NYC Part 2: Strings & Halvorson

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Ha-Yang Kim, at the Irvine Music Festival, 2015.

In February 2018, The Stone will end its run at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. Programs will apparently continue elsewhere, but the cozy little black box (a friend of mind considers it stifling, actually) will be given up. I assume it’s the usual gentrification story, with the landlord having found a more profitable use for the lot.

I don’t get to pick and choose my visits to The Stone. Usually, it’s a matter of dropping in during the one evening I have free, and seeing what’s going on. This time, during my July visit, it was an improv session with three strings players.

They included Miya Masaoka, which was a treat. I’d seen her perform many times when she lived in the Bay Area, and I’ve appreciated the daring approach she takes to creating new music and to advancing the range of the koto, the Japanese floor harp. Her jazz album, Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997) is a lost masterpiece, and I’ve been meaning to write something about her latest classical release, Triangle of Resistance (Innova, 2016). She’ll be back in the Bay Area for an Aug. 20 reunion of the trio Maybe Monday, with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs.

The session was led by cellist Ha-Yang Kim, who was finishing a week-long residency at The Stone, and was fleshed out by Stefan Poetzch on violin.

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Miya Masaoka, from a 2016 Vimeo video of a piece called “Stemming,” using a setup similar to what she had at The Stone.

They played two improvisations. The first, longer one — probably about 40 minutes — was less focused and took longer to really coalesce. I did enjoy the melding of sounds, as the use of amplification sometimes made it hard to tell which instrument was creating which part, especially when it came to the koto and violin and the use of electronics. Masaoka also brought an array of percussive toys, sometimes nicely augmenting the group structure, sometimes creating a distraction.

But it was all in earnest. One thing about live improvisation is that you can gauge the performers’ reactions and feel almost like a participant (really more an eavesdropper) in the creative process. It makes for a more sympathetic listening experience.

The second piece, maybe 15 minutes long, was actually more successful and easier for me, as a listener, to lock into. This might have been because the performers no longer felt the pressure to get particular instruments, techniques, or sounds into the mix. Sometimes, a long improvisation feels like it carries that pressure — you sense the players trying to find a spot for every horn or every percussive device, much like a baseball manager trying to get every player into the game.

Any feelings like that were used up in the first piece — and maybe, just maybe, the players were a little bit spent as well. Either way, they chose to stick with ideas for longer stretches. While I enjoyed the opening piece, I got more entwined with the second.

I had Tuesday evening free, and while another trip to The Stone wouldn’t have been bad (it was the start of Kevin Norton’s residency, I think), Mary Halvorson was bringing her octet to the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard is always a pricey trek but with good reason, when the music is this good.

While I can’t name them off the top of my head, several recognizable numbers from Halvorson’s albums appeared, especially from Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016, reviewed here.) The band was positioned in pretty much the arrangement you see in the video below, with Halvorson and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn both sitting and virtually invisible to a lot of the audience.

I was OK with that. The four horn players, each bandleaders in their own right, stood tall front-and-center.

I remember enjoying the contrast between the saxophonists — Jon Irabagon (alto) with his fluid style informed by the jazz tradition but peppered with skronks and squeals, and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor) spinning tight patterns built from sharp turns and rapid-fire pronouncements.

I’d never seen bassist Chris Lightcap live, and I found myself paying a lot of attention to him, not just during bass solos but also during ensemble passages. I liked his choices for enhancing the melodies and solos.

The set, filled with mid-length pieces (modest song lengths have been a hallmark of Halvorson’s groups) got a warm reception from a full house, as you’d expect. This being a midweek show, we got the opportunity to stay for the second set, free of cover charge. It was a blast, and I was even able to move forward to a seat with an occasional view of Halvorson and her guitar.

A really nice New York trip, all told.

Tom Rainey Takes the Lead

Tom Rainey TrioPool School (Clean Feed, 2010)

For the amount of work Tom Rainey has done, the sheer number of big-name players he’s backed up — Tim Berne and Tony Malaby, yes, but also more mainstream work with Fred Hirsch (a 1992 standards LP) or Mark Feldman (on an ECM-recorded, non-Zorn like date) — it’s nice to see him listed as the leader on a CD.

Not that it has to be that way, but when someone’s put together a solid body of work, it’s good to have a CD with their own name as a landmark, something you can point to in appreciation of what they’ve done.  The trio isn’t a vehicle for Rainey compositions, though; it’s an all-improv session with two strong musical personalities: saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

The session stands out for its quirky personality. There’s an edgy, sour-toned aesthetic that Halvorson brings to the group and that Laubrock and Rainey successfully play off of.  It does not have the feel of improvised jazz — that is, the shapes, motifs, and drum patterns you’d associate with free jazz. But the sound is also distinct from many other free improv recordings; it flourishes with strange, dissonant non-jazz chords and a sense of melody gone askew.

Laubrock and Halvorson are willing to follow each other off the rails. That makes for a rougher-edged session than Sleepthief, the trio album with Labrock, Rainey, and pianist Liam Noble. Sleepthief was plenty adventurous — check the piano sweeps and skronky abandon in “Environmental Stud” — but its milieu was mostly crystalline piano against colorful sax lines. Pool School explores a wider scope of sound — and yet, since the tracks are all less that six minutes, there’s a compactness to each little journey.

“Three Bag Mary” is a good place to start. It opens with a blossoming, florid ugliness: simple guitar notes greeted by a rambling catcall of sax and some tough-edged snare thumps. It’s like a calculated ugliness, not just white-noise screeching. But then all three players stop momentarily, and the guitar and sax shift into a kinder, slightly more elegant playing — while Rainey sticks to his guns, returning to a bumpy, irregular sense of rhythm. These kinds of sudden shifts appear on a few of the tracks; the group veers and careens well as a unit.

“Home Opener” is a more varied stroll through multiple styles.  After a few minutes of easygoing playing, the band hits a pause, with Rainey thumping out some slow, irregular beats.  Then Laubrock latches onto a quick sax riff and Halvorson follows in suit by switching on the rock-guitar distortion, for a brief moment of noisy skronk.

“Coney” opens with a jagged tumbling, with Rainey playing softly thudding toms like a body falling down an infinite flight of stairs. It’s a subtly standout moment for him, crafting the mood of the piece without taking over the foreground. Laubrock and Halvorson follow with appropriately scattershot playing, and it all accelerates into a crash, leading to a peaceful, slower segment.

I liked the flow of “More Mesa,” one of the calmer tracks. It’s got a quiet start, with cymbal splashes, buzzy sax, and tense, fluttering guitar chords — active elements, but a setting where the group is in no particular hurry. It’s as if they’ve found a point of focus and want to explore it for a few uninterrupted minutes. The track picks up momentum as it goes but stays in a mellow, thoughtful vein. Not everything has to be a skronkfest.

The trio did a live set at WFMU that can be heard on the Free Music Archive — check it out via this Lovegloom blog entry.

Uptown

Aram Shelton, in quartet @ The Uptown

Last week, I finally made it to one of The Uptown‘s avant-garde Tuesdays. Took long enough. For several months now, the club — normally a rock venue, and one with a nicely renovated bar at that — has handed the keys over to the improv crowd for an evening of no-cover music.

It’s great when clubs do that. The Uptown is particularly well suited for it, because the regulars who do trickle in on these otherwise slow nights don’t have to watch the music. There’s a long wall separating the stage and performace space from the bar. The sound goes around the wall easily, so the bar patrons and the musicians are probably distracting each other the whole time — but as bar gigs go, it’s not bad at all.

(Flashback: This space used to be called the Black Box, and the bar half was an art gallery. Moe! Staiano’s Moe!kestra did a gig here where two orchestras were set up in each half, with Moe! sprinting back and forth to conduct each group. I wasn’t there, but the results were recorded for the album, 2 Rooms Of Uranium In 83 Markers: Conducted Improvisations Vol. II.)

I hope they keep this up. Don’t know what the bill is for September yet. (These shows tend to get posted to the Uptown’s calendar only a week or two ahead of time).

Anyway, a summary of what I managed to see:

Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey — A sax/drums duet from NYC who had crossed this way a few months ago on tour. This time, they were on vacation and just taking the opportunity for a quick gig. They did two mid-sized improvisations, probably 10 minutes each, showing off a good rapport and a nice variety of styles. I’m familiar with Rainey through his work with… well, everybody, especially Tim Berne, so it was great to get a chance to chat with him for a minute or two.

From left: Perkis, Greenlief, StinsonTim Perkis, Phillip Greenlief, G.E. Stinson — An interesting middle piece with the lights down, and abstract video projected onto a screen. After a while, you could tell the video consisted mostly of outdoor shots of streets and lonely buildings, distorted beyond recognition. The music shifted from ominous droning sounds to occasional slashes of noise, particularly from Stinson (guitar). Greenlief’s sax often stuck to subtle tones and bleats, blending into the mix of electronics (Perkis) and guitar effects.

Aram Shelton Quartet (pictured up top) — Back to more acoustic-minded improvising, although the quartet included Perkis for some more electronics fun. The quartet, rounded out by Damon Smith (bass) and Jordan Glenn (drums), played a few good improvisations. Nice stuff, and a good contrast to Shelton’s jazzier work with Dragons 1976 and the Ton Trio (as noted here).