Trance Mission Rides Again


A side note to that Fred Frith Trio show back in January …

While I missed Jack o’ the Clock, I did catch the show’s other opening act, a longtime Bay Area favorite called Trance Mission. It’s a world-music kind of trio whose grooves combine a droney sound with danceable beats — insistent music with a relaxed vibe.

Sometimes a quartet, Trance Mission has always featured Stephen Kent on didjeridu and percussion and Beth Custer on clarinets, vocals, and sundry (a bit of trumpet for this particular show, surprisingly enough). The latest version also included Peter Valsamis on the drum kit.

Of course, Kent and Custer have been involved in myriad other projects over the years. Trance Mission was a ’90s thing for both of them, but they still convene the group every now and again. I’d never seen them before that show at Slim’s, where I got a taste of what I’d missed all these years.

The didjeridoo allows for vocals and tongue slaps, so Kent often became the rhythm as well as the backing bass drone, freeing Valsamis to sprinkle the brighter colors of the drum kit. Kent also used a baby cello as an ersatz guitar on a couple of songs, for a different sound and a fun effect.

It was a really good time. I’m glad I finally caught up with them.

Trance Mission Duo (Kent and Custer) will be performing on March 21 at Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St, San Francisco).

Kent will be performing with the Del Sol String Quartet at the Other Minds Festival on March 6, at the SF Jazz Center (201 Franklin Street, San Francisco).

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!

Beth Custer’s Do-Over

The Beth Custer Ensemble — Roam (BC, 2009)

Beth Custer managed to secure an autumn 2009 date at Yoshi’s San Francisco for a CD release concert for Roam.  That night happened to bring torrential rains that flooded Yoshi’s, canceling the show. The rain-check date is tomorrow, Jan. 5.

Custer performs in any number of contexts. She’s done improvised music (a clarinet pointed into a bowl was her trademark promo photo for a while).  Her Vinculum Symphony was an exercise in large-scale experimenting. She’s done jazz, with bands like Clarinet Thing (noted here).  She’s written any number of soundtracks for small films, plays, and dance productions.

Roam, though, is about songs — regular ol’ songs, often with jazzy backing.  Catchy stuff that AOR radio stations ought to take notice of.  It’s fun, but it’s also grown-up. Custer’s voice takes center stage, a lightly silky sound that can dig deep into earthly soul, and a tone that lets you know you don’t have to be in a hurry.

The album opens with a handful of unattached tracks, songs apparently written for no particular project. These are some of the best, actually; “Roam” is one the album’s more uptempo songs, but what really caught my ear were the slow funk drawl of “Hometown” and especially the serious-minded but soulful “Crux of Murder:”  “Stand up / To the droll of the masses / Raise high / To the call of your soul.”

Seven of the 12 songs feature lyrics by Octavio Solis, a playwright who’s apparently a big deal in such circles. (He’s done a few recent commissions for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, at any rate.) They’re excerpted from musicals performed by the Campo Santo theater company.

“Jackrabbit” and the lingering, sad “God Made Night” shift the sound to real country. “The Ballad of Pancho & Lucy” and “There It Was” are less country-twangy and more into a whimsical mode. (The former is cuter but the latter rocks out more in the chorus and includes a nifty guitar-twang solo).

Extra bonus: The CD includes “Dymaxion Transport,” a cool little instrumental that’s part of a song cycle about Buckminster Fuller.  Clarinet Thing performed it at Yoshi’s, I think.  It’s got a soothing, swaying melody, followed by something like a prog-rock seizure.

Custer is backed by David James on guitar and Jan  Jackson on drums (they accompanied her for a short Yoshi’s set in June), with extra jazz power from Chris Grady (trumpet), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Graham Connah (piano).   (How great is it to see Connah’s name on a CD again. I know he’s performed occasionally as Admiral Ted Brinkley (semi-ret.), but I still remember the incredible jazz combos he led in the ’90s.) Connah is in mostly a supporting role here, but he gets a good solo in the mysterious, poking rhythm of “Will/Bill” and a crisp jazzy solo in “Roam.”

Beth Custer’s Clarinet Thing

Clarinet ThingCry, Want (BC, 2009)

Clarinet Thing, Beth Custer‘s all-clarinet group, has existed for 20 years but only has two CDs to its credit (to my knowledge) and plays only rarely.  When a show popped up at Yoshi’s last week, I figured I practically owed it to the band to show up.

Not as long-form or abstract as ROVA, not as ethereal as Chris Speed’s “The Clarinets,” not as metal as Edmund Welles, Clarinet Thing might have a closer analogue in the World Saxophone Quartet. They do get into some freeform improv and some wild free-jazzy soloing, but it’s all unapologeticly jazz at heart, down to the Duke Ellington covers that showed up on their first album.

Cry, Want draws more on Jimmy Guiffre and Carla Bley for inspiration (the title track is a Giuffre cover).  At the Yoshi’s show, billed as the CD release party, we got treated to lots of original compositions from the new disk, some covers, and a couple of tunes that are apparently being prepped for the next CD, which might be out in just six months.

A few of the pieces from Cry, Want that they played:

“Iluku,” Brown’s piece about his father, who was given that nickname while living in Africa as a boy. Lots of old-time jazzy counterpoint, a pleasant tune.

“Who Died and Where I Moved To,” a Ben Goldberg piece with a playfully sneaky beat, bluesy chord changes, and lots of catchy old-jazz borrowings in the individual parts. A highlight of the show and the CD.

“Polestar,” another Goldberg piece, this time gossamer and lovely.

“2300 Skidoo,” a Herbie Nichols composition that shows how he straddled contemporary and future jazz traditions in his time.

And versions of “Night in Tunisia” (stunning) and “Crepuscule with Nellie” (during which Custer lost her place and couldn’t locate the proper sheet music page in her folder — an experience second only to the time she forgot to put a reed in her clarinet, she said).

As for the newer stuff, Custer trotted out two parts of a five-part suite inspired by Buckminster Fuller.  It started out nicely enough but without the abstract or geometric aspect I’d expected, considering this was the guy associated with geodesic domes and buckminsterfullerene.  But then they kicked into some wild improvising and a quirky riff that kept reappearing.  Better.

The group also did a waltz, “Sweeping Staircase,” that comes from one of Custer’s silent-film scores. And the show closed with a bit of Brazilian choro music by Pixinguinha.

As for the lineup of Clarinet Thing: Custer, Sheldon Brown, and Ben Goldberg are still around from the previous quintet formation (which put out the album Agony Pipes and Misery Sticks in 2005).  Peter Josheff and Ralph Carney are out, replaced by longtime local jazzster Harvey Wainapel. The four of them sat in the usual arc formation, like a string quartet would, and they took turns introducing their songs on the mic. It was a casual show, a fun air.

Goldberg spent most of the night on the contra-alto clarinet, which resembles a one-legged tuba (it’s got a stick to help the performer hold it at mouth level). The other players covered nearly every other type of clarinet between them, including a lot of bass clarinets.

Fun concert overall, and a nice CD that of course has a similar sound.

And if you want to hear what they sounded like live on KPFA a couple of weeks ago, click here, but do it fast — that archived show will expire Thursday, Nov. 26.

Yoshi’s Goes Out

I managed to get to the Go Left Fest at Yoshi’s San Francisco last night, and it was awesome. Six acts, headlined by Matthew Shipp (piano) / Marshall Allen (sax, EVI thingie) / Joe Morris (bass). Not a sellout crowd, sadly, but a warmly receptive one, folks who very much came to hear this kind of music.

Six acts in all, spanning four hours, including intermissions of varying length between acts. I’ve only got time to skim through the specifics.

The important thing is: They’re doing it again tonight (Tuesday June 23) and probably wouldn’t mind your support … It’s very hard for folks like these to tour the west coast, so it would be great to encourage Yoshi’s to continue sprinkling some outside acts into its schedule…

Anyway, the acts:

1. Beth Custer trio/quartet: A couple of pieces from her current Buckminster Fuller project, a couple of jazzy songs, and a catchy old-school jazz stomp called “Wag the Puppy,” written by guitarist David James.

2. Positive Knowledge: Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas (reeds, poetry) plus drummer Sunny Murray in the chair Spirit normally occupies. One long piece with lots of phases; generous applause for some of Oluyemi’s more breathtaking, overblowing solos on bass clarinet and soprano sax. Positive Knowledge weaves a spell of joyous improvised jazz, not only in Oluyemi’s playing but in Ijeoma’s recital, which often dips into abstract vocal sounds before returning to grounded, pre-written material. Sunny Murray was in a great mood, joking around with the audience while the band set up.

3. Myra Melford/Mark Dresser: Piano and bass, doing chamber-like compositions with a jazz jump to them (Melford’s specialty) and of course lots of improvising in the middle. Great rapport. My angle, behind the piano, was perfect for this set — I could see Melford’s light touch on the keys (even when she was splashing big chords with palms and wrists) and Dresser’s face and the top of the bass’ fingerboard. They finished with a really fun, small piece that gave Dresser a chance to goof around.

4. Ismael Reed: An author and poet, Reed performed with a band of sax (or clarinet or flute), piano, guitar, and drums. (Sunny Murray again, IIRC.) He started heavy, with pieces about the nonsensical waste of war and the unfair villification of “welfare queens.” Most of the remaining pieces dealt with jazz and jazz icons. Straight-up jazz backing throughout. Reed ended with the band playing “That’s What Friends Are For” — a bit cheesy, but his text was a thank-you note to various organs (heart, liver, and brain, mainly) for getting him this far.

5. Roswell Rudd: With Lafayette Harris on piano, who didn’t get enough credit from the crowd for his mix of standards-jazz styles, avant-garde dissonances, and rhythm-opening spacing. The set, sometimes augmented by trumpeter Earl Davis, was a mix of inside-out pieces (fairly straight stuff with free-ranging soloing) and some out-there screechiness. Fun, but Rudd lost track of the time; he announced a waltz piece written for his wife’s recent birthday but didn’t have time to play it. “You’ll hear that one tomorrow!” he said.

6. Marshall Allen, Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris: Playing together for the first time, and you always wonder if “first time” is going to be a letdown. It wasn’t. Shipp was stormy on piano throughout — in fact, I don’t think he ever stopped playing during any of the three or four long improvisations they did, aside from a Morris bass solo early on.

Allen was in prime form, wearing an Arkestra outfit and playing what I think was the “EVI,” an electronics gizmo controlled by a combination of breath, buttons, and dials. Lots of futuristic weirdness to be had there. The EVI produced the same kinds of sounds you’d get from laptop electronics, but with a more direct sense of control. It fit well but was turned up a bit too loud; Shipp’s playing is so tumultuous, it ought to eclipse the sax/reeds voice in spots, I think.

Again, I was behind the piano, so I got to watch the Matthew Shipp fireworks show. Man, he’s terrific. His hands seem to be flying everywhere in random stabs, but the chords that come out make so much sense. (Caveat: I suspect any pianist playing free jazz is like that.) He’s got a couple of trademark moves that were interesting to see in person — like one where he pokes a chord stacatto and (I think) hits the sustain pedal an instant too “late,” for a distant kind of echo/reverb. I’d never seen Shipp play before, so this was a particular treat. I’m going to go put his Symbol Systems solo CD on now.

Joe Morris gets a raw deal here — not only is the bassist often the hardest element of a combo to describe, but I couldn’t get a clear view of him with the piano blocking the way. His mercury-fluid guitar style does seem agreeable to the fast, wide-ranging wanderings of free-jazz bass, and that theory proved out well in this set.