RIP Alvin Fielder

I came to know drummer Alvin Fielder’s name through his improvised-jazz work with pianist Joel Futterman and saxophonist Ike Levin, as several of those CDs crossed KZSU’s transom in the early 2000s. Later, Bay Area bassist Damon Smith moved to Texas along with his Balance Point Acoustics record label, released a series of recordings involving Fielder. 

Here they are in a robust duo improvisation:

And while I’m there, here’s a look at Fielder’s quiet side, backing up Smith on the Johnny Dyani composition “Roots” and taking a long solo at the end:

But of course Fielder, who died this month at 83, had an accomplished career long before I “met” him. He was a co-founder of the AACM and appeared on one of its first albums, Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound in 1966. He stayed in his native South rather than doing the free-jazz thing of traveling Europe but remained active, recording with saxophonist Kidd Jordan for more than 30 years. This 2013 release on NoBusiness Records features the two of them in concert with bassist Peter Kowald:

He also had a long association with trumpeter Dennis González and his sons Aaron and Stephen González. They played on A Measure of Vision (Clean Feed, 2007), technically Fielder’s only recording as a leader — although it’s no stretch to call him the co-leader of the many improvises sessions he recorded. Most of the album puts Fielder in a trio with with Chris Parker (piano) and Dennis González (trumpet). “Max-Well” is a bright Fielder composition quoting “A Love Supreme” and, with its free use of snare accents, probably nodding toward Max Roach as well (Fielder cited Roach as a key early influence), while “The Cecil Tayler – Sunny Murray Dancing Lesson” is a beautiful dirge with flowering piano and, in place of a bass, Fielder’s toms. (Spotify login required to hear entire tracks — apologies for that.)

Writer Clifford Allen is a longtime champion of Fielder’s and published a lengthy interview with him on the All About Jazz site in 2007. Allen apparently introduced Fielder to Damon Smith. It’s through Allen’s blog, “Ni Kantu,” that I found this: a fiery 1976 TV appearance by the Improvisational Arts Quintet, a band that included Jordan and Fielder. Their recorded output is limited to one obscure LP (1983) and one side of a Rounder Records compilation (1988), so it’s nice to have this document available.

To end on a cathartic note, here’s a live take on “Max-Well” with Kidd Jordon on sax and London Branch (of the original Improvisational Arts Quintet) as one of two bassists. It’s from a 2009 tribute to Fielder in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

Damon Smith: Calamity and Catastrophe

Danny Kamins, Damon Smith, Alvin Fielder, Joe HertensteinAfter Effects (FMR, 2017)

John Butcher, Damon Smith, Weasel WalterThe Catastrophe of Minimalism (Balance Point Acoustics, 2017)

after-effectsDamon Smith favors a prickly brand of free improvisation, packed with extended technique and sound experiments, a style designed to agitate.

It’s a good foundation for a storm-themed album, and the two-drummer attack (Alvin Fielder and Joe Hertenstein) on After Effects produces the right level of calamity. The mood is augmented by Danny Kammins’ sax, which sometimes matches Smith’s screechy, noise-driven sound but also leads some downright jazzy passages.

The song titles are all storm-related, with “Storm Pt. 1” being a particularly direct example. It’s an aggressive attack, as you’d expect, with Kamins screeching aggressively and the drummers battering relentlessly.

The album isn’t all chaos, though. “Gentle Breeze” is a short improvisation introduced by deep,weeping bowed bass. “The Wind,” a 13-minute centerpiece of the album, includes a punchy stretch of improvised jazz, more swingy than menacing.

 
“The Hurricane and the Calm” isn’t the most tumultuous of the tracks, but it’s still rather aggressive — and, surprisingly, gives way to the “calm” of a swingy jazz stride, complete with walking bass and sunny-sidewalk demeanor.

I’m not sure the song sequence is meant to parallel a storm’s life cycle exactly, but the final tracks do seem to be about the aftermath. “After Effects” has a grumpy demeanor that, for me, represents a survey of the storm’s ugly aftermath. And “Clean Up” isn’t the serene rainbow ending you might expect; it’s actually rather disturbing, a sprint of an improvisation that seems more like a forlorn glance at heartless destruction and scattered debris.

smith-catastropheThe latest release from Smith’s own Balance Point Acoustics label, meanwhile, is stormy in brighter, more joyous way. It’s a live session with Weasel Walter on drums and John Butcher on sax, taped in 2008 at the late, lamented 21 Grand.

The three know each other well (or, at least, Smith knows both Butcher and Walter well), and the familiarity creates a celebratory squall.

“A Blank Magic” is propelled by the birdcall warbling and squawking that I most associate John Butcher with, his vocabulary of bizarre and mellifluous saxophone sounds. His encyclopedia of extended techniques — gargling, bumpy sounds, or ecstatic screeches — pairs well with Smith’s, the two of them tapping from similar raw materials to construct probing improvisations.

Weasel Walter packs “An Illusionistic Panic Part 2” with his brand of balletic aggression — hard, fast playing on relatively soft or quiet surfaces; this lets him propel the action and fill space without overwhelming the other sounds.

“Modern Technological Fetishes” really pushes the needle on intensity and volume early on, with Walter going absolutely nuts as Butcher and Smith crank the heat. As often happens (and I keep meaning to write about this), the piece’s second half takes the opposite approach, beginning in quietude and ending with speedy but laid-back playing, with Butcher’s sax hitting some calm stretches of nearly conventional melody.

Here’s an excerpt from the earlier, noisier part of that track.


 

Damon Smith, Leaving

Bassist Damon Smith is apparently leaving the Bay Area for Texas.

It’s on the Internet, so it must be true.

The July performance by the Oakland Active Orchestra will include a Smith composition and is being billed on Facebook as your chance to wish him bon voyage.

Smith has been instrumental (oooh, pun alert) in the local music scene not just for playing, but for presenting some music series in the late ’90s. Weekly concerts at one particular, very comfortable, fringe theater gave me a great introduction to creative music.

He’s continued to champion a particular brand of free improvisation rich in extended technique and careful listening, much of it released on his own Balance Point Acoustics label.

I can’t pretend to remember exactly how someone played their music 10 years ago (or even 10 weeks ago), but I do recall this.  At some point, I went more than a year without seeing Smith perform — no reason, just luck of the draw. And then I saw him do a solo set at the Luggage Store Gallery.  I remember being struck by the changes in his playing — I don’t want to use the word “improvement,” but he was presenting a broader palette of sounds, ideas, and techniques. It seemed like a richer mix. Was that Smith’s evolution as a musician, or me forgetting his music after so many months?

Improv bass wasn’t always Smith’s path. He was, apparently, a teenage punk-rocker and a very serious BMX bike trick performer. Check him out on Noisy People, an excellent documentary where Tim Perkis profiles eight Bay Area improv musicians. Smith even tries out his old bike moves.

The music took over when he heard Peter Kowald, the famed German bass improviser, sadly now deceased. Smith abandoned the bass guitar he’d been playing and took up the double bass. And in 2000, he got a chance to record with Kowald, his idol, on what would be the first Balance Point Acoustics CD, Mirrors — Broken but No Dust.

Which I’m going to have to give a listen to, now.

Uptown

Aram Shelton, in quartet @ The Uptown

Last week, I finally made it to one of The Uptown‘s avant-garde Tuesdays. Took long enough. For several months now, the club — normally a rock venue, and one with a nicely renovated bar at that — has handed the keys over to the improv crowd for an evening of no-cover music.

It’s great when clubs do that. The Uptown is particularly well suited for it, because the regulars who do trickle in on these otherwise slow nights don’t have to watch the music. There’s a long wall separating the stage and performace space from the bar. The sound goes around the wall easily, so the bar patrons and the musicians are probably distracting each other the whole time — but as bar gigs go, it’s not bad at all.

(Flashback: This space used to be called the Black Box, and the bar half was an art gallery. Moe! Staiano’s Moe!kestra did a gig here where two orchestras were set up in each half, with Moe! sprinting back and forth to conduct each group. I wasn’t there, but the results were recorded for the album, 2 Rooms Of Uranium In 83 Markers: Conducted Improvisations Vol. II.)

I hope they keep this up. Don’t know what the bill is for September yet. (These shows tend to get posted to the Uptown’s calendar only a week or two ahead of time).

Anyway, a summary of what I managed to see:

Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey — A sax/drums duet from NYC who had crossed this way a few months ago on tour. This time, they were on vacation and just taking the opportunity for a quick gig. They did two mid-sized improvisations, probably 10 minutes each, showing off a good rapport and a nice variety of styles. I’m familiar with Rainey through his work with… well, everybody, especially Tim Berne, so it was great to get a chance to chat with him for a minute or two.

From left: Perkis, Greenlief, StinsonTim Perkis, Phillip Greenlief, G.E. Stinson — An interesting middle piece with the lights down, and abstract video projected onto a screen. After a while, you could tell the video consisted mostly of outdoor shots of streets and lonely buildings, distorted beyond recognition. The music shifted from ominous droning sounds to occasional slashes of noise, particularly from Stinson (guitar). Greenlief’s sax often stuck to subtle tones and bleats, blending into the mix of electronics (Perkis) and guitar effects.

Aram Shelton Quartet (pictured up top) — Back to more acoustic-minded improvising, although the quartet included Perkis for some more electronics fun. The quartet, rounded out by Damon Smith (bass) and Jordan Glenn (drums), played a few good improvisations. Nice stuff, and a good contrast to Shelton’s jazzier work with Dragons 1976 and the Ton Trio (as noted here).

Ivy Room Mondays

Lisa Mezzacappa, John Finkbeiner - Ivy Room, May 2009I wasn’t at Kingman’s Ivy Room tonight, but I was a few weeks ago, and what better excuse to write a blog.

The Ivy Room is a mid-sized bar, plush and casual and friendly, located in Albany just blocks north of Berkeley, or so it felt to me as I drove up. The place is being kind enough to let the improv crowd take over on Monday nights, either for a few short sets or an all out Improv Hootenanny Night that has its own MySpace page.

It’s a fun atmosphere. There’s no cover, and the Ivy Room is airy and clean — the kind of place where you’re welcome to sit on the carpeted floor in front of the music area, and you don’t worry if anything’s been spilled there. (Caveat: Monday night crowds aren’t usually the spilling type.)

Some photos from my May 25 excursion. Yes, the date on my camera was wrong.

Up top, you’ve got Lisa Mezzacappa‘s Bait and Switch, the successor to Before and After. It’s free jazz, with compositions derived from the best segments of group improvisations. The result is like Ornette Coleman taken a step further into abstract territory and noise rock at the same time, with a mood that jumps like ’60s free jazz. That’s Mezzacappa on bass and John Finkbeiner on guitar.

Aaron Bennett, John Finkbeiner, Ivy Room, May 2009At left is a second picture of the band, with Aaron Bennett (sax) at left. In this one, Vijay Anderson (drums) and Mezzacappa are obscured, making it look like the two white guys are all that matters. Hey, it was dark. All I do is point the camera and hope.

Jacob Felix Heule, Aurora Josephson, Damon Smith / Ivy Room, May 2009The trio of Jacob Felix Heule (drums), Aurora Josephson (vocal), and Damon Smith (bass) did one long improvisation, a dark and keening piece with Josephson’s voice spiking in anguish. Nice stuff.

Ivy Room, May 2009I don’t recall the details of the quartet at left. I’m pretty sure that’s Tony Dryer on bass at the far left, and two of the four members were from Norway (the guitarist and other bassist?). They, too, played a single long piece, concentrating on smaller, quieter spaces; the guitarist, in particular, buckled and thrashed to the music but was producing small crackles and crinkles, a kind of studied intensity.

It’s always nice to see a bar or restaurant take a chance on experimental music. A good cluster of these series has sprung up, maybe because venues are more willing to take chances in the face of recessionary crowds. The Make-Out Room (San Francisco, Mission District) has been hosting creative jazz on the first Monday of each month, and The Uptown (Oakland, downtown) is letting Weasel Walter curate an avant-garde program on third Tuesdays. The next of those will be tomorrow, and I’m hoping to be there, sleep cycle permitting.

When Frank Comes To Town

Gratkowski/Looney/Smith/Nordeson — Mimetic Holds (Balance Point Acoustics, 2008 )

Mimetic Holds, from Balance Point Acoustics (Source: emusic)Frank Gratkowski (clarinet/sax) seems to get over to the Bay Area quite a lot. (In fact, he’ll be here again around April 4 for, among other things, Philip Gelb’s food/music series.) Point is, Gratkowski doesn’t seem like a stranger, and maybe that’s why the rapport on this improv album flows so well.

This is abstract improvised music, as is usual for Damon Smith‘s Balance Point Acoustics label. Many tracks follow a pattern of slow, thoughful improvising that builds to a nice, loud frenzy. It’s not at all formulaic. It’s more that when you’re jamming with friends, and the moods and ideas click, it’s probably easy for the pace and volume to pick up. The result is a nice ride for the listener.

Take the 15-minute “Indexes Provolones.” It starts with relatively slow moving spaces and an airy, flutelike sound to Gratkowski’s careful clarinet notes. A quiet bass solo shows off some of Smith’s tricks, with the bow glancing and gliding across the strings. The second half opens up into some jazzlike group work, with bright clarinet and piano (Scott R. Looney) lines backed with some dense percussion (Kjell Nordeson), before turning fierce. Twice in the late minutes, you can hear the whole band surge forth, as if cranking the dials all at once.

“Mimetic Holds” is perhaps the most extreme track in exploring thoughtful silences and quiet, creeping progress. But it, too, develops into hard-clacking percussion with bass and clarinet doing faroff wailing sounds and ends with a more celebratory free-for-all. Overall, it’s a rewarding 13-minute journey.

You don’t always have to wait that long. “Any Icon Melody” has plenty of action from the get-go. “Badger Interlocks Kiwi” starts restlessly, with toneful sax improvising over a piano cascade and rustling bass/drums that quickly builds into faster playing and a fiery blast.

I should also point out that these titles, by themselves, are pretty darn cool. “Diverse Xenon Loops” and “Crablike Editing Works,” which really does start out crablike, are just scrumptious phrases.