Jen Baker x2

With a couple of evenings free, I had the chance to check out a couple of the improv shows featuring Jen Baker, the former Bay Area trombonist who’s now living in New York.

I’d also never been to Mama Buzz Cafe, out in Oakland on a less-gentrified stretch of Telegraph Avenue. It’s essentially a diner that’s been converted into a coffeehouse, with a counter that offers coffee and food and yummy spheroid vegan donuts. Greasy spoon meets Bay Area bohemia. An adjacent room, sheltered from the counter, is scattered with tables and chairs in the classic DIY coffeehouse look, and that’s where music events are held. (Photo below is by Flickr user katerw; I’d forgotten my camera that night.)

Wednesday night, Baker was playing here with a quartet including Phillip Greenlief (sax), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Ava Mendoza (guitar).  Only a half dozen of us were in the music room, including a couple of people with the requisite Mac PowerBooks (it can’t be a coffeehouse without  a couple of open laptops), but everyone paid rapt attention to the music, which was nice.

The sparse crowd, the midweek vibe, and maybe the fact that Baker had been out of town — it all made for a fun and casual session.  These were four friends just having fun with music. Mendoza’s electric guitar mixed well with the acoustic instruments; she seemed to be keeping things at a careful volume and contributed some nicely choppy rhythms. There were good long passages of all four tuning in on a propulsive mood and a strong pace.

Baker also found a couple of good spots for a few seconds of lyrical vibrations — the multiphonics created by singing into the trombone. It’s become an area of study for her, but the sound stands out and could really overwhelm the music, applied carelessly. She used the technique only for seconds at a time, and it worked well. Later, she told me she’s started transcribing some of her previous lyrical-vibrations improvisations — which turns the method into a composed technique that requires a different type of thinking in performance.

The set ended sublimely, with Greenlief dedicating a birthday piece to his late mother. It started with just Greenlief and Mezzacappa playing in a wistfully lyrical mood, with Baker and Mendoza following suit in long, gentle tones.

Thursday night, Baker played in two sets at the Luggage Store Gallery. The first was an improvising trio with Philip Gelb on shakuhachi and Tara Flandreau on viola, all three standing in front of the blank movie screen that occupied the gallery’s back wall. (A video installation was playing on the other side, visible out on the street.) Lots of serene moments in this set, some of that attributable to the natural sound of the shakuhachi — Flandreau even spent one passage playing whispery sounds on the viola’s bridge, matching the wooden flute’s demeanor.

The evening closed with 25 minutes of Baker’s lyrical vibrations. She introduced the solo performance by explaining that this music draws her into a trancelike state that she’d never experienced before — which is part of her fascination with the concept. The goal of the set was to share that experience with us, and it worked, aided by the stark white of the Luggage Store’s blank walls.

You can hear samples of the concept on Baker’s Web site.

Between Baker’s sets was the duo of Eric Glick Rieman (prepared electric piano) and Teresa Wong (cello). I’m going to write that one up separately. (Preview: I finally got to see the prepared electric piano!)

Jen Baker’s Resonant Space

Jen Baker performs in various groups, every night from Monday, Feb. 7 through Friday, Feb. 11. Details below.

Jen BakerBlue Dreams (Dilapidated Barns, 2008)

She calls it “lyrical vibrations:” the music that can be produced by singing into the trombone while playing. The parallel tracks of melody come out in a buzzy, growling sound that’s quite close to Tuvan throat singing. It’s certainly something different.

Before leaving the Bay Area for New York — where she’s now part of the madcap Asphalt Orchestra — Jen Baker was working on this concept, exploring its musical possibilities. She’ll be back this week in a series of improv shows where I would assume she’ll continue that exploration — and try out whatever other techniques she’s been interested in.

There is admittedly a sameness to the lyrical vibrations tracks on Blue Dreams. With the exception of “Pip Squeak,” a cute dijeridoo-like hoedown, the music is all improvised. But the music is toneful — that is, it doesn’t come from the sound-sculpture school of abstract improv. In addition to the Tuvans, Baker lists Gregorian chant as an influence, and her shares the same sense of “meandering melodic lines,” as she puts it in the liner notes.

The melodies process slowly, not surprising considering the trombone isn’t as fleet an instrument as, say, a piccolo. Some of the most interesting effects come when the vocal and trombone melodies diverge. More often, I think the trombone or vocal holds one note while the other instrument varies in pitch, creating something almost like a dijeridoo drone but not quite. “Neptunian Love Song,” the longest track on the album (5 minutes) is packed with both types of moments.

Careful listening also reveals different kinds of interference between the voice and trombone, creating little pulses in the long tones. Baker hits a couple of these delicious dissonances early in “17 Unpredictably Disappears,” one of the album’s more abrasive melodies.

For some samples, check Baker’s web site.

Here’s her upcoming calendar (see also BayImproviser or the Transbay Calendar). Lyrical vibrations won’t be the only musical tool she’ll use, but I would expect it to be a big part of some of these shows, especially the Mills events.

Mon., Feb. 7 — Solo performance at the Mills College Ensemble Room. Free.

Tues., Feb. 8 — Quartet that includes Tony Dryer (bass) and Jacob Felix Heule (drums), 2/3 of the spacious improv trio Idea of West. At The Uptown, opening for the Oakland Active Orchestra. Free.

Weds., Feb. 9 — In various improv combinations with Phillip Greenlief (sax), Ava Mendoza (guitar), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass). At Mama Buzz Cafe, $5.

Thurs., Feb. 10 — Baker (mostly) takes over the weekly Luggage Store Gallery show, performing solo and in trio. Sliding scale admission, $6-$10.

Fri., Feb. 11 — Back at Mills, playing in the resonant atrium of the Concert Hall. This will be a quartet called DYNOSAUR, consisting of three brass players and Karen Stackpole’s gongs. Expect lots of echoing.

Phillip Greenlief in NYC

If you’re reading this and you’re in New York or Philadelphia, take note. Phillip Greenlief is coming to your town.

(If you’re in the Bay Area and you’re reading this — you can see Greenlief and The Lost Trio every Monday night, free, at Kingman’s Ivy Room, in Albany right near Berkeley. Except the next couple of Mondays because, hey guess what, he’s coming to New York and Philadephia.)

A highlight of the east-coast swing will be Greenlief playing with bassist Trevor Dunn. Think of it as a 14-years-later celebration of the duet album they put out on Greenlief’s Evander Music label, back when Dunn lived in the Bay Area. Actually, their promo slogan for the upcoming shows is “17 years in the making,” so they’re counting back even further.

The itinerary:

* Oct. 31 at Downtown Music Gallery. With Tim Perkis. Um, yeah, you already missed this one.  There’s a reason I don’t bill this site as a news site.

* Nov. 2 — at Konceptions at Korzo with an NYC trio: Angelica Sanchez (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums). 667 5th Ave. (btw 19th and 20th), Brooklyn.

* Nov. 3 — at Barbes, duo with Trevor Dunn.  376 9th St. at 6th, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

* Nov. 4 — in Philadelphia: Duo with Trevor Dunn. Also appearing: The Zs (2 guitars, percussion, sax).  Presented by Ars Nova Workshop at Kung Fu Necktie, 1248 North Front St.

* Nov. 5 — at 295 Douglass, Brooklyn, with Jen Baker (trombone) and Matt Ostrowski (electronics). More about Baker’s solo album here.

* Nov. 6 — at iBeam. Trio with Angelica Sanchez (piano) and Tom Rainey (drums). What a cool way to end the tour. 168 7th St., Brooklyn.

You can see it all at the Transbay Calendar — scroll down to “Events Outside the Bay Area.”

Playlist: March 6, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, March 6, 2009, 3:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Items of note:

  • Axis Trio is pretty damn cool and will get their own writeup here soon. The band members’ heritages trace back to Pakistan, Morocco, and Iran.
  • Jen Baker‘s “lyrical vibrations” (singing into the trombone) got written up on the old page, here
  • Got to give away tickets to John Zorn’s Masada String Trio, one of the bands playing during Zorn’s week-long residency at Yoshi’s, which starts Tuesday.

Continue reading “Playlist: March 6, 2009”