Back Pages #2: Toychestra and My Brief Music-Writing Career

Toychestra & Fred FrithWhat Leave Behind (SK, 2004)

Toychestra is back, about to play a 20th-anniversary show at the Ivy Room (860 San Pablo Ave, Albany) on Saturday, March 4.

Does that ever bring back memories.

For a couple of years starting in 2002 or 2003, I moonlighted as a music reviewer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I had a full-time job but thought it might be fun to write blurbs for the SFBG entertainment calendar in my spare time. By the time I called, the job opening had been filled, but they did need live-music writers. Do something on spec, and we’ll see what happens, they said.

That’s how I joined their stable of music freelancers. I took pride in the position and scrutinized calendars for suitable creative-music shows. My editor, Summer Burkes, held my copy to high standards, sending back drafts with stacks of questions poking holes in my writing — but she liked my work and kept nudging me for more. She even started feeding me assignments in the pop realm. (Ledisi was one.)

The best review I filed, and the one that earned me a handshake from Burkes’ boss, was about the noise/drums duo Compomicro-Dexall. (Half of that duo was bran(…)pos, whom I just saw, for the first time in years, at KZSU’s Day of Noise.) That review ended with: “Bring earplugs and drink decaf.”

But my best and most satisfying story was Toychestra.

“Like Santa’s sleigh crashed into a garage sale” is how I described them, with their grandma’s-attic collection of instruments set on ironing boards, the Christmas lights threaded about the stage, and their crazy kitchy wigs and outfits.

Toychestra was a group of five female artists, mostly non-musicians, hammering out pre-written songs on toy instruments. The music was clanky and innocent but, because it was written without awareness of keys or modes, also bore an uneasy shadow: “It’s Miranda July conducting the Residents in the Twin Peaks Elementary School symphony,” I wrote.

Dan Plonsey, who curated the Beanbenders series of shows starting in the mid-’90s, has a taste for the absurd and took a liking to the group. He couldn’t resist pairing them with an improv pro who would appreciate their musical naivite — and thus, Plonsey wrote What Leave Behind, a concerto for Toychestra and guitarist Fred Frith.

The sounds are dry and mostly bassless, as you’d expect — these are literally toy instruments. But they’re in tune. Toychestra member Lexa Walsh told me one of their biggest challenges was finding instruments that played a true major scale. Toymakers, realizing most parents had no musical ear, had stopped bothering.

With coordinated rhythms and syncopated melodies, What Leave Behind plays out like a sinister circus overture. Frith’s contributions are subtle at first — a buzzing in the opening movement (“The Dub”), a choppy composed melody in the second movement (“Fellini”). He gets to cut loose during “3 Elephants and a Cow,” backed by animal-noise toys.

The 24-minute piece ends with the five women singing a ghostly melody.

I can’t remember the details of what happened, but Toychestra was compelling enough that Summer let me write it as a straight feature rather than a concert review. I did attend one of the live performances of What Leave Behind, at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, and interviewed Walsh afterwards. The resulting story is still viewable on Toychestra’s press page.

What Leave Behind and two other Toychestra albums are now available on Bandcamp.

band50After Summer Burkes left the Bay Guardian, I was still welcomed as a reviewer but wasn’t nearly as prized. This is normal when a publication changes editors, and I was OK with it. With a toddler and a grade-school kid at home, my showgoing needed to slow down anyway.

My final Bay Guardian review must have run at the start of 2006. I had gone dark by then, but one day, Summer’s successor sent a desperation email blast — she needed someone to find a review-worthy show during the week after Christmas. I wrote up the multi-instrumental duo of Chaos Butterfly — experimental stuff that involved Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven fame, giving my story a connection to mainstream readers. (The other player, Dina Emerson, is no slouch either.) My piece was good, but the experience confirmed that my heart wasn’t in it any more.

Mildly Amusing Epilogue: I talked to the Bay Guardian only once more — to the finance department. I was getting paid for my work, but between the day job, the kids, and my KZSU radio gig, I honestly didn’t notice that the checks had never arrived. I know that sounds awful to anyone who’s a struggling freelancer out there, but we’re talking about small sums spread out months apart, and I’m terrible at keeping up with the mail. The light bulb went on a couple of years later, when — and I’m still dumbfounded that this actually happened — the IRS tracked me down to ask about this chunk of money that I’d never paid taxes on.

Turns out the Bay Guardian had transposed two digits of my home address. We figured this out on the phone within a couple of minutes, and they immediately issued a new check. They were iconoclasts and hellraisers, but the Bay Guardian that I encountered was also quite professional. I have fond memories of my short time with them.

For more on Toychestra, check out this edition of KQED’s Spark: http://ww2.kqed.org/spark/toychestra/.

For an explanation of the Back Pages series, see here.

Outsound New Music Summit 2016

2016_SummitCollage-cutStarting tomorrow in San Francisco, the week-long Outsound New Music Summit will convene for the 15th time. It’s a week-long series of shows celebrating creative music of many stripes, from jazz and new-classical to noise and prop.

I’ve written about the event quite a bit over the years, and you can also learn more by digging through the Outsound archive.

The event runs July 24-30, at the Community Music Center (544 Capp Street @ 20th, San Francisco). Check out the full schedule here.

outsound-logoFor a deeper look, you can explore the “In the Field” series of video interviews, posted by Outsound organizer Rent Romus. They’re extensive (usually 20+ minutes) and often explore how these musicians got turned on to creative music and out-there sounds.

Here’s my smattering of highlights — based primarily on how familiar I am with the musicians and concepts. Meaning, I’ve left lots of deserving artists behind; explore the full schedule for more info, with additional video and audio information.

Concert times are 8:15 p.m., except as noted.

Touch the Gear (Sun. July 24, 7:00-10:00 p.m.) — An Outsound tradition. It’s a hands-on exhibit of electronics and noisemakers (and sometimes some more “normal” musical instruments”), giving you an opportunity to find out where some of these unusual noises come from. It’s very informal and, well, noisy: You wander the tables, ask some questions — and push some buttons and make some noise yourself.

Sonny Simmons documentary (Mon. July 25, 7:00 p.m.) — A screening of Brandon Evans’ 2003 film, “Sonny Simmons: The Multiple Rated X Truth.” Simmons is a fascinating story, a forgotton hero of ’60s free-jazz who became re-remembered starting in the early ’00s.

Dan Plonsey: “On His Shoulders Stands No One” (Tues. July 26) — Expect Braxton-like expanse, but with a friendlier, warmer touch than Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music or Echo Echo Mirror House. Find out more in Plonsey’s video interview (embedded here).

Brett Carson’s Mysterious Descent (Tues. July 26) — A theater/poetry/music piece based on the extant texts of the Idnat Ikh-ôhintsôsh (i.e., a language of Carson’s own devising). Might be the most “out-there” concept on the docket. I’m not sure what to expect; I just got drawn in by Carson’s “In the Field” inteview.

Vinny Golia, Lisa Mezzacappa & Vijay Anderson (Wed. July 27) — Three musicians whose work I’ve enjoyed and admired. This should be a rewarding set of sax-bass-drums improvised jazz. Note that they’re also three-fourths of the band on the album Hell-Bent in the Pacific, which included the late Marco Eneidi on sax.

lake-robinsonOliver Lake & Donald Robinson (Thur. July 28) — Outsound goes above and beyond to support local artists, but the festival also usually includes notable names from out of town. Oliver Lake is a luminary known for the World Saxophone Quartet, Trio 3, and his extensive solo career. (See SF Weekly‘s preview.) Donald Robinson is a hero of the local scene, a drummer whose fluid, airy style has always impressed me. He’s also a veteran of the early ’70s free jazz scene in Paris, where his musical cohorts included Oliver Lake. Who knows whether they kept in touch or even knew each other well; in any event, this should be a special dialogue between kindred spirits.

There’s also a trio improv that combines Brandon Evans with local luminaries Christina Stanley (violin) and Mark Pino (drums); an avant-pop night promising shades of prog and electronic music; and an appearance from the long-running, unpredictable Big City Orchestra.

And plenty more. Seriously, explore the schedule. There’s a wide range of music in store.

Bristle & New Monsters, Part 2

Here’s Part 1.  New Monsters will be at  El Valenciano (San Francisco) Thursday night, April 19, playing alongside Bristle and the newest band from trumpter Darren Johnston, Northern Eclipse.

New MonstersNew Monsters (Posi-Tone, 2011)

Posi-Tone is an interesting choice of label, for this album, because theirs seems to be a more retro style of jazz, recalling bachelor pads, NYC jazz clubs, and bands in suits.

Some parts of New Monsters fits that mold. “Imperfect Life” opens the album with a simple, declarative melody that reflects popular late ’50s jazz. You’ve also got a fast cover of Coltrane’s “India” leading into Eric Dolphy’s “The Red Planet.”

But there’s free jazz in the details. The title track opens with a nice piano lick and slips into a nice alto-sax solo from Steve Adams fronting the ensemble, with liquid bass and comforting chords. But a second sax solo, Dan Plonsey on tenor, comes with just drums behind it and crosses into more aggressive, free-jazz jamming.

That’s the sound of New Monsters. The group displays a love of tuneful jazz and injects it with the occasional shot of adventure from a later time, showing off influences from Ornette and beyond.

It’s apparently bassist Steve Horowitz’s band, but the compositions are by Plonsey, an East Bay stalwart whose work has touched on traditional jazz, Braxton-style “trance” pieces, and free improv. He’s also got quite a sense of humor, which is an important element in everything he writes. Two tracks on here are “Brains for Breakfast” and “Herald of Zombies,” and I’m pretty sure those aren’t standards.

Plonsey has a knack for toe-tappers with a sense of adventure. “Dragon of Roses,” for instance, is an ultra-pleasant ditty built on a relatively simple rhythms, but Plonsey’s sax solo barrels through the 4/4 time with intentional bullishness. Come to think of it, it seems Plonsey takes the more crazed solos while Adams, who normally gets all abstract with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, seems to revel in playing it more straight.

Scott Looney on piano is a big part of the band, contributing tasteful comping that adds sneaky dissonances where he can get away with it. He also gets some chances to goof around with prepared piano, particularly on “Vision Pyramid Collapse,” where it sounds like he uses metal bowls to produce some catchy twanging to go along with the sliding swing of the theme. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album. As for other adventurous moments, the group gets more overtly “out there” on “Cylinder,” which is catchy and cartoony but is built in a twisty structure of “off” meters.

Plonsey’s web page lists a few reviews of the album, including one from ejazznews that I liked.

Put this group together with Bristle and the Darren Johnston band mentioned above, and you’ve probably got one heck of a great night of jazz. Should be a fun show.

Finally, and randomly, here’s a common theme tying Bristle and New Monsters:  Randy McKean (Bristle) and Dan Plonsey (New Monsters) played together in the ’90s and were half of the Great Circle Saxophone Quartet, which put out an album, Child King Dictator Fool,  in 1997.