Human Feel in Santa Cruz

Human Feel at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa CruzHuman Feel got a predictably enthusiastic response at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, thanks to the turnout of fanboys (and girls) like me. But they also won over the Santa Cruz regulars and Kuumbwa members who’d come not knowing what to expect. I heard at least a couple of them walking away happy, in a chattering and giddy mood.

The band’s music, full of sharp-angled melodies and spans of loud improv abandon — certainly doesn’t fit the normal jazz arc, which is what attracted me to the band in the first place. But their tunes often have pleasant and traceable themes, and the band performed with convincing punch and verve. I’m sure they made a few new fans that night, and they didn’t disappoint the old ones.

The set was good, of course, and packed with energy and sweat, but Andrew D’Angelo‘s stage banter won the crowd over, too. He’s got good stage presence, but he was also gifted with some material in the form of a three-hour flight delay out of Seattle and a couple of lost bags. Airline troubles are nothing new to veteran musicians, but they still provide good stories to tell on stage.

Live soundcheck.
Live soundcheck.

The upshot was that the band, minus Kurt Rosenwinkel‘s guitar pedals and Jim Black‘s drumsticks, got into Santa Cruz just after the designated 7:00 p.m. start time. They rushed through a “live” sound check, testing out borrowed gear while we in the crowd finished our dinners and desserts.

As reward for our patience, we got D’Angelo’s spasmodic sax energy, the heavier guitar-hero side of Rosenwinkel (who spends most of the time in the background with this band, but it’s a hard-working, space-filling background) and of course Jim Black’s drumming, which quite a few people came for, judging by the crowd response. I chose to sit on Black’s side of the stage, so he drowned out the others sometimes (which is why I don’t have much to say about how Chris Speed sounded) but that was a conscious tradeoff, and I wasn’t the only one making it. We got to savor Black’s shapeshifting grooves, full of explosions, torrents, and subtle clinks and clanks.

They tried something really different on “Numer Ology,” a piece D’Angelo said was inspired by cosmic questions about the meaning of existence and the arbitrary nature of fate. Most people took it as a joke, but D’Angelo was diagnosed with brain cancer seven years ago and defeated it without chemo or radiation therapy, so these questions mean a lot to him.

The song consisted of short phrases and short improvisations, all separated by long, weighty pauses. It was at one highbrown and good-humored — and then at one point, D’Angelo picked up the mic and cued us to shout out our meaning-of-the-universe theories after the next phrase. Apparently most crowds just blurt it all out at once; we kind of did it one at a time, classroom-style. It wouldn’t have sounded great on a record, but people got into it.

If Human Feel has anything like a hit single, it’s “Sich Reped,” D’Angelo’s poking, sharp-angled 7/8 tune, and that was their closer. Most of the tune went by at a slightly slower pace than on the album Welcome to Malpesta, making for a sound that was still fun but not as jabbing as it could have been — until the end, when D’Angelo and the others opened up the throttle and poured it on. It was a great crowd-pleaser, and of course it got them an encore — a piece that D’Angelo dedicated to the airline they’d flown and that opened with a roaring, screaming improvisation.

Despite having four successful careers to juggle, Human Feel has now gotten together for two post-’90s albums — Galore, and the soon-to-be-released new album. I treated this show as my only chance to see the band, but now I’ve got my fingers crossed for the future.

More from the Bloodcount Vaults

Tim Berne Insomnia (Clean Feed, 2011)

Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, which disbanded sometime around 2000, left a wealth of long-form pieces to pore over — 20- and 40-minute compositions (or longer!) with compelling composed segments and spellbinding improvisation. The quartet tears it up on the rough and ragged 3-CD set, Unwound, and they’re presented in more studious, pristine form on the essential Paris Concert trilogy (still available on Winter & Winter).

And the basement tapes from that 1994-1998’ish timeframe keep coming. Berne put out a 2-CD set, Seconds, featuring tracks a mere 10 or so minutes long (but accompanied by a DVD of the 51-minute “Eye Contact”).

Now there’s Insomnia, two half-hour pieces featuring the five-man Bloodcount team plus three guests. It adds up to what looks like a chamber ensemble, including trumpet (Baikida Carroll), clarinet (Chris Speed), cello (Erik Friedlander), violin (Dominique Pifarely), and acoustic guitar (Marc Ducret). Recorded in 1997 after a sleepless night on Berne’s part, as he recounted for Downtown Music Gallery (click here and scroll down), the album delivers two long-form suites from the vein that Bloodcount so skillfully mined.

There’s a familiarity to the moments when the group comes in for a landing, easing into a composed section after playing freely. It’s not like Bloodcount is the only group that’s ever done that, but something about those moments on here sounds like Bloodcount. It’s as if the core quintet is the hive mind directing the piece, even though the three guest members each bring strong personality to the music.

The sound palette is considerably wider than Bloodcount’s, though. “The Proposal” starts out velvety and chamber-like, drawing from the same source as Bloodcount’s track, “The Other.” Ducret’s acoustic guitar adds a soft, chiming texture that I’ve never heard with Bloodcount (he’d always been on electric). There’s a particularly nice moment early on where he doubles up with Michael Formanek’s bass, splashing the occasional chord against the plucked bass strings and a lightly dancing Carroll solo on trumpet.

About halfway through “The Proposal,” Ducret launches a peppy, strings-heavy theme that leads to a particularly symphonic passage where trumpet, guitar, cello, sax, and clarinet are each playing fragments of themes. It’s a carefully arranged and fast-moving segment that shines. It’s through moments like that that Berne’s suites, at their best, exude an aura of control that I’ve always enjoyed. You feel like you’re traversing a carefully laid-out plan, an invisible schematic.

“Open, Coma” opens unlike anything Bloodcount ever did — with acoustic guitar and trumpet dominating the scene, followed by a frenzied Pifaly violin solo. It’s only 6 minutes into the 29-minute piece that a Berne-like theme pops up, returning the song to familiar ground.

Like “The Proposal,” “Open Coma” goes through a gauntlet of mood swings. Its composed themes feel grander, almost like dark marches sometimes, and the improvising seems more of a free-for-all, touching on that orchestra-tuning-up sound more often than “The Proposal” did. Much of the second half is taken up by a good, long Berne solo, lively and kicking, showing none of the ill effects of sleeplessness.

One odd thing I noticed was how little I noticed Jim Black. He’s there, but it wasn’t until his solo at the end of “Open, Coma” that I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to him. I guess there was just that much else going on.

Endangered Blood: The Openers

Is it weird that I’ve been obsessing about the opening acts on Endangered Blood‘s Western U.S. tour?

To recap: This is the NYC quartet of Chris Speed (sax/clarinet), Oscar Noriega (other sax), Jim Black (drums), and Trevor Dunn (bass).  They’re all a big part of the current downtown NYC scene, but they rarely get out west due to the impracticalities of touring. But Dunn used to live in the Bay Area, and Speed and Black once hailed from Seattle, so they’ve got ties.

Anyway. The discovery of Richard Sears‘ music is what got me thinking along these lines. From there, some known quantities and one unknown but very interesting one turned up.

Taken from the Jim Black events page, here’s Endangered Blood’s schedule.

Dec. 5, Chicago, @ The Hungry Brain. This already happened, so we’ll skip it.

December 6th, Seattle, @ The ChapelWayne Horvitz Quartet. With Neil Welch (sax), Willem de Koch (trombone), and Luke Bergman (bass).  Presumably you know the many colors of Horvitz. Welch is quite active on the Seattle scene as well. His Narmada album shows a late-’60s reverence to the origins of free jazz, and, separately, an interest in Indian ragas… but he’s also done work with loops and pedals.  Here’s a review of Narmada, and you can hear samples at CD Baby.  Presented by the Wayward Music Series.

December 7th, Portland, OR @ Hop and VinePaxselin Quartet.  Fronted by sax and clarinet, Paxselin dabbles in bopping free jazz and some somber chamber-sounding material as well. Presented by Portland Eye & Ear Control. Hear samples of them on CD Baby, eMusic, or CD Baby again.

December 8th, Eureka, CA @ Red Fox TavernWSG Krawdad? Dunno.

December 9th, Boulder, CO @ Old Main, CU CampusKneebody.  An awesome band that I’m stunned to discover I haven’t mentioned on this blog yet. Youthful, creative, and exciting enough to have been the first non-Dave-Douglas artist to appear on Dave Douglas’ then-new record label. This one’s a double-headliner show (like a double A-side single, for you oldster types out there) and might be the most exciting bill on the docket. Read more at, and sample their new album on eMusic.

December 10th, Oakland, CA @ Studio 1510 Performance Space — Scott Looney (piano), Doug Stuart (bass), Kjell Nordeson (drums), a new Bay Area trio. Looney can be heard in contexts from jazzy free-jazz to abstract improvising to pure electronics; this trio looks like it’ll stick to the first category. Sounds very promising.

December 11th, Los Angeles, @ The Blue WhaleRichard Sears (piano) and band. Sears’ album, Rick, is streamable on his site, and it’s good stuff. Just check out the exciting title track, with its pulsing guitar and very, well, Chris Speed-like sax played by Sam Gandel.

December 12th, Phoenix, AZ @ Modified Arts — Unknown.

December 13th, Tucson, AZ @ Solar Culture — Folky acoustic music from Sara P. Smith, formerly the trombonist with Chicago-area groups like Isotope 217. You can hear more at

A terrific list, overall. Given enough resources and free time, I’d be tempted to follow Endangered Blood around just to listen to their opening acts. Hopefully some of them benefit from the exposure, or at least get a good audience (gigs are so hard to come by, for many of these folks).  If nothing else, some of them can say they’ve gained one new listener already.

You can hear Endangered Blood’s music on Myspace and YouTube (see below).

Endangered Blood, Richard Sears, Here, L.A., NYC

Stringing things together on the Web again:

1. Holy cow, some downtown NYCers are coming our way.  Endangered Blood will be playing at Studio 1510 (Oakland) on Friday, Dec. 10.  Here’s the calendar listing.

The band is Chris Speed (sax), Oscar Noriega (other sax), Trevor Dunn (bass), and Jim Black (drums).  I’m familiar with the constituent parts but not the whole.  This Danish calendar says they “create a new sound that integrates swing, free jazz, and rock, while maintaining the experimental energy that all these musicians are known for,” and it points to another couple of more detailed quotes, from sources closer to home. The video below offers some clue as well.

Opening that show will be the Bay Area trio of Scott Looney (keys), Doug Stuart (bass), and Kjell Nordeson (drums).


2. That show is part of a western U.S. tour, so they’ll be in L.A. too, at Blue Whale on Saturday Dec. 11.

3. Keyboardist Richard Sears will open for them in L.A., with a full band. (Photo at right by Dario Griffin.) I’d never heard of Sears before, but his album, Rick, is streamable on his Web site and sounds pretty dang cool — the title track blends a choppy, agitated guitar rhythm with the kind of lazyboat horn melody that’s found on some Chris Speed and Jim Black records.  Thus do we come full circle, if we stretch hard enough.

Ben Perowsky’s Opus

Ben Perowsky Quartet Esopus Opus (Skirl, 2009)

Here’s a spirited session made up of Skirl regulars.  Ted Reichman (accordion) and label owner Chris Speed (sax/clarinet) define the sound, but Perowsky (drums) has the controls, putting solid beats behind some upbeat compositions.

“Present Distance” stands out for the pulsing accordion that sets the rhythm, with Speed playing some bright, razzing sax. A solo section later on has Speed moving more freely alongside Drew Gress (bass), with Perosky pounding away. I do appreciate the airy, languid motif that’s been in Speed’s and Skirl’s work (The Clarinets comes to mind), but the fire of Perowsky’s drums throughout the album is a treat.

Beatle covers usually leave me cold, but”Within You Without You,” with the accordion replicating a sitar drone, works well. It’s also the kind of languid atmosphere that Speed revels in, weaving clarinet lines around and through the fabric of the tone. “Flying,” the lone ’60s track credited to all four Beatles, is a quirky choice for a cover; it’s inserted like a bit of an in-joke and is kept appropriately short.

Perowsky also adds a spirited cover of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” with a catchy pulsing accordion setting up a jovial, carnival-like air. I like it.

Perowsky likes his traditional jazz, too.  “Keylime” is a bluesy, brazen opening. “Murnau on the Bayou” is an outright swampy New Orleans drag, deliciously slow and rich with old-timey jazz flavor.

I really liked the title track, a short, poking, cutesy composition. The album closes with its most somber number, “Red Hook,” which confines Gress to a bass pulse that sets up a pleasant yet slightly unsettling sax/accordion melody.

Jim Black and the 2-Hour Rainstorm

source:jimblack.comHouseplant, from Jim Black‘s Alas No Axis, won’t be available in North America until June, apparently. Yes, I could buy it online, but maybe I’ll just wait patiently. I’ve gone through worse for this band.

In 2000, the dot-com boom was still booming, and I was sent packing for one road trip after another. It was exhilarating as well as exhausting. Years later, I would learn that the paralyzing foot cramps and persistent sinus congestion could be cured by getting enough sleep, but that wasn’t an option at the time. I let myself get wrapped up in the drama — partly because the travel meant I could visit baseball stadiums and take in some Knitting Factory shows.

The height of my adventurousness came during a trip to Baltimore, when I found out drummer Jim Black would be in Philadelphia that same week, debuting his new band. I’d become a huge fan of Black’s, based on his playing source:chrisspeed.comwith Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. I’d tracked down CDs from band members Michael Formanek and Chris Speed, and from Human Feel, the quartet that Black and Speed populated in earlier days. A Jim Black-led band was something I didn’t want to pass up. I was traveling alone, tetherless. I had the budget to rent a car.

And so I made the daunting trip up I-95, the farthest I’ve ever driven for a show. The alien turf (in California, you don’t drive for two hours and cross states) was made worse by a downpour that pummeled me for all 100 miles. And while everyone on the east coast might know this, I didn’t: I-95 is a battlefield of speeding 18-wheeler trucks. In pouring rain. On a route I didn’t know. It was a white knuckle ride all the way.

Running late, I paid at the only parking lot I saw open (it was Sunday night, IIRC) and, soaking wet, walked up the steps to some unfamiliar theater that looked dark and shuttered up. I pried the door open. No one inside. It took several minutes to realize the show must be upstairs — in the third-floor attic, in fact. I had made it just in time. Alas No Axis, as the band would be called, had just finished their first tune (a two-minute blip) and were ready to lay into the song,  “Optical.” Guitar and clarinet traced relaxed, bobbing lines, while Black’s patient drumming created the illusion of a tempo continually slowing down, even though the song kept a strong pace. I sat down, feeling warm and welcomed. It was all worth it.

alasnoaxisAfterwards, Black sold us the Alas No Axis CD. Its official release date was still a week or so away; we were the first fans to get our hands on copies. Black is easy to chat up, so we talked about the band, about how guitarist Hilmar Jensson and bassist Skúli Sverrisson were both from Iceland. Wouldn’t that make gigs a rarity, I asked. Black shrugged it off. “They’re over here a lot,” he said.

I’ll admit, I didn’t believe him, and I felt a little sad to think I’d seen one of the few shows this band would ever play. I’m so glad I was wrong. Houseplant is the fifth Alas No Axis CD, and they seem to manage a tour every year, at least in Europe.

Black has forged a fresh sound with this band, and it deserves nurturing. It’s often closer to instrumental indie-rock than to jazz, particularly on songs like “Cheepa vs. Cheep” on the second album, Splay. I also catch the indie-instrumental vibe quite a lot on the third album, Habyor.

I don’t expect Houseplant to be any radical departure. Still, I’m anxious to hear what’s next up Black’s sleeve. A certain online retailer could get it to me for a reasonable price, but I don’t like to patronize them due to their wanton abuse of the U.S. patent system. (Yes, I know, the cry for a boycott ended years ago.) I can wait. It’s no more difficult than the dragons’ run up I-95.

Tweeting Tim Berne

screwgun2Tim Berne, or at least a representative of his Screwgun Records label, is doing the Twitter thing. Tweeters can start following @screwgunrecords for updates. (*)

Tim Berne’s Twitter feed will tell you there’s an Adobe Probe clip to be heard, over on Facebook.

That’s Berne’s latest band. Mary Halvorson’s Web page lists the personnel as:

So. Berne and Speed get reunited from the old Bloodcount days. (They’d reunited last year already for a few shows of all new material — this one, for instance.) Halvorson is the new critics’ fave, as I’ve noted here, and you can find quite a bit about her on the blog for promotions outfit Improvised Communications (Try this WordPress search.) Hebert is part of Halvorson’s much-lauded trio. Cleaver’s an A-list drummer, of course.

The Facebook clip, “Duck,” is heavy on the horns, but the piano and guitar get a good moment later on. Sounds like a lot of energy. Matt Mitchell has a brief description on his blog. This could be a very cool band.

(*) OK, Twitter rant. Yes, I use Twitter, and I enjoy it. Yeah, it’s frivolous. Some people talk about how the 140-character limit forces “brevity and clarity,” which is partly true, but it also forces shallowness: You can’t convey deep ideas or carry on long conversations. Perfect for a society that’s being taught, by technology and TV, that it’s OK to treat life with impatience and self-absorption.

Anyway, for delivering short notes to lots of people, or for seeking quick info among your friends and semi-acquaintances, Twitter is a pretty good system. Commercial interests are taking notice awfully quickly, though, and Twitter will someday be under the gun to make actual money. I predict in three years it’ll be a platform for coupons and advertising deals (a.k.a. spam), so we should enjoy the fun while it lasts.

UPDATE, 2/4/09: This is a particularly egregious example of what I mean.  But I think the real danger lies in something like Magpie.