Posts tagged ‘fred frith’

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. That job opening was filled by the time I called, 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 sharpest 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 don’t recall the details, 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. The light bulb went on a couple of years later, when the IRS asked about a 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.

March 1, 2017 at 9:35 pm Leave a comment

Another Day With the Fred Frith Trio

Fred Frith Trio performs Dec. 3 at St. Cyprian’s Church (2097 Turk Street, San Francisco) on Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m.

Fred Frith TrioAnother Day in Fucking Paradise (Intakt, 2016)

frith-anotherWith a title like that, you’re not expecting a bucket of sunshine. And indeed, the Fred Frith Trio’s debut album delivers a long-form improvisation that’s often dark and ghostly, with Frith playing plenty of sinister, echoey tones against the deep, nimble bass of Jason Hoopes and the often aggressive drumming of Jordan Glenn.

There’s a happy subtext to all of this. Hoopes and Glenn were students of Frith’s at Mills College. They’re part of a collective of prog/pop/folk-minded musicians Frith had mentored, work that resulted in bands like Jack o’ the Clock, which includes Hoopes and Glenn, and Frith’s own Cosa Brava.

The Fred Frith Trio debuted last year with a show at Slim’s in San Francisco, followed by a tour in Europe. I’m calling Another Day in Fucking Paradise a long-form improvisation, which would match the strategy the band used at the Slim’s show, it appears to really be a set of studio improvisations stitched into one long piece with 13 track divisions. There might be some overdubs involved as well; Frith is keen on the idea of touching up an improvisation for the sake of a recording.

The album generally follows a fast-slow-fast trajectory — meaning, the tracks in the middle cover slower, subtler territory. That’s where some of the trio’s darkest and most intersting music gets made. The 11-minute “Yard With Lunatics” starts with Hoopes and Glenn spewing shards of nighttime glass but quickly levels into a spacious plateau, full of ghostly guitar and bass statements left to linger in the air, backed with swampy electronic squiggles and blips.

Of course, the faster segments are fun, too. Early in the album, “Dance of Delusion” and “La Tempesta” feature lots of Hoopes’ throttling electric bass sound and some rapid-fire clatter by Glenn. Frith is all over the place, as you’d expect — but even when Frith is in a “lead” role, it often feels like he’s tending to the overall tapestry rather than taking center stage.

The last third of the album has Hoopes turning to acoustic bass, strolling melodically through the clutter and cobwebby guitar effects of “Straw Man,” and eventually bowing on “Schelechtes Gewissen,” an incongruously organic sound against Frith’s tight staticky guitar fuzz and Glenn’s aggressive drums.

“Phantoms of Progress” has a jam feel, with droplets of psychedelic guitar echoing against Hoopes’ hopping, jazzy bass melody — it’s a very nice choice for the penultimate track. “The Ride Home” closes it out with a shuffling rhythm and some peaceful electric-bass melody. Frith hovers in the background, spinning near-rhythms and near-melodies to keep things just a little unsettling.

December 2, 2016 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

Double Dose of Frith

Fred Frith and Barry GuyBackscatter Bright Blue (Intakt, 2015)
Lotte Anker and Fred FrithEdge of the Light (Intakt, 2015)

frith-pastiche

Listening to these sets of duo improvisation, I was struck by how often Fred Frith plays the role of background instigator, putting colors and scrim behind his partner. This makes sense — Frith, in both cases, is the one with the rhythm instrument and the electronic gizmos. He’s got more options for painting the scenery.

Of course, I’m generalizing; Frith often takes a front-line role too. And in general, duo sessions such as these are meant to be meetings of equals.

But alongside Lotte Anker (sax) on Edge of the Light, Frith often does feel like the one focusing on the shading and toning to craft the mood behind Anker’s aggressive, choppy style. It’s easy for a listener’s ear to gravitate toward Anker’s sax as the “lead” line, as on the short “Non-Precision Approach Procedure,” where she carves crooked trails accompanied by Frith in noisemaker mode, rattling and bashing.

 
She and Frith seem more balanced on “Run Don’t Hide,” where Anker and Frith combine to create a sustained buzzing tension. “Anchor Point” even has Frith doing some traditional strumming, albeit to an irregular rhythm, coaxing Anker’s solo forward into faster and buoyant territory.

The Ankur album ends with “Hallucinating Angels,” a high-stress shimmer where Frith is laying down ghostly waves against Anker’s slow, jagged tones on sax. It’s an unsettling faux peacefulness that builds into a slowly maddening chatter.

 
As you’d expect, Backscatter Bright Blue has a different sound, a strings-on-strings tussle where the “nearness” of the instruments — the fact that they’re close relatives — makes for a more equitable pairing. As with Edge of the Light, the sound aims for cragged improvisation, with Guy’s bass often voicing a percussive crunch or high-strung bowed tones. I still sometimes feel as if Guy is doing the “main” solo with Frith adding the depth and color, but their sounds intertwine substantially.

The combination of effects, guitar loops, and extended playing sometimes make it hard to tell who’s doing what. Here’s a patch of “Moments of Many Lives” where Frith takes a lead voice, but overall, you can hear the roles blending into one another.

 
“Moments” is one of two epic, roughly 20-minute constructions on Backscatter Bright Blue. Later on, it includes a passage where Fright and Guy combine in a manic, minimalist babble. The piece culminates in stacks of chattering guitar loops with Guy’s fierce bowing and Frith’s guitar hammering soaring overhead.

“Where the Cities Gleam in Darkness” is a fascinating study in, well, darkness: Guy goes into attack mode with thumping, clattering bass made more abrasive by Frith’s guitar treatments. Later, Guy uses the bow for a slower but equally dark passage backed by crunching, desolate guitar effects.

Finally, there’s a special place in my heart of “The Circus Is a Song of Praise,” which enters as a mutually destructive jackhammering but ends with this faux-music-box chiming and an eerie aftertaste.

 
back frith x2 2

July 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm 1 comment

Fred Frith Warms Up a New Trio

FFT_08-1024x682

Glenn, Frith, and Hoopes. Source: jasonhoopes.com.

Fred Frith‘s new trio will be touring around Europe late in February. As a prelude, they’ve played a couple of shows here in the Bay Area, including one at Slim’s that I got to see recently.

It’s a long-form improvising trio — you could certainly call it a power trio — with Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. Electronics and loops help the bass and guitar build a screen of lingering sound, often dark and heavy. Listening to Hoopes in the band Eat the Sun was good preparation, actually.

In front of that curtain of sound, each player adds virtuosity to color the piece. The first of three long pieces they played started with a blast zone created by Frith and especially Hoopes, who was sawing away at one high note on the bass. That put Glenn in the spotlight quickly, with fluid drum rolls and high-precision hammering.

Hoopes stayed in a supporting role for a long while before finally taking a lead voice with a thick, bubbling stew of bass soloing. Hoopes is terrific on electric bass, and it’s always a treat to hear him really cut loose. This trio offers him a lot of space to do that, although you get the sense that he directs more energy toward shaping the overall sound.

IMG_0819

Hoopes, Glenn, Frith

Of course, Frith contributed too, with many of his usual tools, such as bows and other implements against the guitar strings. Recently, I was reading a critic raving about Frith’s detuning of the guitar during solos — about how he was able to make that “wrong” sound fit just right. I hadn’t thought about that too much, but as Frith untuned his low E string during one span, it struck me that it really was just right and in “tune” with the logic of what he was doing. Frith added a lot of conventional playing as well — crisp and chirpy sounds harkening back to his prog days.

It was a terrific set, although I have to admit I lost the thread at times. The drone or roar of the guitar and bass sometimes overwhelmed the sound for me; there was always something going on underneath it, but sometimes my mind had trouble penetrating that roar. That’s not always a bad thing (“drone” is a legitimate musical form, and this was certainly not a sleepy drone) but I could have used some more dividers in the music. It’s possible I was just too worn out on a Thursday night.

Frith’s choice of bandmates is significant. Like Art Blakey, he’s teaming up with younger musicians to infuse fresh ideas into his music. Glenn and Hoopes are part of a wave of accomplished artists he’s inspired while teaching at Mills College, where he was a mentor not only for improvisers but for songwriters pursuing thoughtful, complex pop/prog ideas — Jack o’ the Clock, the local band I’ve been raving about, being a prime example. (They opened the Slim’s show, but I didn’t make it to the city in time for their set, alas.)

The Frith Trio is going to spend a lot of time in Central/Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary) with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a good chance to see Frith, of course, but also to check out some of the strong talent the Bay Area has been nurturing. Here’s the tour schedule, as found on Hoopes‘ and Frith‘s web sites:

Feb. 19Zagreb, Croatia
Feb. 20Göppingen, Germany
Feb. 21Vienna, Austria
Feb. 22Budapest, Hungary
Feb. 23Bolzano, Italy
Feb. 24Middelburg, Netherlands
Feb. 25Brussels, Belgium
Feb. 26Konstanz, Germany
Feb. 27Berlin, Germany
Feb. 28Dortmund, Germany
March 1Wels, Austria

February 1, 2015 at 11:53 am 1 comment

Fred Frith’s Gravity, Re-Revisited

Fred Frith's Gravity: A Cosmological Constant Revisited

Source: Dominique Leone’s blog; click to go there.

When Fred Frith re-created the album Gravity for a live show in August 2012, the hope was to take the act on the road by putting up the same band at festivals.

The band did get to play a couple of shows in New York, and now they’ve taking to the festival stage as well, having appeared at the Festival de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) in Quebec in May. They’re included in Avant Music News’ review of FIMAV Day 4.

The Gravity Band will also be performing twice in Europe: June 7 in the city of Nijmegen, The Netherlands, and June 8 at the Moers Festival in Germany.

Fred Frith's GravityIf you want to find out more about the process of (and reasons for) building a concert around the Gravity album, you can listen to the 2012 radio special I put together for KZSU. I’ve stored it here, in downloadable form. It includes interviews with Frith and with Bay Area musicians Aaron Novik and Dominique Leone, whose bands combined to form the 11-piece Gravity Band, and it all came out quite niftily, if I may say so.

I also reviewed that 2012 show, which was great fun.

June 3, 2014 at 12:57 am Leave a comment

Naked City: CLICK

My bookshelf includes a March 1991 issue of Wire magazine, inherited from Gino Robair. He’d organized a special show memorializing the Dark Circle Lounge, his weekly concert series at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. The show doubled as a reunion/party for the creative-music community, and it was amazing fun. To go with the nostalgic theme, Gino was handing out memorabilia — he’d cleaned out his garage or something, maybe — and that’s the one he put into my hands.

I throw away magazines all the time — I have to, to keep the Hoarders cameras away — but I’ve kept this one. I wasn’t into creative music in 1991, and to read about Evan Parker and Myra Melford’s 1990s work from a then-contemporary perspective feels special.

Plus, the issue has a very cool review of Torture Garden.

You know that one, right? It’s hyperactive tour de force album from John Zorn’s Naked City, flooded with jump cuts and short, short, short songs. Here’s an excerpt of Mike Fish’s review:

    Rejected by major click Suck this, you hapless click Impression that Zorn is trying a tad too hard to be a blood brother with those disaffected rock zombies who created hardcore in the first place, while he was off doing weird sh*t with Chadbourne and all those click Sumptuous click Nice sweet person like Frisell doing click Excerpts from a teenage operatic nightmare, maybe, with added click Favourite title: probably the winsomely detailed “New Jersey Scum Swamp,” unlocking click In an MTV world, there’s click

I especially love the Frisell bit. My sentiments exactly, once I found out just who Bill Frisell was.

Anyway, my recent mention of the Antheil/Naked City link is what nudged this memory into the open. And it’s funny how some things never change: One of the magazine’s feature articles is about the scarcity of venues for improvised music!

September 10, 2012 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Gravity Comes To Life

UPDATE: To answer questions about whether the concert was recorded or filmed … it was, but not in any form meant for public distribution, as far as I know. One guy filmed it from the front row but not in any official capacity. Dominique Leone tells me that Myles Boisen did a soundboard recording, but that’s not for commercial release (although it might be useful for reviving the project for festivals and the like, which would be intriguing.)

In front of a full and enthusiastic crowd, Fred Frith led a 10-piece band through the album Gravity at Slim’s on Aug. 25.

There were a lot of musicians in the audience, but most of the crowd were faces I didn’t recognize, especially when I moved up front for pictures. (The sound tends to be better in the middle or even the back of the room.) When the show ended, three different people behind me said, “That was amazing.”

It was, and it was a lot of fun, with lots of big smiles on the musicians’ faces — at least during the moments when they weren’t struggling through a difficult passage.

With barely an introduction, other than Frith telling the audience, “I must be dreaming,” the band ran through Side 1, with William Winant playing the part of the deep drum that permeates the entire side and ends in a fury. Frith used the side-change pause to introduce the band members, and then they drove through Side 2.

The start of “Norgarden Nyvla” was a big highlight, huge and anthemic, and Frith showed off some nice electric bass during he song. “Dancing in the Street” got surprisingly little response, almost as if people were disappointed to encounter a song they knew. (A lot of them might consider it a low point on the album; the in-joke is that it’s backed with sounds of Iranian revolt circa 1979 — an image very different from what Martha and the Vandellas intended.)

For the improvised track, “Crack Across the Concrete,” we actually did get to hear the band improvise. That was fun.

For encores, the group played a few other Frith tracks. “Killing Time” by Massacre made for a stunning mini-set opener and kept everyone’s attention. That was followed by an old Art Bears tune and … a transcription of an old hit single from some other artist. For years, Frith had been unable to find the song, so he wrote it out from memory, resulting in a materially different song, of course. So, they closed with that — it was happy, easygoing pop with kind of a Calypso feel.

Wonderful night all around.

The lineup:
Fred Frith — guitar, electric bass
Ava Mendoza — guitar
Wobbly — samplers
Lisa Mezzacappa — acoustic bass (electric on the encores)
Jordan Glenn — drums
Kasey Knudsen — sax
Aaron Novik — bass clarinet (also normal clarinet?)
Dominique Leone — keyboards
Kaethe Hostetter — violin
William Winant — percussion

Photos proceed. I tried some wannabe-fancy formatting with the understanding that it might not work on your screen, so… blame the mess on me. Click each photo for a way-too-large version.

ROVA opened the show with excerpts of a suite written by Frith: Tight, swinging stuff that kept the crowd surprisingly rapt.

Chuck Johnson played a short set of pretty, finger-picked guitar.

The opening moments, during the song “The Boy Beats the Ram.”

Dominique Leone and Kaethe Hostetter. Photo taken between people’s heads, Hubble-telescope style.

Lisa Mezzacappa, Kasey Knudsen, Aaron Novik.

Frith rocks out during Norrgarden Nyvla.

The only decent shot I got of Jordan Glenn on the drums.

Aaron Novik was not the only one to break out in a spontaneous grin.

Frith and Ava Mendoza again.

Kasey Knudsen.

Marie Abe on accordion and William Winant on percussion, both of whom added incredible amounts of depth to the music.

I’d never seen Wobbly before, and for most of the concert, his face was obscured to me, like he was trying to be a Residents-like Enigma. Of course, he’s not that secretive.

Frith took to the piano (lent from Scott Looney) for “Dancing in Rockville Md.,” the final track of Gravity.

Taking bows.

More bows.

Time to start the cleanup.

Group photo being taken by Myles Boisen, to end a night to remember.

September 2, 2012 at 1:08 pm 1 comment

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