Grex: Many-Faceted Rock

GrexElectric Ghost Parade (Geomancy, 2018)

Grex appears at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., San Francisco) on Jan. 23, 2019.

grex-electric-500The art-rock band Grex charms you with upbeat indie-pop melody and then blasts you with psych-driven guitar grit, often in the same song. That mix anchors the band’s personality, honed over years by founders Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, and their steady drummer Robert Lopez. Each album or live show is a workout for multiple brain centers: rock, prog, free jazz, even goofy whimsy.

Scampavia’s airy vocals can make for charming melodic leads. “Martha” is one of the highlights, a sad little tribute to the last of the passenger pigeons. “Mal and Luma” has the slightly silly sound of a kids’ TV theme. Both songs then get a dose of more searing guitar — mournful on the former ebullient on the latter (with some Beatlesesque applause randomly added to contribute to the silliness). “Transpiration” uses guitar blasts in a satisfying power-pop mode before slipping into a tougher psych-rock attack.

That rougher side, with Evangelista’s growly vocals, makes for some satisfying excursions too, with crunchy guitar leading the way on “Husk” and the soulful, pumping riff of “Saints.” Guest horns sometimes add choppy free jazz to the mix, but they also arrive in melodic form, strengthening the rolling pop sounds of “Round Trip” and “Quicksilver.”

Even as any given song flips through disparate ideas, it doesn’t lose its core feeling. Grex knows where it wants to go. There needs to be a place for this kind of pop/rock: music that can smartly flip through many influences to build something exciting.

Rocking A Love Supreme

Karl Evangelista/GrexA Love Supreme (Brux, 2017)

coversmallYou can tell from the start that this isn’t a conventional reading of A Love Supreme, and not just because it’s guitar-based. Karl Evangelista and the band Grex start the piece with the same kind of wide-open introduction as the original, but in a voice that suggests what’s to come: a hard-digging psychedelic guitar opera.

With guitar and keys, bass and drums, and a couple of sparkling trumpet solos, it’s a satisfying treatment — a 25-minute EP being released as precursor to Grex’s next album. The structure of the four-movement piece remains intact, and there’s even a drum solo to open “Pursuance,” as on the original. What’s different is the transformation of the themes into rock form. Check out “Resolution,” where Evangelista plays the snakey composed line while Grex backs him with sinister chords.

The seminal moment of the original piece is Coltrane singing the “a love supreme” chant at the end of “Acknowledgement.” I can’t believe I never noticed this, but Coltrane sings his phrase in each of the 12 different keys. On Grex’s version, it’s the band who plays that theme, hopping from key to key while Evangelista’s guitar dances over the fast-shifting landscape.

The rock treatment is interesting when you consider that the original is based on wide-open modal playing — no ostinato, no riffs to clutch onto. Rock, of course, relies on repeated themes and rhythms that back the solos. It’s a fun translation, as “Pursuance” turns into a head-bobbing rocker with a solo of fuzz and feedback. “Psalm” becomes a cooldown study in slow-burning guitar and electric piano.

Listen to (and buy) the whole album at Bandcamp.

Monday Make-Out: May 2016

mihaly-MORmay16-cropThe most recent live music show I’ve seen (not counting the theater experience) goes back to the beginning of May, when I headed to San Francisco’s Mission District for the first-Monday jazz program at the Make-Out Room.

This one was really different. Walking through the door, I was greeting by the wavering clang of a Chinese gong and the high-pitched caterwauls of traditional Asian song, but infused with the aggressive showmanship of rock or even punk. This was mashed up against an energetic, Afropop-influenced guitar-and-bass combo, all anchored by drummer Dave Mihaly.

This was DaMaDa, a world fusion band that put out one CD in 2011 and possibly has another one in the wings.

I hadn’t encountered them before, but lead singer Luo Danna grew up in China as a singer, actress, and dancer, and she brings that theatricality to the forefont for this band. Their final song was fast-paced, with Danna adding a percussive exclamation point to the rhythm by snapping a fan closed dramtically. You do have to have a taste for the shrill vocals of traditional Chinese music, but the mix of those motifs with the freedom of jazz is something worth hearing.

grex-MORmay16-cropThe second set was by local stalwarts Grex, this time in basic trio format:  Karl Evangelsta on guitar, Rei Scampvia Evangelista on keyboards, and Robert Lopez on drums.

Jazz and modern classical music are among Grex’s influences, but it was a heavy set this time, with lots of crunchy, aggressive guitar and a psychedelic feel. Among the new songs with Rei on vocals was “Martha,” relating to the last of the carrier pigeons.

A quartet called Two Aerials closed the program, combining out-there jazz singing (singer/cellist Crystal Pascucci) with a chamber-music vibe, a breezy sound from the combination of cello, vibraphone, and electric piano. Still, they put up some hard-driving numbers, really rocking out at times. Drummer Britt Ciampa kept the volume high with a lexicon of shuffles and taps, playd with subtlety and precision but loud and exciting.


I did not make it to the June installment of the Monday Make-Out, but I’d like to be more of a regular there. The bar setting isn’t conducive to every type of music, but this is the kind of setting jazz used to enjoy, after all, and you get a good dose of locals who wander in and seem to have a pretty good time.

Grex Brings Monster Music on Tour

GrexMonster Music (Brux, 2014)

grex-monsterGrex has already toured a little big around Monster Music, hitting some shows on the east coast in July. They’re now in the middle of a west-coast swing:

August 4, Sacramento, CA, 7:30pm at Luna’s Cafe (Nebraska Mondays, w/Luis Clifford Childers

August 5, Sacramento, CA, 8pm at The Witch Room (w/Practice, The Lurk)

August 6, Sacramento, CA, (Grex at 10pm), Live Broadcast on v103, at Marilyn’s on K (w/Devon Galley, Ken Koenig)

August 7, Portland, OR, 9pm, at Slabtown (w/U SCO, The Sarcastic Dharma Society, Drunk Dads)

August 8, Seattle, WA, 8pm, at The Woodshed (w/Insistent Caterpillars, Honey Noble)

August 10, Seattle, WA, 7:30pm, at Cafe Racer (at Racer Sessions)

August 15, Long Beach, CA, 8pm, 4th Street Vine (w/Don’t Trip)

August 16, Los Angeles, CA, 8:30pm, at Curve Line Space (w/Dead Air Trio feat. Joe Berardi)

Monster Music, which came out in February, is a nifty package of pop/prog characterized by bubbly and dreamy electric piano, swinging chords, and regular doses of fiery guitar. Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, the wife/husband team who both contribute vocals, augment the Grex duo with other instruments, but this time, drummer Robert Lopez is a fixture on every track, which somehow makes the songs feel more, well, songlike.

grex-yellowmouseI think of Grex as a prog band, but really it crumples musical styles into one multicolored mix, willfully dropping jazz melody, experimental improv, or rock attitude. A track like “Romancing Stone” reminds me a lot of Pierre Moerlen’s Gong with that pleasant, floating keyboard sound, although here it gets augmented with the more tangly, grumpy free improv that’s also a Grex ingredient. “Christmas Song” is a quirkier brand of prog, with a stringy melody spelled out on warbly keys and/or guitar to introduce Scampavia’s smooth, airy vocal.

Rock elements show up on “Hurdles,” a swirling, jamming piece that pairs fuzzed-out guitar and weighty electric piano, and on the psych jam “Guinea,” with its towering piano-chord theme.

This is the kind of album that’s easy to digest but has a lot going on under the surface, making for multiple rewarding listens. It probably makes for a good show, too, so if you’re on the west coast, don’t sleep on this one.

You can download Monster Music on Bandcamp.

Grex: Typhoon Relief Concert (and New CD)

MonsterMusicReleasesmallGrex is playing a CD-release concert tonight (Feb. 15) that doubles as a typhoon relief concert.

It’s a Berkeley Arts (2133 University Ave, Berkeley). There’s no cover, and all proceeds, including album sales, will go to the Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan relief. It’s a nice chance to experience some new music and donate to a good cause.

The bill includes:

  • Grex, the free jazz/chamber rock trio of Karl Evangelista (guitar), Rei Scampavia (piano), and Robert Lopez (drums)
  • Michael Coleman’s Enjoyer, a quartet (or more) led by keyboardist Coleman
  • Jordan Glenn Chamber Ensemble, debuting a new long-form piece composed by Glenn

The new Grex album, titled Monster Music, features the new trio format (the band has been Evangelista and Scampavia, joined sporadically by friends) and should be available on Bandcamp soon.


DJ Post-Pink of KUSF In Exile played all of Taglish on a recent edition of her Innerworld show. Catch the full podcast here.

Grex appears Dec. 13 at the Starry Plough and at various west-coast venues shortly after. Look, here’s a poster with the dates.

Karl Evangelista/Grex QuintetTaglish (self-released, 2012)

I mentioned this one before but wanted to give it a more thorough look, given the free time over the holidays.

Taglish comes across as a mix of jazz and prog, with spirited sax solos by Francis Wong and Cory Wright, among others, and a variety of guitar licks from Karl Evangelista, with shades of blues and classical.

The word “Taglish” — and it’s a real word, not something made up for the album — refers to a spoken mix of Tagalog and English. Like Spanglish. Evangelista explains in the liner notes that the title reflects the personal mix of cultures and mindsets that comes from being Asian-American in general and also to the mix of musical traditions and knowledge infused into the music.

It’s a project inspired by Asian Improv Arts, the organization and record label that’s been producing Asian-American jazz for 25 years.

That range of ideas is evident in the first three tracks. “Iloilo Ang Banwa Ko” is an actual Filipino song. “Hymn” has the sunny sound of South African jazz, primed by John-Carlos Perea’s warm electric bass. (The tune is apparently derived from the Filipino national anthem.) And “Reb” has a short, honest-to-goodness jazz vocal from Scampavia, followed by some bright, sunburst guitar backed by gospel piano chords.

The songs were conceived as a suite devoted to four members of Evangelista’s family — his father, mother, wife (Scampavia), and sister. The “mom” segments carry a “slightly melanchoic tinge,” as he writes inthe liner notes, based on the bittersweet notion of having left home and being unable to return in the proverbial sense.

“Birds” is the song chosen to reflect those emotions; it’s slow and heavy-hearted but with a spirit of hope. Evangelista’s pointed yet restrained blues-guitar solo speaks for the tangle of emotions being represented.

Taglish’s second half slows the tempo down considerably but gets no less interesting. Grex by itself — that is, just Evangelista and Scampavia — gets highlighted on “Night Talk,” a slow piece with a vocal intro.

“Dreams” and “Dreams (pt. C),” towards the end, might be the most interesting songs.

“Dreams” traces a slow line, with time marked out by unison horns while the piano and guitar string complex little statements. It’s got quite the Henry Cow kind of prog-rock air, and it hypnotically draws you in as the musical line bends and winds its way.

“Dreams (pt. c)” puts a jazzy swing on the concept, driven by Jordan Glenn‘s crisp drumming. Here’s part of Rob Ewing’s trombone solo, leading into sax/guitar dual soloing by Wong and Evangelista.

Saturday Swarm

Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia of Grex are debuting a new, poppy band tonight (Sat. Feb. 25) called Swarm Intelligence.

Appropriately, they’re playing at the Swarm Gallery in downtown Oakland. (Details of my one visit are posted here.)

The band includes the Grex duo (guitar, vocals, keyboards, violin?) along with Jordan Glenn and Cory Wright of Wiener Kids and Phillip Greenlief and Dan Seamans of The Lost Trio. Evangelista describes it as:

… part weird, poppy song structures and part improvising ensemble… Rei says it sounds like the Drive soundtrack, and I dug into my recent absorption of ambient free jazz (Marion Brown, Bennie Maupin) and out fusion (Selim Sivad-era Miles & Herbie’s Mwandishi) for inspiration. Trust me–hearing this killer front line solo over Jordan and Dan’s unbelievable hookup (oddly Motian/Hadenesque), mixed up with these impressionist piano interludes and rubber band guitar parts–it’s terra nova for everyone involved.

I particularly liked this part:

I’ve been writing my hand off trying to come up with the imaginary music that’s missing from my record collection, and this looks like it’s in the right ballpark.

The opening act sounds awesome, too. It’s guitarist Ross Hammond in a quartet populated by some longtime L.A. free-jazzers: Vinny Golia (sax), Steuart Liebig (bass), and Alex Cline (drums). They’ve got a new album that you can sample by clicking on the Hammond link or by going to Bandcamp.

It’s all being broadcast on KALX, too. But if you can make it out to be part of the live experience, I’m sure the bands would love to see you.

(More about Wiener Kids here and Lost Trio here.)

Reconnaissance Fly Flies Again

UPDATE: It looks like Westbrook will be playing first, followed by Grex and then Reconnaissance Fly. Plan your lives accordingly.

Having written so much about our local Cardiacs tribute band, I should probably mention it when those musicians get together with their own band.

Did that make sense? What I meant is: The seed of the ReCardiacs Fly tribute band was the trio called Reconnaissance Fly, a separate non-Cardiacs-tribute band that’s been together for some time. They haven’t played in a while as Reconnaissance Fly, that I know of.

They’re appearing tonight (Weds. Jan. 11) at Cafe Revolution in west Oakland: 1612 7th Street.

Reconnaissance Fly plays proggy, artsy compositions, embellished by electronics, with lyrics taken from the cut-up verbiage of spam e-mails. You can hear a few tracks on MySpace or check out YouTube videos such as this one:

Reconnaissance Fly will be opening a bill that’s headlined by Grex, the chamber/pop duo. In between, Luke Westbrook will do a set of jazz guitar.

It’s all part of Light a Fire, a blanket name for the show-booking efforts of Karl Evangelista (half of Grex). I’d written about some of his organizational efforts here and here.

The Grex Factor

Before the World Series rose to an all-consuming fever pitch, stealing time from things like this blog, I went to the release party for the new Grex CD, Second Marriage.

This was in downtown Oakland very near to Jack London Square, at the Swarm Gallery — my first trip there.  It’s a small art house that doubles as an artists’ space; offices in the back appear to be rented out as mini-studios.  The show was held in the spacious common area ringed by the offices. Not a bad spot for a show, because they’ve got the space and it’s mostly comfortable, if a little warm.

Swarm is close to some seedy neighborhoods (quite a few provocatively dressed women walking around, anyway) but there weren’t any signs of trouble around us. I was more thrown by the sight of a Bed Bath & Beyond sitting right around where the Swarm’s address was supposed to be.

Grex’s sound fuses classical piano, pop melody, and loud spasms of electric guitar — big, buzzy electric guitar. Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia, who really are getting married, performed as a duo half the time, and with drums (Tom Scandura?) or sax (Cory Wright) as guests on the other songs. A friend of theirs added video backdrop.

It was a good show, and for those who bought the new CD, they auctioned off this home-grown, 10-pronged squash. Where else in music can you see a show and take home a 10-pronged squash?

Before Grex, I finally got to see Wiener Kids. They’re as entertaining as I’d hoped — maybe not as laugh-out-loud funny as my CD review made them sound, but certainly a nice blend of cerebral jazz and smart-aleck tactics. “Here’s a Fun Fact,” off the new album What a Mess, was a highlight. It opens with intricate percussion, each band member hitting one instrument to produce overall patterns. (They got lost once or twice during this part; it didn’t sound easy.) Whistles and bird calls complete the intro before the chugging, R&B-steeped sax parts get started. Glenn also brought out the accordion for “Ballad of the Wee Dogs.”

The evening started with Alee Karim’s Science Fiction, a pop band that deals in big, flowery chords. Pretty music played at very high volumes. The band’s still new — they did flub a couple of songs — but they’d be worth seeing again, and not just because a couple of them were outside during a break having an earnest discussion about the awesomeness of Rush.

Fred Frith’s Manifesto

They’re calling it the New Song Movement, or at least Fred Frith is, and it’s getting pronounced to the masses on Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Great American Music Hall. That’s right, artsy pop is playing at GAMH:

More info about the show is here.

Frith has no small part in this. Remember how I’d drawn parallels between Jack o’ the Clock (a local band with prog leanings and a strong sense of sophisticated pop) and Frith’s Cosa Brava (art songs in a rock context)?  I’m not the only one. Frith himself is helping nurture an entire uprising of these kinds of bands, using his teaching position at Mills College as a pulpit.

This is great news. I do love plain old pop music (Oranger, where are you?), but it’s the prog stuff that got me down the path that eventually led to free jazz. It’s been an immensely rewarding ride, and I always find it’s exciting to discover a pop band that puts classical and adventurous jazz talents to use.

Karl Evangelista, who’s half of Grex, filled me in on the specifics via email. The Mills music faculty in general — not just Frith — encourages students to transcend boundaries. Beyond that, the local scene (stacked with Mills graduates) keeps mixing jazz, chamber music, pop, and electronics. It’s a fertile environment for new ideas.

The thing to stress here is that the scene is extremely open to genre cross-pollination. Frith has compared it to downtown NY in the 80’s (or, IIRC, England in the 60’s), which is apt. Members of Jack O’ the Clock recently played a couple of evenings of Stravinsky under the leadership of local avant pop wunderkind Dominique Leone. The Clocks’ rhythm section played with me and Andrew Conklin in the Tim Berne-informed free jazz quartet Host Family — and Conklin, for one, has interacted with tons of local pop/jazz/avant hybridizers out of the axis of Oberlin grads (his straight pop music is sublime). Grex plays inside of a mbaqanga/afrobeat/soul jazz combo called Dino Piranha (with local sax veteran Phillip Greenlief). It’s all really active, incestuous stuff.

The Aug. 14 show is a chance to show off some of these elements on a bigger stage, literally.

“We of course want to find an audience for our music and music of our ilk, but I think it’s equally relevant to convey that the local music here does belong in concert halls, on the big stages, garnering press, etc. (as opposed to hustling away in some bar in Albany),” Evangelista wrote (emphasis mine).

The “find an audience” part is no small feat. Local press coverage of experimental music has thinned out, partly due to changes at the weekly papers. And, of course, there’s the ongoing issue of whether the Bay Area supports its jazz well enough, as Rachel Swan noted in the East Bay Express recently.

Fred used the banner “new song movement” a while back, and I haven’t really seen it anywhere since. Whatever the case, I like the concept. The music at the GAMH will be representative of the younger music scene out here in the same way that the No New York sampler was representative of No Wave — which is to say, not really comprehensive at all, but enough to give folks a taste for some of the really daring experimentalism that’s happening right under everyone’s noses.

Fred mentioned before that he’d never really heard a scene so involved as ours in integrating the experimental language that his generation innovated with the pure pop/songwriting discourse of the past few decades. There’s something legitimately new going on right now, and as a child of classic free jazz, I’m pretty happy to do some flag waving for the sort of fertile, crazily inventive environment I’d always admired and wanted to be a part of.

Here, then, is your chance to be in on the New Song Movement. I agree with Karl that there’s something going on here that’s different and exciting, propelled by a group of local musicians tugging the music in new, different ways. And for those who have their doubts about “experimental” music, the songs are even catchy.

This should be a heck of a show. And if you need more convincing: Most of Cosa Brava no longer lives in the Bay Area. Don’t wait for Grex and Jack o’ the Clock’s members to move eastward, too. Now’s your chance to claim some really special music as your own hometown discovery.