Surrealist Poet Jazz

Sheldon Brown GroupBlood of the Air (Edgetone, 2018)

brown-bloodoftheairNate Chinen’s excellent book, Playing Changes, devotes a chapter to the many innovations of Jason Moran, including his visual art and his business model post-Blue Note. Among them is Moran’s practice of transcribing spoken word into melodies based on that fluctuating pitches and emphasis of the voice.

I can understand the fascination with exploring the necessarily melodic qualities of speech. I always appreciate the results even if I don’t fully enjoy them — as with many types of art, the process sometimes interests me as much as the final output.

Anyway, I doubt Moran was the first to try setting music to speech, and plenty of others have done it since.

But here’s Sheldon Brown doing something I don’t think I’ve heard before: He adds swing. On “Oraibi,” the two-part opener to Brown’s Blood of the Air, he sets a clarinet melody in step with Lamantia’s recital and gives it a bounce that creates the illusion of Lamantia himself swinging.

(Love the soaring Tyner-esque piano chords after the intro, too, and the feathery sung vocal — that’s Lorin Benedict‘s vocalese.

Blood of the Air is a tribute to Lamantia, and I admit, I dreaded the thought of an overbaked poetry-music casserole. But creative touches (such as a moody theremin introducing “First Star”), along with the bursting enthusiasm and spinning inventiveness of Brown’s band, keeps the mix fresh and intriguing.

Here’s the theme from “To Have the Courage,” built from another of Lamantia’s readings and sped up into a punchy ensemble line. The vocal here is Benedict again, inserting vocalese into the melody of Lamantia’s speech patterns. There’s something very meta about that.

A San Franciscan by birth who would later hang out with the Beat movement, Lamantia is described as “surrealist,” but he wrote in normal English phrases and sentences, not the random word clusters I was expecting. His recital voice is homey, less stern than I expected, with an affected accent, equal parts Oxford and Brooklyn.

Here’s a full Blood of the Air set from the group, performed at the 2017 Outsound New Music Summit, with Lamantia contributing via recordings. You can sample much of the album on Bandcamp.

Two Sides of Rent Romus

Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood EnsembleRogue Star (Edgetone, 2018)

Rent Romus’ Lords of OutlandIn the Darkness We Speak a Sound Brightness and Life (Edgetone, 2018)

Saxophonist Rent Romus has been more prolific than ever in the last couple of years, or at least it seems that way to me. He has a spate of new material out on his Edgetone Records label, including these two CDs from a couple of longstanding bands.

 
Rogue Star, by Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble, presents his more formalized side — compositions rooted in concert-hall jazz styles, with dynamic multi-horn themes, the cool touch of Mark Clifford on vibraphone, and, of course, plenty of space for group improvisation.

The Life’s Blood Ensemble started in 1999 as a trio including drummer Timothy Orr, and the group was introduced to the world on Blood Motions (Edgetone, 2001), built around compositions from Romus’ time in Copenhagen. The band has since grown in size and ambition, becoming a three-horn septet playing backed by the dual basses of Max Johnson and Safa Shokrai, who get an unaccompanied duet to start “Cassini” and in the middle of “Think!” Tracks like “Emotism” are intelligently plotted, with polished unison lines and crisply energetic solos.

“Think!” operates in bursts of ’60s-feeling energy, interspersed with composed lines shaping cohesive group improvisation. “Space Is Expanding” features big-band-style solos and drumming, possibly a nod to Sun Ra. And I love the way the title track blossoms into a loose multi-horn improvisation with a relaxed, sunny feel.

 
romus-darknessI think of Lords of Outland as Romus’ more gutteral outlet, rooted in jazz but with a contrary streak. This is one of Romus’ earliest bands, created more than 20 years ago and reviewed on this blog multiple times.

In recent years, with the steady rhythm section of Ray Schaeffer (six-string electric bass) and Philip Everett (drums), the Lords have moved into the territory of prog and cosmic rock and, increasingly, electronics played by multiple band members.

The electronics get an even bigger role on In the Darkness, mainly from the hands of Collette McCaslin. She plays trumpet and sax as well, but many of her contributions are in the form of analog blasts and bleeps, an extra touch of aggression and flamboyance. I presume it’s her delivering the solo electronics showcase on the track “Interstellar Deletion.”

The “darkness” of the title often feels like a joyous darkness, as on the nine-minute “Open Your Hand and Walk Away,” with Romus’ tenor sax calmly testifying among the din. That track also includes a good spacey showcase for Schaeffer’s bass and effects.

Many of the tracks are outright bright, really.  “From a Trunk Buried in My Closet” develops into a chaotic, celebratory flow underlaid by squelchy bass and subtle garnishes of electronics. “A Pile of Dust We Emerge” has McCaslin adding soprano sax tones for additional color.

 
“See the Path Before You” adds a touch of mysticism — a spirited sax-and-electronics duo, followed by ceremonial somberness between trumpet (also McCaslin) and sax. “As Water We Emerge Toward Us” is a more disjoint kind of free-jazz, fast-paced but with plenty of white space for a more contemplative mood.

These albums have a lot in common, starting with Romus’ fleet sax work, but they represent different angles on the process of making music. They just happen to have come out at around the same time, and they do make for a nice set.

A Trio of Many Faces

Rent Romus, Teddy Rankin-Parker, Daniel PearceLiR (Edgetone, 2016)

romus-lir.jpg

Early on in “SGLT1,” Teddy Rankin-Parker‘s cello tells you a lot about this improvised trio session. Scraping the bow so hard that it’s sometimes barely able to move, he emits metallic whinnying and teeth-grinding sounds, like industrial machinery being towed across a factory floor.

Rent Romus, meanwhile, chops away at clean, stern saxophone lines, cementing the mood, enhanced by the pockets of time where Rankin-Parker moves into jazzy bass-like work. Drummer Daniel Pearce sustains the energy with soft patters and fills.

Taking its name from both the Irish wind god and the field of genomics, LiR is a 35-minute mini-album or maxi-EP, consisting of five inspired pieces from a live set. Rankin-Parker and Pearce have recorded and performed as a duo and as part of Broken Trap Ensemble. Here, they’re matched with Romus to put a tinge of jazz onto their edgy explorations.

LiR is full of buzzy, noisy improvising, but the trio is also willing to build from elements of melody and swing. “GLUT4” opens with crystalline pinging on cello and some swinging jazz from Romus, played in a choppy, catchy vein. The short, closing “mRNA” is almost like a metal song, with deep cello pulses like power chords and crashing energy all around.

Quiet phases get their turn too, usually after a tumult like the gloriously bubbly opening of “tRNA,” where Romus flutters noisily on what sounds like an exotic reed instrument (but might be just a sax played with extra rasp). That track later settles into a near-trance mode, with a fast cello pulse against slow Romus solo, a somber soliloquy built from rich sax tones.

Eat the Sun

Eat the SunThe Djerassi Sessions (Edgetone, 2014)

Eat the Sun -- The Djerassi Sessions (Edgetone, 2014)
Source: Edgetone. Click to go there.

Straddling between melody and abstraction, the improvisations on The Djerassi Sessions build a cloaked mystery but feature more color than the gray-on-gray cover art suggests. The all-strings trio (koto, acoustic bass, and electric guitar) have produced an album of dark shadings that open the way for some fast, captivating playing.

Eat the Sun seems to have Hoopes’ bass miked as a lead voice in general, with his pizzicato work cutting through the groundwork of crunchy guitar noise and rustling koto. Even one note amid the din becomes a clarion call, as happens on “Postfeasttwo” and “Prefeastone.” I’m also partial to this busy passage from “Prefeast Three,” with Hoopes’ bass taking the lead.


Most of the pieces track atonal or cross-tonal melodies. Gretchen Jude’s koto often conjures up the most pleasant patterns of the three instruments (a Japanese motif, obviously) giving Hoopes room to rattle off some impressive jazzlike soloing. She also flits from meditation to rock-like rhythm to frenzied attack. The final seconds of “Postfeasttwo,” with koto and bass slashing viciously, make for a particularly fine moment.


Noah Phillips’s guitar often treads in noisy territory or, as on “Prefeastfour,” winds a path through newly defined scales of its own. It’s a ground fog that defines the mood: never quite pretty, even amid the playing of “normal” notes, and often thick with distortion. “Postfeastone,” for instance, flickers in and out of melodic logic, with the koto riffing against the sour tomes of a detuned guitar.

Eat the Sun is a trio that has definitely found an aesthetic and a sound. It’s territory ripe for more exploration.

Bringing ‘Lords of Outland’ to Outsound

Rent Romus’ Lords of OutlandThee Unhip (Edgetone, 2012)

The Outsound New Music Summit is a labor of love for all volunteers but especially for Rent Romus, who not only runs the whole shebang but does an aces job raising funds and gathering sponsors. It’s been a while since he’s booked himself to play at the festival, though.

Lords of Outland will be part of the final night’s performance, Saturday, July 27, a show subtitled “The Axiom” and running with the theme of blended composition and improvisation. (It will include Kyle Bruckmann’s large-scale, Pynchon-influenced piece, as previously mentioned.)

Originally a jazz band with Romus channeling late-era Coltrane on his sax, Lords of Outland has developed a dark side in the past several years, delving into electronics and sound-experimentation for a more ghoulish atmosphere. Ray Schaeffer’s down-in-the-mud electric bass certainly helps on that front, but outright electronics and the occasional ferocious free-for-all make for a more overtly ghoulish atmosphere.

Jazz is not dead in these tracks. “If Ornette Grew Cacti” opens up with an appropriately prickly take on what could have been one of Ornette’s danceable themes. From there, it goes into a speedy free-jazz attack — Philip Everett’s drumming fills the air with joyous cymbal clashing, and Schaeffer jams madly on bass. There’s also the tuneful and almost traditional “Temple of Dolphy, which shows off Romus’ sax soloing in a relatively light and uncluttered setting.

Throughout the album, C.J. Borosque shows some great work on trumpet. She’s positively screaming on “If Ornette Grew Cacti” and opens up “Planet of the Plutarchs” with some terrific improv, starting with vocalized growls and moving into bright, quick riffs. That track blooms into a bright free-jazz jam, with the bass adding a touch of psych here and there.

The free jazz and noise sides converge all over the place but are used to particularly good effect on “Dedicated to Lord Kraken off Titan off the Shores of Saturn,” where Romus cuts through thick electronics with somber, reverent sax in long tones, a ceremony of respect. In the end, it all explodes into a free-jazz celebration.

This final concert of the Summit should be a doozy. In addition to the Lords and Kyle Bruckmann, the bill includes Lewis Jordan’s Music at Large, a quintet bolstered by guitarist Karl Evangelista and violinist India Cooke. Here’s the Outsound “In the Field” video introducing Jordan, a veteran of the Bay Area jazz scene.

(See also: Vinny Golia Meets Lords of Outland.)

A New Type of Piano Piece

Joe Lasqo performs Weds., Jan. 11, at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco.

Joe Lasqo — Turquoise Sessions (Edgetone, 2011)

Joe Lasqo’s Turquoise Sessions album consists of ragas and similarly long-form Asian music, realized on the piano. He stirs some blue notes and soulful jazz into the slow-brewing mix, as well as some modern-classical ideas. It’s sometimes contemplative but certainly not static.

That’s not his only trick. At his show Wednesday night, he’ll be displaying some very intellectual-sounding piano work and some laptop experimentation as well. “Deconstruction/resynthesis of Miles Davis and cool jazz via linguistic theory & finite state machines,” one part of the bill reads. Things like that.

I’ll let him tell it himself, as he’s got a blog entry that pretty well describes his plan for Wednesday’s show. He’ll play some laptop along with his piano and will show off a new raga he’s been performing.

As for the ragas and “Neo-Gaku” songs on Turquoise Sessions, they’ve got their relaxing side but (like traditional ragas) reward long spans of attention. You can get wrapped up in these pieces, and the jazzy twists in the two ragas add some welcome spice.

The longest piece, at 25 minutes, is “Enteraku in Mode Hyo.” I have to admit, I was wondering if it would be 25 minutes of wandering in the desert, but it turns out to have lots of listener footholds, especially a repeating, ladder-climbing motif of high notes that feels very placidly Japanese. It’s also got occasional chordal washes that resemble the strumming of a koto or harp.

Often, you hear about classical or world influences on someone’s music, and they’re not quite evident. This is the real thing; Lasqo, who’s studied Indian classical music, is toying with new forms of the piano “piece.”

Skatchbox Redux

T.D. SkatchitSkatch Migration (Edgetone, 2010)

As on T.D. Skatchit & Co., an earlier album, Skatch Migration combines two skatchbox with a variety of guests, trying out different sound combinations.

It’s still sometimes incongruous, as on the first album. But skatchboxes — homemade instruments played by scraping combs, sticks, or files against various textured surfaces — make for fun headphone listening, and some of the instrumental pairings are quite innovative. If you enjoy the curled, quirky sounds of abstract electronics/noise, you’ll find a lot to like. Sounds range from determined and fast-paced scratching to slower, calmer sounds — one resembling a marble being rolled around a wooden box, for instance.

But this territory got covered pretty well with the first album. The skatchbox has such a distinctive sound, and the lack of any sustain give its varied noises an overall dryness that doesn’t ever let up. While it’s got the infinite possibilities of any instrument, I have to admit I found myself wondering whether another whole album of skatching was really called for.

I did like the album. In its defense, it reflects a good number of strategies for mixing other instruments with the skatchbox.

Some of the acoustic “musical” instruments, for example, take the foreground, at least for my ears. The skatchbox chatter became a crisp alien backdrop, supporting the lead improviser. That’s especially the case with Scott Looney’s sad piano piece, or Bruce Ackley’s not-so-traditional saxophone melody.

Other players worked at fitting in. On “Flammable Skatch,” Kyle Bruckmann, who’s good at making the oboe sound non-oboe-like, plays airy screeches that almost could have come from skatchboxes. One of Doug Carroll’s cello tracks goes for a slashing, reverb-laden sound that reflects the kinetic skatchbox mentality.

As on the first album, we get to hear that abstract electronics can be a natural skatchbox partner, through contributions by Gino Robair and especially Tim Perkis. And while the first album had Karen Stackpole’s gongs, this one has Jacob Felix Heule scraping a cymbal for a similarly deep, doomy ringing — a really interesting setting for the skatchboxes.

Vocalists appear on five of the 15 tracks. Bob Marsh’s deep voice makes a nice cartoony babble on “What Did It?”, a fun track. But Aurora Josephson — the only guest duplicated between the two albums — steals the show, first with “Tip of My Tongue,” which is full of wordplay written by Michalak, and with “Indecision Revision,” a collection of “Mm-hm” and “Huh-uh” sounds.

Tom Nunn and Dave Michalak do seem to have added to the skatchbox vocabulary. I’m out of town as I write this, without T.D. Skatchit & Co. handy for direct comparison, but Nunn and Michalak seem to be working with amplified skatchboxes more frequently on this album and they may have added some new elements that produce nearly vocal sounds, similar to the puppy-dog sounds I’d heard from a bowed instrument called the daxophone. (Each skatchbox is uniquely hand-made, so each instrument can be vastly different.)

Previous skatchbox posts: