Emily Hay at Blue Whale

Polarity Taskmasters will be playing Saturday, May 12, in Sacramento as part of the In the Flow Festival.

Emily Hay, Brad Dutz, and Motoko Honda, plus Wayne PeetPolarity Taskmasters (self-released, 2011)

The L.A. quartet Polarity Taskmasters is made up of some downright friendly folks, but together, they spin spidery, eerie pieces spurred on by Emily Hay‘s flute playing. Forget the mellow, heartwarming kind of flute; Hay puts the instrument to dark uses, from shrill chirps to unsettling low-register improvising.

Early in March, I saw the group down in Los Angeles at Blue Whale. Hay played with the verve and theatricality she showed with rock-in-opposition bands Motor Totemist Guild and U Totem in the ’90s, gracing many pieces with spooky wordless singing or improvised monologuing. The two sets combined compositions from the other three group members — maybe to balance the five Hay compositions that are on the Polarity Taskmasters album — and a few improvisations called out from the stage.

Brad Dutz (percussion) and Wayne Peet (keyboards) are longtime players on the L.A. scene, as is Hay, so the show had a casual vibe — serious musicians trying out some new material for a test-drive in front of friends. Motoko Honda on piano and electronics added  some of the most polished sounds, including fluid classical elements or a stern, forceful take on jazz ideas. Peet stayed on organ most of the time, building deep psychedelic trenchbeds for the music to build upon.

The show traveled through some dark territories, with one composition calling for Hay to improvise as bleak a narrative as possible (I don’t remember the details, but appropriate amounts of death, destruction, and pestilence got dealt out. This was right around the time I started snacking on the BBQ sliders at the bar — the drinks at Blue Whale are exorbitant, but the food is set at normal appetizer-markup prices — so it was an interesting bit of dinner theater.) Honda’s piano added fluid classical elements or sometimes a stern and forceful take on jazz, and she wired up the Blue Whale piano for some electronic sounds as well.

The music did have its warmer elements. Peet, playing mostly organ and electronic samples, alternated between abstract strangeness and more groove-inviting sounds. Dutz likes to inject a sense of humor into his music in general; one composition of his, played early in the first set, was built around circus/carnival melodies and presented a more jovial side of the band.

The album — credited to Hay, Dutz, and Honda, with Peet as a guest — gives you a good idea what the show was like. The group spins heavy, involved improvisations, sometimes built off of Hay’s compositions, that highlight some of the flute’s darker and more adventurous qualities and also show off Hay’s vocals. Her trained voice can croon and wail hauntingly, or poke and jab sharply.

Concentrating on Dutz and Honda can present a less stern side of the music, particularly with Honda’s classically influenced piano sound. But it’s still many steps removed from traditional jazz. “Entrenched” opens with what sounds like prepared piano, or heavily treated digital piano, and opens from there into Dutz’s army of percussion, from quiet metallic bowls up to a gamelan-like clatter. Hay closes the track with a melodic nonsense patter, holding to the rhythm.

I really like the improvisation “68th Paragraph,” where all four players really get cooking quickly. It’s a fast-floating sound until Honda’s piano gets more percussive, driving some swirling free-jazz flute and some fast metallic percussion. “March of the Id,” one of Hay’s compositions, is built around percussive sounds, too, with piano insistently pecking next to staccato flute. The piece later opens up for some of Hay’s most frenzied improv vocalizing.

The group does make it up to the Bay Area once or twice a year, and they’re worth watching for. As noted up top, they’re coming to Sacramento next month.

Swallowed by Blue Whale

Just spent a week in L.A. with The Nels Cline Singers and Steve Coleman’s new one as driving music. And while I didn’t have much free time, as often happens on these trips, I did want to take an evening to stop by the Blue Whale.

It’s a jazz club in Little Tokyo, downtown, tucked away in an upper corner of an open-air shopping center. It’s surrounded mostly by restaurants, ranging from upscale, traditional-looking Japanese to hipster-friendly ramen. I’d come to know the Blue Whale by seeing it on the itineraries of various artists — in fact, a ROVA show that’s coming in May got a blurb in last Sunday’s L.A. Times.

Most of the time, the Blue Whale features music a little closer to the mainstream. Really, any kind of jazz could be presented there. The decor is very modern, done up in colors of granite and concrete and stainless steel. It can be a hip watering hole (complete with vicious mixed-drink prices) or a serious art-music venue (complete with poetry on the ceiling).

One caveat: There’s no talking allowed during the music. You can order food and drink at the bar, but that’s far back enough from the stage that you won’t be heard. For all its loungy trappings, the Blue Whale is serious about the music.

The seating is minimalist: couches around the perimeter and big ottomans in the center that double as chairs and food tables. When I got there, people had already surrounded the perimeter, and I felt too self-conscious to plop down in the center, closer to the stage. During the night, though, that center area filled up pretty well. There were at least 50 people there by the end of the first set.

The performer that night was pianist Kait Dunton, presenting music mostly in a quintet format with trumpet and sax, sometimes paring it back to a standard trio. Imagine a comforting piano jazz infused with bumpy time signatures and some unexpected turns into stoney chords. The saxophonist turned in some fairly usual soloing, but the trumpeter took free rein to get into some spattery and squeaky sounds, some of which were particularly effective (and got a good reaction from the crowd) during a piece called “Night.”

Most of Dunton’s material was original and new, as new as the previous weekend. The second set consisted of one long suite, “Mountain Suite,” conjuring a journey down a path, through “Night” and dreams, and ending at the mountain. Nice stuff.

Dunton’s slightly older stuff is available on a 2008 CD — see CD Baby.

(Hey, I’ve heard of those guys…)