Nature & Music / Music & Tech

ORGANELLE score, by Lisa Mezzacappa, via SFCV.

A bit of stream-of-consciousness on a day off from work …

Lisa Mezzacappa’s latest big project, ORGANELLE, has a gig at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on Thursday night, March 9.

I wrote a little bit about it last fall, but Jeff Kaliss of San Francisco Classical Voice has done a comprehensive interview with Mezzacappa, going through the details of the score. She discusses which natural processes or phenomena inspired each movement (the longevity of trees, the tiny lifespan of the mayfly) and discusses a new movement, Szygzy, that will feature Wayne Grim, the Exploratorium’s staff artist, who converts celestial data into electronic music.

A week later will be the CD release concert for another of Mezzacappa’s projects, avantNOIR. The self-titled album came out on Clean Feed Records in January, and I’ve been listening to it in spurts, mostly in the car or via the laptop.

I haven’t given the album a proper, full listen, because I’ve been on the go. I spent most of last week in Barcelona for work (no sightseeing, and only one meal at a restaurant) and spent quite a lot of time chauffeuring kids in the time before and after the trip.

One thing I’ve discovered: My primary music-listening medium has been my work laptop. It was just fastest and easiest to collect everything there. That’s a problem, as I’m discovering this morning: The reason for my day off is that I’m between jobs, voluntarily. I handed in that laptop on Monday. I’m already itching to get it back.

The music is all here, at home, in CDs and vinyl and hard-drive backups. Some of it is in the cloud, I suppose (that’s unintentional, though, a side effect of today’s music services). But it turns out, I got addicted to the convenience of the laptop. It was always on and often right in front of me.

None of that means anything; it’s just interesting. This didn’t happen with my last job transition, which means my music-listening habits have changed radically in just four years.


All of my post-Barcelona busy-ness meant I missed a couple of good shows last weekend. Saturday was the Toychestra reunion, as noted here. Sunday night was a prog show including Jack o’ the Clock and Reconnaissance Fly. Jack o’ the Clock doesn’t have another local show planned soon, but they’ll be performing at Seattle’s SeaProg Festival in June, which sounds pretty cool. Reconnaissance Fly’s next gig is in April, at PianoFight (144 Taylor St, San Francisco).

Jack o’ the Clock: The Old City

Jack o’ the ClockRepetitions of the Old City – I (self-released, 2016)

Jack o’ the Clock performs Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th Street, San Francisco). Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows open; it’s a combination I’ve written about previously.

a2120824628_16Jack o’ the Clock‘s sixth album is another engaging collection of songs with prog smarts, jazz chops, and a folk/acoustic sheen.

The band’s chamber-pop aesthetic will get an update as of tomorrow, when they perform their first show without bassoonist and vocalist Kate McLoughlin, who has left the Bay Area. It takes two people to replace her: Thea Kelley will handling vocals — often backing frontman Damon Waitkus, sometimes taking the lead herself — and Ivor Holloway will be playing woodwinds. Bassoon isn’t among them, alas. But his sax and clarinet will have a similar effect playing in tandem with Emily Packard’s violin.

As I’ve been noting since 2011, the band has been a laboratory for an adventurous style of pop songwriting, one that uses prog as its base but adds so many other layers. Repetitions of the Old City continues the expansion of that formula and provides plenty to like: a folky twang to the guitar and violin on “When the Door Opens, It Opens on Everything,” or the long, twisting melodies that open “.22, or, Denny Takes One for the Team.”

Waitkus specializes in brainy, poetic lyrics filled with yearning. From “When the Door Opens,” one passage I particularly like: “The sun is like a dying coal, a feeble slap / across the face of February. Now there’s a / vacant house in disarray, the clocks all stopped, / the mirrors face the ceiling.”

The acoustic sounds on Repetitions are lucious, as always, but Jack o’ the Clock is by no means a straight folk band. Modern electronic touches abound. “Videos of the Dead,” for example, is a rather charming tune (despite the title) overlaid with ghostly guitar effects courtesy of guest artist Fred Frith.

It’s wonderful that the band has stuck together for so long. They’re always working on the next set of material, so expect some fresh sounds at the Bottom of the Hill show.

As for the album, it’s been out for about six months and got a good amount of attention. You can see some details on the band’s home page, including a link to an interview with Waitkus on the prog podcast Deep Cuts, complete with thoughts about the meaning of the “Old City” of the album’s title.

You can hear the entire album on Bandcamp.

Prog Out on Sunday, Dec. 14

Interesting progressive-rock-related bill coming up Sunday night, Dec. 14, at a venue I’m not familiar with: Leo’s Music Club (5447 Telegraph Ave, Oakland):

MiRthkon is a prog band mixing heavy guitars with saxophones and bass clarinets, a mix of rock intensity and cerebral whimsy. My last mention of them was a show with Kayo Dot. Here they are live in a more recent show: Rock in Opposition 2013.

Surplus 1980 is Moe! Staiano’s post-punk band, a spastic loudness that’s gleaming with intelligence. They’ve been on hiatus; the band’s most recent output was a 10″ vinyl record that’s available at Squidco, among other places.

Jack o’ the Clock — which mixes the bucolic and the highbrow in a stew of prog, folk, classical, and jazz, is the band I’ve seen the most often out of these three. They’ve been taking a break as well, woodshedding new material, according to the emailer they sent out. Here’s some audience video of a performance from September a year ago.

Night Loops

Jack o’ the ClockNight Loops (self-released, 2014)

Jack o' the Clock: Night LoopsThe atmosphere darkens on Night Loops, the latest album by Jack o’ the Clock. The band still plies its trade in a smart blend of pop, prog, and folk, but the layers of electronics and percussion have thickened. It feels like the already sophisticated band has gotten even more sophisticated.

Electronics, sound effects, and dense production have been on previous albums, but they’re unleashed in force here, in circles widening further beyond the rootsy music that always felt like the band’s starting point.

“Ten Fingers” hammers that home, emerging slowly with skeleton-bones percussion and mysterious violin; the eerie mood persists even as the catchy melody comes in. Later, the song is enriched by Jason Hoopes’ long, coiling bass riffs from the deep — a thick mix of prog and funk.

There’s also the eerie crawl of “Fixture,” full of chimes, effects, and dramatic violin. “How the Light Is Approached” is a different kind of madness, a time-bomb chatter of instruments and voices.

Leader Damon Waitkus hasn’t abandoned the pop side of his songwriting, though. The mostly acoustic “Come Back Tomorrow” harkens back to mostly acoustic presentation and catchy songwriting, as does the deceptively simple “As Long As the Earth Lasts,” which is highlighted by nifty guitar and bassoon solos.

And then there’s “Down Below,” a darned good rock song with a pulsing beat and a steady bassline (sadly, some of the coolest rock songs have the most primitive bass parts). The final verse packs in the syllables for a heightened sense of tension: “I’d leave today for Mecca / If I thought I could complete the trip / But the surface of the landscape / Is like a Moebius strip.”

Rich songwriting has always been a strength of the band, along with high musicianship. Leader Damon Waitkus’ hammered dulcimer remains a stalwart voice, with a pinging sound between a piano and a Fairport Convention mandolin. Emily Packard’s violin deepens the atmosphere but also adds some gorgeous melody, including a soaring section on “Come Back Tomorrow,” and Kate McLoughlin’s quirky, jazzy turns on bassoon and bass clarinet are always a delight. One of the best showcases for all this talent is “Salt Moon,” a squiggly instrumental full of sharp turns navigated by Jordan Glenn’s drums.

A lot of these songs have been honed in live performances and then polished in the studio. It comes together in a cohesive, intelligent album that should open a lot of ears.


Jack o’ the Clock Update

Band photo by Carly Hoopes. Source:
Band photo by Carly Hoopes. Source:

Jack o’ the Clock, the terrific Bay Area prog/pop/art-song band, has another performance coming up on Friday, Nov. 8, at the Starry Plough, with Inner Ear Brigade and guitar man Chuck Johnson (who opened for Fred Frith’s Gravity show last year).

It’s been great to see a band like this multiple times, hearing them add new songs with each set. I’m thankful they’ve managed to stick together this long and develop a following.

They’ve attracted one notable fan in particular: Mike, who runs the Avant Music News site. He recently published a lengthy interview with the band’s singer and principal songwriter, Damon Waitkus, talking about the compositional process, the influences behind the new album (All My Friends), and the possibility of a 2014 release. Read it all here.

Below is a video the band’s recently posted — a new song called “Twenty-Two, or, Denny Takes One for the Team,” performed live at Viracocha.

Jack o’ the Clock at the Plough

DSCN2560As I pulled up to park in Berkeley, the Warriors were on the verge of tying Game 3 against San Antonio. I’d come to the Starry Plough to see Jack o’ the Clock in a too-rare live appearance, but they were due to appear last, and this game — which I’d turned on for background noise — was getting good. I decided to linger in the car to hear the team take the lead, figuring Jack o’ the Clock wasn’t due to start yet anyway.

It seemed like a tough call at the time, but it got easier. As history has now recorded, Golden State not only did not take the lead but collapsed immediately from that point. It took about five minutes (real time, not game time) for me to give up and headed into the Plough — where, ironically, the game was on TV.

The Warriors’ collapse gave me time to see the whole set by Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows, which mixed old-time songwriting with gypsy jazz and dashes of world music. Johnston is a trumpeter who I know through his more out-jazz leanings — albums like Reasons for Moving and projects such as OrchestROVA. This music was closer to what he’s done with the Nice Guy Trio (here’s a video), but drawing on a blend of traditions.

The songs were equal parts festival and heartbreak, with lyrics taken from Johnston’s “Letters from Home” project, where he’s asked immigrants to write letters to their younger selves. (It’s part of a larger project being presented June 22 at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.)

DSCN2558Johnston fronted the band with most of the lead vocals, sometimes adding solos of bright, emotional trumpet tones. The rhythm was held down by acoustic bass and a bass drum, for a very turn-of-the-century look, and most of the soloing duty was handled by a monstrously good violinist (barely visible in the photo at right), hacking and sawing and skittering his way up and down the fingerboard with abandon.

Jack o’ the Clock draws partly from the same well, with a love of times-gone-by that’s reflected in the faded, cracked photos of their album covers. To that folky base, principal songwriter Damon Waitkus adds the complex melodies of prog rock and the depth of classical composing. Bassoon and violin in the mix help create a different sound, rich layers to peer through.

Evangelista, Waitkus, and McLoughlin. Drummer Jordan Glenn is somewhere behind them.
Everybody wave to Jordan.

I’ve written about these guys’ studio work and live work before. This was another solid show, and being live does matter; it infuses an intensity and even ferocity to the chamber-folk-prog songs, a spirit difficult to capture in the studio.

They opened with a catchy rock song, probably called “Down Below,” which packed a heavy beat and some electric-guitar drama from Karl Evangelista, who sat in on a few songs. The set also included “Disaster,” one of the strongest songs off the new album, All My Friends…, and “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” a favorite of mine from the previous album. Much of the set was taken up by new songs; I didn’t take notes, but I remember them sounding good.

Admit it: Two flutes in a band is pretty kick-ass.

In addition to Evangelista, other guest artists included Johnston, Cory Wright and Ivor Holloway adding horns to at least one song early in the set. Most of the time, though, it was the canonical five members of the band — mostly minus violinist Emily Packard, who did join for a couple of numbers but spent most of the set tending to her baby. Lead singer Damon Waitkus brought his hammered dulcimer, which appears on the albums but hadn’t been at the last live show I saw. It produces that old-timey piano sound that helps sepia-tint the music. Kate McLoughlin on bassoon also added solid harmony vocals. And I really do love Jason Hoopes’ electric bass work.

You could say no band in the world gets as many gigs as they deserve, I suppose, but it’s particularly true of this one. That they’ve kept together for years, working at the music, is evident both on stage and on record, and I hope they’re able to keep it going.

Jack o’ the Clock, Live

Back in February, I made the trip to to Viracocha in San Francisco, finally seeing the band Jack o’ the Clock. It was a busy night — Laura, who’s curating music shows there, was telling me how the antique store’s theater space was furnished for poetry gatherings, and maybe some of those folks seemed to be there, curious about the music. Some friends of the bands, too, of course. It made for a large and warm crowd.

I’d raved about this band before but missed every single show of theirs in the intervening year. (Thanks; it’s a talent.)

They were well worth the trip. Lead vocalist Damon Waitkus plays guitar and banjo as well, and I hadn’t paid much attention to those instruments’ contributions on CD. (My ears spent more time listening to the other trappings — violin, vibraphone, bassoon, electric bass). From the CD, How Are We Doing and Who Will Tell Us, they played two solid tracks: “Last of the Blue Bloods” and “First of the Year.” Great stuff for Gabriel-era Genesis fans, with an acoustic, folky touch added. (CD review here.)

The set ended with a new one called “Ten Fingers,” full of busy percussion including Waitkus playing tuned tin cans. It was a busy piece consisting mostly of a rapidly thumping tribal rhythm. Jason Hoopes on electric bass would fill the gaps with thick, throttled soloing — what a great sound. It’s a terrific song that I’m hoping they capture to disk someday. Another new track was “Salt Moon,” a spiky instrumental.

Waitkus using metal rods to hammer at tin cans during "Ten Fingers"

The evening’s middle act was a nice change of pace, a folk-rock band from Sacramento called Be Brave Bold Robot. Dean Haakenson writes some pretty good guitar-based songs and fills them up with sophisticated, literate lyrics. Some songs had fresh and complicated takes on the usual relationship themes; others… well, put it this way: One song starts with a guy’s revelation that if he uses the toilet sitting down all the time, he doesn’t have to clean the bathroom as often. I think it was a love song in the end, but this first part got discussed in a whole lot of detail. It was pretty funny.

The whole show had opened with Death of the Cool, a piano trio with Hoopes on bass and Glenn on drums, with pianist Michael Dale. They did three improvisations, with Dale featuring a crystalline, floating style on piano at first, almost feeling tentative. By the third piece, they’d gotten into it, and Glenn laid losse with all sorts of jazzy color.

I wish I’d gotten this post out in time for Jack o’ the Clock’s two shows in Los Angeles — they’re playing tonight, March 25, if you hurry — but I don’t know what the venue is. Bay Area fans can see the group again on April 13 at The Orange Room (2885 Ettie Street, Oakland).

Shows: Dec. 16 to Dec. 22

Blood Wedding/Chuck Johnson @ Berkeley Arts Festival (Berkeley), Fri. Dec. 16, 8:00 p.m.
….. It says: Come if you dig: just intonation, noise, heterodyning, doom, hyperobjects, duende, difference tone synthesis. OK, then. Two solo acts: Blood Wedding involves vocals with digital processing; Johnson plays steel guitar and modular synth. I’m guessing loudness is involved here, but that’s a blind guess.

Aram Shelton, Corey Wright, Mark Clifford, Jordan Glenn & Anton Hatwich @ Berkeley Arts Festival (Berkeley), Sat. Dec. 17, 8:00 p.m.
….. Free jazz convened by Shelton (sax, clarinet) and featuring Chicago compatriot Hatwich (bass). Wright adds a second reeds voice, and Clifford and Glenn provide the percussion.

Maya Kronfeld Group/The Holly Martins @ Actual Cafe (Oakland), Sun. Dec. 18, 5:00 p.m.
….. The Actual Jazz Series is curated by saxophonist Kasey Knudsen this month. Kronfeld is a keyboardist who works frequently with vocalists; The Holly Martins are a trio with a strong jazz sound and an improvisational bent, featuring sax, guitar, and Lorin Benedict’s wordless vocals.
        * About the Actual Cafe/Series
        * About The Holly Martins’ CD

Tri-Cornered Tent Show & Libertas @ Musicians Union Hall (San Francisco), Sun. Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m.
….. A “skronk solstice special.”
        * Tri-Cornered, previous mention
        * Libertas, blogged in August

Jack o’ the Clock @ Subterranean Art House (Berkeley), Sun. Dec. 18, 9:00 p.m.
….. Really cool proggy/folky band with jazzy/chamber-music elements and an overall pop feel. They’ve played a few shows this year, which is nice to see. Oakland-based composer Andrew Weathers is on the bill, and Aymeric Hainaux, who sounds like a human beatbox performer with eclectic and glitchy variety, is headlining.
        * My writeup about the band
        * Jack o the Clock’s Web site
        * Aymeric Hainaux in action (video)

Music in Motion @ Luggage Store Gallery (San Francisco), Thur. Dec. 22, 8:00 p.m.
….. Three acts with solo musical voices: Laurie Amat (voice); Rent Romus and Vitali Kononov (sax and movement); and The X Factor, consisting solely of Bob Marsh (accordion, voice, tap shoes). As the program’s title says, the idea is to combine music and motion.
        * Video interview with Marsh about music, motion, and other stuff.

As always, you can find listings of upcoming shows at or

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.

Jack o’ the Clock

Jack o’ the ClockHow Are We Doing and Who Will Tell Us? (self-released, 2010)

When a Bay Area band gets an endorsement from Fred Frith, it means something. There’s a high chance Frith saw them live and/or taught them as students at Mills. He’s got an informed opinion.

Like Frith’s band, Cosa Brava, Jack o’ the Clock could be called artsy pop or song-oriented prog: airy melody lines, complex rhythms. It’s the kind of album that would have a violin on it (Emily Packard) and a bassoon (played by Kate McLoughlin, and the bassoon even gets funky on “Last of the Blue Bloods,” one of my favorite tracks here). The melodies are catchy, the composing tickles my prog ear, and the musicianship is solid.

On the prog scale, this is folky, often easygoing stuff. I don’t mean Canterbury/Ren-Faire stuff (although you get a dose of that with the gentle acoustic-guitar picking of “Shrinking.”) I mean that there’s a banjo here and there, and lots of acoustic guitar. The vocals and the violin and bassoon trace melodies of the open air, sunlight through a thick forest of tree branches.

There’s even an outright jam-band feel on “Back to the Swamp,” which travels at an easygoing rock pace to produce the catchiest song on the album.

For prog sticklers, there’s the 10-minute suite, “First of the Year,” which has some nicely twisty acoustic guitar lines followed later by some intense electric guitar and bassoon. The song pulls a lot from Jack o’ the Clock’s pack: the sweetness of violin, the percolating sounds of the bassoon and electric bass, a wide variety of musical themes, and some outright nice melodies (instrumental and sung).

Principal songwriter Damon Waitkus gets some nice lyrical moments in. On “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” there’s set of lines, sung in lovely harmony with McLoughlin, that I really love: “‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7,’ you said / You even gave us 9 and 10 / But leave your filthy eights at the door.” That track also has some nicely bubbling electric bass from Jason Hoopes.

Another one that sticks with me: “The flag says the purpose of this life is to borrow your ass out of debtors’ prison,” Waitkus sings on “Looking In,” a pretty and somber piano/voice interlude.

You’ll probably know right away whether How Are We Doing is for you. I was hooked from the opening, where percussionist Jordan Glenn starts knocking out a marimba rhythms, small and unassuming and full of promise, with tension built by some electronic tweakings by The Norman Conquest.

This is terrific music — likeable, substantial, and deserving of an audience. You can be do your part on June 30 — Jack o’ the Clock will be playing the Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco that day.

After that, they’ll share a bill with Cosa Brava (something I didn’t know when I started writing this entry): Sunday, Aug. 14 at the Great American Music Hall.