Shipwreck 4

Bennett / Johnston / Mezzacappa / RosalyShipwreck 4 (NoBusiness, 2016)

shipwreck4-stOakland’s Shipwreck Studios was devoured in a fire two months after this recording session, but its name will live on through this improvising quartet, featuring three ace Bay Area performers along with Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly.

In an improv context, familiarity can be productive, and you can hear it in the way this group just clicks. Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) are all integral to the Bay Area scene, and they’ve played together in many combinations, including the bands Bait & Switch and Go-Go Fightmaster (which are actually the same quartet under different contexts).

With Rosaly, they spin up some terrific jazz-influenced structures, from the gospel-tinged sunset mood of “The Face Consented, at Last” to the alternating muted/unmuted trumpet melody that Johnston develops at the end of “Bloom.”

“The Storm We See, the Storm We Saw” demonstrates the easy interaction the quartet enjoys. Rosaly lays down an easy, free groove, and the others jump on board — Mezzacappa laying down the mood of the rhythm, with Bennett and Johnston fitting tightly together with congenial thought lines. It all comes together so naturally.

There’s a tunefulness to many of the pieces.”Everything’s Coming Up Rosaly” builds from a quiet drum solo into a brief tumult that knits together like a tight composition, with the two horns following one another’s leads.

Intertwining, sleepy melodies characterize the first part of “When Not Night,” supported by appropriately sparse bass and drum parts. The track retains its quiet atmosphere as Bennett lifts off into a long circular-breathing run, burbling and babbling as part of the undertow, with Johnston gradually increasing the intensity in his trumpet phrases.

These kinds of rich musical conversations make Shipwreck 4 a strong album and (apologies to Rosaly) another nice document of the Bay Area scene.

Favorite Street: Steve Lacy Remembered

ROVAIt’s hard to believe Steve Lacy passed away 10 years ago this week. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

For many musicians in the Bay Area, Lacy was a contemporary, a peer, a mentor, a correspondent, and even a fan. They knew him and admired his work, and his passing at the age of 70 was like a color dropping from the spectrum.

So when the members of ROVA Saxophone Quartet arranged a commemorative concert, it also served as a 10-year wake and a community catharsis. Held at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, back on June 6, the show was a celebration of Lacy’s music, a chance to share memories, and a repainting of Favorite Street, ROVA’s 1984 album of Lacy compositions. (The CD is even back in print, part of a re-emergence of the Black Saint record label, although ROVA noted it might be hard to find in stores.)

Steve Lacy and Don Cherry: EvidenceI wanted to see the show not just for the music, but to learn a little more about Lacy and his influence.

Bruce Ackley did a lot of the talking for ROVA, explaining how Lacy’s influence had crept into their musical lives. ROVA members would attend many a Lacy show — and he would attend theirs in turn. (Lacy, a native New Yorker, spent most of his career in Paris and was a frequent Bay Area visitor. ROVA probably encountered him in both places.)

Ben Goldberg talked about the album Evidence, which he and ROVA both mentioned as a key influence. It’s got Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, but more importantly, it came out in 1961, when Lacy wasn’t as well known. His records weren’t numerous and were hard to come by. Evidence was a portal into a new sound world and a revelation, to hear the musicians tell it.

Ben Goldberg: The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The FactYears later, Goldberg received the news of Lacy’s death just days before a previously booked studio date. That album — which would become The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact — was meant to be an homage, songs Goldberg assembled upon hearing Lacy had cancer. It turned into an emotional therapy session, as the whole community was rocked by Lacy’s passing. One track is a brief, classically styled song, “Cortege,” where the lyrics are the text of a fax Lacy sent Goldberg. The concluding line is a casual comment by Lacy that becomes poetic in its new context: “I am hardly here these days.”

Darren Johnston, Doug Stewart, Kjell Nordeson, Aram Shelton

The Concert

The first act was a variation of the quartet Cylinder, with bassist Doug Stewart sitting in for the traveling Lisa Mezzacappa. They started with a thundering take on “Trickles,” a fast-moving free-jazz rendition propelled by Kjell Nordesson’s drums and percussion. Aram Shelton (sax) and Darren Johnston (trumpet) took the lead voices, spelling out Lacy’s melodies — which have always struck me as simple and playful, but bent with a foreign accent of a country only Lacy’s mind could inhabit — and spiraling into solos inspired by the music. Johnston, in particular, seemed to be working the Monk-like strategy of using the melody to overtly build a solo (Monk being a fascination of Lacy’s, of course).

Michael Coleman and Ben Goldberg, ready for their close-upWhere the Cylinder group presented Lacy in a jazz context, the duo of Michael Coleman (piano) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet) showed off a more classical-oriented side, more akin to a recital-plus-improvisation. It turns out they were, in fact, playing Lacy’s etudes, a book of intentionally difficult exercises called Hocus Pocus. For much of the set, Coleman and Goldberg played the melodies in unison, the piano following the same fractally linear paths as the clarinet. Coleman expertly darted and dodged his way through, sometimes tripping up but always able to jump back in within a couple of sixteenth notes; it was all very impressive.

On a few occasions, Coleman had arranged chords to go along with the themes, adding unexpected and dramatic effects. “Herky Jerky” took on a deep ocean-waves color; it didn’t remind me of McCoy Tyner but it was that same monumental spirit. “Hustles,” dedicated to Niccolo Paganini, got a brief passage of insane circus music (at least, I’m pretty sure it was the Paganini piece and not the one dedicated to Karl Wallenda).

Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin of ROVADuring ROVA’s set, I found myself suddenly paying attention to rhythms. This might have been because they opened with the funky bassline of “The Throes,” with Jon Raskin chugging away at the baritone sax. Several pieces also broke the group into a 2×2 format, with duets playing counterbalancing themes — again, tickling the ear’s sense of rhythm. While they played the songs from Favorite Street, some of them got new interpretations. (I know that not because I’m a brilliant Lacy-ologist, but because Steve Adams contributed some arrangements, and he wasn’t in ROVA in 1984.) It was a joyous set that ended with a new arrangement of “Cliches,” a track that’s not on the album.

It was a concert, a remembrance, and an education. I’m glad I was able to be there.

Oakland Free Jazz Roosts at Duende

Duende's dining area: The view from the music loft.
Duende’s dining area: The view from the music loft.

Every other Monday at Duende, the musicians’ collective of the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society takes over over the restaurant’s music loft — a continuation of a series formerly held at The Layover. They present some outstanding local music along with some jazz vinyl DJ’ing before the show and between sets.

The vinyl part shouldn’t be underestimated. I didn’t look through the crate they brought, but it seemed like a pretty deep cut of history. Between sets on the night I attended, the musicians were marveling at the early, early Rahsaan Roland Kirk LP that was spinning.

Overall, the evening has the vibe of a cozy jazz hangout, complete with really good food and wine downstairs. I’m glad I finally made it out there a couple of Mondays ago.

Anderson, Goldberg, Brown.
Anderson, Goldberg, Brown.

Both bands that night played improvised music in jazz settings. The first set was by the BAG Trio — Vijay Anderson (drums), Sheldon Brown (sax), and Ben Goldberg (clarinet), who have been playing in this configuration for a while.

Anderson set down an aggressive groove while Goldberg and Brown wandered jointly, often pushing each other’s energy level up to a breaking point, then receding. One of these surges ended in both of them playing long, shrill tones — kind of a guitar-hero climax that was followed by babbling quick notes to bring the mood back to earth. I found myself paying the most attention to Anderson, though, his quick hands doing some impossibly fast clacketing to lay down those aggressive rhythms.

Johnston's quintet.
Johnston’s quintet.

The second set, by the Darren Johnston Quintet, was just what a late-night set ought to be — maybe less white-hot, but still intense, with David Boyce’s sax and Johnston’s trumpet jamming over vibraphone harmonies. The music settled into more traditional patterns of soloing, including one nice stretch where just Boyce and Jordan Glenn (drums) took over, really digging their heels in.

Johnston pushed the sound outward with a lot of extended tricks — squeaks, air-through-the-horn, plunger-mute antics. It was great stuff, and I found myself thinking these guys would have been a great listen on a more inside, composition-based gig as well.

You can follow the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society on Facebook or just keep checking the Duende calendar for upcoming shows. Darren Johnston reappears on Dec. 9, this time with a trio; Michael Coleman’s Sleepover (led by pianist Coleman) will perform as well. And Vijay Anderson’s trio (is it really his trio, or more a collective thing?) performs on Dec. 23 along with the Aram Shelton Group.


Jack o’ the Clock at the Plough

DSCN2560As I pulled up to park in Berkeley, the Warriors were on the verge of tying Game 3 against San Antonio. I’d come to the Starry Plough to see Jack o’ the Clock in a too-rare live appearance, but they were due to appear last, and this game — which I’d turned on for background noise — was getting good. I decided to linger in the car to hear the team take the lead, figuring Jack o’ the Clock wasn’t due to start yet anyway.

It seemed like a tough call at the time, but it got easier. As history has now recorded, Golden State not only did not take the lead but collapsed immediately from that point. It took about five minutes (real time, not game time) for me to give up and headed into the Plough — where, ironically, the game was on TV.

The Warriors’ collapse gave me time to see the whole set by Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows, which mixed old-time songwriting with gypsy jazz and dashes of world music. Johnston is a trumpeter who I know through his more out-jazz leanings — albums like Reasons for Moving and projects such as OrchestROVA. This music was closer to what he’s done with the Nice Guy Trio (here’s a video), but drawing on a blend of traditions.

The songs were equal parts festival and heartbreak, with lyrics taken from Johnston’s “Letters from Home” project, where he’s asked immigrants to write letters to their younger selves. (It’s part of a larger project being presented June 22 at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.)

DSCN2558Johnston fronted the band with most of the lead vocals, sometimes adding solos of bright, emotional trumpet tones. The rhythm was held down by acoustic bass and a bass drum, for a very turn-of-the-century look, and most of the soloing duty was handled by a monstrously good violinist (barely visible in the photo at right), hacking and sawing and skittering his way up and down the fingerboard with abandon.

Jack o’ the Clock draws partly from the same well, with a love of times-gone-by that’s reflected in the faded, cracked photos of their album covers. To that folky base, principal songwriter Damon Waitkus adds the complex melodies of prog rock and the depth of classical composing. Bassoon and violin in the mix help create a different sound, rich layers to peer through.

Evangelista, Waitkus, and McLoughlin. Drummer Jordan Glenn is somewhere behind them.
Everybody wave to Jordan.

I’ve written about these guys’ studio work and live work before. This was another solid show, and being live does matter; it infuses an intensity and even ferocity to the chamber-folk-prog songs, a spirit difficult to capture in the studio.

They opened with a catchy rock song, probably called “Down Below,” which packed a heavy beat and some electric-guitar drama from Karl Evangelista, who sat in on a few songs. The set also included “Disaster,” one of the strongest songs off the new album, All My Friends…, and “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” a favorite of mine from the previous album. Much of the set was taken up by new songs; I didn’t take notes, but I remember them sounding good.

Admit it: Two flutes in a band is pretty kick-ass.

In addition to Evangelista, other guest artists included Johnston, Cory Wright and Ivor Holloway adding horns to at least one song early in the set. Most of the time, though, it was the canonical five members of the band — mostly minus violinist Emily Packard, who did join for a couple of numbers but spent most of the set tending to her baby. Lead singer Damon Waitkus brought his hammered dulcimer, which appears on the albums but hadn’t been at the last live show I saw. It produces that old-timey piano sound that helps sepia-tint the music. Kate McLoughlin on bassoon also added solid harmony vocals. And I really do love Jason Hoopes’ electric bass work.

You could say no band in the world gets as many gigs as they deserve, I suppose, but it’s particularly true of this one. That they’ve kept together for years, working at the music, is evident both on stage and on record, and I hope they’re able to keep it going.

Monday Jazz at The Layover

The Layover's logo. Click to go there.There’ll be creative jazz in downtown Oakland every Monday night for a while, starting tonight (Jan. 7).

The place is called The Layover, and it bills itself as a bohemian music/art bar. Local musicians, billing themselves as the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society, have organized the Monday jazz sessions.

The debut bill is the trio of Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Sheldon Brown (alto sax), and Vijay Anderson (drums); you can read more about them at Anderson’s web site.

For a bit of info about the Jan. 7 show, see Facebook.  The full Layover calendar is here; clicking any of the “Oakland Freedom Jazz” links reveals the full calendar:


  • Jan. 7 — GBA, as noted above
  • Jan. 14 — Darren Johnston Ensemble performing “Broken Shadows” (the Ornette Coleman album, I’d assume)
  • Jan. 21 — Lisa Mezzacappa, leading both a string band (violin, cello, guitar, etc.) and her Bait & Switch quartet
  • Jan. 28 — Aram Shelton‘s Ton Trio II. (See the comments, and for a bit about Ton Trio, see here.)

Whether this continues for more than a month, we’ll see. It would be nice, even though the first Monday of each month would conflict with the monthly jazz show at the Makeout Room in San Francisco.

The Layover is at 1517 Franklin St. between 15th and 17th, in downtown Oakland.

Spirited Music in San Jose

I might as well be honest: I had a dread of being the only audience member at Works San Jose last night, where Jim Ryan brought in a couple of improvising bands.

But the show drew a handful of people, including some passers-by who saw and heard the music from the sidewalk — a very pleasant surprise. Downtown San Jose deserves credit for having some edgy art museums downtown, Works being one of them, but they’re overshadowed by the children’s museum and the Tech museum, and on weekends, by the dancing-and-alcohol nightlife that’s just blocks away.

Still, a few people showed up and seemed to like the experience. That’s great. Quite a few more onlookers lingered by the windows, one or two at a time.

They were drawn in by the music and the promise of an experimentally jazzlike band, but a few theatrics helped too.

The aesthetic behind Ryan’s Left Coast Improv Group includes improvised poetry and vocalizing, and Bob Marsh got up from his cello to deliver a poem about revolution. (“Is it in your socks? Do you wear it on your wrist?”) He then brought up a couple of audience members for an improvised faux-ballroom dance, showing off a little whimsy.

The Improv Group consisted of sax/flute, bassoon/sheng (Michael Cooke, from the SFCCO), two cellos (Marsh and Doug Carroll), trumpet (Darren Johnston), and Ryan drawing from a collection of small percussion. They played sublime stuff, mostly longer pieces. Carroll and Johnston took advantage of the gallery’s big, empty spaces by wandering around (yes, Carroll plays cello).

The first set came from the trio The Spirit Moves Us, with Ryan on sax/flute, Marsh on cello, and the one-named drummer Spirit. And Spirit does play a huge role in the band’s sound, with his free-jazzy style of long drum-rolling statements, often tough and stabbing.

It was terrific stuff, with the drums filling the echoey space. (In actuality, that can be a problem; I’ve seen shows where the drums eclipse everything because of the acoustics. But in a trio setting, with amplifiers for Marsh and for Ryan’s flute, it worked.) They did quieter pieces, too – Spirit busy on brushes, Ryan improvising on flute.

Ryan has put out a CD for The Spirit Moves Us on his own Jimzeen label. Hoping to give it a listen soon.

April 6 Freebies

Huh? Apparently Ab Baars is going to be in town tomorrow, he’s bringing Ken Vandermark with him, and Yoshi’s Oakland is letting you see their show for free.

source:yoshis.comNow, “free” is relative: There’s a $3 service charge involved, and Yoshi’s has a nominal two-drink minimum per set (although in my experience, the waitstaff rarely enforces the second drink). So, figuring in the price of a single soft drink, you’re looking at about $6, not counting parking if you end up having to pay for it.

That’s still about 1/4 of what it ought to be. At a time when Yoshi’s is putting up $50 John Zorn tickets and $55 Mos Def shows (with a backing jazz band, which sounds intriguing, actually), it’s a nice gesture — or, possibly, a concession to their inability to fill the house these days.

The bad news is that this conflicts with an 8:00-10:00 p.m. jazz show at the Make-Out Room, with a promising lineup:

It, too, is free. The M-OR’s calendar describes this as part of a “First Mondays” series curated by Johnston and Mezzacappa, which sounds like something worth supporting.