A Side Shot of Human Feel

Human FeelParty Favor [EP] (self-released, 2016)

humanfeel-favorI’m one of those people who mourns the things lost in the digital age of music — things like record-store bin-digging. But one of the advantages of the digital age is the ability to release songs in small handfuls. You no longer have to amass an album’s worth of material before having something to say. Weird Al Yankovic, for instance, has talked about eschewing albums in favor of just releasing singles from now on. And yes, I just cited Weird Al in a context serious enough to include the word “eschewing.”

Human Feel is one of those treasures of the New York “Downtown” era, a quartet driven by quirky composing, tetherless improvising, and Jim Black‘s sometimes thundering drums. They’re still around, but all four members have their own careers as bandleaders, which must make group efforts difficult. They managed to record and tour a few years ago, but how often is that going to really happen?

Maybe the answer is to do as much as you can whenever you can. Party Favor is a three-track EP. Back in the ’90s, we would have called it a CD single. Nice new dose of music without having to wait for a full album.

“Alar Vome,” a title that has a very Andrew d’Angelo feel to it, is an emotional anthem, slowish and big. “Eon Hit” is a catchy ditty¬†with the horns in tight harmony and a light, pattering rhythm. And “Half-Bassed” is an exploration in low, crystalline tones that eventually bursts into slow-motion ragged glory.

You can find the EP on Bandcamp or CDBaby.

If Party Favor isn’t enough of a Human Feel fix, there are three unreleased live tracks available for listening on Soundcloud, posted by saxophonist Chris Speed to the Skirl Records account. They’re worth a listen not only for the avant-jazz goodness in general, but also to hear Kurt Rosenwinkle in full freak-out mode. Observe:

Human Feel in Santa Cruz

Human Feel at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa CruzHuman Feel got a predictably enthusiastic response at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, thanks to the turnout of fanboys (and girls) like me. But they also won over the Santa Cruz regulars and Kuumbwa members who’d come not knowing what to expect. I heard at least a couple of them walking away happy, in a chattering and giddy mood.

The band’s music, full of sharp-angled melodies and spans of loud improv abandon — certainly doesn’t fit the normal jazz arc, which is what attracted me to the band in the first place. But their tunes often have pleasant and traceable themes, and the band performed with convincing punch and verve. I’m sure they made a few new fans that night, and they didn’t disappoint the old ones.

The set was good, of course, and packed with energy and sweat, but Andrew D’Angelo‘s stage banter won the crowd over, too. He’s got good stage presence, but he was also gifted with some material in the form of a three-hour flight delay out of Seattle and a couple of lost bags. Airline troubles are nothing new to veteran musicians, but they still provide good stories to tell on stage.

Live soundcheck.
Live soundcheck.

The upshot was that the band, minus Kurt Rosenwinkel‘s guitar pedals and Jim Black‘s drumsticks, got into Santa Cruz just after the designated 7:00 p.m. start time. They rushed through a “live” sound check, testing out borrowed gear while we in the crowd finished our dinners and desserts.

As reward for our patience, we got D’Angelo’s spasmodic sax energy, the heavier guitar-hero side of Rosenwinkel (who spends most of the time in the background with this band, but it’s a hard-working, space-filling background) and of course Jim Black’s drumming, which quite a few people came for, judging by the crowd response. I chose to sit on Black’s side of the stage, so he drowned out the others sometimes (which is why I don’t have much to say about how Chris Speed sounded) but that was a conscious tradeoff, and I wasn’t the only one making it. We got to savor Black’s shapeshifting grooves, full of explosions, torrents, and subtle clinks and clanks.

They tried something really different on “Numer Ology,” a piece D’Angelo said was inspired by cosmic questions about the meaning of existence and the arbitrary nature of fate. Most people took it as a joke, but D’Angelo was diagnosed with brain cancer seven years ago and defeated it without chemo or radiation therapy, so these questions mean a lot to him.

The song consisted of short phrases and short improvisations, all separated by long, weighty pauses. It was at one highbrown and good-humored — and then at one point, D’Angelo picked up the mic and cued us to shout out our meaning-of-the-universe theories after the next phrase. Apparently most crowds just blurt it all out at once; we kind of did it one at a time, classroom-style. It wouldn’t have sounded great on a record, but people got into it.

If Human Feel has anything like a hit single, it’s “Sich Reped,” D’Angelo’s poking, sharp-angled 7/8 tune, and that was their closer. Most of the tune went by at a slightly slower pace than on the album Welcome to Malpesta, making for a sound that was still fun but not as jabbing as it could have been — until the end, when D’Angelo and the others opened up the throttle and poured it on. It was a great crowd-pleaser, and of course it got them an encore — a piece that D’Angelo dedicated to the airline they’d flown and that opened with a roaring, screaming improvisation.

Despite having four successful careers to juggle, Human Feel has now gotten together for two post-’90s albums — Galore, and the soon-to-be-released new album. I treated this show as my only chance to see the band, but now I’ve got my fingers crossed for the future.

Human Feel and the Magic of Discovery

Human Feel: Rosenwinkel, D'Angelo, Black, SpeedSeeing that Human Feel has tour dates here in the Bay Area makes me nostalgic —¬† not just for the band, but for the bygone era they represent to me.

Thursday, June 26, the band is playing at Yoshi’s Oakland, and Monday, June 30, they’ll be at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz — their only Bay Area appearances that I’m aware of since about 1997. They’re touring in advance of a new album, coming out in June.

Which is awesome news. All four members — Andrew D’Angelo, Jim Black, Chris Speed, and Kurt Rosenwinkel — have careers of their own, so it takes an alignment of planets to get Human Feel back in the studio, let alone on the road.

But here’s what’s really on my mind.

Tim Berne’s Bloodcount is the band that got me into the whole avant-jazz thing in the first place, an interest that eventually fueled the radio show that eventually fueled this blog.

Human Feel 2014 tour poster, from FacebookThat was around 1997, and I was in New York, visiting the Knitting Factory (which still supported avant-jazz big-time, for a few final, glorious years). I’d gotten to see Tim Berne play, and I’d picked up a free music magazine called M3 or something like that. In the back were CD reviews, including one for Human Feel’s second album, Speak to It.

That’s how I found out that Black and Speed, both from Bloodcount, had been in another band. I wanted to hear that band.

Understand this: The Internet in 1997 was not what it is today. You didn’t just look up a band’s web site — web sites literally hadn’t existed five years earlier — and digitizing music, let alone downloading it, was barely even a dream for most of us.

No — back then, you had to rely on magazines and real word-of-mouth. The blind faith of mail-order was always an option, but it was more exciting to stalk the record-store bins, bypassing the big names (Pat Metheny, Gary Burton) to go straight for the alphabetical dividers, where the more obscure “M” and “B” artists — or the ones the store’s clerks hadn’t heard of — were hiding.

At the time, I didn’t know any New York records stores other than Tower, and I didn’t have time to shop anyway. So the next time I was in Berkeley, I sped over to Amoeba Records and scanned the “H” bin, with little hope.

Human Feel: Welcome to MalpestaBut there it was. A CD that, weeks ago, I would have bypassed: Human Feel’s Welcome to Malpesta. It had that same Steve Byram-looking cover that Tim Berne’s albums did, chaotic and scribbled, promising a mind-bending experience.

Listening to the album was a joy. Andrew D’Angelo’s “Sich Reped” opens it — a catchy, maddening 7/4 theme like a nursery rhyme gone bad (“Three Blind Mice” in a blender, I think a friend called it), hitting all the crazy angles my ears were hoping for. It’s followed by Chris Speed’s “Iceaquay,” the kind of drifting, improv-heavy piece I was just starting to appreciate.

That’s what it used to be like to find music. The hard work of panning for gold, and the sweet victory of discovery.

Today, I scan the bins, and the delight has faded. Some of that has to do with volunteering at KZSU, where I got exposed to a lot of new releases, but mostly it’s the Internet. I don’t get to hear every Clean Feed or Firehouse 12 release that comes out — but I do know that it’s come out. Little surprises are harder and harder to find.

That’s why Human Feel, in addition to being a good band, has a special place in my heart. They were one of my few great New York finds before the Internet brought New York to my doorstep. Don’t get me wrong; I love being able to follow musicians on the Internet, keeping up with their recordings and their careers. But, as old people will always say to young people, it’s not the same.


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