Sperryfest 9, and a Visitor from Vancouver

Clarinetist François Houle will be the featured player at this year’s Sperryfest, the series of concerts in honor of the late bassist Matthew Sperry. Concerts run July 13 to 15.

Part of Vancouver’s terrific jazz community, Houle has an output that covers a nice swath of experimental musics. He’s done some nice free-jazz work for the Songlines label, including a 1999 album called In the Vernacular that I remember fondly. He’s also recorded on Spool, output that I’m less familiar with but that includes some of the key Vancouver names of the last 10 to 15 years, including Peggy Lee (cello) and Dylan van der Schyf (drums).

Houle brings a fresh energy to new classical music as well. I’m thinking particularly of Double Entendre, an album of new-music pieces for multiple overdubbed clarinets and pre-recorded electronics (a.k.a. tape music). More recently, he recorded the piece, “Flirt,” a duet with accordianist Jelena Milojevic composed by Doug Schmidt. This page on his web site sets the stage and links to an MP3 recording of the upbeat, pulsing piece.

The SperryFest schedule runs as follows:

Wed. July 13, 8:00 p.m. — Houle solo, at a special dinner concert for 20 put on by In the Mood for Food. This one’s going to be hard to get into, because some spots are reserved for Sperry’s family and friends.

Thu. July 14, 8:00 p.m. — TrioShift (three musicians improvising at a time; here’s a 2010 explanation) and Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise,” performed by Orchesperry.  At the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

Fri. July 15, 8:00 p.m. — Houle performs solo, and in duets with Gino Robair. At Temescal Arts Center (511 48th St, Oakland).

Posts related to previous SperryFests (including background about why Matthew remains an inspiration, eight years on):

Sperryfest Wrap-Up

I didn’t make it to either of the concerts for this year’s Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival (blog notices here and here). But other folks, who write other fine blogs that track Bay Area creative music, did.

On the CatSynth blog, Amar Chaudhary offers a description and photos of the trio improv night,which sounds like it had a sublime and touching ending.

On HurdAudio, Devin Hurd reviews the modern classical (a.k.a. new music) night, which culminated in a one-hour Anthony Braxton ghost trance piece. Sounds awesome.

Heavy gratitude to those folks, and to photog extraordinaire michaelz1, who’s documented lots of great local shows on Flickr.  That’s a photo of his, above, taken during the trio improv show.

Sperryfest Preview II

A reminder that the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival is upon us:

* Thursday June 3 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale (i.e., pay what you want within that range): Tag Team Trio Shift: Improvsations with 3 musicians at any given time, refereed by John Shiurba.
… At the Luggage Store Gallery: 1007 Market St., San Francisco

* Saturday June 5 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale … Chamber ensemble sfSound plays two Sperry Compositions: “Wadadaism” (1991) and “Veins” (1995). Also compositions by Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney, and sfSoundGroup.
… At 21 Grand, 416 25th Street, Oakland

Sperry, killed in a traffic accident in 2003, didn’t leave behind a huge output of recordings or finished compositions. For these festivals, his friends have been taking ideas from his music notebooks.

The full program of the June 5 show is listed on Facebook, and it opens with two pieces out of those notebooks.  I don’t know what to expect from either one, other than noting the obvious humorous reference to Wadada Leo Smith in the “Wadadaism” title. Those pieces will be followed by one of Anthony Braxton’s — I’d noted the connection here — and pieces by Cornelius Cardew and James Tenney.

Expect good modern classical stuff, at least some of it played by a large ensemble of great local musicians.

On June 3, it’s probably going to be a series of free improvised pieces, but here’s the trick. I think it’s going to be game-like, with Shiurba shuttling people on and off stage to keep a perpetual trio going. That’s just a guess, but I think it’s a good one. The Luggage Store is right downtown in San Francisco, so there’s no harm in stopping in for a minute to check it out, is there?

Shiurba and others have worked to put some of Sperry’s live recordings on CD, giving Sperry more of a recorded legacy.  Click here for a list.  CDs will probably be on sale at both shows, proceeds going to Sperry’s wife and daughter. The music is abstract free improvisation — some terrific lively performances.

Click the Ghost Bike picture, above, for a short blog essay by Dara Kerr about ghost bikes and their significance.

Braxton and Matthew Sperry

The Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival comes June 3 and 5 to San Francisco and Oakland: Rotating trio improvs on June 3; modern classical music on June 5. See earlier post.
Matthew Sperry played on a colossal Anthony Braxton album, Six Compositions (GTM) 2001, so it’s fitting to see a Braxton piece included in the Matthew Sperry memorial concert coming on June 5.

Man, does that album bring back some fun radio memories.

I love owning this 4-CD album, still available on Rastascan. I revel in its bigness, even though the Firehouse 12 label has since outdone it. I never liked those double-wide jewel cases that record labels used in the early days of CD formats — but in this case, it’s awesome, just sitting there on the shelf next to skinny, wimpy cases.

And inside, there’s more bigness.

The opening “track” is “Composition #286 (Tentet),” which lasts 92 minutes and had to be split between the first two CDs. They could have stopped there — but no! Two more CDs hurl Braxton goodness at you, in increments of 18 to 33 minutes. Don’t bother looking for the hit single.

And if the hugeness of the tracks wasn’t enough, there’s the music itself — and that’s where the radio thing comes into play.  We put this album into rotation at KZSU for the usual nine-week run. MU-HAHAHAHAHA!!

See, the music is from Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance period, which is vaguely influenced by Native American musics: ritual chants and the like. It’s characterized by a steady, steady pulsing of sounds — but it’s not a steady heartbeat. Lots of triplets and…multiplets (7-over-4 rhythms, that kind of thing) pepper the piece to keep some disbalance going. And because note choices are often left to the performers, there’s a constant shifting of harmony — and yet, because the notes collide so often, it can feel like the same harmony, unrelenting.

For an unsuspecting radio listener, the macro effect is like a hammer, an ongoing pulse that’s varying juuuuust a bit from one strike to the next. BLIP! BIP! BLIP! BI-BAP! BAP! BIP! BLIP! BAP! BI-BAP-BIP! BLEP! BIP! BIP!

I went out of my way to insert segments of this music into my shows. Most times, it was like a sudden, massive roadblock. I loved it.

The part that really blows my mind is that they’re following sheet music! For 90 minutes! I’m imagining an impossibly long scroll of notes, notes, notes, notes. (The reality, I think, is that Braxton used visual cues to conduct the group, keep them on the same landmarks, and jump to different parts of the piece. The concentration required is still impressive.)

As with a lot of experimental music, a deep listen has its rewards here.  There’s usually some saxophone or other that’s soloing over the pulse, darting diagonally across the grid in an exciting free-jazz dance. Ghost Trace Music has a lot more color than in minimalist classical. It’s not like watching someone recite pi.

There’s also the Braxton mix-mash thing.  “Composition No. 286” includes snippets of Nos. 147, 20, 69D, 256, 173, 6J, 162, and 23A.  (Braxton must work on multiple compositions at a time, so it’s feasible he’ll someday accidentally reuse a number. One only hopes this won’t rupture the time-space continuum.)

For more on Ghost Trance Music, check out this blog entry from Steve Smith, a music journalist for the New York Times and Time Out: New York. And take to heed his opening point: That this seemingly monochrome, pulsey music has a tie to the classic jazz bass walk. Hm.

Several Bay Area musicians worked with, or learned from, Braxton, and the Ghost Trance influence pops up now and again.  Dan Plonsey used a similar idea with his CD-long Daniel Popsicle compositions, which use a similar element of a rhythm that’s seemingly long-repeating but is varying just slightly from measure to measure. Two big difference are that Plonsey used a wider range of styles, and that he broke those pieces into segments that were clearly different — so there’d be a sudden shift into something pretty, or funky, or soft. There’s a evenhanded pleasantness to the Daniel Popsicle pieces, and they’re a good listen. But like the Braxton compositions, the sheer length and the near-repetitive nature could make for an endurance test of a concert.

That’s a long way from Sperry (although he probably played on a Daniel Popsicle piece or two).  The point: Be aware that Sperry got to play some challenging, serious music in some really fun settings.

Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival 2010

Happening Thursday, June 3, and Saturday, June 5, in San Francisco and Oakland.

It’s time again for the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, the annual gathering of Bay Area improv musicians to celebrate the tragically short life of bassist Sperry, killed in a traffic accident in 2003.

This year’s festival is the eighth, and it’s the first without a guest musician from out of town. That’s understandable, considering how long a run they’ve had with the festival. (I think the invited guests were limited to musicians who’d played with Matthew, too — a large but finite pool.)

No matter; it’s still a good cause (proceeds to go this family), and a celebration not only of Matthew but of community.  This year’s shows will be:

* Thursday June 3 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale (i.e., pay what you want within that range): Tag Team Trio Shift: Improvsations with 3 musicians at any given time, refereed by John Shiurba.
… At the Luggage Store Gallery: 1007 Market St., San Francisco

* Saturday June 5 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale … Chamber ensemble sfSound plays two Sperry Compositions: “Wadadaism” (1991) and “Veins” (1995). Also compositions by Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney, and sfSoundGroup.
… At 21 Grand, 416 25th Street, Oakland

You can also check out:

* The Matthew Sperry tribute site. I’m impressed that they’ve continued to maintain it (although the link to photos appears broken for the moment).

* This Festival’s Facebook page, listing the compositions to be played on the 5th.

* My explanation of the festival, posted last year.

* Reviews from last year’s festival:  At the Luggage Store (featuring a fun, fun performance of improv rock piece “Treasure Mouth”) and at Berkeley’s Hillside Club (featuring Gail Brand and Morgan Guberman).

SperryFest Day 3

Brand/Djll/Perkis/Shiurba/Robair, June 2009

Friday night’s closing of the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival turned out to be a knockout, with some brilliant improvisations from a quintet and due both featuring Gail Brand.

The evening started with the quintet pictured above: Brand (trombone) on the far left; Tom Djll on trumpet, sort of visible to the naked eye; Tim Perkis (electronics), obscured by mic stands; John Shiurba (guitar); and Gino Robair (drums), who in this picture has become a being of pure energy.

It was a strong set, bristling with energy from the get-go. The first piece, of medium length, was a nicely rolling crackle of sound, winding up to a satisfying ending. The second piece was even faster and louder, a bustling group piece that ended quickly when everybody stopped on a dime. It took them a second to realize it, too; the band got a good laugh out of it.

The third and longest piece was the most varied, featuring some of the slower, textured passages that can make an improv session stand out. This one nearly ended quickly, too, but Brand held one insistent note long after the others had wound down to a halt. Robair eventually took the suggestion and started up a light percussion patter, and the piece re-ignited for a strong second half.

I’ve found there is a game element to live improvised music, namely: When do you stop? Each piece winds through its course and approaches many possible ending points, but whether the “right” one gets taken depends on whether the players are hearing the same thing you are. This particular quintet seemed to really be “on,” in that respect.

But it’s not just the ending that counts. The interplay, the mood, the overall flow — all these elements came together nicely. The session was recorded (hence the multiple microphones in that picture), so hopefully the world will get to hear it eventually.

The Hillside Club, BerkeleyThe Hillside Club, by the way, turns out to be a wonderful place for music. It’s a social club north of the U.C. Berkeley campus, housed in an old wooden building (this picture was taken long before the show started, by the way; the audience wasn’t this absent). Robair noted that the acoustics of the room are solid, and it’s a rare thing for such a comfortable, good-sounding venue to be willing to host such experimental music. They host music every week — normally chamber music or mainstream jazz — so I’ll have to come by again sometime soon.

Source:EmanemDisc.comBack to Friday’s show: It concluded with the duo of Brand on trombone and Morgan Guberman on vocals. They’ve recorded one CD, on Emanem, and have a second one in the can, apparently.

They’re a great musical team and a good slapstick duo as well. Guberman puts forth a combination of singing (with good operatic tones), strange noises, and crazy-old-guy shtick, often making up syllables but sometimes reverting to normal language for a spell. He’s often spastic and loud, and was never in danger of getting out-shouted by the trombone.

Duo improvisation can work well when the players are in opposition (one playing fast, the other slow) but these pieces really shone when Brand and Guberman worked in concert — both quieting down, or both going on the attack. Guberman also brought an enormous drum head that he shook like a kite for some great, low tones. (No pictures; the camera ran out of battery.)

Their set ended with Guberman sticking his shaved head into the trombone’s bell as a mute, in a silly and almost sensual intertwining.

This show was attended by Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, and several of her daughter’s friends and parents, although they all stayed in a back room, for the most part. Understandably so — the kids are old enough to know when they’re not having fun! Hopefully they come away from these concerts with some appreciation of the music, some fragment of it that will lock away in their minds and click into awareness years later.

Playlist: June 5, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, June 5, 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

….. Should I mention the Matthew Sperry concerts again? See earlier entry.

Source: Limited Sedition….. Actually I will mention this: As the festival has evolved from year to year, the local Limited Sedition label has been releasing CD-Rs of Matthew Sperry performances, mastered from live tapes. The first was a set of solo bass performances; the most recent is a second all-solo, all-bass disk. Matthew’s playing included a lot of extended technique: sticking objects into the strings, scraping the bass body with mallets, etc., so the results are a percussive exploration of sound.

Source: AUM Fidelity….. Fully Celebrated, formerly the Fully Celebrated Orchestra (even though they were always three or four people), puts up catchy, even funky heads followed by chaotic, free-jazz soloing. Loads of fun.

….. Forgas Band Phenomena is new stuff played in the old ’70s prog vein: long suites, searing guitar, woodwinds in the band. Cuneiform always puts out nice stuff, but at first glance, this is a standout.

Source:Pi Recordings….. Corey Wilkes‘ Abstrakt Pulse puts up hard-bop composing spread against free-jazz soloing — stuff that’s way out there when it breaks orbit. It’s not strictly head-solo-head patterns, either; “SICK JJ,” played here, pretty much stays in improv/free mode, while “Visionary of an Abstrakt” uses a recurring theme to punctuate a variety of exploratory, off-topic solos. On the way, the album sports one-minute free-improv interludes. Wilkes is only turning 30, but he’s the one who was picked to fill Lester Bowie’s chair in the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Continue reading “Playlist: June 5, 2009”

SperryFest Day 2

As noted below, it’s really called the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival. Only I call it SperryFest, and only in my mind.

Whatever, it was fun. I knew I couldn’t make the first concert, on Tuesday night, but I’d made arrangements to be free tonight, and made the drive up to San Francisco to catch the show at the Luggage Store Gallery. (Tenderloin moment: clean-cut 30’ish woman getting hoots and hollers from the local hangers-out. Her irate response: “When will you guys remember that I live on this block?”)

The band sets up
The band sets up

Action shot

The evening began with a large-group conducted improvisation, a band called OrcheSperry. Gino Robair conducted, bringing instruments in and out of the mix to form sublime moods — spiky, relaxed, silly, dramatic. He also sometimes called for a player to work in opposition to whatever was going on — “be an a**hole,” in other words — which led to some hilarious results, especially when John Ingle‘s sax obliterated was was building into a serene, melodic flow.

Treasure Mouth, June 2009Treasure Mouth followed: an improvised karaoke experiment that Matthew had conceived. This was the “rock” version, which might have made things relatively easy. Conductor John Shiurba picked the chords, letting the band jam on each chord for several “verses.” It was grooving, and cooking, and you could tell they were having a lot of fun with it.

Lyrics were posted via overhead projector by writer Beth Lisick, who sent the singers (three women with great voices, doing a lot of harmonizing) through monologues about a 93-year old tai chi master, a lover obsessed with drowning into the muck, and a rad skateboard dude being watched by the clouds.

Treasure Mouth, June '09The horn section was particularly fun, consisting of Phillip Greenlief and Dan Plonsey (local players I’ve seen in a wide range of contexts, but never this straight) along with Gail Brand, the U.K.-based improvising trombonist who is the Festival’s special guest this time around.

The gating factor in Treasure Mouth is the speed at which the lyricist can write down the material. That’s not a knock on Beth Lisick, who did a great job, but a human being can only write (or even type) so quickly. Now, the vocalists do have the option of hanging onto the last line and repeating it several times — that’s what happens in normal rock, after all — but sometimes that effect lasted a bit too long. The singers would sometimes go back and vamp on previously written lines from the same song, which was a good idea.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d want to listen to a recording of the results, but it was fun to witness live. Treasure Mouth is an idea worth keeping alive.

Treasure Mouth, June 2009

Playlist and Interview: June 3, 2009

Playlist for Wednesday, June 3, 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Thanks to Red West for letting me use his time slot to interview Gino Robair, so we could fill in listeners about the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival and the shows happening June 4 and 5. Details are in a previous post.

source:rastascan.comThe show’s opening set, including the Tom Waits songs, is built of pieces with Sperry’s bass playing in the mix. The Six Fuchs album, teaming German clarinetist Wolfgang Fuchs with five local musicians, was a particular highlight. It’s a strong album. Gino noted that an improv album is usually distilled from a couple of hours of recordings, but Six Fuchs presents pretty much what was played that day, in the order it was played. The group just really clicked that day; it was a moment to savor. Sperry died two weeks later.

The rest of the show is my weak approximation of Red West’s own show. Actually, he presents music from all over the map; I went for a mostly pop format that devolved into darker noisier forms later. Notes:

….. Mimi Dye is a local violist (yes, viola) who presents a Latin jazz side on River in the Sun. It’s very mainstream stuff, but well done — upbeat and snappy. I’d expected something softer and new-agey, since my only exposure to Dye’s playing is on her solo viola interpretations of Hildegard of Bingen‘s 12th-century songs.

….. “Oh Daddy,” dating back to 1991, is the closest Adrian Belew has gotten to having a radio hit. He and his daughter (who sings on the chorus) even got a photo and a brief mention in People magazine.

….. I picked a snappy, rocking pop tune from The Postmarks, but their album also sports a lush cover of “You Only Live Twice.”

Continue reading “Playlist and Interview: June 3, 2009”