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.

A Clean, Well Lighted Place for Jazz

Holy cow — this entry was intended for the week heading into Aug. 7, and I apparently never hit “Publish” on it. Big mistake. I’ve modified it for this late date, but beware of any references to “this week” or “next week”!

Free jazz is taking the stage for five Sundays at Bird & Beckett Books in San Francisco. It’s a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and you’ve got just a few more chances (for now) to take advantage of it.

Bird & Beckett is a cozy, old-school bookstore, with cramped, crooked aisles nestled between shelves stuffed with old and used books. It’s a nonprofit, and as part of its mission, it provides a stage for music twice a week (in addition to poetry readings and other normal bookstore presentations). So, for five weeks, the owners are giving some edgy jazz the stage: Sundays, 4:30 p.m. to about 6:30 p.m.

I had a great time checking out the first installment, on July 31. I’d never been to the Glen Park section of San Francisco; it’s quiet and upscale, with lots of thin, hilly streets. Very young couples with very little kids were walking the sidewalks. Inside the bookstore was an audience of people in their 60s exuding a very San Francisco vibe (one woman walked past me smiling, redolent of pot). And they were a good audience, rapt, filling the 20 or so chairs set out.

They put out snacks, too: drinks for a small donation, and a couple of boxes of crackers apparently up for grabs. I’d feel nervous about all those half-full cups being parked on bookshelves, but nothing spilled that I could see.

The program is the product of multiple artists pinging Bird & Beckett about possible shows. Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland — on the power-noisy side of free jazz — was one, and Jim Ryan was another. That gave Romus the idea to bundle a set of shows together into a mini-festival that the local Outsound organization could help promote. They’re calling it Out Fest.

The first installment was a quartet called Time Is Now, Not Money, a quartet rooted in bebop and some standards but also willing to fly freely. Vocalist Loren Benedict of The Holly Martins was center stage, spinning his silky improvised language for a good Sunday-afternoon feel. Scott Looney on piano was in fine jazz form; it’s the most “inside” I’ve ever heard him play, and he did it with flair and style.

The group’s leader seems to be bassist Bishu Chatterjee, who threw some extended techniques into some otherwise straightahead numbers and overall showed an enthusiasm for extending musical boundaries. Not everything worked — an attempt to play using the wrong side of the bow looked more interesting than it sounded — but the spirit was right.

The players also paired up for improvised duets that made up about one-third of the program, maybe a little less.

Standards won’t be in the house when Jim Ryan’s Forward Energy plays Aug. 7; their repertoire is improvised, although it does draw from elements of free jazz. Likewise for the final show, Aug. 28, when Rent Romus’s Lords of Outland play. Romus is planning a set that leans more on jazz-context compositions as opposed to howling electronics.

My only complaint is that Glen Park shuts down early; fancy restaurants were still open at 7:00 p.m., but finding a simple espresso took effort. Lovely part of town, though. Great place for a Sunday stroll.

Here’s the remaining Out Fest lineup:

  • Aug. 14 — Chuck Manning/Stu Pilorz Outfit with Ollie Duedek and Omar Aran.
  • Aug. 21 — Time Is Now, Now Money, redux, with guest Kasey Knudsen on sax. (She’s in The Holly Martins with Benedict.)
  • Aug. 28 — Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland