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.

Graham Connah Rides Again

Adm. Ted Brinkley’s Hornblower Cruise plays the Jazzschool (Berkeley) Sunday, Jan. 2, at 8:30 p.m. No cover; $5-$15 donation suggested.

To most of you, Trevor Dunn (now part of The Nels Cline Singers) will always be the guy who played bass for Mr. Bungle.

To me, he’ll always be the guy who did this:

That’s the intro to “More of the Same but Not So Different,” a track on the 1994 album Snaps Erupt at Pure Spans by the Graham Connah Group. It’s not just that the solo is cool, inventive, and arresting (which it is). It’s the snappy, jazzy riff that starts and ends it, becoming the backing rhythm for the piano theme. That bass part made this tune one of my favorites from any Connah album.

Connah, a keyboardist and composer, has been a fixture in Bay Area jazz ever since those early ’90s days. He’s less visible these days — “assiduously avoiding publicity” is how Andrew Gilbert puts it in this SFGate calendar item — but he’s still around, performing rather regularly at Revolution Cafe in the Mission District under the name Admiral Ted Brinkley (semi-ret.).

He’s playing at Berkeley’s Jazzschool on Sunday night, Jan. 2 — a free show, technically, though they’re welcoming donations at the door. Gilbert’s writeup indicates this is a bimonthly happening, which would be great news. Assuming he also keeps up the Revolution Cafe appearances, Connah’s band(s) might be on stage at least once a month.

His music’s evolved considerably. Around 1994, he was fronting small combos playing twisty, smart-alecky jazz — it was like being handed a road map drawn on a mobius strip, and yet, it was still jazzy enough to envision being played by guys in suits at Yoshi’s. (They didn’t actually wear suits, but they did play at Yoshi’s.) In subsequent years, the formula mutated: larger bands; complicated female vocal parts; occasional electric piano or organ creating a bubbly psych/fusion stew. By 2000, Connah’s music was spilling heavily into the space between jazz and rock.

Around that time, Connah’s groups were playing weekly at Bruno’s, a Mission District restaurant that saw potential in out-jazz. Those sessions led to a terrific 3-CD recording, Because of Wayne/The Only Song We Know (Evander Music). My recollection is that Connah gave it away to basically anybody who asked.

Based on the Jazzschool writeup and the Evander blurb for Adm. Ted Brinkley’s CD (you’ll find it here), the Brinkley bands expands the vocal parts to a chorus, promising an even grander punch. I’ve been remiss about keeping up with Connah’s music, and that’s a shame; he’s been a treasure of local jazz. The Revolution Cafe is nice enough, but a chance to see this band in the comfort of the Jazzschool theater sounds awfully enticing.

Before and After, and After

Running pitifully late last night, I made it to Berkeley for a little bit of Lisa Mezzacappa’s Before and After. They took the first set at the Jazzschool, and I managed to catch the last few numbers. The band does terrific new compositions in the Dolphy/Ornette vein.

Got to see Aaron Bennett turn in a neck-throttling sax solo, and Vijay Anderson on drums was really impressive, both in his solo and in the regular drumming during the songs.

That’s the band I really wanted to see, but the Kasey Knudsen Septet afterwards was worth sticking around for. This was music in a more conventional vein, based off sources like Prokofiev and Shostakovich (including a horns-and-piano reading of the Piano Quintet in G Minor).

(About the headline on this entry … I don’t mean to relegate Knudsen’s group to the “After” category. Just couldn’t resist the play on words.)

The highlight of the evening was when all 11 players got together to form a jazz army. Mezzacappa led them through an arrangement of an old Very Very Circus tune by Henry Threadgill. While studying at Berkeley, she’d played in ensembles he conducted, and she said he’d jump and dance around the whole time, making it your job to play notes that would impact some part of his body. The Threadgill piece was huge fun, and Vijay Anderson and Knudsen drummer Jon Arkin ended it with a double-drum solo that stacked up the polyrhythms.

The other 11-piece piece was Knudsen’s “BPMG,” standing for Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Martha Graham, written specifically for this group.

Mezzacappa and Knudsen will be playing together in Thorny Brocky, the latest Aaron Novik band that includes Alisa Rose on violin and Marié Abe on accordion. That’ll be a free show at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 13, at Adobe Books, 3166 16th Street in San Francisco. Novik was at the Jazzschool show handing out fliers in the form of mini comic books.