Beat Kitchen

Back in May, I found time in Chicago to check out the weekly music happening at Beat Kitchen, a friendly dive restaurant well northwest of the tiresome Magnificent Mile area. A singer-songwriter type with a decent following was playing in the basement. But I was there for the upstairs jazz show — with Jim Baker (piano/electronics), Ed Wilkerson (sax), Brian Sandstrom (bass), and Steve Hunt (drums).

The group is called Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and it’s a rotating-cast show that Baker brings to Beat Kitchen every Monday night. Here’s an example of them in a mellower moment, with Mars Williams on sax:

There’s a slightly more intense video available with better sound, but it’s filmed in what I assume is the Beat Kitchen’s basement space. I wanted to provide a taste of what the upstairs is like. It appears to be a kitchen and small restaurant space — maybe even a former studio apartment — with stools and chairs scattered about. Only a handful of us were in the audience, and the waitress downstairs seemed pretty happy when I said I was there for the jazz show.

IMG_3840 beat kitchen cutExtraordinary Popular Delusions released at least one CD on Okka Disk (2007), based on compositions, but the M.O. for these shows appears to be long-form improvisation. I got upstairs just as the band was reaching a crescendo — not a super frenzy but definitely a high energy point. Wilkerson was dealing on sax, Baker splashing with abandon at the digital piano.

They ended up playing one long piece. One of the cooldown phases dropped into a piano-drums duet, with chording from Baker that could have been mistaken for a jazz ballad. Sandstrom’s acoustic bass work was something to savor, but soon he switched to electronic guitar effects while Baker moved over to his analog synthesizer and its impossible tangle of cables. Hunt’s drums kept the pace brisk throughout.

Wilkerson later contributed some popping, clicking acoustic guitar, and Sandstrom moved to an amplified toy guitar (or possible a ukelele; it was hard to tell in the dark).

Even though it’s predictable that the energy would rise up to a climax, they did it in a way that was miraculous and beautiful. Piano and drums were cooking — and then the acoustic bass came back in, pushing the intensity up several notches. Hunt locked into an almost swingy non-groove, egging the others to ratchet it up even more. Wilkerson let the energy build and build, then made his grand entrance with passionate overblown wails on the tenor sax, a clarion call, before launching into big, throaty tenor-sax riffs and calls.

beat kitchen IMG_3844

Long notes from Wilkerson signaled the end, and as the sound settled back into silence, Baker started choosing chords in sympathy with Wilkerson — and the music came to a peaceful stop, as if it were meant to do that all along.

The players agreed that was a perfect ending, and opted not to play another piece. That was the right call — everything clicked, in a way that doesn’t always happen, not even for a band of this caliber.

Finding this kind of music is always a challenge. Avant Music News is a good resource, as it reprints some of the local calendars around the world. And in the Bay Area, we still have the Bayimproviser site and accompanying Transbay Calendar app.


Rempis Percussion QuartetCash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)

Rempis Percussion Quartet -- Cash and Carry (Aerophonic, 2015)Part of the trick in listening to the opening of “Water Foul Run Amok,” the 39-minute spotlight piece on Cash and Carry, is to not get too mesmerized by Dave Rempis‘ free-jazz acrobatics. He’s shredding it up on sax, with blazing, buzzing passages calling up spirits of all sorts. Sometimes he’s tracing long-lined ideas; sometimes, it’s a gruff, Brotzmann-like phrase that gets repeated a few times for emphasis. He’s spinning quite a tale, either way, one that’s easy to get lost in.

But this is the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and part of the aesthetic is that two drummers are backing this music. The insistent activity — all that busy-ness — is a key part of the sound

So it’s important to take a figurative step back and try to let all this music soak into your skin, not just Rempis but also the bustle and clatter from Frank Rosaly and Tim Daisy, split into separate speakers. Ingebrigt Håker Flaten rounds out the sound on bass, keeping up with fast pizzicato.

That blast of activity lasts a little more than eight minutes. The majority of the piece is an exercise in restraint, with the players carefully crafting sounds and moods. The first phase of this, after that initial blast, is more than a simple cooldown; it features some emotive, color-painting sax from Rempis and an ominous bowed base from Flaten.

Daisy and Rosaly each get to show their stuff in separate solos later in the piece. It’s a nice showcase for each of them. But the defining moments for the band, in my opinion, come when the four of them are playing full-tilt, creating a unified wall of free jazz.

I’d suggest a similar strategy for other bands that double up the rhythm section — the Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet, which I just reviewed — or the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core and the John Lurie National Orchestra, which I’d compared here.

“Better Than Butter,” the other track on Cash and Carry, is more of a slow simmer, gaining energy during its 15 minutes. This is another good taste of the four members working as a unit — first in disjoint, slower motions, carving out the shape of a piece, and then in more of a jam mode. It’s cooking, not at the full-tilt level of “Water Foul,” but at a midtempo step that’s  almost danceable during a late stretch where Flaten settles on an ebullient pulse. It makes for a nice ending to the journey, hearing the four members propping up one another to create such a warm, welcoming space.

Here’s a taste of that frenzied opening to “Water Four Run Amok:”

Happy Birthday Fred

Fred Anderson Trio — Birthday Live 2000 (Asian Improv, 2009)

anderson-trioPart of the spoils from the Chicago trip.  This is a limited-edition disk that was being sold as a fundraiser for the Velvet Lounge, Anderson’s South Side joint, so it was a tad more expensive than usual.  That’s fine.

There’s not much to the packaging aside from the attractive black-background cover, a photo with enhanced borders for a line-drawing look. The music is the attraction: three fairly long (22-, 13-, and 14-minute) pieces.

The 22-minute opening track is table stakes, the kind of high-energy jazz you’d expect from Anderson’s bands: a straight-up sound with plenty of free attitudes in the soloing. Nice stuff that shows Anderson still has the creative fire burning.

Track 2 starts with a clever, poking bassline from Tatsu Aoki, a minimalist funk patter accompanied by a light tapping beat from Chad Taylor on drums.  It all hints at an exotic African rhythms, particularly once the saxophone starts into a slow, jamming mode and Aoki’s bass lays the foundation in very low, swampy notes and a catchy beat. It’s a wonderful piece, the best of the bunch.

Track 3 sandersonpostertarts with Anderson unaccompanied, first in an upbeat blues mood but later wandering into other jazz territories, of course. He covers a lot of ground in five minutes before the rhythm section kicks in, Taylor with breezy fast drumming and Aoki opting for a bouncy, descending-note bassline. Anderson comes in with sax that’s plenty fast but not abrasive; coupled with the busy drums, it’s a piece with a lot of movement and a warm glow about it.

Great stuff.  But for a real birthday bash, check out the lineups for Anderson’s 2009 celebration, his 80th. You can see a list on Tatsu Aoki’s site, if you scroll down: Six days of artists like Ernest Dawkins, Ari Brown, Kidd Jordan, Henry Grimes, Dee Alexander and Jeff Chan. The Velvet Lounge is still selling promo posters from the event.


Subway haiku on the red line. Note the missing "w"(Short version: The David Boykin Expanse was good. Tradition-based post-bop with some occasional rap and the star presence of Jim Baker and Nicole Mitchell. If you’re in Chicago, go seek Boykin out.)

Long version:

The Velvet Lounge is Fred Anderson’s club in Chicago, a neighborhood bar with cool blue walls and awesome, adventurous jazz five nights a week. Its former home was around the corner, just off East Cermak, in a run-down building; Anderson had to relocate, at considerable expense, as gentrification plans mowed that building down.

That was long before the recession. The hole from the demolition is still there, empty. But assuming the Lounge is doing OK financially, the forced move was been for the better.

The old place had character — and a multicolored floral wallpaper that screamed out like a colorblindness test — but the new location is clean and smart, without feeling out of place. Every time I’ve been there, someone’s sitting in the back with a styrofoam container from one of the nearby take-out food joints. The bartender is a blue-collar, eastern European type, very friendly and usually talking to one of the regulars in the corner. And 81-year-old Fred is still there some nights, sometimes even working the door himself.

I don’t get to Chicago often. When I do, I always try to work my schedule around a Velvet Lounge visit.

(I’d also used the Umbrella Music calendar to plan for a Elastic on Thursday night, to see Carrie Shull in what looks like an oboe-led improv quartet. I could have made the 11:00 set, I suppose, but the thought of going that far in a cab on a night like that was too much. Yes, I wussed out due to weather. It was severely stormy and, cliché or not, windy. Really, really windy.)

Friday night, I got off work in time to hit Jazz Record Mart, for better or worse — great store, tough on the pocketbook.

JRM happens to be a couple of blocks from Andy’s Jazz Club, and while I was leery of mainstream jazz in a touristy part of town, I also needed to eat, even if it meant a $10 cover. I gave it a shot.

The Moshier-Lebrun Group (quintet: sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) wasn’t too bad. It’s what I call “contemporary jazz,” modern stuff descended from post-bebop modalism (Andrew Hill would be a good model) but with sugar, a velvet sheen that makes the music airy and, for most audiences, an easy eveningtime experience. Contemporary jazz can rock, and this group did, getting especially stormy during one guitar solo. And it does draw from worthy jazz masters like Hill and even Ornette Coleman. But it can lack grit, and its fire isn’t guttural. Still, not a bad way to spend a dinner hour.

From there, it was a quick bus ride to the South Side and the Velvet Lounge. (For the ride home, I would figure out that the Red Line is a faster, cozier trip.)

The David Boykin Expanse is a quintet led by Boykin on tenor sax and sometimes he adds rap or rap/singing. He’s got terrific MC skills, delivering supersonic rap packed with creative rhymes, and I think he even freestyled a band intro at the end of the second set.

The first piece, “Sunrise,” was a slow, reverent wail in late Coltrane mode. That would be unique in the set; from there, the band went into modern bop pieces with knotted, twisty themes that were mostly upbeat. Solos were usually taken in sequence — Boyken (tenor sax), Nicole Mitchell (flute), Jim Baker (piano), Josh Abrams (bass), drums.

Most of the songs stuck to a conventional format, with solos taking place over rhythm and harmony that pointed towards the heads but were really an improvised jam. One exception was “Omni Valley,” the closing piece, where the convoluted rhythm of the theme was retained during the solos. That was really nice, a different color.

Drummer Avery and bassist Josh AbramsA fill-in drummer named Avery was especially impressive with his solos. Instead of reaching directly for firepower, he’d often work in crisp, calculated off-rhythms, toying with ideas that keep the swing of the song going but divert freely from the flow (I think I heard a few cycles of 5-time in there).

(Didn’t catch Avery’s last name. Or rather, I didn’t pay enough attention because I figured I could look it up on the Velvet Lounge calendar — but it just says drummer “tba.” I lose.)

Not everything worked to perfection. Many of the solos seemed to end abruptly, although that could have been a function of me getting absorbed in the rhythm instruments, which sometimes happens. Baker, a great pianist, was having an off night. On one solo in the second set, he gave up early, his hands raising up as if to say, “What the-?” The solo was actually good, but I think he lost his train of thought, so to speak. He got a good-natured round of applause anyway.

Baker’s got a crucial role in this band, by the way; it’s in his solos that things get the most “out” and the most convoluted. Wouldn’t be the same without him.

The crowd was sparse, as often happens with venues (and music) off the beaten path. That’s a shame. I hope the Velvet Lounge is doing better on average and won’t die of neglect. On the plus side, it was good to find out I wasn’t the only audience member who didn’t already know someone from the band. One couple, in particular, was chatting up the musicians and buying CDs, which was nice to see.

Playlist: October 6, 2009

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Tuesday, October 6, 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.

So, in two weeks of doing my new Tuesday slot, I’ve found another disadvantage: I can’t find time to write up these playlist notes! Small price to pay. I’m relishing the quietude of the morning studio and the immense acres of available parking. After years of dealing with Friday afternoon crowds, it’s the promised land!


Source: Improvised* Klang — “No Milk” — Tea Music (Allos Documents, 2009)
… Yet another quartet from the rich Chicago free-jazz community, this time focusing on 1950s influences, primarily Jimmy Giuffre. Klang uses a vibraphone to produce a lightly upbeat sound that’s catchy but still adventurous. It’s got a sound to go with the album’s placid coffeehouse cover.

* Huun Huur Tur and Carmen Rizzo — “Mother Taiga” — Eternal (Groove House, 2009)
… Pitting throat singing with electronics. Tur is no stranger to this kind of idea, having recorded with Ry Cooder and with the Kronos Quartet. This time, the pairing results in some very nice drones.

There’s a similarly minded CD in rotation that mixes music of Hildegard with industrial electronics and various tape-manipulation tricks. Couldn’t get to that one this week, but next week…

source: wikipedia* Lester Bowie — “Spacehead” — All the Magic (ECM, 1982)
… There was an all-star Lester Bowie tribute happening Friday (the 9th) in SF, so I took the opportunity to bring some Lester out of the vinyl collection. All the Magic (1982) is a two-album set dedicated to his mother, who’d passed away recently, and the gatefold includes pictures of Lester with school bands (formidable marching bands in uniforms, serious stuff) and of his family. It’s also got a really good photo of modern-day Lester leading one of his big bands.

The first album consists of Lester and a band, so I played one track from there. The second album is all Lester, doing solo trumpet with overdubs, so I wanted to spin one of those, too. I picked the track “Okra Influence,” because … well come on, it’s called OKRA INFLUENCE!

The tribute was something to behold, I’m sure. Roscoe Mitchell and Famadou Don Moye from the original Art Ensemble; Corey Wilkes, the guest musician who’s been Lester’s de facto successor; and Fred Ho, making a rare West Coast appearance. For old time’s sake, have a listen to an old Fresh Air interview with Lester.