144 Strings

Christy Doran144 Strings for a Broken Chord (Between the Lines, 2018)

doran-144During the course of Christy Doran’s suite for 24 guitars (four of them basses), you’re rarely listening to all 24 guitars — or if you are, they’re playing with restraint. This isn’t an barrage of shredding, and even when dense riffage-upon-riffage moments come up, they’re well coordinated and cleanly executed. The sound often resembles jazzy prog. It proudly showing its blues and rock roots, and it’s executed with the precision of a chamber orchestra.

The band includes drums, and they’re crucial, adding a tiny bit of sonic variation that provides a focal point. The four electric basses often get buried in the mix, but they have plenty of good moments, including solos. The passages of many guitars playing small parts together, often as the backing to a solo, create a lushness, a crunch that can only come from lots of strings being plucked at once. “Broken Chords” is brimming with that sound. The bluesy “Bad News Babe” is another good example, with the little chiming harmonics played as a group backing.

“Andromeda” is an exercise in grooving counterpoint — think of the overlapping lines of Steve Reich or later King Crimson with a jazzy beat set down by the drum kit. It has a sparkling sound that tickles my prog center.

“Gunslingers” has some appropriate showing off, in the form of tickling, speedy riffs adorning the corners of the sound while a chiming guitar figure occupies the center. It’s a fun exercise in precision, including what sounds like a “solo” played by multiple guitars in unison:

Doran was fortunate enough to present 144 Strings live in a theater, with the guitarists seated in a gentle arc spanning the stage. It just plain looks fun, and based on the excerpts he’s posted, the concert was a blast as well.

Monk: The Work

Miles OkazakiWork (self-released, 2018)

From Kevin Whitehead’s book, New Dutch Swing, regarding Thelonious Monk’s “deliberate lack of polish”:

What some heard as fumbling, thick fingers crushing so many adjacent notes, Misha [Mengelberg] heard simply as a liberal use of minor seconds. Monk in a way took diatonic harmony to its extreme, hiding every basic triad in an obfuscatory thicket.


Early on, I encountered the assertion that Monk’s hand size made him imprecise on the keys, and that his genius was to turn those would-be mistakes into stunning special harmonies. Over the years, I’ve learned that idea is more or less debunked. Monk was purposefully crafting something that was his. He was innovating.

So, when someone plays Monk on an instrument other than piano — a non-chordal instrument like a saxophone, or even a guitar, where those piano chords might be challenging to replicate — what happens then? It seems to me that you would get a very personal reading.

First, it would be Monk heard through the layer of translation from piano to a different instrument. But more than that, the solo aspect would provide a “purer” version of that musician’s take on the material. Broccoli tastes different to you than it does to me. I can say this confidently because other people seem to actually enjoy the stuff. Maybe Monk sounds different to you than it does to me — or, more clinically, maybe the details that stand out to your ear aren’t the same ones that stand out to me.

These ideas linger in my head when I listen to Miles Okazaki’s Work, a six-volume collection of all of Monk’s compositions performed on solo guitar. Certainly, Okazaki gives some songs novel treatments. But I like to think that underneath it all, there’s a chance to peek into a musician’s brain for a “clean” read of what Monk could sound like — the Monk that Okazaki hears.

That feeling is particularly strong on Work because of the rules Okazaki set for himself. No funny time signatures (every song was originally in common time, it turns out). True, recognizable readings of the melodies. One guitar for the entire project, with one amplifier and no effects. There was leeway to experiment, but the goal was to present Monk as Monk, keeping that translation layer thin.

The familiarity of Monk’s songbook gives any jazz musician a preset level of expertise, much like the tens of thousands of pitches thrown by a baseball player by the time he makes the Major Leagues. Okazaki started out knowing how to play around with these tunes. The challenge was how to present them as a whole, and how to vary them enough to create a compelling 70-track album. I’m especially grateful for Okazaki’s liner notes, which detail the evolution of the project and include track-by-track comments that nod to musicians and recordings that inspired him. 


Of course, Okazaki is a modern artist full of tricks and angles. He’s part of the regular crowd on the Pi Recordings label. So these aren’t meant to be pristine, sober readings of Monk. Some, like “Think of One,” dabble and stray as Okazaki’s improvisation progresses. Others, like “Misterioso,” dive down for a new, undiscovered perspective. (“Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through,” he writes in the liners.)

Monk’s Mood” opens with some dissonant dabbling that feels out the chords and melody of the song. That’s normal for any solo jazz piece, I suppose, but there’s a closeness to the homebrewed recording, as if you’re in the workshop watching Okazaki think his way through the piece, decoding its mathematics and deciding which elements to wring out. On other tracks, the sound is almost tactile — close enough to feel the delicious tension on the strings as he chops his way through “Bright Mississippi.”

I’m skipping around Work rather than powering through all the tracks in sequence. I’m surprised at the sheer number of Monk songs that I’ve never heard of. I can’t point to specific revelations about any given composition yet, but it’s fun hearing Okazaki pick the tunes apart. There are more lessons to be found in there.

One last thing. Yes, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp. But please consider purchasing it, at the fair price Okazaki is asking. Musicians should be compensated for projects like this — after all, it was work.

Oliver Lake + Guitars

HatOLOGY is one of those labels where I occasionally like to reach in and grab something almost at random, and that’s how I came across Oliver Lake‘s Zaki (hatOLOGY, 2007).

Coincidentally, one of my pickups at New York’s Downtown Music Gallery recently was an obscure-looking Oliver Lake Quartet CD titled Virtual Reality (Total Escapism) (Gazell Productions, 1992).

Both selections came from my interest in catching up with Lake’s career, but they turn out to have something more in common. Both employ guitarists who were up-and-comers at the time, although they operate on different frequencies.

lake-zakiZaki is a 1979 live recording featuring guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson, who recorded a handful of free-jazz albums in the ’70s. The trio, completed by Pheeroan Ak Laff on drums, has a bright energy, with corners and angles spilling forth from Jackson’s guitar, frequently aggressive in a Sonny Sharrock mode.

One highlight is “5/1,” which consists mostly of a gutteral, wide-awake trio improvisation.

Virtual Reality is a more “inside” session, albeit with progressive leanings, featuring well known compositions by Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, and one by Rahsaan Roland Kirk that’s new to me (“Handful of Fives”).

lake-virtualThe guitarist Anthony Peterson, is described by Sam Charters in the liner notes as “one of that creative group of younger musicians who have turned Brooklyn into a new jazz center.” I like that, given that the “new jazz” vibe has kind of stuck even through 2017. Ak Laff is on drums again, with Santi Debriano on bass.

It’s a different listen, feeling pleasantly laid-back during even the most fiery and fluid of solos, and I’m enjoying it. Peterson is more in a straight-jazz pocket than Jackson was, but he’s worthy of attention. Here’s his solo on the title track, where I especially enjoy the way he starts casually spewing thickets of chords:

Neither Peterson nor Jackson seems to have clicked in the free-jazz world. Jackson recorded an interesting quartet album with Lake, (Wadada) Leo Smith, and David Murray called Clarity (Bija, 1977) — but in the long run, he chose to follow his pop/R&B muse. He’s still making music, posting singles to Bandcamp. Peterson recorded three albums with Lake but vanished after that.

It’s just another reminder of how many talented, compelling musicians are out there; there’s always one more deserving name that you’ve missed. And while it’s no secret that Lake is versatile, it’s still gratifying to be reminded that his career took him in so many different directions. Maybe I’ll give another listen to his big-band stuff next.

Sharp, Halvorson, Ribot, Cline

Elliott Sharp with Mary Halvorson & Marc Ribot — Err Guitar (Intakt, 2017)

Nels Cline, Elliott SharpOpen the Door (Public Eyesore, 2012)

errguitarIt’s like a jungle of steel strings hanging like vines, and in certain segments, you can hear trademark moments Elliott Sharp‘s knotty, clustered guitar style; Mary Halvorson‘s spidery angles and abrupt, dark bursts; and Marc Ribot‘s soaring, edgy guitar heroism.

Put them together in a largely improvised set populated mostly with acoustic guitars, and you get that jungle effect. The overall mood is dark and twisted, but the titles of the songs (and of the album itself) tell you this is a jovial meeting. Sharp and Ribot have collaborated for decades, dating back to the ’80s downtown scene, and while Halvorson is younger, she’s been established as their peer in out-jazz circles.

Sadly, their schedules didn’t allow for a full-on trio recording. As Sharp explains in the liner notes, Err Guitar consists mostly of duets.

Two tracks were planned as overdubbed trios. “Blindspot” features all three playing in a spacious, sparkling mode; it’s a Sharp-Ribot duo with conscious space left for Halvorson. The other full-trio track is “Kernel Panic,” which carries a narrative flow built around Sharp’s graphical score. The track gathers like dark clouds, creating hailstorms at times when two or three of the players decide to cut loose.

These are dark landscapes. “Sinistre” casts an evil shadow, with dark-skies electric defining the mood for two scrabbling acoustic guitars. “Oronym” opens with a tangle of acoustic strings speaking in tongues and builds into an electric screech almost on the verge of a drone.

Two tracks not to miss: “Wobbly” is an acoustic duo with Ribot, with playful steel sparks flying everywhere. “Shredding Light,” with Halvorson, culminates in heavenly beams that do make it seem as if they’re playing the light itself.

cline-sharpSpeaking of guitar collaborations …

Open the Door is a lost album from 1999, when Sharp brought a young Nels Cline into Studio zOaR on West 30th Street for a day of acoustic improvising. The two guitarists laid down tracks direct-to-tape, only to have two record labels go belly-up before releasing the music. Public Eyesore‘s Bryan Day is the one who finally gave the music a proper release. It includes a 2007 live track, recorded by Cline and Sharp at The Stone, possibly in support of another duo album, Duo Milano (Long Song, 2006).

The album strikes me as having more concentration on melody (albeit in sour, off-kilter tones) than Err Guitar. “Isotropes” includes a slide and some downright pretty arpeggio work to create a songlike atmosphere. “Five Tastes of Sour” is like a careful study in harmonies, with each guitarist spending time exploring chords and leaving them to linger; it’s a nine-minute improvisation in no particular hurry.

The 2007 track, “Pietraviva,” is like blues clipped up and played on fast-forward, with notes and ideas rebounding all over the room. It packs a punch, and it ends with both guitars in tight percussive mode, the kind of clackety sound that’s been a Sharp trademark. These two had a lot of fun, both in 1999 and in 2007.


Ross Hammond’s A-List Jam

Ross HammondAdored (Prescott Recordings, 2012)

Adored shows off an exciting combination of ideas, with psychedelic rock jamming executed by one heck of a free-jazz backing band from L.A.: Vinny Golia (sax), Alex Cline (drums), and Steuart Liebig (bass).

It’s also got a nice link to the In the Flow Festival, which I’d mentioned previously. Guitarist Ross Hammond, organizer of the festival, lives in Sacramento and is responsible for Nebraska Mondays, the weekly creative-music series at Luna’s Cafe. Those activities gather musicians from the whole pan-California jazz/improv world.

On Adored, Hammond is working with some of the all-stars of the Southern California scene, producing some exciting results. Everyone here has done his share of mixing rock and jazz ideas, particularly Liebig, whose band The Mentones mixes barroom rock with prog/jazz virtuosity. (You’ll find them on the pfMentum record label.)

“Sesquipedalian” is a cosmically unfolding jam, with the guitar and sax spiraling outwards from the get-go. An improv cool-down middle stays just as active, with Golia bleating away and Liebig adding some ninja-quick electric bass riffs. Golia and Hammond similarly jam on “Maribel’s Code,” a calmer outing but not at all sedate. Over a steady foundation of drums and bass, the sax and guitar each take a turn at scribbly, intense soloing.

Maybe I’m taking the psych comparison too far, but there’s a bit of Santana in the guitar sound — the sublime, bluesy “She’s My Little Girl” being a prime example. The best moments, though, are when the band takes the idea of a psych jam and uses their talents and knowledge to stretch it further. Most of “Hands Up” is a choppy and grumbly group improvisation, with lots of different directions knitted together — and then, out of the blue, there’ll be a bashing rhythm from Cline for a moment of rocking-out bliss.

“Water Always Finds Its Way, Like the Soul” ends the album with a glorious comedown, full of lovely major-key tonalities (Wayne Peet helps out on piano) but just as much fever as some of the prior tracks.

It’s good stuff. Have a listen over at Bandcamp.

Amendola Approacheth

Drummer Scott Amendola is about to put out his first album leading a trio, Lift. It’s coming Oct. 19.

You can hear tracks by going to Amendola’s “Audio/Video” page. Click on “radio,” and the fixed program will start with the snappy funk of “Lima Bean” followed by the airy drum solo that opens “Lift,” the title track that sketches a peaceful twilight setting. (Then stick around for the high-strung funk of “59th Street Blues,” from Amendola’s first album.)

You can’t judge Lift by two tracks, but here goes. The surface is showing a reimagining of T.J.Kirk-type funk and a rediscovery of jazz territory. But the start to “Lift” shows there’s going to be room for some wide-open improvisation as well.

Amendola also has a love of African pop and a growing sensibility for electronics both as featured instruments and as backdrop. Those factors gave the Scott Amendola Band a broad scope. The most recent album, Believe (Cryptogramophone, 2005) does have some funk and rock elements — one track could be a Crazy Horse instrumental — but it’s also got deep, ambitious pieces like the reverent “Cesar Chavez.”

That band also benefitted from a lineup of expansive players — Jeff Parker and Nels Cline on guitars, and Jenny Scheinman on violin. Lift pares things down to a trio, with Parker and S.A.Band bassist John Shifflett. But at the same time, Amendola has broadened his scope in compositions and in performance options — his electronics play some key roles in recent Nels Cline Singers albums, The Celestial Septet and the colossal Initiate.

Amendola is taking the trio on a small CD release tour around the Bay Area and up the coast.  (Note that the itinerary includes Dana Street Roasting Co. in Mountain View — a neat local coffee house that’s willing to go out on a limb for the sake of good music. Support them!)

Sat. Oct. 23 — Blue Whale, Los Angeles
Sun. Oct. 24 — Dana St. Roasting, Mountain View, 7:30 p.m.
Mon. Oct. 25 — Yoshi’s Oakland, separate shows at 8:00 and 10:00
Tue. Oct. 26 — Earshot Jazz Festival (Cornish College of the Arts), Seattle
Wed. Oct. 27 — The Goodfoot Lounge, Portland, Ore.
Thur. Oct. 28 — Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, 7:00, or 6:00 if you want dinner beforehand

The Other World of Henry Kaiser

Henry KaiserWhere Endless Meets Disappearing (Balance Point Acoustics, 2009)

In addition to playing guitar, Henry Kaiser is an oceanographer — as in, serious, university-research oceanographer — and a few years ago, he got a chance to ply both trades in Antarctica.This album, a set of mostly solo guitar improvisations, is a reflection on that alien underwater world.

It’s placid and crystalline, fitting enough. Very pretty stuff — not what you’ll want if you’re looking for the Derek Bailey-influenced side of Kaiser, but even if the weird stuff is your cup of tea, this isn’t an album to miss.

The 12-minute title track opens the album and sets the mood.  Kaiser uses stereo-ized echo effects here to give the illusion of two guitars (14 of the 18 tracks are solo, undubbed).  A single bass note, plucked every now and then, serves as the center of gravity around which Kaiser contently drifts,spinning a slow web of notes. Tiny harmonics glisten like light off the water’s surface. It’s relaxing and deep, great music for Sunday morning coffee.

Kaiser calls this a concept album, and I get the feeling it’s a love letter to the beauty of diving. It definitely has that weightless feeling, as if it’s mimicking the peaceful, muted sounds beneath the ocean’s surface.

Many of the acoustic tracks take on the sound of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, not so much in the note choices but in the overall mood and prettiness.  Kaiser does turn up the electric a few times, though, for some proggy noodling.  “A Precise Kind of Infinity, a Sliver of Clarity Nestled” is mostly pretty and chiming, but the space-exploration electric guitar wail comes in for the second half, for the feel of peering into the infinite. “A Bloom of Tiny Suns” ends the album with criss-crossing electric guitars spiraling outward like a slow-motion sunburst.

A couple of tracks get into “off”-tuning and abrasive dissononace, but they’re in the minority.  The acoustic “I Would Ask” comes up fairly early in the album and is actually a welcome break from the sea of niceness. “The Gate Is That Way, Not This” is the one that will have roommates and spouses running away screaming; it’s an electric-guitar improv with lots of atonality (in the loose, improper sense that jazz critics use) and screechy sounds.

The bulk of this album, though, is really nice, a very rewarding listen.

Random side note: All of the electric-guitar work on the album was performed with a true-temperament neck, which uses squiggly frets to produce more accurately toned scales. Check it out.

Ava Mendoza Swings

Ava MendozaShadow Stories (Resipiscent, 2010)

Performing solo guitar: Sunday June 27, 10:30 a.m., live on KUSF 90.3; Monday, June 28, at Luna’s Cafe (Sacramento); and Tuesday, June 29, at Amnesia (San Francisco) as part of a guitar-compilation release party by the Tomkins Square label.  And non-solo-guitar dates listed here.

Bay Area music fans who know guitarist Ava Mendoza from the punk attack of Mute Socialite, from her noisy guitar experiments on compilations like Women Take Back the Noise, from her noisy work with Weasel Walter — is going to be surprised to hear a straight-up reading of “The Tennessee Waltz” and “I’m So Glad” opening this album. I was.

So, the jazz references in interviews and bios turn out to be for real, and not too distant from what Mendoza’s still into. “The Tennessee Waltz” gets into some unconventional ad-libbing but sticks to its country/blues mood, with a bright and rough-edged guitar sound that evokes a stage in a dusty bar graced with long afternoon shadows.

And you know what? That’s how the whole first half of the album goes!

Yes, this dark gray package that I was taking for a noisefest turns out to be a celebration of roots guitar in a western-swing style.

But only at first, because if you’re on the Resipiscent label, home to guys like this, the noise is sure to come. “The Furious Harpy” lists into some relaxing, distorted ambiance — backwards notes, guitar tones sampled into bouncing-pebble tapping — that gradually turns dark and steely, with stomping guitar from a very non-jazz place. It’s a 12-minute turning point.

That sets us up for two more unsettling tracks. “Penumbra: The Age of Almost Li” returns to a regular musical structure, but now it’s dark, slow, and slightly twisted, like evil biker music. “In My Dreams” puts fragments of guitar melody into an echoey, plinky environment, a dream that’s not a nightmare but still not quite right.

Then, abruptly, the album switches back to friendly jazz for its closing tracks. “Goodnight Irene” gets a particularly nice, expansive treatment.

Getting back to the subject of Mendoza’s jazz/swing playing — it’s terrific. “Shadowtrapping” is upbeat, combining some old-timey tricks with newer improvising ideas that break the mold but not the mood. With a second overdubbed guitar laying down the rhythm, Mendoza shows off some playfully fancy lead lines. “Kiss of Fire” has a darker mood, like an ancestor of rockabilly, but the same snappy jazz rhythm and great creative soloing. They’re tracks you can really sink your teeth into.

Mendoza gets to show multiple sides of her personality on this album. It’s a release to be proud of.

Strange Music in Mountain View

It’s true — bassist Steuart Liebig is swinging through town, up from L.A. with some friends, and he’s got a gig:  Friday, May 14, 7:00 p.m., at the Dana Street Roasting Company (744 W. Dana St., Mountain View).

The gig that will get more attention is tonight (May 13), when Nels Cline shows up. He and G.E. Stinson (guitars) and Scott Amendola (drums), plus Liebig, are/were the improv group L. Stinkbug back in the ’90s. They’ve all continued playing together in all sorts of combinations, but they’re reviving L. Stinkbug for a show at 21 Grand in Oakland.

There will be a second L. Stinkbug show in Sacramento, at Beatnik Studios as part of “Flow Fest.”

But the surprise bonus gig is the Dana Street one.  I can’t imagine they host free improv very often — or maybe the group that night is something more structured?  It will be a trio Brotulid: Liebig (bass and “technology”), Andrew Pask (woodwinds and more technology), and G.E. Stinson (guitars, technology, and beats).

I’m guessing Brotulid will play improv, but you never know. Liebig has done serious chamber music, and he’s also done a rocking type of free jazz with his band The Mentones (think Ornette Coleman played with blues guitar and a harmonica). Either way, it’s nice to see Dana Street giving some interesting music a haven, even if only for one night.

Pat Metheny’s Dark Side

Consider this a sequel to the Lou Reed post.  I mention Pat Metheny and The Sign of Four there, and it got me thinking back to that album, and to another one …

There’s an interloper’s factor when “commercial” musicians step into the improv world.  Free improv, despite what a lot of people think, isn’t thoughtless flailing. Try playing along with an Evan Parker or Derek Bailey CD; it’s not as easy as you’d think.

So, on the one hand, you have the sentiment of, “How dare they think they can just step right into this world!”  On the other hand, free improv today sounds pretty darned similar to the free improv circa 1969, when Derek Bailey and The Company were first working it out. Maybe some new voices couldn’t hurt.

Metheny’s music has gained popularity for being pretty and airy and cinematic — that’s the word the critics love, and it’s apt.  But Metheny has always insisted that his music isn’t meant to be played softly or quietly. It’s not just mood music. And jazz in general, he says, ought to be loud.

To that end, The Sign of Four, a 3-CD set recorded in 1997, opens with disquiet: a 62-minute marquee piece called “A Study in Scarlet.”  It was performed live at the Knitting Factory, and it marked Metheny and Bailey’s first meeting, each bringing along a drummer as well (Paul Wertico and Gregg Bendian).  They didn’t know much about one another beyond reputation, but it seems understood that they were going to do something improvised and not-nice.  And so it was: Metheny soon cranks it to 11 and never looks back.

Some people complain that this froze the entire piece, limiting the choices of Bailey and the drummers, and obliterating any chance to hear Bailey’s sublime, scribbly language. True. But again: Different isn’t bad.  What came out was more than acceptable, IMHO.  It’s interesting hearing Derek Bailey really shred, heavy distortion and all, and the drummers occasionally back off to create the illusion of calm. A second live disk of shorter pieces, and a studio disc, include moments of exploring other territory (i.e. quieter stuff), where silence gets to play its role.

Does Sign of Four work? I’d say yes, absolutely. But it’s not for everybody, and I can see why even a fan of abstract music might snub it.  What’s of interest here is that Metheney tried something outside his usual bounds — and, to an extent, so did Bailey.

In 1994, Metheny had gone on a solo excursion into similar territory. Zero Tolerance for Silence came out with zero fanfare on Geffen, his then-current label. In a Rolling Stone interview, Metheny described it as an exercise in “filling space” rather than creating space — the latter being his usual M.O. in those cinematic, open-sky pieces he’s famous for.

As I’ve mentioned before, you can often judge a CD by its cover. That harsh, stark, almost evil fluorescent light.  Yes, this won’t be another “Phase Dance.”

For my money, the 18-minute “Part One” is “Zero Tolerance for Silence.”  Meaning, that’s the piece I think Metheny really set out to do.  The track consists of four overdubbed electric guitars, intentionally out of tune by the sound of it, manically hammering away at blurry white-noise chords. Metheny takes occasional breaks for solos, where all four guitars, now sounding even more out of tune, plunge into criss-crossing, grunting, atonal lines of single notes before returning to the blur.

My guess is that Metheny recorded one guitar track with no schematic, just a general plan of what he wanted to do.  Each subsequent track was recorded while listening to the first one and following its cues, so that the solos and the chordal blurs would be in sync.

It’s harsh and grating — and oddly relaxing, due to the long stretches of near white noise. I’ve literally fallen asleep listening to it.  And you know what? I honestly like “Part One.”

Parts Two through Five, though, feel like B-sides. Metheny seems to be using the same approach — four overdubs in sequence — but doesn’t have another grand idea to back up the execution. He draws some sour-toned, off-key melodies that you could say are experimental, or microtonal, or bold … but really, they’re just annoying.

I’m glad Metheny had the interest to give this type of music a whirl, and that he got the support to put the results out on disc.  The differences in Zero Tolerance and Sign of Four show how enriching it is for a musician to be pushed by others in a group, and the latter shows that Metheny does have an aptitude for this stuff. He could enrich his mad improv skillz if he wanted to concentrate on this music, I’m sure — but of course, that’s not his thing, and that’s fine.