The introductory movement to Dear Everyone is called “Overt? Sure,” and the first words spoken, two minutes into the 7-minute piece, are “lather up.” That pretty much sets the tone — that, and the horns jackhammering like an alarm clock out for revenge.
At its core, Degradiant is a quartet — two horns, electric bass, percussion, and some electronics — mixing free jazz with heavy math rock. But its debut recording brings in a huge cast for a large-scale concept: 99 voices reading poems by Matt Shears. For bandleader and composer Kyle Bruckmann, it’s kind of a follow-up to “… Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” (Singlespeed, 2014), his zany, ambitious Thomas Pynchon tribute. Dear Everyone brings a similar touch of absurdity, again framed by Bruckmann’s own Pynchonesque flair for language and love of words.
The readers aren’t pros, by design, and Bruckmann’s liner notes suggest many of them were ambushed with the idea. The result is a collage of voices and tones, some smooth, some self-conscious: male, female, varying accents, and at least one child handling the big words with some adorable stumbles.
Narrators come and go rapidly, sometimes overlapping with an intentionally confusing intensity, leaving fragments of ideas lingering in your ears. This effect can be mysterious or, as on “Significant Details,” a little silly.
Musically, Dear Everyone ranges from humorous to disturbing, mixing the planned-and-intricate with freewheeling improvisation. Bruckmann sometimes ditches his oboe for analog electronics for darker spells of uneasy tension, and Jason Hoopes (Jack o’ the Clock, Fred Frith Trio) turns up the acidity on bass for the tough-fisted math rock passages. It all mashes together gloriously on “Sound Byte Culture,” including a nifty Hoopes solo.
There’s a sense of fun throughout the 2-CD album, but it ends on a jarring note with “Recessional and Postlude.” It’s sparse and somber, with a slow electronic pulse backing two voices formally reciting a full poem.
The five members of Splinter Reeds are classical musicians who can play the heck out of their instruments. But “3 Songs, 3 Interludes,” a small suite on their debut album Got Stung, shows their irreverent side.
The first of the songs, “Bee,” opens a capella, all five members chanting a somber melody that begins with the line, “Got stung by a bee in the heart.” One by one, each voice drops out, replaced by a woodwind playing the backing chords. Eventually, you’re left with nothing but reeds, which then shoot off into countermelodies like vines entangling a wall.
It’s a fun effect, although the song isn’t necessarily cheery, and the band is certainly no novelty act. Claiming the title of the Bay Area’s first professional reed quintet, Splinter Reeds has been performing for three years around Northern California and spent a week-long residency at Stanford.
Their focus is on newly commissioned compositions, so everything on Got Stung is freshly written; it’s no stodgy “repertoire” album. You can get a taste when the quintet opens their 2016-17 season on Aug. 16 with a concert at San Francisco’s Center for New Music.
So, you could say the usual things about the blending of genres and all that, but Got Stung is a modern-classical album at heart, presenting the compositions with focus and verve. Elements of scenic melody and mood pervade the album, along with lots of fun, choppy bottom lines from bass clarinets and bassoon.
The instrumental “interludes” of “3 Songs, 3 Interludes” (composed by Erik DeLuca) show off different uses of the quintet — an ambient metallic sheen; a softly poking and curious quasi-melody; a study of long, sparse tones. It’s a fan-out of musical strategies. In fact, the last of the songs, “Want,” follows the opposite path of “Bee,” starting off instrumental with vocal parts joining gradually.
The eight-movement suite “Splinter” (Mark Mellits) is a highlight of the album, often florid and downright beautiful, played with intense focus and verve throughout. It feels like storytelling, in moods ranging from the brisk hocketing and bright, jazzy chording of “Scarlet Oak” to the beautiful, florid calm of “Weeping Willow.” The bass clarinet sounds especially nice on the fast-paced movements such as “Cherry” and “Red Pine.”
“Splinter” is the most classical-sounding of the pieces on Got Stung. Elsewhere, the band lets its avant-garde side show. Bruckmann’s piece, “Mitigating Factors,” is a slow-moving exploration of that territory, with touches of electronics shadowing the organic grumbles and air-rushes of the horns.
You might call “Wood Burn” (Ned McGowan) an active form of minimalism. Against a hard-digging bass clarinet line, the other reeds spin Morse-code pops and twirling riffs of melody. Jordan Glenn’s composition “My Bike” is peaceful at heart — it even has bird songs in the background — but halfway through, the piece starts adding some stern and shrill harmonies for a dose of attitude and even belligerence.
As a statement of purpose, Got Stung shows off a strong variety of Splinter Reeds’ interests. It’s exciting to see a group intent on bringing new works to life. Let’s hope they can continue building on this great start.
Lacy is the band’s collective hero and was also a friend. And for them, Saxophone Special stands out in Lacy’s catalogue because it’s a saxophone quartet album, recorded from a one-time concert with three other sax players, guitar, and synthesizer. The “three others” aren’t just others — they’re giants of the improvised music genre: Evan Parker, Steve Potts, and Trevor Watts.
Released by the Emanem label in 1976, Saxophone Special was one of the albums that “led to the formation of Rova in 1977-78,” according to the band’s press blurb.
The Sept. 16 concert, with Kyle Bruckmann on electronics and Henry Kaiser on electric guitar, serves as both an encore and a warm-up, because ROVA performed Saxophone Special once already, in July, and is scheduled to record its own version of the album next week.
Saxophone Special is out of print — both the orignal LP and Emanem’s expanded CD version. Close to its orbit, however, is the newly reissued ROVA album Favorite Street, a 1984 collection of Lacy tunes. Here’s a link to that album on eMusic.
Boisterous and raunchy, with generous doses of off-the-rails confusion, A.S.T.E. is Kyle Bruckmann‘s tribute to Thomas Pynchon’s first three novels. I haven’t read the novels — except for the first third of V, and the music seems to capture the spirit of the book well: It’s fun and appropriately chaotic, mostly bouncing off the walls but revealing some deep thought, too.
And hey — the album has gotten noticed by Magnet Magazine, where Bill Meyer, who’s written about jazz for a variety of publications for years, picked it as the No. 1 jazz/improv album of the year. Kudos!
I got to see the hour-long suite, which includes movements devoted to The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, performed live last year at the Outsound New Music Summit, so I knew what I was in for.
The instrumental pieces, performed by a septet version of Wrack, Bruckmann’s longstanding Chicago-based group, are partly built around the imaginary songs that permeate Pynchon’s books. Bruckmann takes the lyrics and applies Great American Songbook-style melodies; it’s up to you to figure out which tunes go with which words.
This results in exuberant, singalong themes with touches of nuttiness, a damn-the-torpedos sound. Most episodes branch off into exciting solos or dissolve into stretches of improvising; there’s plenty of out-jazz goodness to be had in here.
I can’t speak to how well the pieces represent the novels, aside from V, represented by an appropriately alcohol-soaked swagger in Part One of Bruckmann’s suite — especially in the final theme, where Bruckmann’s oboe goes impossibly high and intentionally off-key.
“Part Two,” representing The Crying of Lot 49, presents a more sleek and sober approach. An early theme is just as catchy and jazzy as anything in “Part One,” but played with clean violin-and-oboe lines. It does give way to some jazz abandon later, with a buzzy sax solo over a driven, exciting rhythm.
All I know about Gravity’s Rainbow is that it sounds intimidating, but “Part Three” has its share of upbeat, showtune-style melodies as well.
Note that if it’s Wrack that’s doing the “awaiting” in the album title, then W.A.S.T.E. becomes a full acronym, just like in Pynchon’s book. And the album cover art is drawn in such a way that Wrack itself looks like an acronym too, so that you would have an acronym within an acronym. I don’t know if these things mean anything or even if they’re really there. As Bruckmann writes:
But that’s exactly Pynchon’s game: daring you to succumb to paranoid systems. There’s a dimension of reading his work that’s like firing a blunderbuss into a barrel of red herrings. No matter what your field is – rocket science, colonial history, organic chemistry, hermetica and the occult – he somehow knows just enough of your specialist knowledge to ensnare you in webs of ‘Kute Korrespondences.’
Physical and virtual copies of Awaits Tristero’s Silent Empire can be had at Bandcamp.
“…Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” is a concert-length “free jazz phantasmagoria” inspired by the early novels of Thomas Pynchon, scored for a septet of oboe, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, viola, bass and percussion. The title comes from the group W.A.S.T.E. in The Crying of Lot 49, and the piece incorporates some of them made-up songs in Pynchon’s texts.
I think of Wrack as an out-jazz group with chamber-music leanings, and while they’ve played a variety of styles, “Awaits” is different due to its size, if nothing else. Considering the work it entails, it’s nice to see the piece getting three performances next weekend — full schedule at the bottom of this post.
For a deep dive into the Pynchon aspect and the compositional process, read this interview with Bruckmann by Chamber Music America, which funded the project.
There’s also a half-hour video interview produced as part of the “In the Field” series filmed for the festival.
Finally, I had a few basic questions that had been itching at me, and Bruckmann was kind enough to take a few minutes to email some responses…
Q: What made you decide to write a long piece in the first place?
Bruckmann: I wanted to challenge myself to attempt a longer form. To date, Wrack compositions have always been self-contained entities — 5- to 10-ish minute forms (I suspect a holdover from “rock band” mindframe) that could extend as far as 15 minutes or so when the improvisations really took off. But my experience stretching things out to a half hour with On Procedural Grounds inspired me to see if I could go further and keep it coherent and cohesive.
That intention evolved in tandem with the Pynchon concept, and that material really seemed to demand a sprawling, kaleidoscopic sort of treatment — something that could ideally feel as intricate and exhausting as the novels themselves. In the end, the composition has wound up being quite a collage, and as such maybe is only just barely more of a “long form” than a carefully sequenced album — I’m also struck by how much it was informed by my history as a college radio DJ!
Q: When writing a large piece, is there pressure to make the themes/ideas “bigger?” I’ve always wondered about that.
Bruckmann: Interesting question — probably, but I think at least in this instance there’s a chicken/egg problem. Pynchon’s novels – like so much “encyclopedic” postmodernism — definitely have a way of containing the universe, or at least tangentially hinting at its presence within the bloody mess. But so does a Mahler symphony, for that matter. And while I tremendously respect restraint and concision in art, I think I’ve always tended to resonate more naturally with audaciousness — extremity, proliferation, OCPD, and the delicious stew of megalomania and self-loathing that both those two gentlemen, for instance, appear to have.
I don’t know that the music I’ve written can be said to have much profundity – or even “thematic” content at all, for that matter — but I was repeatedly surprised at how much (somewhat embarrassingly 19th-century) autobiographical psychoanalysis seemed to keep bubbling up. I suspect that was all internal, and a listener wouldn’t necessarily know or care.
And that’s just fine with me, as long as it at least comes across as having some heart — I do not intend for this to be an arch and snarky joke.
Q: Wrack is a pretty unusual combination of instruments (oboe, viola, trombone) … when you started the group, were you going out of your way to pick less common instruments?
Bruckmann: Absolutely. I was choosing specific people in the Chicago scene as much as instruments, but there was definitely resonance for me with picking black sheep of both the orchestra and jazz combos. In Wrack’s first phase, I was also particularly interested in a dark, woody timbre, with all the contrapuntal possibilities inherent to having two winds and two strings with staggered and overlapping ranges. When Jeb Bishop had to step out, a bass clarinet worked perfectly in the trombone’s place, while making some balance issues even easier. Now I get them BOTH, plus Darren Johnston! The trumpet definitely suggests “jazziness” more emphatically, but that’s fairly crucial for this piece. And the pairs of woodwind, strings, and brass make the options practically orchestral.
Upcoming performances of “Awaits”:
27 Jul 2013 Wrack | premiere of …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | Outsound New Music Summit | Community Music Center, 544 Capp St SF | 8:00
28 Jul 2013 Wrack | …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | AD HOC #8, presented by SASSAS and the City of West Hollywood | WEHO Library, 625 N San Vicente Blvd, West Hollywood | 8:00
29 Jul 2013 Wrack | …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | Nebraska Mondays Creative Music & Jazz Series | Luna’s Cafe, 1414 16th St, Sacramento | 7:30
UPDATE 9/24: OMG, the People & Thingamajigs festival, mentioned at the bottom, made it onto cable TV news. Check out The Rachel Maddow Show, and look into Kent Jones’ stuff.
It’s one of those times where a lot of interesting shows have clustered. You can keep up with Bay Area creative music shows at BayImproviser or Transbay Calendar — they use the same calendar database.
Here’s a summary of some upcoming events, including an unusual number of multiple-show appearances. All shows are eveningish (8 or 9 p.m., usually) unless noted.
The Lost Trio — The longstanding Bay Area trio that turns pop songs into jazzy takes that aren’t cheesy. They also cover Monk, Ellington, and country tunes, creating solid platforms for peppy jazz exploration. (Previous mention here.)
Mon. 9/20, not really The Lost Trio but the same sax & drums paired with a guitar, at The Ivy Room (see below)
Mon. 9/27, The Ivy Room (San Pablo Ave. @ Solano Ave., Albany, really close to Berkeley)
Wed. 9/29, NOON concert for SFJazz (Levi Strauss Plaza, San Francisco, free!)
Marco Eneidi — Alto saxophonist Eneidi is back from Vienna again, with a couple of exciting programs on his itinerary. (Previous blog entries here and here.) The second pairs an Eneidi ensemble with Kihnoua, the malleable Larry Ochs group that just might be performing in bare-bones trio form this time. (Previous entry on Kihnoua.)
Thu. 9/23, quartet with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), Vijay Anderson (drums), plus electronics/noise acts, at First Church of the Buzzard (2601 Adeline @ 26th, Oakland)
Fri. 9/24, quartet with Vinny Golia (woodwinds), Mezzacappa, Anderson; plus Kihnoua, at Community Music Center (544 Capp St., San Francisco)
Wrack —Kyle Bruckmann first convened this group in Chicago, and he’s now bringing the idea with him to the West Coast. With viola, bass clarinet, and oboe, Wrack puts a distinctively different sound on its chamber jazz improvising. It’s more tart, slightly sour. You can easily hear that the instrumentation isn’t the usual, and on CDs, it’s been a terrific experience. Wrack plays twice by themselves and once with ROVA.
Fri. 9/24, College of Marin (Lefort Recital Hall, at Sir Frances Drake and Laurel streets, Kentfield)
Fri. 10/1, Community Music Center (544 Capp St., btw. 20th/21st, San Francisco)
Other Minds — I don’t know who Dane Rudhyar was, but if Other Minds is this interested, so am I. They’ve put together a Rudhyar program that’s getting a couple of dates:
Mon. 9/27 at Swedenborgian Church (2107 Lyon St., SF)
Wed. 9/29 at Valley Presbyterian Church (945 Portola Rd., Portola Valley)
Coltrane Tribute — It’s Coltrane Birthday season, and I would assume there’s a concert or two every year around the Bay Area that I’m not aware of. This time, though, one of them lands in the Luggage Store Gallery, a regular improv spot. Dan Plonsey, Steve Horowitz, and Vinny Golia will represent on the saxophone, and there’ll be readings as well.
San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra — The classical new-music group convenes again. Serious music in a neighborly atmosphere. The theme this time is “Animal Vegetable Mineral,” and the slate includes pieces by the late Jorge Liederman, the non-late Terry Riley, and SFCCO members.
Music for People and Thingamajigs — The 13th installment of this annual festival celebrating not only experimental music but creative, new instruments. The Thingamajigs folks are a bona fide nonprofit group that takes to the schools, teaching children the joy and education that can be found in building instruments and messing around with sound.
They’ve also got a new album they’ll be pushing with a mini-tour: a July 16 show at the Hemlock Tavern in SF, followed by shows in Portland and Seattle.
Pink Mountain is a quintet, a supergroup of local/ex-local improv folks plus Sam Coomes of Quasi on vocals and keys. They put out one album in 2006 that was just fanatastic: Big washes of guitar spinning dark psych rock or spiky noise, with jazzy sax twiddlings and thick synthesizers. They’ve appeared live a couple of times since then, and I’d always hoped the band would get together for some more recordings. Yes!
You can hear their sound on the Myspace link above, or at The Bay Bridged, a local-music blog, where you can also see a nice big picture of the new album’s cover.