revelation, to hear the musicians tell it.

Ben Goldberg: The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The FactYears later, Goldberg received the news of Lacy’s death just days before a previously booked studio date. That album — which would become The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact — was meant to be an homage, songs Goldberg assembled upon hearing Lacy had cancer. It turned into an emotional therapy session, as the whole community was rocked by Lacy’s passing. One track is a brief, classically styled song, “Cortege,” where the lyrics are the text of a fax Lacy sent Goldberg. The concluding line is a casual comment by Lacy that becomes poetic in its new context: “I am hardly here these days.”

Darren Johnston, Doug Stewart, Kjell Nordeson, Aram Shelton

The Concert

The first act was a variation of the quartet Cylinder, with bassist Doug Stewart sitting in for the traveling Lisa Mezzacappa. They started with a thundering take on “Trickles,” a fast-moving free-jazz rendition propelled by Kjell Nordesson’s drums and percussion. Aram Shelton (sax) and Darren Johnston (trumpet) took the lead voices, spelling out Lacy’s melodies — which have always struck me as simple and playful, but bent with a foreign accent of a country only Lacy’s mind could inhabit — and spiraling into solos inspired by the music. Johnston, in particular, seemed to be working the Monk-like strategy of using the melody to overtly build a solo (Monk being a fascination of Lacy’s, of course).

Michael Coleman and Ben Goldberg, ready for their close-upWhere the Cylinder group presented Lacy in a jazz context, the duo of Michael Coleman (piano) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet) showed off a more classical-oriented side, more akin to a recital-plus-improvisation. It turns out they were, in fact, playing Lacy’s etudes, a book of intentionally difficult exercises called Hocus Pocus. For much of the set, Coleman and Goldberg played the melodies in unison, the piano following the same fractally linear paths as the clarinet. Coleman expertly darted and dodged his way through, sometimes tripping up but always able to jump back in within a couple of sixteenth notes; it was all very impressive.

On a few occasions, Coleman had arranged chords to go along with the themes, adding unexpected and dramatic effects. “Herky Jerky” took on a deep ocean-waves color; it didn’t remind me of McCoy Tyner but it was that same monumental spirit. “Hustles,” dedicated to Niccolo Paganini, got a brief passage of insane circus music (at least, I’m pretty sure it was the Paganini piece and not the one dedicated to Karl Wallenda).

Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin of ROVADuring ROVA’s set, I found myself suddenly paying attention to rhythms. This might have been because they opened with the funky bassline of “The Throes,” with Jon Raskin chugging away at the baritone sax. Several pieces also broke the group into a 2×2 format, with duets playing counterbalancing themes — again, tickling the ear’s sense of rhythm. While they played the songs from Favorite Street, some of them got new interpretations. (I know that not because I’m a brilliant Lacy-ologist, but because Steve Adams contributed some arrangements, and he wasn’t in ROVA in 1984.) It was a joyous set that ended with a new arrangement of “Cliches,” a track that’s not on the album.

It was a concert, a remembrance, and an education. I’m glad I was able to be there.

Oakland Free Jazz Roosts at Duende

Duende's dining area: The view from the music loft.
Duende’s dining area: The view from the music loft.

Every other Monday at Duende, the musicians’ collective of the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society takes over over the restaurant’s music loft — a continuation of a series formerly held at The Layover. They present some outstanding local music along with some jazz vinyl DJ’ing before the show and between sets.

The vinyl part shouldn’t be underestimated. I didn’t look through the crate they brought, but it seemed like a pretty deep cut of history. Between sets on the night I attended, the musicians were marveling at the early, early Rahsaan Roland Kirk LP that was spinning.

Overall, the evening has the vibe of a cozy jazz hangout, complete with really good food and wine downstairs. I’m glad I finally made it out there a couple of Mondays ago.

Anderson, Goldberg, Brown.
Anderson, Goldberg, Brown.

Both bands that night played improvised music in jazz settings. The first set was by the BAG Trio — Vijay Anderson (drums), Sheldon Brown (sax), and Ben Goldberg (clarinet), who have been playing in this configuration for a while.

Anderson set down an aggressive groove while Goldberg and Brown wandered jointly, often pushing each other’s energy level up to a breaking point, then receding. One of these surges ended in both of them playing long, shrill tones — kind of a guitar-hero climax that was followed by babbling quick notes to bring the mood back to earth. I found myself paying the most attention to Anderson, though, his quick hands doing some impossibly fast clacketing to lay down those aggressive rhythms.

Johnston's quintet.
Johnston’s quintet.

The second set, by the Darren Johnston Quintet, was just what a late-night set ought to be — maybe less white-hot, but still intense, with David Boyce’s sax and Johnston’s trumpet jamming over vibraphone harmonies. The music settled into more traditional patterns of soloing, including one nice stretch where just Boyce and Jordan Glenn (drums) took over, really digging their heels in.

Johnston pushed the sound outward with a lot of extended tricks — squeaks, air-through-the-horn, plunger-mute antics. It was great stuff, and I found myself thinking these guys would have been a great listen on a more inside, composition-based gig as well.

You can follow the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society on Facebook or just keep checking the Duende calendar for upcoming shows. Darren Johnston reappears on Dec. 9, this time with a trio; Michael Coleman’s Sleepover (led by pianist Coleman) will perform as well. And Vijay Anderson’s trio (is it really his trio, or more a collective thing?) performs on Dec. 23 along with the Aram Shelton Group.

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Monday Jazz at The Layover

The Layover's logo. Click to go there.There’ll be creative jazz in downtown Oakland every Monday night for a while, starting tonight (Jan. 7).

The place is called The Layover, and it bills itself as a bohemian music/art bar. Local musicians, billing themselves as the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society, have organized the Monday jazz sessions.

The debut bill is the trio of Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Sheldon Brown (alto sax), and Vijay Anderson (drums); you can read more about them at Anderson’s web site.

For a bit of info about the Jan. 7 show, see Facebook.  The full Layover calendar is here; clicking any of the “Oakland Freedom Jazz” links reveals the full calendar:

    gba

  • Jan. 7 — GBA, as noted above
  • Jan. 14 — Darren Johnston Ensemble performing “Broken Shadows” (the Ornette Coleman album, I’d assume)
  • Jan. 21 — Lisa Mezzacappa, leading both a string band (violin, cello, guitar, etc.) and her Bait & Switch quartet
  • Jan. 28 — Aram Shelton‘s Ton Trio II. (See the comments, and for a bit about Ton Trio, see here.)

Whether this continues for more than a month, we’ll see. It would be nice, even though the first Monday of each month would conflict with the monthly jazz show at the Makeout Room in San Francisco.

The Layover is at 1517 Franklin St. between 15th and 17th, in downtown Oakland.

Ben Goldberg Goes Low: Update

I’m double-posting this, just because the original post is so far down the queue by now…

Here’s a sample of Ben Goldberg’s new band, Unfold Ordinary Mind. It’s been on Soundcloud for a month, but I didn’t think to check; thanks to Ben for pointing it out.

The song is apparently called “xcpf.” It’s a nice tune, with Nels Cline in rhythm mode at first and in slinky layered effects mode later. In between, the two saxes and Nels’ guitar all criss-cross with simultaneous melodic soloing while Goldberg, as promised, holds down the bass.

[UPDATE 2/1/13: That track got removed, but here’s another one, called “Stemwinder,” more of a ballad.]

To learn about the band, and see that Soundcloud widget yet again, click here.

Ben Goldberg Goes Low

If you’re bored of the New York installments I’ve been running, take heart. The next one has tons of pictures and a real narrative (maybe). If that doesn’t float your boat, just consider that it’ll all be over soon.

In the meantime: a bit of news that happens to involve Bay Area clarinet hero Ben Goldberg … and the city of New York.

His new superband, Unfold Ordinary Mind, debuts at The Stone on Dec. 5 and will release an album on Goldberg’s label, BAG Productions, in January.

It’s all about the low, low contra-alto clarinet. Here’s the blurb you can see on Goldberg’s site and The Stone’s calendar:

I have been developing my abilities on the E-flat contra-alto clarinet (a weird member of the family, pitched below the bass clarinet) for some years, mostly in my work with the group Tin Hat. Somehow it occurred to me to have a band where I was the bass player, on this instrument.

Of course the group would need two of my tenor saxophone heroes (Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth), a guitar genius (and now certifiable rock star) (Nels Cline), and the deeply tumultuous drummer Ches Smith.

So after finishing up the premiere of my latest giant project, Orphic Machine, in March of 2012, I wrote a bunch of songs and assembled this crew at the Bunker studio in Williamsburg one day in May. We learned the tunes, rehearsed, and recorded them all in just a few hours, and the results are extraordinary—raw, dire, and to the point.

The record will be released by my label, BAG Production Records, in January. The record is called Unfold Ordinary Mind, which is also the name of the band for a few East Coast shows I am happy we will be playing in December.

In addition to the New York visit, Unfold Ordinary Mind will be in Baltimore on Dec. 8 (at The Windup Space) and Philadelphia on Dec. 9 (at Johnny Brenda’s, presented by Ars Nova Workshop).

I think I’ve seen Goldberg perform on the contra-alto; if so, it’s the curled thing with the long stand that’s in the photo, upper left. It certainly does pack a bass wallop.

Here’s a taste of what it can do as a lead instrument, snapping out some deliciously low notes on the track “Epilogue – Bongoloid Lens,” from the album Speech Communication (Tzadik, 2009). Greg Cohen is on bass, Kenny Wolleson on drums:

UPDATE 11/26:  And here’s an Unfold Ordinary Mind track that’s been on Soundcloud a while. Thanks to Ben for pointing it out!

UPDATE 2/1/13:  That particular track got removed, but here’s a different one:

Vijay Anderson

Vijay Anderson’s sextet performs Monday, Feb. 7, at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco.

Vijay AndersonHard-Boiled Wonderland (Not Two, 2010)

As a drummer, Anderson has a nice free-jazz resume that includes Marco Eneidi, sax screamer Lynn Johnston, and the highly acclaimed bands of Adam Lane. More recently, he’s been part of the four-person axis that forms both Go-Go Fightmaster and Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch. His style can be fleet and explosive.

But Hard-Boiled Wonderland, like a lot of good improvised CDs, is more about process. Anderson sits more in the background or is even absent (as on the tracks “Nix” and “Dilation”).

It’s improvised jazz in a group setting, a sextet of equal parts where the two horns or the two guitars could be spinning virtuoso lines or providing the backdrop for the scene.  The predominant sound is the vibraphone played by Smith Dobson V, presenting a cooled sound even on the title track — where the guitars, played by Ava Mendoza and John Finkbeiner, chug away continually, sometimes heavily distorted. It’s a drifting piece full of peaks and valleys, using long tones and guitar effects to build the music to its heights.

For much of the album, Anderson uses subsets of the band. “Skittering” drops the vibes in favor of letting one guitar and Ben Goldberg’s clarinet take the lead. As if to show what a group effort this is, I’m not sure Anderson and Dobson play at all on “Dilation,” a slow piece with rubbery clarinet sounds, carefully springy guitar, and some continual bubbling from Sheldon Brown’s sax.

“Swimming in a Black Well” is an Anderson/Dobson duet and one of the more directly jazzy pieces on here. Anderson lays down a jazz-aimed cymbal-tapping rhythm, and Dobson solos accordingly on the vibes. That’s followed by one of the least jazzy pieces, the choppy, all-out abstraction of “Nix.”

On “A Widow’s Last Penny,” the two horns flit among a shimmering backdrop created by Anderson’s rolls on the toms and the occasional splash from Dobson. Long, stretched guitar wails complete the picture.

A lot of attention is going to go to the title track that starts the album, but it’s the finale, “March at the End of the World,” that really shows off what the band can do. It’s also the one track that feels like it might be composed, or at least pre-planned. Military drums lead to shrill horn calls, a military declaration drawn in jazzy cartoons. After some loose improvising, Anderson starts into a drunken swing beat, surrounded by mildly chaotic group sounds.

Anderson’s Touch and Go band, part of the Make-Out Room’s monthly jazz installment, will be a different breed: four horns and a bass. A different sound, probably, with an intriguing lineup that includes Brown, Goldberg, and 3/4 of Byte and Switch/Go-Go Fightmaster.

Further reading: There’s a brief review of Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the East Bay Express and a longer one at Stef’s Free Jazz blog.

Go Home Comes Home, ROVA Spins 33-1/3

I’m on the SFJazz mailing list — the snail-mail list that is, where they send out the catalog of each season’s events.

It’s a a sanitized and corporate kind of selection (lots of world-music acts, for instance) but the organization is sincere in providing a stage for jazz, including venerated masters who’d otherwise never come this far west.

They’ve also been good about supporting local acts, young but partly established musicians, and the occasional avant-garde trip. So, I get the catalog. I always thumb through it. And I always find something I like.

* Go Home is playing on March 18, 2011.  This is really exciting, considering it’s a band I didn’t expect would play many live dates — and yet I’ve managed to see them twice and might get a third chance. They’re the combination of Charlie Hunter‘s bluesy, funky guitar; Ben Goldberg‘s sinewy clarinet melodies; and Scott Amendola‘s hard-snap drumming.

There’s one personnel change: Trumpeter Ron Miles, from Colorado won’t be along. But as a substitute, they’ve brought in — and this is mind-blowing, really it is — Ellery Eskelin on saxophone. Eskelin is a key free-jazz figure in New York, capable of a wide range of styles. He can really cut a groove, too; a longtime favorite of mine is the 9/8 funk of “Rhyme or Reason,” with his longstanding trio with Andrea Parkins (keys/sampler) and Jim Black (drums).

Anyway. This should be really good.

* ROVA Saxophone Quartet has a concert with DJ Olive and DJ P-Love on Saturday, June 4, at the Swedish American Music Hall (upstairs from Cafe Du Nord). There’s an accompanying gimmick: At some point soon, it’s the 33-1/3rd anniversary of ROVA’s first performance, so they’re putting out a vinyl album. It’s a 45.  (No, it’s not, but that would be funny.)

That album will apparently be a recording of their 2009 concert with John Zorn.  For the June show, the turntablists continue the “33-1/3” theme. I’ve heard DJ Olive before, on albums with the likes of William Hooker and Uri Caine, and he adds more of a noise element than an enforced groove (although the latter would be an interesting constraint).

I don’t see ROVA as often as I should, and that’s a shame. Many of their shows are one-off happenings, because of the number of directions they’re working on and the relative dearth of gigs. Every show is compelling. It might sound like they’re going for a pop angle, but it’s safe to bet this show ends up being as challenging and rewarding as any.

Trapeze Project

Sarah Wilson’s Trapeze Project plays at Yoshi’s Oakland on Monday, Nov. 29, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets $14, plus a minimum of two food/drink items (but they’re pretty mellow about enforcing the second item).

Sarah WilsonTrapeze Project (Brass Tonic, 2010)

You might consider Sarah Wilson’s stuff to be pop jazz at first, but it’s interesting that she’s got the support of Myra Melford (piano) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet). On this album, they’re given ample room to wander about, turning the songs into layered tapestries rich in detail.

As Andrew Gilbert wrote for the East Bay Express, Wilson didn’t set out to be a jazz composer. Her first writing job, a 1995 commission, was completed on intuition built from Dixieland jazz and evenings spent at the Knitting Factory, back when it was a haven for outside jazz.

Trapeze Project is a bright, upbeat album, with a traditional jazz sense of melody and a lot of busy chatter from piano, clarinet, bass (Jerome Harris) and drums (Scott Amendola … this is one heck of a band she’s assembled). A lot of tracks work the way “Blessing” does, starting out with a pleasantly brassy theme — something you’d associate with a small circus, maybe — then getting into loose, swirling solos and comping. (Actually, traditional New Orleans jazz can get this way. I remember being struck by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, because they’d get into group-improvising stretches where they’d stick to the tune, yet nobody was playing any part of the tune any more, except arguably the drummer.)

I especially liked “Zebulon,” a jumping, bluesy romp with a terrific solo from Goldberg.

A lot gets made of the fact that Wilson sings — particularly on a folky take on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” I like her voice; she’s closer to indie-rock deadpan than jazz crooning. She’s got three vocal tracks on here, plus some wordless singing on “She Stands in a Room,” a slower track where her “da da dum” vocals meet a chord that conjures a widely opening sky, a very nice touch.

(Bonus: Wilson’s show on Monday is early enough that you could head to the Berkeley/Albany zone for a nightcap at Kingman’s Ivy Room, where the Phillip Greenlief Quartet will probably still be playing: Monk covers and originals from a sax-and-guitar band. Greenlief’s Evander Music label released Wilson’s first album, Music for an Imaginary Play.)

Clarinetty Things, Edmund Welles, and sfSound

I did see Edmund Welles last weekend and still need to write it up.

But for the moment, take a look at this story from The Bay Citizen: “The Hot New Sound on the Scene? Oh Yes, It Is the Clarinet.”

It’s about clarinet becoming a hip leading instrument in jazz circles. And it comes to us from : Cornelius Boots, Edmund Welles’ founder; Aaron Novik, another Edmund Welleser who’s led many a band himself; Beth Custer and her Clarinet Thing; Ben Goldberg; and Matt Ingalls, a founder of sfSound.

The story also appears on The New York Timessite. Nice press, folks. Congrats!