When does one expect to hear high-pitched saxophone overblowing?

Not during the ballad “I’ll Keep Loving You” as performed by Jackie McLean.

Yeah, that was a surprise.

Jackie McLeanDuring stops at the public library with the kids, I’ve been checking out arbitrary CDs. It’s kind of a way to keep in touch with more mainstream fare — “normal” classical music, the occasional ECM disk, or jazz masters who have been neglected in my collection. That’s how McLean’s Let Freedom Ring wound up in my headphones.

What I didn’t know was that in 1962, McLean was listening closely to the likes of Ornette Coleman. Turns out, the New Thing is the concept behind the title of the album I’d checked out, Let Freedom Ring.

This is by no means a free jazz album, but moments of overblowing pop up regularly among the four tracks. It’s less incongruous on a bouncy, upbeat track like “Omega,” but that’s what makes the moment on “I’ll Keep Loving You” all the more delightful.

Let Freedom Ring was a conscious foray into free jazz, not just for McLean but also for Blue Note Records. “Soon it would be recording Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Larry Young, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson and other new stars,” Graham Wood wrote in Perfect Sound Forever. Cecil Taylor recorded two of his greatest albums for Blue Note and even Ornette Coleman was recruited. The success of Let Freedom Ring was all Alfred Lion needed to be persuaded.”

“Melody for Melonae” is rich in the sound I associate with ’60s Blue Note; it might be the best introduction to McLean’s mix of the old and new. The squeaky parts pop up shortly after the 4:30 mark.

Among McLean’s albums, Let Freedom Ring seems to be where the posthumous accolades have gathered — this small profile on NPR, for instance. Wood, in Perfect Sound Forever, seems more taken with its successors: Destination… Out! and especially One Step Beyond. I suppose that’s where I’ll be traveling next.

Ben Goldberg Goes Low: Update

I’m double-posting this, just because the original post is so far down the queue by now…

Here’s a sample of Ben Goldberg’s new band, Unfold Ordinary Mind. It’s been on Soundcloud for a month, but I didn’t think to check; thanks to Ben for pointing it out.

The song is apparently called “xcpf.” It’s a nice tune, with Nels Cline in rhythm mode at first and in slinky layered effects mode later. In between, the two saxes and Nels’ guitar all criss-cross with simultaneous melodic soloing while Goldberg, as promised, holds down the bass.

[UPDATE 2/1/13: That track got removed, but here’s another one, called “Stemwinder,” more of a ballad.]

To learn about the band, and see that Soundcloud widget yet again, click here.

New Monsters

I like that Steve Horowitz’s band, New Monsters, has a couple of gigs coming up.  It’s a jazz jazz band, and while all ensembles strengthen as they do more live shows, jazz feels like it would get even more benefit.

They’re playing Saturday, Sep. 15 (tonight!) at Jazzschool in Berkeley ….. and Sunday, Sept. 23, at Bird & Beckett Books in a quiet corner of San Francisco.

(For more about Bird & Beckett, see here.)

I’ve mentioned them before, here. New Monsters is a mix of traditional jazz structure; free-jazz soloing and harmony ideas; and the goofy sense of humor of composer Dan Plonsey. The band’s leader is actually Horowitz, the bassist, but Plonsey writes the tunes. Exactly what that means, I don’t know. Maybe it means everything gets blamed on Horowitz, or maybe it means he keeps Plonsey locked in a closet for marathon songwriting sessions.

It’s not straight straight jazz, as you can tell from Scott Looney‘s inside-the-piano intro on “Miracle Melancholy.” And Plonsey’s writing is always a few steps away from the jazz mainstream. The songs here are chipper and mellifluous, quite accessible, but in place of jazz-sounding themes, they’ve often got a sound closer to really complex children’s music. It’s fun without being pandering.

You can sample their self-titled album at Posi-Tone Records or on eMusic (you don’t have to be a subscriber). While you’re at it, you can also get a dose of Horowitz and Plonsey’s sense of humor by listening to them in The Instant Composers Group, which includes Dave Barrett of Splatter Trio and really deserves a writeup of its own.

The Supplicants and Amnesia’s Jazz All-Stars

The San Francisco Offside Festival wound up in fine fashion the night of May 26, playing to a packed crowd.

Which was nice. A lot of work went into this first-time festival, so it’s good to see that the local audience responded. The crowd was enthusiastic, and organizers Laura Maguire and Alex Pinto were encouraged enough to pledge to do it again in 2013.

The Supplicants closed things out — a sax/bass/drums trio playing improvised jazz in a post-Coltrane spirit. It’s true that a few people started leaving by then, maybe in response to the less “tuneful” sounds as well as the fact that it was approaching midnight. I was still impressed with the number who stayed — the house still felt full, but with more elbow room — and they showed lots of excitement for each of the four pieces the group played.

David Boyce on sax was the center of attention, of course, coloring each piece with flurries of notes in a studious sheets-of-sound mode before getting into long, keening cries, passionate wails out to the jazz gods. His stage presence is bookish and reserved, but he opened up the audience early on with a crack about the lowness of the room’s ceiling — I didn’t quite catch it, but it got a laugh and probably helped humanize the set for the unconverted among us.

David Ewell on bass defined the starting mood much of the time, usually settling into a riff to set up a jamming space. Hamir Atwal on drums was apparently a sit-in but did fine work; he, too, set up the moods for Boyce’s saxophone odysseys and seemed like a great fit for the flow of the music.

The pieces didn’t feel that long, maybe seven or eight minutes. The free-form music might have taxed a few folks’ patience, but overall, I think the band really connected with the audience.

The Klaxon Mutant Jazz All-Stars preceded The Supplicants and were quite a hit. This was a pickup band organized by drummer Eric Garland, who’s been playing Wednesday nights at Amnesia with a variety of musicians. They played one another’s compositions, showing off some clever writing and of course some crack musicianship. They had a casual, warm stage presence and brought a real sense of fun to their music.

The tunes weren’t ordinary jazz fare. They started off with one of Garland’s that I think added up to 4/4 time but had the sax and trumpet playing a beat or two off from the rhythm section, creating two pieces intertwining in a non-intuitive way. It was a nice effect and also catchy. Subsequent songs would play similar tricks with rhythm, keeping us on our toes.

Trumpeter Henry Hung had one composition called “Jamie Moyer” — the only song title I remember, because I got the joke. Moyer is a 49-year-old major league pitcher (that’s forty-nine) who’s known for a slow fastball that, for whatever reason, can be unhittable. The song, towards the end, appropriately playing with that, alternating on a rhythm played fast and then slow, with each slow part slower than the last. It got some laughs, even from the non-baseball fans. (Shortly after the show, the Colorado Rockies began the process of cutting Moyer, but his fastball is immortalized in a passage of the book Moneyball.)

I missed Secret Sidewalk, which had opened the evening and apparently put on an amazing show.

BayTaper was apparently there, so some recordings might be available online eventually. Meantime, you can catch a full Festival post-mortem at Untapped SF, complete with pictures. (I’d forgotten my camera.)

Big thanks to Laura and Alex for getting this whole thing put together. Here’s hoping it’s the first SF Offside of many.

Offside Festival Winds Up Tonight

David Boyce of The Supplicants. Source: BayTaper.com. Click for photo, sound, and video of a 2010 show.

What I like about the site for the San Francisco Offside Festival — a local-jazz showcase that ends Saturday night — are the little interviews with the bands. They’ve done a good job putting together a blog that introduces the artists by having them answer a fixed set of questions, then introduces their music and their influences via YouTube and Vimeo clips.

I like the answer Lisa Mezzacappa gave about being on the road. “Behold the glamor!

I’ve been mostly underwater for the month of May, out of town for two weeks, shuttered away in work for a third. I did get to see some music in New York (oh yes), which was a nice break, but haven’t had time for anything while in town. Tonight is my last chance, and yours, to get in on the fun.

The lineup — with links that go back to the SF Offside blog is:

  • Secret Sidewalk (three synths, sax, and drums — this is going to be different)
  • Klaxon Mutant Jazz All-Stars (a more traditional-lineup quintet, but they’re fans of Kneebody, so this should be lively)
  • The Supplicants (longtime sax/bass/drums trio). BayTaper.com has an excellent little record of a 2010 show at the Red Poppy Art House, complete with video.

The venue is Viracocha, in the Mission District.

Do check out the SF Offside site; it’s got press clips and information about tickets. They’ve put an impressive amount of work into this. Should be a great show tonight.

Bristle & New Monsters, Part 2

Here’s Part 1.  New Monsters will be at  El Valenciano (San Francisco) Thursday night, April 19, playing alongside Bristle and the newest band from trumpter Darren Johnston, Northern Eclipse.

New MonstersNew Monsters (Posi-Tone, 2011)

Posi-Tone is an interesting choice of label, for this album, because theirs seems to be a more retro style of jazz, recalling bachelor pads, NYC jazz clubs, and bands in suits.

Some parts of New Monsters fits that mold. “Imperfect Life” opens the album with a simple, declarative melody that reflects popular late ’50s jazz. You’ve also got a fast cover of Coltrane’s “India” leading into Eric Dolphy’s “The Red Planet.”

But there’s free jazz in the details. The title track opens with a nice piano lick and slips into a nice alto-sax solo from Steve Adams fronting the ensemble, with liquid bass and comforting chords. But a second sax solo, Dan Plonsey on tenor, comes with just drums behind it and crosses into more aggressive, free-jazz jamming.

That’s the sound of New Monsters. The group displays a love of tuneful jazz and injects it with the occasional shot of adventure from a later time, showing off influences from Ornette and beyond.

It’s apparently bassist Steve Horowitz’s band, but the compositions are by Plonsey, an East Bay stalwart whose work has touched on traditional jazz, Braxton-style “trance” pieces, and free improv. He’s also got quite a sense of humor, which is an important element in everything he writes. Two tracks on here are “Brains for Breakfast” and “Herald of Zombies,” and I’m pretty sure those aren’t standards.

Plonsey has a knack for toe-tappers with a sense of adventure. “Dragon of Roses,” for instance, is an ultra-pleasant ditty built on a relatively simple rhythms, but Plonsey’s sax solo barrels through the 4/4 time with intentional bullishness. Come to think of it, it seems Plonsey takes the more crazed solos while Adams, who normally gets all abstract with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, seems to revel in playing it more straight.

Scott Looney on piano is a big part of the band, contributing tasteful comping that adds sneaky dissonances where he can get away with it. He also gets some chances to goof around with prepared piano, particularly on “Vision Pyramid Collapse,” where it sounds like he uses metal bowls to produce some catchy twanging to go along with the sliding swing of the theme. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album. As for other adventurous moments, the group gets more overtly “out there” on “Cylinder,” which is catchy and cartoony but is built in a twisty structure of “off” meters.

Plonsey’s web page lists a few reviews of the album, including one from ejazznews that I liked.

Put this group together with Bristle and the Darren Johnston band mentioned above, and you’ve probably got one heck of a great night of jazz. Should be a fun show.

Finally, and randomly, here’s a common theme tying Bristle and New Monsters:  Randy McKean (Bristle) and Dan Plonsey (New Monsters) played together in the ’90s and were half of the Great Circle Saxophone Quartet, which put out an album, Child King Dictator Fool,  in 1997.

Bay Area Shows: Dec. 29 and Jan. 2

The Christmas/New Year’s zone can be like a post-apocalyptic wasteland for music shows, but there are always a few dedicated presenters who damn the torpedoes and put on shows anyway. They’d love to see you, I’m sure.

Daniel Popsicle @ Berkeley Arts Festival (2133 University Ave., Berkeley), Thur. Dec. 29, 7:00 p.m.
….. I’ve seen Dan Plonsey a few times in the past couple of years, but I haven’t seen a Daniel Popsicle show. The band was more like a mini concert orchestra a few years ago, performing Plonsey’s long, episodic compositions that were like Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music made less strident and more melodic. I don’t know what Plonsey’s “Music of El Cerrito” group has in store this time, but they’ll apparently include some music from New Monsters, the sunny avant-jazz group he and bassist Steve Horowitz have created.

Charm and Strange/Hare and Arrow @ Luggage Store Gallery (1006 Market St., San Francisco), Thur. Dec. 29, 8:00 p.m.
….. Two acts presenting fairly calm electronics sounds/noise. Charm & Strange is the duo of Julia Mazawa and Sharkiface; you can sample some of Mazawa’s turntablist work on her blog, and videos of Charm & Strange performances can be had on YouTube. Hare and Arrow is the duo of instrument builder Sung Kim (on the left in that picture) and David Dupuis; they’ve got a few samples of work up on Soundcloud, and yeah, they’re also viewable on video.

Cartoon Justice @ El Valenciano (1153 Valencia St., San Francisco), Thur. Dec. 29, 8:00 p.m.
….. Cartoon Justice, led by (or perhaps consisting of) Mika Pontecorvo will perform “the music of Feral Luggage, 29th Century Bluesman,” describing it as “genre-bent improv.” Jayn Pettingill and Aaron Levin Pettingill and Levin will open, doing improvised sax/drums duets.

Monday Makeout @ The Make-Out Room (22nd St. near Mission St., San Francisco), Mon. Jan. 2, 8:00 p.m.
….. The monthly jazz series continues at this Mission District bar. The lineup, cut-and-pasted from Bayimproviser.com:

  • Westbrook/Wick Duo (Luke Westbrook, guitar / Miles Wick, bass)
  • Johnston-Goldberg-Denson Trio (Darren Johnston, trumpet / Ben Goldberg, clarinet / Jeff Denson, bass)
  • Rob Ewing Group (Rob Ewing, trombone / Chris Sullivan, saxophone / Michael Coleman, keyboards / Hamir Atwal, drums)

Motian Studies

Paul Motian’s recent passing got me examining some of the albums I’ve bought over the years that happen to include him.

A couple of these purchases came in the wake of discovering Tim Berne’s Bloodcount on the JMT label. I started snapping up all things JMT — and the label was already defunct, which perversely added to the fun. Anyway, it turns out Motian showed up on a lot of those albums. (Stefan Winter has since revived the entire catalog on Winter & Winter — where you’ll also find a PDF-formatted obit for Motian, cataloging his JMT output.)

Tethered Moon — s/t (JMT, 1995) ….. This one was hard for me at first. On the slow tracks, the music just seemed to sit there. Years later I would reconsider, having gotten more accustomed to less “busy” styles of music.  It’s a Kurt Weill collection, but the songs don’t have the Weill-like tension and drama. Sometimes, the band comes across as a regular piano trio, with Masabumi Kikuchi showing some Keith Jarrett-like leanings, down to the funny-voiced singing alongside his piano lines. But for some patches, this album becomes a celebration of inner stillness, colored by Motian’s delicious brushwork and the rich, resonating wood of Peacock’s bass.

Wolfgang Muthspiel — Perspective (Verve, 1996) ….. The opening “Gang of 5” held me spellbound on first listen. It’s expansive and open-aired, a landscape built on Motian playing a groove without a steady beat. He’s busily riding the cymbals and the snare in a very jazz-like way, but if you try to “spell” the beat in your head, you’ll be foiled. Above this, Muthspiel spins weeping lines on violin and Marc Johnson follows with mournful bowed bass. Eventually, Muthspiel switches to electric guitar for some free soloing over Motian’s non-groove.

On “No You Hang Up First,” you get to hear Motian assigned to play a straight 2/4 beat. Of course, it doesn’t stay that way, and the composition includes a breakdown passage where Motian gets to open up the rhythm.

My recollection is that I bought Perspective on a whim in Europe. It sure looks like a JMT release, but the label says just “Verve” — which did acquire JMT and printed its catalog for a sort time — and I can’t find Muthspiel’s name in the Winter & Winter reissue series.

Paul Motian and The Electric Bebop Band — Reincarnation of a Love Bird (JMT, 1994) ….. Hey, you get to hear Motian play regular swing! Sort of. The slower tracks like Monk’s “Ask Me How” get a swing infused with Motian’s airy treatment, those light, light taps on the cymbals. He’s in more straightahead mode on  some faster ones like Miles’ “Half-Nelson,” and you get to hear a nifty bebop solo from him on “Be-Bop.” I get the feeling this band started as Motian’s way of cutting loose a little bit, in a be-bop sense. (Ironically, by “cutting loose” I actually mean “giving in to jazz’s normal constraints.”) This album used a two-sax, two-guitar format for an exciting, busy sound in some places; Don Alias’ percussion sounds nice but seems like a bit much over Motian’s drumming, sometimes.

This one’s a JMT issue that you can’t get on Winter & Winter; it’s sold out!

Keith Jarrett ….. you know what, I’m not gonna call out a title. That whole mid-’70s period, with Dewey Redman (sax), Charlie Haden (bass), and Motian — those were glorious years. I had to pillage the used bins for Backhand, Bop-Be, El Juicio, and Mysteries, but you can find them all on CD now, thankfully. (Or online; I’m linking to eMusic there, but plenty of other outlets have them.) I think each album includes one “weird” track, one that departs from Jarrett’s snappy-yet-open jazz and goes into complete experimental strangeness, often in a slow, pensive mood. And then there’s The Survivors’ Suite, which I’ve called out previously. I’ve thought about these more than actually listening to them in the past couple weeks, so maybe they shouldn’t count here.

Paul Motian — Conception Vessel (ECM, 1973) ….. I hadn’t heard this one before, though I was aware of it (and other Motian ’70s gems) in the KZSU vinyl library. I’d mentioned it in discussing Motian’s composing, in my review of Joel Harrison’s tribute album. It’s Motian’s first album as a leader, and he tests the waters in so many areas. Sam Brown’s guitar plays rough-and-tumble on “Rebica” but still foreshadows the drifting role Bill Frisell would play for Motian later. The title track is a duet with Jarrett, both players exploring loosely connected territories with a spacious ferocity. “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullabye” puts Leroy Jenkins’ violin alongside Becky Friends’ flute in a downright vicious, emotional jam.

Most of these tracks have a younger Motian playing powerfully, with lots of cymbals, still resonating with the heat of the ’60s. He’s certainly not adhering to timekeeping, but neither is the sound dominated by his magician’s subtlety with blank spaces. I like the results a lot.

Of course, Motian’s catalog has a lot more to it. These are just the things I’d grabbed off the shelf, so to speak.

Azar Lawrence Is Still Out There

Azar LawrenceMystic Journey (Furthermore, 2010)

Azar Lawrence is doing a live recording for his next album on Dec. 13-14 at the Jazz Standard in New York. He’s launched a Kickstarter fund for the costs of organizing the gig and producing the recording… although time is running out and he’s well short of the ambitious goal.

Does the name not ring a bell? Lawrence is a saxophonist based in Southern California who’s very much in the late-period-Coltrane mold. He was on Miles’ Dark Magus and worked with Earth, Wind and Fire — but I know him through his 1970s work with McCoy Tyner, specifically his towering sax on Tyner’s double album, Atlantis. It’s an album filled with that stormy-sea piano that was actually what first caught my ear about the 1964-and-beyond Coltrane albums, more so than Coltrane himself.

Lawrence has continued along similar lines. His most recent album, Mystic Journey, has a lot of that Coltrane-ish sound, particularly in the title track and “Summer Solstice,” both written by Lawrence. Pianist Benito Gonzalez’s channeling of Tyner is an appropriately big part of the sound. Other tracks take a rather straight-jazz approach, including the ballad “Say It Over Again” and Rashied Ali’s tropical tune, “Adrees.”

It doesn’t necessarily cut new ground, but I find I’m OK with that. That might sound odd considering I devote this blog’s energy to edgier music, the Steve Coleman and Tim Berne vectors of jazz. But it’s what I expected when I picked up the album, and maybe I’m also just glad to learn that Lawrence is alive and well.

There’s another thing: Just before going to New York recently, I’d read Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math blog, specifically his thoughts on Hank Jones and Mulgrew Miller. The lesson I took from that is that a musician doesn’t have to do “interview music” to be saying something worth hearing.  And then, at Downtown Music Gallery, I happened to spy Mystic Journey, and I’d always wondered if Azar Lawrence had continued his career — and the sum of it all was one very pleasant CD listening where I could revel in the lessons Lawrence was passing down from the Coltrane/Tyner era.

Maybe I’m also just glad that some artists are keeping that period alive. So much jazz energy is spent on preserving ragtime or (modernized) swing, or cocktail jazz. Having some spokespeople for the more freedom-seeking forms of “straight” jazz isn’t so bad a thing. And when the album shifts into gently nostalgic bebop mode for “Say It Over Again,” it’s actually quite nice.

Lawrence might not be saying anything wholly new, but I’m glad to hear him show off that he can say it.

Earworms: The Music of Words

Lisa Mezzacappa/Katy Stephan/Michelle AmadorEarworms (planBmusic, 2008)

It’s a pop CD! Pop songs of all stripes, ricocheting from one style to another as Lisa Mezzacappa and songwriting/vocalist partners Katy Stephan and Michelle Amador present music inspired by individual words.

Beyond the CD, Earworms is an interesting and often fun art-installation project by Deborah Aschheim. She’s created sculptures, like the one above, using favorite words as inspiration — “node” for the piece pictured above, for instance.

The pieces are multimedia in nature, with video or music as part of the installment, and of course that’s where the CD comes in. Earworms‘ 18 songs relate to 16 different words in Aschheim’s ongoing project, and Mezzacappa & Co. clearly had a great time matching moods to the titles.

“Swoon” appropriately gets played to moonlit Parisian cafe jazz. “Pout” becomes a smoky jazz stroll. “Node” is stretched and abstract; “Crazy” piles spoken voices together to get into your head. “Like” is hysterical — ’60s beach music with, like, this girl’s voice and all?

Other songs treat the words as objects of their own. “Tarmac” gets picked because it was Aschheim’s first-ever computer password; it opens the album as a breezy pop song (a really good one) exploring the concept of literal social networks (the links among people we know). “Obviously” is a funny operatic song about how insulting the word “obviously” can be.

“Palimpsest,” one of my own favorite words, comes out surprisingly pretty and thoughtful. The inclusion of “Ice Knife” is perplexing until you read the book excerpt that makes up the lyrics — it’s about literal ice knives as assassins’ weapons, and it’s kind of cool.

Don’t forget, too, that Mezzacappa traces her musical roots back to metal; she didn’t leave that out. Little surprises like that add to what’s already a delightful package of songs. You’ll find it on CD Baby or at some of Mezzacappa’s shows.