Happy 80th, Jim Ryan

Jim Ryan's 80thIt was good to see Jim Ryan in high spirits for his 80th birthday concert last Sunday. The time slot competed with a few other good events, but the SIMM series at San Francisco’s Musicians Union Hall draws a good turnout. The room was nicely crowded and full of conversation between sets, fueled by cake and melting ice cream (the Union Hall’s performance space gets warm quickly).

Ryan handed out glow bracelets and laser rings that everyone had to wear, and he put on a good show in two sets of flute, sax, and poetry.

Beyond being a performer, Ryan has been an organizer and instigator on the scene. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, he ran a local zine, back when there were such things and most people didn’t have web sites. He also curated a few different weekly series, including one at the Starry Plough in Berkeley — a venue where the ownership and bookers are friendly to creative music, but the crowds sometimes aren’t.

I remember one show there with a group called Mosthumbz — out-there, jazzy stuff with a heavy improv component. The bar was full of regulars that night for some reason, and they were grumbling about the music. But one of their compatriots — a guy with an Irish accent, even — stood up for the music. “This is what I love about the ‘Plough. You never know what you’re going to get,” he said, and he meant it. And he enthusiastically applauded every number.

Organizing creative-music shows certainly has its frustrations. Hopefully, little moments like that enhance the rewards.

View from the door: Jordan Glenn's Mindless Thing
View from the door: Jordan Glenn’s Mindless Thing

Ryan’s birthday concert opened with Jordan Glenn’s Mindless Thing. The band played drummer Glenn’s thoughtful, chamber-like compositions, which seemed to be built around Ryan’s poems, with music and words serving one another as accents and punctuation. Ryan’s poems were a gradual tumble of thoughts, introspective scenes cut with surreal changes of direction and a sense of humor.

The band was heavy in tuned, percussive instruments — vibraphone (Rob Lopez), hammered dulcimer (Damon Waitkus), piano (Michael Coleman), and guitar (Karl Evangelista) for sounds that could be placid like deep water or rustling and restless like a mountain stream. Evangelista kept the guitar volume turned down, but still shredded madly in places, creating an oddly pleasant background fuzz — it was a nice effect. Their closing piece had everyone playing homemade can-and-string instruments, gently banging and plucking away.

For the second set, Ryan led a quartet with Scott Looney (piano), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Jordan Glenn (drums) in a long, jazzy improvisation that kicked off as a fast and heavy post-bop bounce. They kept that jazz vibe going for a second piece featuring Rent Romus (sax) and C.J. Borosque (trumpet), who along with Looney had been members of Forward Energy, a Ryan-led improv band. That piece took off like a screaming rocket and kept the energy going for the most part, a good upbeat way to close out the birthday celebration.

From left: Scott R. Looney (in the shadows), Jim Ryan, Jason Hoopes, Jordan Glenn
From left: Scott R. Looney (in shadow), Jim Ryan, Jason Hoopes, Jordan Glenn

Jim Ryan’s New Things

Jim Ryan has Bay Area shows on Feb. 19, March 15, and April 1.  See below.

Jim RyanThe Awakening (Edgetone, 2012)

Saxophonist Jim Ryan has a couple of new things going on. He’s reactivated the free-jazz band Forward Energy for a new CD and a couple of shows, and he’s got an entirely new group, Green Alembic, that might be described as a mini chamber orchestra.

Forward Energy is playing tonight (Sun. Feb. 19) to mark the release of that new CD, The Awakening. Forward Energy can get as edgy as any improvised group, but it tends to stick to a jazz vein, often aided by the choices Scott Looney makes on piano.

The Awakening is a brightly jazzy album, with Rent Romus on additional sax and C.J. Borosque on trumpet, creating a substantial front line. The general structures are jazz-oriented. “The Opening” feels very much like a composition; you almost wonder when it’s going to coalesce into a single line. (It doesn’t.) And “Freestyle,” while as wide-open as its name implies, has a moment when one sax hands off to the other (probably Ryan to Romus), as they would do in a “normal” jazz context. But underneath, Eric Marshall on bass and Timothy Orr an drums are cooking away at whatever space they’ve decided to create, rather than dictating the rhythm.

Most of the album operates that way, as the group creates agile jazz pieces built of a group-crafted direction. All-out noise explosions are rare — “Float and Jolt” has a couple, but that’s part of what appears to be a planned structure (or an inside joke that developed as the piece was forming).

Mostly, there’s an attention to creating cohesive pieces. “Talk Talk” includes a chirpy dialogue between the saxes, over nothing but a brisk walking bassline — a nice span, and it sounds great when the rest of the band jumps in at once. “Lost Leprechaun” is like a ballad, starting out with melodic muted trumpet and working its way into a careful group construction.

Green Alembic is Ryan’s newest idea, a group similar to a mini chamber orchestra — I can’t recall if that’s Ryan’s own description or just my impression after he explained it to me. It includes oboe, trumpet, and violin, and projected images — which might include instructions to the band followed by images to play off of (landscapes and the like). Ryan himself will be playing kalimba and flute, and it sounds like he’ll be adding spoken word, in the form of poetry (improvised or otherwise; he’s done this with many other ensembles in the past).

The images, aside from contributing a visual mood, can also include instructions to the band, followed by images to play off of (landscapes and the like). It’s a way for Ryan to free himself from the duties of conducting his chamber group. As far as the instrumentation, I think he mentioned that he wants to try different things — an April 1 show, in particular, might feature two versions of the ensemble, the second one using bassoon and trombone, among other instruments. It would be a good chance to see how the concept manifests itself in different sets of hands.

Here’s at least part of the Ryan itinerary:

  • Sun. Feb. 19Forward Energy‘s CD release show at Musicians Union Hall (111 9th St., San Francisco), 7:30 p.m. Emily Hay and Motoko Honda are also on the bill — more about them here.
  • Thursday March 15Forward Energy and Green Alembic both play at El Valenciano (1153 Valencia St., San Francisco), 8:30 p.m. Also on the bill: Tri-Cornered Tent Show; more about them here.
  • Sunday, April 1 — Green Alembic plays at Musicians Union Hall (111 9th St., San Francisco), 7:30 p.m.

Playlist: July 31, 2009

KZSU playlist highlights for Friday, July 31, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

source: yoshis; pic by peter gannushkin, used w/o permission….. The Mary Halvorson set was a treat: I played one track from Dragon’s Head, then one each from her bandmates, Ches Smith (drums), and John Hébert (bass), then capped it off with the soothing end track from Thin Air, her duo album with Jessica Pavone. That very trio is coming to Yoshi’s Oakland on Aug. 4, for one 8:00 set. After hearing all the acclaim for Halvorson over the past several months, it’ll be great to see her live.

source: CDbaby….. I’m also pretty excited that Go-Go Fightmaster is playing on the 10th, at the Ivy Room in Albany. (And bummed that I’ll be out of town that day.) Their song “Buffy Is Dead” opens with a dark, stomping guitar march and needling saxophones. The rest of their self-titled 2003 album goes all over the place, with lots of free jazz and some Monk, sometimes staying inside, sometimes veering wildly outside. The personnel are the same as for Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch, which is pretty amusing and gives them all extra reason to stick together.

source: long song records….. Acoustic Guitar Trio is Nels Cline, Jim McAuley, and the late Rod Poole, all plucking and scraping and bowing away at their instruments. It’s marvelous, dynamic work with lots of quietude amid the jangling, and it’s all the more poignant given the circumstances around Poole’s passing. (It’s interesting and nice to see that Poole’s tribute Web site makes no mention of that at all.)

source: public eyesore….. The Emergency String Quintet — really, the (x)tet, depending on how many guests pop in — is an all-strings improv project that Bob Marsh gets together occasionally. The results are sublime, producing abstract work that sounds awfully close to composition sometimes. They’ll be playing at Flux 53 tomorrow night.

….. I was going to play the Steve Martin banjo CD, The Crow, someday, believe it or not. But today, the producer, Jim McEuen (of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), randomly called during my show and offered himself to the station for interviews, which jogged my memory about it. We’re talking about the Steve Martin, doing an album of original banjo songs (and a CD booklet stuffed with liner notes written by him). A massive cast of studio musicians (KZSU fave Matt Flinner among them) makes it the “most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe,” or words to that effect. It’s in the liner notes. It must be true!

You can find the full playlist here.

Spirited Music in San Jose

I might as well be honest: I had a dread of being the only audience member at Works San Jose last night, where Jim Ryan brought in a couple of improvising bands.

But the show drew a handful of people, including some passers-by who saw and heard the music from the sidewalk — a very pleasant surprise. Downtown San Jose deserves credit for having some edgy art museums downtown, Works being one of them, but they’re overshadowed by the children’s museum and the Tech museum, and on weekends, by the dancing-and-alcohol nightlife that’s just blocks away.

Still, a few people showed up and seemed to like the experience. That’s great. Quite a few more onlookers lingered by the windows, one or two at a time.

They were drawn in by the music and the promise of an experimentally jazzlike band, but a few theatrics helped too.

The aesthetic behind Ryan’s Left Coast Improv Group includes improvised poetry and vocalizing, and Bob Marsh got up from his cello to deliver a poem about revolution. (“Is it in your socks? Do you wear it on your wrist?”) He then brought up a couple of audience members for an improvised faux-ballroom dance, showing off a little whimsy.

The Improv Group consisted of sax/flute, bassoon/sheng (Michael Cooke, from the SFCCO), two cellos (Marsh and Doug Carroll), trumpet (Darren Johnston), and Ryan drawing from a collection of small percussion. They played sublime stuff, mostly longer pieces. Carroll and Johnston took advantage of the gallery’s big, empty spaces by wandering around (yes, Carroll plays cello).

The first set came from the trio The Spirit Moves Us, with Ryan on sax/flute, Marsh on cello, and the one-named drummer Spirit. And Spirit does play a huge role in the band’s sound, with his free-jazzy style of long drum-rolling statements, often tough and stabbing.

It was terrific stuff, with the drums filling the echoey space. (In actuality, that can be a problem; I’ve seen shows where the drums eclipse everything because of the acoustics. But in a trio setting, with amplifiers for Marsh and for Ryan’s flute, it worked.) They did quieter pieces, too – Spirit busy on brushes, Ryan improvising on flute.

Ryan has put out a CD for The Spirit Moves Us on his own Jimzeen label. Hoping to give it a listen soon.

Music in San Jose!

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an improv show, or even an adventurous jazz show, in San Jose. I stopped even looking for such things years ago. Now I’ll get my chance, thanks to Jim Ryan.

There’s an art space called Works San Jose, at 451 S. First St., where Ryan will present two bands on Friday, July 10:

1. The Spirit Moves Us — The trio of Ryan (sax/flute/kalimba), Bob Marsh (cello), and the single-named Spirit (drums).

2. The Left Coast Improv Group — described as an “experimental chamber ensemble,” this is a resurrection of Ryan’s improvising combo, which was always made up of a rotating cast of characters. This time it’s a large group: cello, trombone, trumpet electronics, Michael Cooke doing his thing on the sheng again, and “others.”

A calendar listing can be found here.

Works San Jose seems to be the kind of arts space that fits experimental music — although it looks like the music events they’ve hosted there have been techno or singer/songwriter material. Which is in line with San Jose’s suburban nature.

Not to rag on Works. I’m thrilled they’re giving creative music a chance and would love to see more of it happen. It’s just that San Jose’s surrounding culture is more stifling than those of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. The San Jose Jazz Festival drives the knife even deeper; it’s well-meaning but tightly boxed in, consciously catering to the food-and-crafts summer crowd.

(The SJ Festival does try to give a nod to new directions, but they’re usually jazzy hybrids with hip-hop or world music, not free jazz. I’ll give them credit for booking Panthelion this year; that band sounds interesting.)

(Digressing further, this seems an appropriate spot to give a big, big thank you to The Blank Club just for being there. It’ll be host to The Melvins on the first night of the SJ Festival.)