Sax, Drum, and Wednesday Night

Brains and others perform tonight (Weds. July 6) at the Subterranean Art House (2179 Bancroft Way, Berkeley), 9:00 p.m., $10-$15 sliding scale.

 Brains is the Bay Area duo of Drew Ceccato on sax and Chris Golinski on drums, and they conjure up some pretty good free-jazz improvisations.

I’ve just now listened to their first, self-titled, album, which is available on Bandcamp. Consisting of four long tracks, it’s got some good improvising in that “throwback ’70s free jazz” motif, as the band’s bio puts it. But they also add a lot of tricks from the free-improv camp, in terms of loud shrieks and quiet buzzes from Ceccato’s sax.

I don’t have time for a proper writeup now — just know that they sound pretty darned cool.

Also on the bill tonight are the Karl Evangelista Trio and the electronics duo of Scott Looney and Tim Perkis (with Frank Gratkowski as a guest). Evangelista organized this show and hopes to get a series going at the Subterranean Art House, to replace the one he’d run at The Ivy Room. I hope it works.

Sounds in the Wake

Frank Gratkowski, Chris Brown, William Winant — Wake (Red Toucan, 2008)

source: red toucanIt’s interesting how an improv session can develop a personality. Amid all the abstract motion, an overarching voice can poke through, sometimes really obvious (e.g., SUPER FREAKIN’ LOUD!), sometimes more subtle.

Personality-wise, Wake opens in a playful mode but gets more serious afterwards, even during a noisy free-for-all moment on the closing “Archipelago.”

The personality contrast works well, because that first track, “Slide,” is 25 minutes long and quite engaging. After that, there’s a more serious business of sound exploration to be had. “Ambitus” slows to an introspective crawl — although, come to think of it, the boingy sounds of William Winant‘s tuned timpani add an amusing touch. The middle of that 12-minute track features a stretch akin to modern classical music, though, which is probably why I filed this one in the more “serious” bin. It’s still fun, just more studious.

Wake might be an appropriate title, because the three musicians — on sax/clarinet, percussion, and piano — get augmented by Chris Brown using electronics to loop and play back segments of the music, creating new material from the wake of what’s just gone by. (He’s also the one playing piano, often simultaneously with the electronics.) A couple of good moments come on “Archipelago,” when he hammers a high piano chord many times, then brings it back as high-pitched crickets, then as mid-toned industrial gears.

Yes, other people do that (David Torn on Prezens, just to name one) but the mixture of sounds on here is particularly pleasing, just the way all three color their playing to make the electronics feel at home.

The third track, “Scrabble,” is a 10-minute exploration dominated by those electronics, like an otherworldly metallic jungle. Playing along with that theme, Frank Gratkowski sticks to buzzing, flapping sounds on his sax (or possibly clarinet), to the point where the whole thing sounds like it’s been electronically processed. It’s a well managed meshing of instruments.

“Parallax” continues the trio’s serious side with monotoned blares from Gratkowski, little foghorns that croon under hyper, nervous piano from Brown. Come to think of it, Gratkowski is being a bit of a smart-aleck there, playfully messing with his bandmates. Later, Gratkowski gets into a low-key, quizzical mode, and the piano turns more melodic, another touch of new-classical influence.

All three of these players are standouts in improvised music, of course, and they’re able to play with subtlety and wit. But the occasional noisy blowout is good for the pipes, right? “Parallax” peaks with a frenzy of high tones from all three (Winant contributing in the form of metallic clatter), and “Archipelago,” as mentioned above, peaks with the most explosive moments on the album before simmering down to a quiet conclusion, tranquil but with a touch of menace courtesy of a shimmering, metallic curtain of electronics sounds.

Wake comes from a session recorded live at Mills College in 2007. Brown and Winant (who plays a lot of vibraphone here, along with timpani and other percussion) are locals with ties to the college, while Gratkowski (sax, clarinet, bass clarinet) is a frequent Bay Area visitor. The brief liner notes have Gratkowski hopefully promising more from this trio, and I hope they’re able to come through on that.

Playlist: March 27, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, March 27, 2009, 3:00 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.

Items of note:

….. Saxophonist Frank Gratkowski will be in town next week for, among other things, a CD release concert for Mimetic Holds, a quartet acoustic improv offering on Balance Point Acoustics, Damon Smith’s record label. Quick review of Mimetic Holds here.

….. Two items from the San Diego haul made the playlist: MMW‘s Book of Angels entry, and Asobi Seksu, which turns out to be in rotation here at KZSU (meaning it’s on the list of stuff we’re encouraged to play repeatedly).

….. Interesting start to the show. MMW was going to be my opener, but Ben, who did the show before mine today, closed things out with “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven,” a long, heartfelt piece from Nels Cline‘s latest album, Coward. The mood (dark but not too heavy) and the elements of creeping dissonance, made the Robert Moran all-percussion piece a more ideal starting point.

Continue reading “Playlist: March 27, 2009”

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.