Damon Smith: Calamity and Catastrophe

Danny Kamins, Damon Smith, Alvin Fielder, Joe HertensteinAfter Effects (FMR, 2017)

John Butcher, Damon Smith, Weasel WalterThe Catastrophe of Minimalism (Balance Point Acoustics, 2017)

after-effectsDamon Smith favors a prickly brand of free improvisation, packed with extended technique and sound experiments, a style designed to agitate.

It’s a good foundation for a storm-themed album, and the two-drummer attack (Alvin Fielder and Joe Hertenstein) on After Effects produces the right level of calamity. The mood is augmented by Danny Kammins’ sax, which sometimes matches Smith’s screechy, noise-driven sound but also leads some downright jazzy passages.

The song titles are all storm-related, with “Storm Pt. 1” being a particularly direct example. It’s an aggressive attack, as you’d expect, with Kamins screeching aggressively and the drummers battering relentlessly.

The album isn’t all chaos, though. “Gentle Breeze” is a short improvisation introduced by deep,weeping bowed bass. “The Wind,” a 13-minute centerpiece of the album, includes a punchy stretch of improvised jazz, more swingy than menacing.

“The Hurricane and the Calm” isn’t the most tumultuous of the tracks, but it’s still rather aggressive — and, surprisingly, gives way to the “calm” of a swingy jazz stride, complete with walking bass and sunny-sidewalk demeanor.

I’m not sure the song sequence is meant to parallel a storm’s life cycle exactly, but the final tracks do seem to be about the aftermath. “After Effects” has a grumpy demeanor that, for me, represents a survey of the storm’s ugly aftermath. And “Clean Up” isn’t the serene rainbow ending you might expect; it’s actually rather disturbing, a sprint of an improvisation that seems more like a forlorn glance at heartless destruction and scattered debris.

smith-catastropheThe latest release from Smith’s own Balance Point Acoustics label, meanwhile, is stormy in brighter, more joyous way. It’s a live session with Weasel Walter on drums and John Butcher on sax, taped in 2008 at the late, lamented 21 Grand.

The three know each other well (or, at least, Smith knows both Butcher and Walter well), and the familiarity creates a celebratory squall.

“A Blank Magic” is propelled by the birdcall warbling and squawking that I most associate John Butcher with, his vocabulary of bizarre and mellifluous saxophone sounds. His encyclopedia of extended techniques — gargling, bumpy sounds, or ecstatic screeches — pairs well with Smith’s, the two of them tapping from similar raw materials to construct probing improvisations.

Weasel Walter packs “An Illusionistic Panic Part 2” with his brand of balletic aggression — hard, fast playing on relatively soft or quiet surfaces; this lets him propel the action and fill space without overwhelming the other sounds.

“Modern Technological Fetishes” really pushes the needle on intensity and volume early on, with Walter going absolutely nuts as Butcher and Smith crank the heat. As often happens (and I keep meaning to write about this), the piece’s second half takes the opposite approach, beginning in quietude and ending with speedy but laid-back playing, with Butcher’s sax hitting some calm stretches of nearly conventional melody.

Here’s an excerpt from the earlier, noisier part of that track.


sfSound Hits The Airwaves

The environment for the arts has turned even more hostile in this country, and creative music is particularly hard-hit. The selloff of college radio frequencies makes it harder and harder to find anything interesting on the airwaves.

The Internet is not an adequate substitute, as I think I’ve said before. At the same time, though, it’s a way to keep an interested audience nourished, whether it’s through podcasts or live presentations.

Enter sfSound Group, the local modern-classical troupe that probably cringes at the term “modern classical.” For some time now, Matt Ingalls and crew (or possibly just Matt) has/have been presenting recorded works through sfSound Radio, an automated shuffle-play Webcast. (Warning: that link automatically launches the audio broadcast).

And now, sfSound Radio is going live on Fridays, presenting a mix of concerts, interviews, and … other things. File this coming Friday, March 4, under “other” or possibly “aleatoric musique concrète,” as they’ll be hanging a microphone out of an Oakland window and broadcasting the results live for 24 hours.

Future broadcasts include interviews with local artists Wobbly and David Slusser … and a March 18 live broadcast of UK saxophonist John Butcher (right) performing with Grosse Abfahrt, the local-plus-Euro-guests improv troupe (see here).

Later on: Tom Duff will be presenting a five-day broadcast of an Alvin Lucier work, and Matthew Goodheart will present an extended interview with Italian saxophonist Gianni Gebbia.

I like this development. It fills a gap that even college and public radio increasingly refuse to acknowledge. Granted, I’ve dropped the ball myself by abandoning my post at KZSU, but the station’s “out-there” quotient is still being kept alive by DJs such as Your Imaginary Friend (Wednesdays, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Pacific time!)

This might be a good moment to rejoice in the wealth of independent radio that’s still broadcasting in the Bay Area:

  • (Save KUSF!)
  • KZSU
  • KFJC
  • KALX
  • KPFA
  • KCSM — Plain jazz, you might call it, but very much a resource to cherish. And they do play the outside stuff, late Thursday nights.

Playlist: Sept. 11, 2009

Gino Robair, who stopped by the station for that interview yesterday, also dropped off a few goodies for us to spin on air. I gave them a sampling later in the show.

source: rastascan. yes, i borrowed the exact image.

Full playlist is viewable here… and if you want to see the playlist of items spun during Robair’s interview, that’s here. Highlights/notes:

….. The New Black — [excerpt of, I think, side A] — The White Album (Rastascan, 2008). This is the album pictured above. Lovely, isn’t it! It comes as two black vinyl discs with black center labels inside black sleeves. No words, no art, no documentation.

The music was recorded direct-to-vinyl, and then the record duplicated for a limited 200-copy run. These are quartet improvisations (2 guitars, synth, drums) with a mysterious air. I played one of the more active sides, but there’s another that’s very quiet, built of small sparks of sound. It’s got an intensity to its silences. Side Four, or D, or whatever, consists of locked grooves. It was a full side-long improvisation, as A through C are, and the engineer selected needle-drop points to turn into locked grooves. How cool is that!

….. Gino Robair — I, Norton (Rastascan, 2009). From a demo of the forthcoming CD (Gino expects copies in-hand next week), we heard a variety of performances: Tom Duff as Norton, expounding; an acoustic instrumental passage from an sfSound performance, representing a band that Norton has stumbled upon while wandering; and an electronics piece of shimmering high-toned sounds, representing Norton’s death and his ascent into the light.

While the opera is meant to be disconnected from time and performed in arbitrary non-linear combinations, the CD is arranged to trace Norton’s life forward. It culls from multiple performances of the opera, and the electronics piece at the end wraps up beautifully with a heartbeat sound, something that popped up unexpectedly as Robair was doing live sound manipulation at the concert.

It’s going to be an interesting CD with a variety of sounds.

….. David Sait — “Waist Deep in Saigon” — Postage Paid Duets, Vol. 2 (Apprise, 2008). Sait plays guzheng and similar Asian stringed instruments. He recorded some solo improvisations, then mailed them out to partners such as Robair and LaDonna Smith to add their own sounds to. Volume 1 of the series was done entirely with Eugene Chadbourne.

source: johnbutcher.org.uk….. John Butcher Group — “2” — Something To Be Said (Weight of Wax, 2009). This is an octet work combining acoustic instruments with analog synth and turntables (used for noise, not for beats), a hybrid of Butcher’s instructions and the group’s improvising.

Track 2 starts with an awesome cluster of percussion, a nice racket, tailing down into an active but quieter improv, a nice sense of action in an easygoing vein.

It’s the second release on Butcher’s Weight of Wax label. Considering the first came in 2005, you could call it a comeback.