Larry Ochs and Aram Shelton

Larry Ochs & Aram Shelton QuartetContinental Drift (Clean Feed, 2020)

Aram Shelton was a fixture on the Bay Area scene before moving overseas, first to Copenhagen and more recently to Budapest. He teams up with ROVA stalwart Larry Ochs on Continental Drift, a free-jazz session where we get to listen in on distant friends enjoying one another’s company. The album has a bright, flowing energy, aided by drummer Kjell Nordeson, another familiar face on the local scene, and two bassists — Mark Dresser or Scott Walton — who rounded out the quartet during the two separate recording sessions, five years apart, that make up the album.

Ochs and Shelton alternate composing duties track-by-track, emphasizing their contrasting styles — Ochs tending toward rougher textures and abstract territory, Shelton often starting closer to traditional jazz forms but bending them to his taste. Ochs’ “Slat” delves into more abstract territory and a freer improvisation — some terrific sparring here between the two horns — whereas Shelton’s “Switch” shows off his trademark blend of modern composing and aggressively swingy rhythm.

Shelton puts a sweet composure into “Anita.” But even that track goes off the melodic rails after a while; it’s far from sappy. Ochs shows off his snappy sense of rhythm on the outright catchy “Strand,” which starts innocuously but builds into a furious group jam that eventually stops on a dime, a nice dramatic moment.

Shelton and Ochs mix well and it’s often hard to tell who has played or even composed which pieces. (For me, anyway. My ear for different musical styles is still a work in progress.) They combine for a tremendous, hard-digging double solo during “The Others Dream,” Ochs’ 19-minute closer. That one feels epic, opening with somber drumming and Ochs’ ecstatic sopranino solo, then later getting into a hard-driven segment that also feels wide open, a broad landscape unrolling.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve met most of these players in person, but the whole set just feels friendly, with an optimistic outlook. Composition-led free jazz is alive and well, and it’s a soothing balm against stressful times. Shelton and Ochs execute well on Continental Drift, but more importantly, it feels like everyone is having fun. That kind of thing comes across on a record.

ROVA’s Celebration of Butch Morris

ROVA: OrchestrovaNo Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)

rova-noThe beauty of conduction, Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ method for conducted improvisation, is in the silences.

Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.

No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.

In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.

ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.

The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.

“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in

Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”

 
“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.

41merge
Source: ROVA
The instrumental groupings (strings/rock/ROVA) are crucial to “The Double Negative,” which starts with each group giving an opening statement, directed by graphical scores. You get whispery strings, a delicate sax quartet, and as an exclamation point, a guitar-bass-drums segment anchored by Jason Hoopes‘ rattling bass. The piece ends with the three groups merging in a glorious slow crash.

Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.

And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.

Larry Ochs, Donald Robinson & a Lot of History

ochsrob2Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) will play a rare show as a duo on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

They put out a CD fairly recently, called The Throne, which I wrote up here. (Was that really more than a year ago?) I also find myself thinking about Robinson’s recent duo concert with Oliver Lake — a highlight of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit.

Ochs and Robinson have played together for more than 20 years in more ensembles than I can count. In the Throne writeup, I’d neglected to mention What We Live, the improvising trio (or more) spearheaded by bassist Lisle Ellis, with Ochs and Robinson. Then there’s also Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, with Ochs and Robinson joined by second drummer Scott Amendola. And going back to the ’90s, they were both in the Glenn Spearman Double Trio.

That’s a lot of history, not to mention a nice scenic path through the last two decades of Bay Area creative music. Their show on Thursday will be just another in a long series — but in a way, it’s also worth celebrating.

Here are Ochs and Robinson live from a show three years ago hosted by GRIM (Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales — which actually translates nicely into Group for Research and Musical Improvisation). It’s a brief excerpt with a regal, Coltrane-shaded feel.

And Ochs himself has posted a track from The Throne on Soundcloud. Called “Breakout,” it’s an Ochs composition enhanced by a nice hard snap by Robinson.

Larry Ochs’ Fictive Five

Larry OchsThe Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)

Larry Ochs -- The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)The track “Similitude” opens with a blast from the two horns in Larry Ochs‘ latest group, the Fictive Five, and the steady blare continues for a good nine minutes. Nate Wooley blares out a trumpet solo made of crisp color and passionate growls, propelled by the rhythm section of drummer Harris Eisenstadt and two basses: Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper.

That track is the opener to another well-crafted improv album by Ochs, playing with a cast of veterans. But there’s another facet to The Fictive Five: The three major pieces that make up the album are dedicated to filmmakers — Wim Wenders, Kelly Reichardt, and installation artist William Kentridge.

As Ochs explains in his own liner notes (posted on his website and not available with the CD), the dedications reflect his feeling that there’s a visual aspect to the music, a movie of the mind. “I’m inspired to create musical landscapes that the listener when closing her eyes can then imagine her own visual images into, inspired by my music,” he writes. Like a choreographer working without music, Ochs is playing the role of soundtrack composer without a film.

While it’s common for an improvised piece to develop a particular character, what follows in The Fictive Five are well sculpted pieces that do indeed feel like narratives. Ochs is good at this; he’s frequently convened improv groups that work from compositions or skeletal structures that guide the impulses of the moment toward a common goal.

“Similitude” is forceful and bold, evoking a bright energy even as the piece moves to a slower phase in its second half — a bigger-picture view, like a camera panning back, but with plenty of action still playing out.

“By Any Other Name” opens with the groans of arco basses and dark, solemn horn statements. The mood brightens as the group works short passages of small subsets — and eventually, a kind of round-robin forms, with players hopping in and out to form duets and trios of intriguing small sounds. Trumpet and drums take a turn, then there’s a basses-and-drums moment with one bass bowed, the other plucked. It’s a musical game whose pieces fit into a macroscopic novel of music. A fiery group passage lands the piece back in the dark underworld where it began, a satisfying bit of symmetry.

“Translucent,” the Reichardt dedication, has a personality that stands out the most. It starts out choppy and high-strung, with tension surrounded by white space. Ochs abbreviates his sax phrases, a start-stop patter that plays well against Eisenstadt’s forceful snippets of drums. The sound softens as the basses and trumpet come in, building a brisk flow that’s not overwhelming. The final third of the 15-minute piece is a lingering denoument that patiently comes in for a landing.

Be sure to check out Ochs’ website for those detailed notes (again, not available elsewhere) about why he chose the song dedications.

Here’s part of the opening to “Similitude,” dedicated to Wim Wenders, incorporating some two-horn phrasing that seems to be composed:

Ochs-Robinson Duo

Drummer Donald Robinson will be playing on Thursday, April 2, in a duo with saxophonist Marco Eneidi at the Luggage Store Gallery (998 Market St., San Francisco).

Ochs-Robinson DuoThe Throne (Not Two, 2014)

Ochs-Robinson Duo: The Throne (Not Two, 2014)In purely physical terms, this sax/drums duo is a stripped-down version of Larry OchsSax and Drumming Core, a trio that included Scott Amendola as a second drummer. But there’s a special element to a duo. It becomes a straight dialogue, a two-way interview, and when the players have known each other as long as Ochs and Donald Robinson have, you end up sitting in on an enlightened conversation.

Ochs is well known for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, not to mention his solo work. Robinson, a fixture of the Bay Area scene, is a free-jazz drummer well steeped in the sound of the ’60s, and he deserves a lot more recognition for his work. His sound is characterized by a deliciously light touch — tight, delicate rolls on the snare and small but effective touches on the toms. It’s a subtle approach that can build to a blistering attack when the moment warrants.

A great example is “Red Tail,” which opens with a Robinson blast and a fast groove, Ochs providing a floating, warbly statement on the sax.

 
“Breakout,” starts with a funky, catchy snap and builds into a frenzied attack. “The Throne” is another high-energy track, opening with Ochs ping-ponging some riffs, digging deep while Robinson frames the choppy melody.

Much of the album is characterized by Ochs’ tart and aggressive sound on tenor sax and some sopranino. On the quieter side, “Failure” has a very calm, processional feel — an elegant exercise in restraint — while “Song 2” has a touch of Mississippi blues in its casually sparse step.

 
“Open to the Light” is worth a special mention, as it’s dedicated to Glenn Spearman, the late tenor saxophonist who helped drive the Bay Area scene in the ’90s. Ochs and Robinson both played in Spearman’s Double Trio, and Spearman and Robinson were a duo themselves back in the day. “Open to the Light” is brisk and hopeful, an uplifting nod to a kindred spirit, with a touch of the kind of soaring, heavy tumult that Spearman was so good at building.

 
Robinson will be playing in a duo format with Marco Eneidi, a close friend of Spearman’s, on April 2 in San Francisco, as noted above. Robinson and Eneidi have played together quite often, including in a session called Straight Lines Skewed — which is, to my knowledge, the only album that has Robinson listed as the leader. It’s a trio session with Lisle Ellis on bass, an improvised jazz session that reveres silence as much as energy. Worth seeking out; Downtown Music Gallery seems to still have copies, as does Klompfoot (the former Cadence Jazz store).

East/West

This is the kind of thing you can do with arts funding: Gather friends from a couple of continents, swing through a set of summer festivals on both U.S. coasts, and take the time to get the band into the studio.

That’s how Didier Petit is spending the last half of June. His East-West Collective, mixing European jazz/improv music with Asian traditional instruments (partial roster: Larry Ochs on sax, Miya Masaoka on koto), is coming to America for the Vision Festival in New York and the Vancouver Jazz Festival.

In between, the band was supposed to play at Yoshi’s yesterday (Tuesday, June 18).  That show was canceled; in its place, the quintet will play at San Francisco’s Center for New Music tonight (Weds., June 19) at 8:00 p.m.

It’s possibly the only chance to ever see the multinational band playing together, unless you’re in Vancouver. The band’s current tour is funded by the French American Jazz Exchange, a bit of fortune that doesn’t come along every day. And the members are busy enough that getting them together is like an alignment of the planets. They’ll document their existence by recording a CD while during their Bay Area stay.

You can sample East-West’s work via the video below.  DJ Larry Blood on radio KUSP included them in his recent playlists as well; here’s the June 11 show, which is still available for hearing on the KUSP site as of this writing.

Flanked by Drummers

1. Just because you think of something doesn’t mean you should blog it.

2. Oh, what the heck.

There is no reason to expect two bands to sound the same just because they use the same instrumentation. Rock music makes that obvious. The raw materials that go into steel girders can also be used to produce silverware.

Even so, I recently found myself contrasting the John Lurie National Orchestra with the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core. Both groups consist of one saxophone and two drummers — with the drummers being essential to the sound. But the two bands travel towards different destinations.

Lurie’s album, Men With Sticks, consists of three improvisations. I came across this one when it was released in 1993, and while I’d become a fan of the Lounge Lizards, I was scared off by the 36-minute span of the opening track, “If I Sleep the Plane Will Crash.” Loved the title, feared the scope. About a decade later, I snatched up the album and enjoyed it immensely.

Calvin Weston and Billy Martin, two huge names in adventurous mainstream jazz, flank Lurie’s sax. Their drums meld into one determined, driving groove, full of tiny details and subrhythms, while Lurie flutters and buzzes on his sax. It’s one big, joyous jam, and it doesn’t slow down for quite some time.

Eventually, Lurie sits out, and you suddenly realize just how much is going on under the surface of that beat. Lots of tiny changes and polyrhythms get spat out from the drums.

This album gives me the same impression I got with Pat Metheny’s Zero Tolerance for Silence, namely, that the first track is the project, and the rest of the album is like a B-side. Two shorter tracks round out the album, and while they do tread new ground — one starts with a quieter, relaxed attitude, for example — you get the feeling that the statement has already been made.

Sax and Drumming Core has a different purpose altogether. (Which I knew going into this exercise, and maybe that’s coloring my listening. I’ve seen this band at least twice and heard all three of their albums — and reviewed the most recent one, Stone Shift, here.)

Sax and Drumming Core is highly improvised, but it plays off of Ochs’ compositions. The band also covers a lot of ground — fast versus loud versus quiet versus slow. Men with Sticks feels like an idea put down on record. Sax and Drumming Core is more calculated, a band assembled for the creation of a body of work.

Drummers Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson are held apart, each drum in one speaker, to highlight the contrasts in their styles, and the visual experience of watching them work separately was a crucial part of their live sets.

Their first album, The Neon Truth (Black Saint, 2002), opens with “Wrong Right Wrong,” a spiky piece where the melody is intentionally off-putting; it’s aggressive and ugly, in a good way. The drums stab out at their own will, behaving as separated but symbiotic entities, composers in their own right.

They’re given a grand showcase in “Finn Crosses Mars,” an energetic, 11-minute piece that includes a spirited drum duet, nice and loud. I also love the subtle space created in “Xanic Rides Again,” where Ochs burbles relatively calmly, surrounded by ethereal cymbals played like gongs, or by the careful patter of drum brushes, applied sparely.

I guess the final analysis is that I hadn’t listened to either of these albums in a while and wanted to hear them again. I like them both. Lurie’s National Orchestra makes for simpler listening; it demands less concentration, although concentration certainly gets rewarded as you peer into the Weston/Martin groove. But Sax and Drumming Core feels to me like a richer brew, full of fresh challenges.

(For more: read the anecdote about someone calling the cops on Sax and Drumming Core.)

Kihnoua

KihnouaUnauthorized Caprices (Not Two, 2010)

Performs Friday, Sept. 24, at the Community Music Center, San Francisco, along with the Marco Eneidi & Vinny Golia Quartet.

Vocals are a weak area for me, by which I mean, I sometimes have trouble getting into avant-garde vocalizing. The swoops and screeches and groans just don’t click with me sometimes; they’ve got an artificial feel next to the music.

Kihnoua is a trio where you can’t miss Dohee Lee on crazed vocals: babbling, wordless singing, the patter of spoken nonsense syllables. But with this group, the vocal sounds seem to mix well with the whole. That concept of voice-as-instrument works, as Lee does indeed treat her vocal chords as an instrument, often a backing one.

Lee knows when to get subtle and when to solo. And Larry Ochs‘ sax, sticking mostly to conventional playing, becomes a soothing, jazz-infused balm next to Lee’s raspier or pricklier playing.

On top of that, these are some nicely crafted pieces — probably improvisations guided by frameworks provided by Ochs.

For instance: The ending of the 19-minute “Nothing Stopped But a Future” is a glorious long tail, a group work that sustains its dark intensity as a climax, then tails off to make way for a Lee solo — it’s a terrific group effort, if it wasn’t all planned — and an all-out tumult as a finale.

I also like the gray-skied tumble of “Weightless,” which actually carries some of the more extreme vocalizing on the record — starting with whispery, raspy sounds and culminating in a mad babble delivered with froth against Amendola’s intense drums. That’s a well crafted passage — Lee eventually drops out, leaving the drums to continue the solo.

Ochs has convened different versions of Kihnoua over the years for one-off performances, always with a guest instrument added to the usual trio (Ochs on sax, Lee, and Scott Amendola on drums). Cellists Joan Jenrenaud and Okkyung Lee were there for the two performances I’ve seen, one of which was played under rather adverse conditions — I wrote it up back in 2008.

On this record, Kihnoua becomes even more of a party. The trio is joined by Liz Allbee on trumpet most of the time — man, I wish I’d seen her perform with the punk-instrumental Mute Socialite — and adds Jeanrenaud, Fred Frith, and Carla Kihlstedt for the aforementioned “Nothing Stopped.”

Scott Amendola’s Week

Some interesting upcoming shows featuring drummer Scott Amendola:

Thursday, April 8 “The Good Life: The Music of Ornette Coleman.” Part of  SF Jazz’s Hotplate series, where local musicians delve into the catalogue of one of the greats.  Amendola (drums) has assembled a quartet of Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Trevor Dunn (electric bass), and Rob Sudduth (sax) for the occasion. Held in San Francisco at a cozy Mission District bar called Amnesia.

Goldberg, Dunn, and Sudduth all used to play together in Graham Connah‘s bands in the ’90s.  Good stuff.

Friday, April 9 — At the Starry Plough (Berkeley), a double bill.  First, Amendola vs. Blades, a funky duo with Wil Blades on organ.  Check out the review in the L.A. Times.  Then, a reprise of the aforementioned Ornette quartet.

Saturday, April 10Kinhoua, noted in this old post.  This is one of the Larry Ochs not-jazz projects, teaming up Ochs on sax, Amendola on drums, Korean vocalist Dohee Lee using her voice as a wordless instrument, and one more person — previously a cellist, this time Trevor Dunn on bass.

It’s going to be a rewarding show covering more abstract territory than the Ornette or Blades shows. The show also marks Kihnoua‘s debut CD release, on the Not Two (or is it NotTwo?) label.

Kihnoua performs at the Jazzschool in Berkeley — where I think I previously saw Kinhoua with Okkyung Lee on cello. Kinhoua then goes on for a tour of Europe starting in late April.

UPDATE 4/7, 5:00 p.m.: A message to Larry Ochs’ mailing list says the new Kihnoua CD will be available at the show for $10.  It won’t be in retail until May and will likely cost a lot more at the time, so you’ve been notified.

‘Code Flat-Nine, People: Move Out!’

Here’s a rich one: Someone called the cops on Larry Ochs for not playing “jazz.”

From the Guardian:  “The jazz purist claimed his doctor had warned it was ‘psychologically inadvisable’ for him to listen to anything that could be mistaken for mere contemporary music. … [K]haki-clad police officers listened to the saxophone-playing and drumming coming from the festival stage before agreeing that the purist might, indeed, have a case.”

The band in question? Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, the band I’d noted for having a “songlike feel.”  One man’s candy is another’s psychologically inadvisable brain poison, apparently.

Part of Ochs’ comment to the Guardian: “After this I will at least have a story to tell my grandchildren.”

Hat tip to KZSU DJ Ragnar of Ravensfjord for pointing this one out.  CORRECTION: Turns out it was DJ Fo who originally saw the item.  Thanks, Fo!