Binging ‘The Stone:’ Peter Evans, Nicole Mitchell, Aurán Ortiz

Early in November, for the first time in a few years, I was in New York with enough free time for some music. I didn’t intend to only see shows at The Stone, but it worked out that way.

I hadn’t been to The Stone since it moved. Originally a black-box venue on the lower east side, it’s struck up a partnership with The New School, an arts college up on West 13th Street, where The Stone now gets to occupy a comfortable streetside performance room. I got to see two shows there: Trumpeter Peter Evans with a chordless trio, and pianist Aurán Ortiz in trio demonstrating his Afro-Cubism concept.

The Stone also presents weekly or monthly shows at some ancillary venues. So on a Saturday night, I ventured deeper into Brooklyn than I’ve ever gone before, to Nostrand Avenue, for a chance to see Nicole Mitchell.

The usual Stone rules apply: No food or drink allowed inside, and no photography during the shows.

IMG_5753 peter evans stone

Peter Evans can do plenty with extended technique and sound experimentation, but he’s also adept in contexts closer to the jazz tradition, as with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This set showed off both sides but leaned toward more traditionally “musical” sounds, using Evans’ compositions as a foundation and presenting lots of experimental twists (one piece focused heavily on air-through-the-horn sounds, for instance). Evans’ fast fast playing showed up quickly during the first piece — a flood of crystal-precision tones flowing over long unison tones from Alice Teyssier (flute) and Ryan Muncy (sax).

The three of them had performed together in a 50-person George Lewis concert where they apparently played the prankster role, moving through the mass of other musicians and generally causing trouble. Some of that attitude showed up here. One piece gave an unaccompanied solo to each player, and Muncy’s consisted of one long multi-tone wrested from the sax.

I wish I could remember more about the compositions themselves, but I remember it being a bright, easygoing set overall, with some challenging but pleasant assignments in the music. At times it felt like a casual chamber-music set, which I suppose was the theme of the concert in general.

16138-aruanortiz_1
Source: Sound It Out NYC

Aruán Ortiz performed with Darius Jones (sax) and Ches Smith (drums) as the trio Firm Roots, presenting one long-form improvisation. Afro-Cubism, featured on his solo album Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017), comes across to me as a patient style of free playing, where pauses and quietude darken the dense, gnarled harmonies. I don’t mean to say it’s all slow — Ortiz does get into rapid, splashy playing. But he relishes the journey in getting there.

On a macro scale, the piece followed a fast-slow-fast progression — with plenty of deviations, of course, but the opening segment featured Jones in a forceful, declarative mode, favoring long herading tones, and the end built up to a more quick-handed intensity.

The Evans and Ortiz shows bookended my trip. In between there was Nicole Mitchell, and I’ll devote the next blog entry to that.

16 Bars in an Elevator

This is cute: A band crammed into an elevator for one number. Probably not the first time this has been done, but it makes for a novel video.

I love the way the vibraphone exactly fits the space. Makes it even more cramped.

The band is a quartet fronted by drummer Chris Hewitt, and the tune is “Sixteen Bars for Jail,” by Ches Smith. You’ll find the original on the album Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl, 2010).

Ches Smith’s ECM Trio

Ches SmithThe Bell (ECM, 2016)

imageSo many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.

Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)

Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.

The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game,  developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”

Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which  builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.

The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.

The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.

But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from …theoretically, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.

It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.

The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.

Matt Mitchell
Matt Mitchell.

Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.

I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).

Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.

Snakeoil

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil plays at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday, Feb. 27, and at Yoshi’s Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Tim BerneSnakeoil (ECM, 2012)

It’s not as though being on the ECM record label was going to change Tim Berne’s music, but I had to wonder. ECM has a sound, a particular aura that’s built Manfred Eicher a worldwide fan base, even though ECM’s range is wider than some realize. (Would you have submitted Prezens to the label that did a CD of Bach viola da gamba songs?)

Even when Eicher doesn’t produce a recording — as on Michael Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change (reviewed here), he takes control of the final mixing. You don’t escape the sound.

So, while a track like “Not Sure” kicks off with those driving, bouncing composed lines that Berne is famous for, you’ve also got “Simple City,” which opens the album with Matt Mitchell on careful piano, letting the notes absorb into the resonant air. It’s like slowly crackling ice, with tiny dissonances here and there for color. Ches Smith starts adding some percussion (timpani, whoa) and Berne finally enters on sax — and the feeling has changed from that icy ECM specialty to the warm-and-comforting (but somehow still icy) ECM specialty.

Tim Berne. Source: Kuumbwa Jazz; click to go there. Photo by Robert Lewis.

Eicher is particularly good at recording drums. I can really savor Smith’s work all over this album, especially the cymbals, whether it’s him splashing about or that clean tapping of wood-on-metal. The resonant room plays well with Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet, too, especially early in “Yield.” He’s going crazy while the band plays a gentle, pulsing rhythm, and the little resonances of the room crop up when Noriega takes a breath or delivers a long, keening note — nice studio-provided touches.

The composing is Berne all over; the first instants of “Scanners” will tell you that, with its quick-paced theme stacking interlocked parts on top of each other. Snakeoil is full of those rock-out moments juxtaposed with loose improvisation or slow, contemplative stretches. The ending of “Simple City” is slow and drawn-out, reminding me of the cooldown endings to some of Berne’s half-hour Bloodcount suites.

None of the tracks is blazingly fast, but “Scanners” moves at a good clip. We’ll call that the hit single (at 7:21, it’s also the shortest song). And “Spectacle” builds to a big, stormy finish. On the prettier side, “Spare Parts” includes a gentle stretch while Berne solos warmly over a calm piano-and-clarinet line. It’s Berne-like and ECM-like, and it’s got a cozy feeling that plays well with the album’s rainy-day cover.

“Scanners” and part of “Spectacle” can be heard via the Screwgun Records page, where you can also order Snakeoil. And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that Los Totopos album Berne recorded — this is it; they just changed the band name.

Good For Cows: The Metal Side

Good for CowsAudumla (Web of Mimicry, 2010)
Lucifer the Lightbearer [a.k.a. Devin Hoff] — Lucifer the Lightbearer (self-released, 2010)

Wait, that sounds like something electric.  Wait, that’s a keyboard. Wait, now some guy screaming -?

If you’ve wondered how many albums Good For Cows could squeeze out of the acoustic bass/drums format, you’ll want to give this a listen. After years of stripped-down instrumental pop (usually filed in the jazz bins), the duo has downshifted into a slow-blaze kind of metal, with gravity-well electric bass (deployed like a fuzzy lead guitar, really) and deliberate, icy-stare drums. Within a few notes of Audumla, the black-on-black album cover makes sense.

It’s a new voice that doesn’t necessarily accommodate their prior approach to writing. “Fafnir” recalls Good For Cows’ earlier pop, albeit done up in fuzzy aggression. But that somehow seems to call attention to the song’s slow pace; it feels incomplete (but redeems itself with an awesome bass/drums double-soloing stretch).  Other tracks feel more like they’re written with the grinding heat of metal in mind — “Lenore,” for instance, uses a snappy midtempo bass riff to set up a mood of power and dread, later popping into a stomping hard rhythm. That’s more like it.

“Invisible Goth” rocks out with a hammering beat and some ringing, guitar-like electronics triggered by Ches Smith‘s drums. The extra sound adds a nice dimension. But my favorite on the album is probably “Solfell (Mountains on the Sun),” where Devin Hoff adds some noodling prog-rock bass patches and Smith gets a spacey electronics break.

Now, if I’d actually known something about Hoff and Smith, Audumla might not have surprised me. It turns out Hoff has an “undying love for metal,” which is how he explains his newest solo project, Lucifer the Lightbearer.

It’s a solo excursion into multiple basses and vocals, creating heavy, dark landscapes (as if the album art, at right, wasn’t clue enough). “The Fallen” opens the album with a heavy, slow chanting of electric bass, eventually adding a treble voice in the form of bass played with (I think) the edge of the bow, for a springy and — in the literal sense — metallic squealing.

The album starts to really rock out with “Son of the Morning,” which stacks up a sinister chiming electric bass with grimaced vocals done in an oversaturated whisper/groan, followed by squealy bass-guitar soloing. Overall, Lucifer is heavier than Audumla and doesn’t have the latter’s pop roots. It’s a fascinating little world of evil, built by Hoff in shimmering layers.

The album wraps up with the acoustic “Light Bearer,” a peaceful and even mournful ending, perhaps showing — I can’t believe I’m about to type this — some sympathy for the devil.

Lucifer the Lightbearer is being released by Hoff on Bandcamp on a name-your-price basis — find it here. You can also find his other solo works there; be sure to check out The Redressers.

Hoff is in the process of putting Good For Cows’ older albums on Bandcamp as well — follow this link. Or, you could also see if Mike at Asian Man Records has any more copies of Good For Cows’ Bebop Fantasy CD.

Ches Smith at the Helm

Ches Smith, the drummer who’s become a downtown NYC fixture (and who earlier made his Bay Area name as co-leader of Good for Cows and founder of the one-man Congs for Brums) is coming out with his first album leading a band-sized band. It’s called Finally Out of My Hands, and it’s due to arrive on Skirl on Nov. 16.

It’s a document of These Arches, Smith’s first band-sized band.  And you can tell what pull he has by the people he’s gotten to play for him: Mary Halvorson (guitar), Tony Malaby (sax), and Andrea Parkins (accordion, maybe keyboards).

Some reactions: Check out Parkins on accordion, really getting into it … That’s an interesting composition; good to see that side of Smith reflected in this band … and from the “Well, duh” department: Oh, so that’s what Tony Malaby looks like.

It appears you can pre-order Finally Out of My Hands at Squidco, and I’d wager they’ll take a pre-order at Downtown Music Gallery if you call ’em.

Playlist: July 31, 2009

KZSU playlist highlights for Friday, July 31, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

source: yoshis; pic by peter gannushkin, used w/o permission….. The Mary Halvorson set was a treat: I played one track from Dragon’s Head, then one each from her bandmates, Ches Smith (drums), and John Hébert (bass), then capped it off with the soothing end track from Thin Air, her duo album with Jessica Pavone. That very trio is coming to Yoshi’s Oakland on Aug. 4, for one 8:00 set. After hearing all the acclaim for Halvorson over the past several months, it’ll be great to see her live.

source: CDbaby….. I’m also pretty excited that Go-Go Fightmaster is playing on the 10th, at the Ivy Room in Albany. (And bummed that I’ll be out of town that day.) Their song “Buffy Is Dead” opens with a dark, stomping guitar march and needling saxophones. The rest of their self-titled 2003 album goes all over the place, with lots of free jazz and some Monk, sometimes staying inside, sometimes veering wildly outside. The personnel are the same as for Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch, which is pretty amusing and gives them all extra reason to stick together.

source: long song records….. Acoustic Guitar Trio is Nels Cline, Jim McAuley, and the late Rod Poole, all plucking and scraping and bowing away at their instruments. It’s marvelous, dynamic work with lots of quietude amid the jangling, and it’s all the more poignant given the circumstances around Poole’s passing. (It’s interesting and nice to see that Poole’s tribute Web site makes no mention of that at all.)

source: public eyesore….. The Emergency String Quintet — really, the (x)tet, depending on how many guests pop in — is an all-strings improv project that Bob Marsh gets together occasionally. The results are sublime, producing abstract work that sounds awfully close to composition sometimes. They’ll be playing at Flux 53 tomorrow night.

….. I was going to play the Steve Martin banjo CD, The Crow, someday, believe it or not. But today, the producer, Jim McEuen (of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), randomly called during my show and offered himself to the station for interviews, which jogged my memory about it. We’re talking about the Steve Martin, doing an album of original banjo songs (and a CD booklet stuffed with liner notes written by him). A massive cast of studio musicians (KZSU fave Matt Flinner among them) makes it the “most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe,” or words to that effect. It’s in the liner notes. It must be true!

You can find the full playlist here.