NYC Part 2: Strings & Halvorson

hayangkim-cello-cut
Ha-Yang Kim, at the Irvine Music Festival, 2015.

In February 2018, The Stone will end its run at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. Programs will apparently continue elsewhere, but the cozy little black box (a friend of mind considers it stifling, actually) will be given up. I assume it’s the usual gentrification story, with the landlord having found a more profitable use for the lot.

I don’t get to pick and choose my visits to The Stone. Usually, it’s a matter of dropping in during the one evening I have free, and seeing what’s going on. This time, during my July visit, it was an improv session with three strings players.

They included Miya Masaoka, which was a treat. I’d seen her perform many times when she lived in the Bay Area, and I’ve appreciated the daring approach she takes to creating new music and to advancing the range of the koto, the Japanese floor harp. Her jazz album, Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997) is a lost masterpiece, and I’ve been meaning to write something about her latest classical release, Triangle of Resistance (Innova, 2016). She’ll be back in the Bay Area for an Aug. 20 reunion of the trio Maybe Monday, with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs.

The session was led by cellist Ha-Yang Kim, who was finishing a week-long residency at The Stone, and was fleshed out by Stefan Poetzch on violin.

masaoka-koto-cut
Miya Masaoka, from a 2016 Vimeo video of a piece called “Stemming,” using a setup similar to what she had at The Stone.

They played two improvisations. The first, longer one — probably about 40 minutes — was less focused and took longer to really coalesce. I did enjoy the melding of sounds, as the use of amplification sometimes made it hard to tell which instrument was creating which part, especially when it came to the koto and violin and the use of electronics. Masaoka also brought an array of percussive toys, sometimes nicely augmenting the group structure, sometimes creating a distraction.

But it was all in earnest. One thing about live improvisation is that you can gauge the performers’ reactions and feel almost like a participant (really more an eavesdropper) in the creative process. It makes for a more sympathetic listening experience.

The second piece, maybe 15 minutes long, was actually more successful and easier for me, as a listener, to lock into. This might have been because the performers no longer felt the pressure to get particular instruments, techniques, or sounds into the mix. Sometimes, a long improvisation feels like it carries that pressure — you sense the players trying to find a spot for every horn or every percussive device, much like a baseball manager trying to get every player into the game.

Any feelings like that were used up in the first piece — and maybe, just maybe, the players were a little bit spent as well. Either way, they chose to stick with ideas for longer stretches. While I enjoyed the opening piece, I got more entwined with the second.

I had Tuesday evening free, and while another trip to The Stone wouldn’t have been bad (it was the start of Kevin Norton’s residency, I think), Mary Halvorson was bringing her octet to the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard is always a pricey trek but with good reason, when the music is this good.

While I can’t name them off the top of my head, several recognizable numbers from Halvorson’s albums appeared, especially from Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016, reviewed here.) The band was positioned in pretty much the arrangement you see in the video below, with Halvorson and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn both sitting and virtually invisible to a lot of the audience.

I was OK with that. The four horn players, each bandleaders in their own right, stood tall front-and-center.

I remember enjoying the contrast between the saxophonists — Jon Irabagon (alto) with his fluid style informed by the jazz tradition but peppered with skronks and squeals, and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor) spinning tight patterns built from sharp turns and rapid-fire pronouncements.

I’d never seen bassist Chris Lightcap live, and I found myself paying a lot of attention to him, not just during bass solos but also during ensemble passages. I liked his choices for enhancing the melodies and solos.

The set, filled with mid-length pieces (modest song lengths have been a hallmark of Halvorson’s groups) got a warm reception from a full house, as you’d expect. This being a midweek show, we got the opportunity to stay for the second set, free of cover charge. It was a blast, and I was even able to move forward to a seat with an occasional view of Halvorson and her guitar.

A really nice New York trip, all told.

NYC Part 1: Clarinets

Had it really been five years since I last visited New York City? Feels about right.

I’ve had family members living in Brooklyn for at least the past decade, but sadly, the thing that really gets me out to the city is work. So this trip, like its predecessors, was a whirlwind. The subway is convenient and cheap but not particularly fast, so it takes effort to make it to events on time. It’s worth the sweat and the energy drain.

IMG_3009 novik dtmgallery 300xI arrived in Manhattan late on a Sunday afternoon, with barely enough time to catch the end of a free show at Downtown Music Gallery, the store that’s been a mandatory stop on every visit. DMG hosts a free set every Sunday, but I’d never seen one, since I tend to start my east-coast trips on Mondays.

DMG is also well off the subway routes, down in Chinatown between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. After checking into my hotel, I grabbed a cab, willing to pay the extra cash for the sake of taking the FDR expressway directly downtown.

I arrived for the tail end of a clarinet trio of Guillermo Gregorio, Aaron Novik, and Stan Zenkoff. The lights were down, with the audience of about 10 people seated in tiny chairs filling the browsing aisles.

One of the clarinet sounds I enjoy the most is the low burble, a quiet, mid-register fluttering of fast notes. Novik got a number of moments like that, backed by stark landscapes drawn by Gregorio and Zenkoff. But really, each of the three players cycled through moments of screeching abandon and moments of more conventional musicality, alternating roles among themselves to create that ever-shifting landscape that free improv can create.

An added bonus: Novik, formerly from the Bay Area and now living in Queens, actually recognized me. We never knew each other that well, but it was nice that he remembered me — and I certainly remember him.

We had a good chat. Then I purchased a couple of items (because I can’t visit DMG and not buy anything) then caught the F-train back to the Lower East Side for what was probably my last visit to The Stone.

Sharp, Halvorson, Ribot, Cline

Elliott Sharp with Mary Halvorson & Marc Ribot — Err Guitar (Intakt, 2017)

Nels Cline, Elliott SharpOpen the Door (Public Eyesore, 2012)

errguitarIt’s like a jungle of steel strings hanging like vines, and in certain segments, you can hear trademark moments Elliott Sharp‘s knotty, clustered guitar style; Mary Halvorson‘s spidery angles and abrupt, dark bursts; and Marc Ribot‘s soaring, edgy guitar heroism.

Put them together in a largely improvised set populated mostly with acoustic guitars, and you get that jungle effect. The overall mood is dark and twisted, but the titles of the songs (and of the album itself) tell you this is a jovial meeting. Sharp and Ribot have collaborated for decades, dating back to the ’80s downtown scene, and while Halvorson is younger, she’s been established as their peer in out-jazz circles.

Sadly, their schedules didn’t allow for a full-on trio recording. As Sharp explains in the liner notes, Err Guitar consists mostly of duets.

Two tracks were planned as overdubbed trios. “Blindspot” features all three playing in a spacious, sparkling mode; it’s a Sharp-Ribot duo with conscious space left for Halvorson. The other full-trio track is “Kernel Panic,” which carries a narrative flow built around Sharp’s graphical score. The track gathers like dark clouds, creating hailstorms at times when two or three of the players decide to cut loose.

 
These are dark landscapes. “Sinistre” casts an evil shadow, with dark-skies electric defining the mood for two scrabbling acoustic guitars. “Oronym” opens with a tangle of acoustic strings speaking in tongues and builds into an electric screech almost on the verge of a drone.

Two tracks not to miss: “Wobbly” is an acoustic duo with Ribot, with playful steel sparks flying everywhere. “Shredding Light,” with Halvorson, culminates in heavenly beams that do make it seem as if they’re playing the light itself.

cline-sharpSpeaking of guitar collaborations …

Open the Door is a lost album from 1999, when Sharp brought a young Nels Cline into Studio zOaR on West 30th Street for a day of acoustic improvising. The two guitarists laid down tracks direct-to-tape, only to have two record labels go belly-up before releasing the music. Public Eyesore‘s Bryan Day is the one who finally gave the music a proper release. It includes a 2007 live track, recorded by Cline and Sharp at The Stone, possibly in support of another duo album, Duo Milano (Long Song, 2006).

The album strikes me as having more concentration on melody (albeit in sour, off-kilter tones) than Err Guitar. “Isotropes” includes a slide and some downright pretty arpeggio work to create a songlike atmosphere. “Five Tastes of Sour” is like a careful study in harmonies, with each guitarist spending time exploring chords and leaving them to linger; it’s a nine-minute improvisation in no particular hurry.

The 2007 track, “Pietraviva,” is like blues clipped up and played on fast-forward, with notes and ideas rebounding all over the room. It packs a punch, and it ends with both guitars in tight percussive mode, the kind of clackety sound that’s been a Sharp trademark. These two had a lot of fun, both in 1999 and in 2007.

 

Halvorson Octet

Mary Halvorson OctetAway With You (Firehouse 12, 2016)

halvorson-awayThis time, it’s an octet.

Mary Halvorson‘s band, once a trio with Ches Smith (drums) and John Hébert (bass), was supposed to stop growing at the septet phase, but then she encountered pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. The result is another fine album of compositions where Halvorson creates uplifting tunes with rich arrangements for the four horns and generous spaces for thrilling solos.

Often, the compositions germinate from Halvorson’s penchant for spidery single-note lines. The horns team up to overlay those patterns, or to cut across them, creating a textures. Halvorson told The New York Times that her solo guitar album, Meltframe, pushed her to think about the music in more orchestral terms, and she’s applied those learnings effectively with this band.

Given the players involved, all of whom have established themselves as bandleaders, you can see why Halvorson was enthused to bring the septet back. Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock bring some ferocious sax solos, and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jacob Garchik (trombone) add a glinting bite to the music.

The upbeat title track kind of parallels the band’s evolution. It starts with the guitar-bass-drums trio playing what’s almost a doo-wop tune, with Halvorson’s guitar chattering over a catchy chord progression that eventually twists away from the norm. As the theme repeats, the horns enter in two layers — one countermelody, one backing harmony, for a nice dramatic effect. Then Alcorn gets a spotlight, adding a touch of mystery.

 
I have to admit, the opening theme of “Away With You” doesn’t quite click with me. It’s elegantly and smartly arranged, especially the two layers of horns, but the main theme itself leaves me flat, which makes the whole structure less compelling. The spaces that follow, though, use the band efficiently — open spaces for solos to shine and for comping players like Alcorn to add some special frills.

Overall, though, I really like the way Halvorson puts the band to use. A track that really succeeds for me is “Spirit Splitter,” which includes into stone-skipping horn countermelodies and thickly built harmonies. In a thrilling sequence, the song pits eerie, rubbery guitar chords behind a furious sax solo (Irabagon, I think) with other horns joining one by one for a sense of acceleration.

Getting back to Alcorn: Her presence on the album is often subtle. She uses her guitar in off-kilter ways for a theremin-like touch, providing a nicely contrasting companion to Halvorson’s guitar. I like the way they dance in unison on “Sword Barrel,” slowly in the intro, and then in a jumpy way later on.

A free-jazz setting suits Alcorn nicely, as shown in her tangled solo on the spacious “Fog Bank,” or her plaintive trio with Halvorson and Hébert to start “The Absolute Almost.” A complete piece in itself, that trio intro comes to a peaceful, satisfied conclusion, then gives way to the horns, in sun-through-clouds flourishes backed by pulsing guitar chords.

Thumbscrew Anew

ThumbscrewConvallaria (Cuneiform, 2016)

thumbscr-convMary Halvorson’s chiming, calculating guitar; Michael Formanek’s earthy, free-grooving bass; Tomas Fujiwara’s colorful, almost melodic drumming. It’s not that Convallaria is predictable. It’s more that the result is. You know this mix of colors is going to be vibrant and creative.

Which makes it good to see this trio of veterans reconvene as Thumbscrew to follow up their 2014 group debut. Convallaria is a creative panorama centered on compositions contributed by each group member. Graced with a two-week residency to hone the material, they’ve come up with a solid album and a collective voice that flows smoothly.

“Sampsonian Rhythms” lives up to its name with a burly, melodic foundation laid by Formanek. It’s an upbeat track with a peppy sense of swing — in terms of attitude, rather than formal rhythm. Definitely a highlight.

On the title track, Halvorson delivers long runs of fingerwork, complete with the glitchy note-bending that’s become a hallmark of hers. That gives way to a rich Formanek solo nicely grounded in a jazz sound, enhanced by Halvorson’s faint chording. Then it’s Fujiwara‘s turn, with a solo that starts with feather-light, rapid-fire snare and builds into a tumult of toms and cymbals.

Just as you’re getting used to the trio’s upbeat demeanor, Halvorson pulls out the effects for a shadowy mood on “Trigger” and “Screaming Piha.” The latter turns into almost an industrial improv piece, a gray sheen of guitar noise with Fujiwara’s drumming furiously coloring the scene. He keeps up the ferocious pace as the piece suddnly shifts into a calm guitar-and-bass conclusion.

Even with moments like that, the album does have a welcoming feel to it, an overarching sound full of controlled intensity and camaraderie. In terms of other bag-of-tricks moments, Halvorson turns on a bit of echo box to add to the tumbling chaos of “Tail of the Sad Dog.” And “Danse Insense” includes a fun percussion solo with Fujiwara testing out what seems to be a kit full of bowls and blocks.

Thumbscrew will be on the west coast on Oct. 16 for an appearance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. According to Formanek’s website, they might pop around for a few other west coast dates as well.

Mary Halvorson and Her Even Bigger Band

Mary Halvorson SeptetIllusionary Sea (Firehouse 12, 2013)

Wow. In a septet context, Mary Halvorson’s music gets all warm and cozy.

That might be an impolite thing to say in avant-garde circles, but listen to the billowing horns in the title track.

Source: Firehouse12; click to go there.

A lot of Illusionary Sea is like that: lovely sounding horns and quilts of melody, but enough room for Halvorson’s prickly guitar grunge. Richly melodic elements were present with her quintets — “Hemorrhaging Smiles” on Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12, 2012) or “Crack in the Sky” on Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12, 2010) — but to my ears, they’re amplified with the expanded horn section of the septet.

The eccentric guitar lines that made Halvorson’s trio such a delight are still there. But listen to the almost circus atmosphere early in the guitar solo on “Smiles of Great Men (No. 34).” The horns add a bright sound, and Halvorson plays along with a swinging melody before taking the song off the rails.

Halvorson even shows her hand at traditional jazz comping on “Four Pages of Robots,” setting down the backing chords while one horn solos. Of course, that mode doesn’t last, and as the horns wind down the piece, Halvorson obscures throws sheets of guitar spackle at the melody. That’s one of Illusionary Sea’s best tricks: mixing jazz horns with attack-mode guitar in a way that makes sense.

So, when I talk about the music being “nice,” it’s less about losing edge and more about gaining depth. The compositions are still rooted in avant-rock guitar sketchings, but they’re fleshed out with sophisticated horns — a step further toward the jazz side of the spectrum. The ensemble’s progression from trio to quintet to septet seems like a reflection of Halvorson’s desire to say more with the music.

Ches Smith at the Helm

Ches Smith, the drummer who’s become a downtown NYC fixture (and who earlier made his Bay Area name as co-leader of Good for Cows and founder of the one-man Congs for Brums) is coming out with his first album leading a band-sized band. It’s called Finally Out of My Hands, and it’s due to arrive on Skirl on Nov. 16.

It’s a document of These Arches, Smith’s first band-sized band.  And you can tell what pull he has by the people he’s gotten to play for him: Mary Halvorson (guitar), Tony Malaby (sax), and Andrea Parkins (accordion, maybe keyboards).

Some reactions: Check out Parkins on accordion, really getting into it … That’s an interesting composition; good to see that side of Smith reflected in this band … and from the “Well, duh” department: Oh, so that’s what Tony Malaby looks like.

It appears you can pre-order Finally Out of My Hands at Squidco, and I’d wager they’ll take a pre-order at Downtown Music Gallery if you call ’em.