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.

Double Dose of Frith

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

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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.

 
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Cosa Brava

Cosa BravaRagged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)

Is this the right time to admit I’m not that versed in Henry Cow and Art Bears? No?

I do know the music of violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, who is Fred Frith‘s main foil on this deep, serene art-pop album. The rest of the cast is terrific, too — Zeena Parkins on harp/accordion/keys is probably more widely known than Kihlstedt and absolutely no slouch, and neither are Matthias Bossi (Mr. Kihlstedt) on drums and percussion and the man named The Norman Conquest adding some sound manipulation.

But it’s Frith’s guitars and bass, his chirpy British vocals, and Kihlstedt’s violin — ranging from lyrical to threatening — that stand out on most of these songs. And there’s a similarity between the artsy pop of this album and the songs Kihlstedt has produced with the band 2 Foot Yard: musical atmospheres that can be pleasant but give you the feeling that something in the world is not quite right.

The tempos don’t lag and the guitar lines are bright — and yet, this isn’t easy pop. “Blimey, Einstein” is a good starting point: a heavy song, but with a strong beat and exotic Middle Eastern flourishes add up to a catchy sum.  That’s the dichotomy here: Many songs don’t feel happy — there aren’t many concessions to sweetness — but there’s a joy in the playing of them.

That’s true even in the darker pieces like “Pour Albert.” That one is slow and ominous, with verses sung in a meterless narrative,  and a chorus of dark voices singing, “I’d like to see you again.” There’s poignancy, aggression, and dread all at once.

I don’t mean to make the whole album sound morose.  It opens with two bright instrumentals. The tricky “Snake Eating Its Tail” is a kind of grand entrance that has multiple instruments playing a theme in unison, possibly blurred together by The Norman Conquest.  “Round Dance” is a folky, sunny instrumental replete with Irish/Celtic joy and time-signature tweaks.

“For Tom Ze” is a comic pop kaleidoscope: an easy and airy song that shifts into the “wacky modern compositional techniques” that Frith says he likes in Ze’s songs. (But only after a surprise bossa nova break!) Something about Frith calling wacky music “wacky” is really charming.

Frith has focused on improv in recent years, but the composing here includes plenty of prog rock trickery, too. That’s part of what makes it fun.

You can count the shrinking time signatures in the refrain of “Falling Up,” going 7/8, then 6/8, then 5/8, then 4/8, as the walls close in. This may be the poppiest song on the record, by the way. The instrumental theme is downright pleasant and radio-friendly, and the lyrics play over cute Philip Glass-like violin patterns.

There’s more prog fun to be had with “Out on the Town with Rusty, 1967,” a stern rocker with thick, brash guitar and reed-thin accordion stepping through irregular patterns. The sound combination alone screams “not normal pop/rock,” and the melody, especially where the violin joins in, is full of spiky protrusions, heady stuff.

Several of the songs are dedicated to influential people from Frith’s experiences, with short explanations provided in the CD card. One standout among these is “R.D. Burman,” Frith’s tribute to the famed Indian film composer.  It’s one of the most upbeat songs here, full of swirling Bollywood drama and intensity, and featuring a kicking tabla solo from Anantha Krishnan.

Then there’s the story behind “Rusty, 1967,” told in short, basic sentences but crafting a touching little story.

The Norman Conquest, who’s apparently touring with the band, deserves a quick mention. His sound manipulations are quietly slipped into the stream, bubbling up enough to add some edge, not usually so thick as to distract. His presence adds sparkle to certain moments — like the watery effect over Kihlstedt’s violin solo on “Round Dance” — and yet can be easily missed. I like that.  The only track where he’s too heavy-handed is “Falling Up,” where there’s a falling-up/falling-down effect that’s too obvious.

Ragged Atlas is a long-awaited CD, as the band’s music has been out, in performances and YouTube videos, for a couple of years now. Some, taken from live shows in Europe, are quite professionally filmed. The first video below is from a series of 4 that’s nicely produced; the second is from Mills College, part of a concert in honor of Professor Frith’s 60th birthday.

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.