Back Pages #7: Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Banner for the Knit in its second home, the one I visited. Photo: Alicia Bay Laurel, aliciab4.com

On my first visit to the Knitting Factory, I needed a souvenir. This was the late ’90s, after the club had become famous as New York’s avant-jazz nexus, and I was quick to fall in love with it — the multiple performance stages, the free music at the basement bar, the (to me) gritty feel of TriBeCa. Oh, and the fliers stacked on tables and posted on walls, DIY photocopies advertising midweek gigs in unknown lofts and art spaces. This was my first exposure to a live-music scene. Shortly after, I would be tapping the Bay Area’s own scene heavily, but this was my first glimpse of this whole new universe. I needed a souvenir.

So I stared at the shelves of CDs for sale. Tim Berne was my touchstone, so maybe something different — something away from the saxophone direction. Piano, maybe, especially once the cover of Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) caught my eye. It promised the kind of abstract language that I wanted to explore. That’s the one that I took home. 

Symbol Systems has been rereleased on Hatology, but for me, this minimal abstract album cover will always be the “real” one.

On first listen, I remember Symbol Systems feeling truly alien, brimming with this rich new vocabulary. From the clipped chords that open “Clocks,” to the wandering lines later in the piece, to the machine-like hammering in “Harmonic Oscillator,” to the fluid babble of the title track.

I think it helped that Shipp’s instrument is piano, because that meant no microtones. The album doesn’t even feature extended techniques or prepared piano, as I recall. That made it easier to explore. All these years later, the “alien” feeling has worn off — I’m accustomed to the idiom’s of Shipp’s unique language, like the heavy notes matched with the sustain pedal, and the dialects of avant-garde and free improv aren’t as alien to me. But back then, the album was an exciting trip into the unknown.

Excerpt from “Clocks”

I don’t remember the exact timing of all this. This visit must have happened in 1996 or 1997, when my new job led to a week in New York, my first trip on my own, and I took advantage of the summer evenings as much as possible. I might have already heard David S. Ware’s Cryptology by then, as it was the lead album review in a Rolling Stone issue circa 1995, and I’d eventually been intrigued enough to eventually try it out (but too green to really digest it). If that’s the case, maybe I bought Symbol Systems because I recognized Shipp’s name.

Of course, my memories of the Knitting Factory are romanticized. I arrived on the downside of its peak. And while I loved the idea of a club built to foster the avant-jazz scene, it turns out to have all been a happy accident that we have Wayne Horvitz to thank for. Check out the oral history that Jazz Times ran in May.

Songs for Barbès

Here’s something fun: New York City venue Barbès posted a month’s worth of video performances from musicians, little love notes to celebrate the bar’s 18th birthday (on May 1, 2020) and maybe draw a little attention to the Barbès fundraiser.

A jewel of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Barbès hosts a lot of music that would land in the “world” category. Eastern European or Latin American or African, traditional or modern, folky or jazzy or even classical — every permutation seems to come up. They also host frequent shows out of New York’s avant-jazz scene, which is how I got introduced. The bar is a tight squeeze on a crowded Saturday night, but it’s a cozy, welcoming spot, and for my friends who lived in that neighborhood for a few years, it was an anchor.

The homemade videos are all sheltered-in-place and often charming, sometimes including spoken well-wishes to Barbès. Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey (who I believe are married) stitched together two improvisations for their four-minute tribute.

Jenny Scheinman, who was part of the early-’00s Bay Area scene, plays a friendly “Little Calypso” on violin. It still amazes me how much sound a violin can produce with so little actual motion.

The New Mellow Edwards, a quartet led by trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, recorded separately to produce their piece. Watch bassist Trevor Dunn — the look he gives to camera at the end is perfect.

Ben Monder contributes “Never Let Me Go.” The first comment on the YouTube page refers to Monder’s “impossible” playing, which to me is the perfect word. I’m impressed with the harmonic vocabulary of jazz guitarists in particular, but Monder is other-dimension-ly — I’m thinking especially of the gorgeous, baffling, dense chording on parts of his 1998 trio album Flux (with Drew Gress on bass on Jim Black on drums).

Finally, the ensemble called Anbessa Orchestra made a slickly edited video of their song “Lions.”

And so on. There are a few dozen videos stacked up on Barbès’ YouTube site, and they went along with a GoFundMe campaign that was successful but could still use a little more love.

CHAMA

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CHAMA — Hexagono (Falcon Gumba, 2020)

CHAMA applies a garage-band approach to creative jazz, creating music that’s rigorous but just feels fun. The violin-guitar-drums trio met years ago in Venezuela (where “chama” is colloquial for “girl”) and have since reconvened in New York. Having released a couple of EPs a few years ago, they’ve been issuing digital tracks this year on the Falcon Gumba label, run by violinist Leonor Falcón.

On “Hexagono,” CHAMA dips into smart math rock, built on a glitchy phrase that ends with an unmistakable flourish. “Carupano” runs at a cooler temperature on a sly but energetic jazzy groove. And “Kids,” written by drummer Arturo García, puts heavier emphasis on Juanma Trujillo’s guitar, a midtempo chugging followed by slow, bluesy reverb.

Outside CHAMA, Falcón’s creative music output has tracked closer to jazz. Her album IMAGA MONDO, esperanto for “imaginary world,” includes Trujillo alongside bass clarinet and drums, playing music ranging from modernized swing (“Gnomes”) to abstract melodic sketches (“Nymphs and Spaceman,” with multiple overdubbed violins) to an uplifting anthem (“Humanoides.”) A playful violin-viola duet called Peach & Tomato, pairing Falcón with Sana Nagano, operates on a sense of conversational forward motion, adding some electrified sounds for texture.

Trujillo has some output on Falcon Gumba too. El Vecino is a quartet with trumpet; Sferos is a trio with sax and drums that gets into some looser, untethered exploration.

Here are a few more snippets of CHAMA in action.

David Tudor’s Rainforest V

IMG_5800-cut1One experience from my recent New York trip hasn’t made it into here yet. MoMA was exhibiting David Tudor’s installation, Rainforest V (variation 1).

Rainforest is a sound installation that’s very tourist-friendly. Conceived in 1968 and re-imagined many times since, it’s an abstract jungle of shapes and industrial artifacts suspended at different heights and adorned with speakers emitting chirps and splashes and gentle roars. Much of the installation is built of wood or metal, the idea being that the materials’ resonant qualities contribute to the sound, especially when you put your ear up to a plank or stick your head in an oil drum.

This MoMA page has a virtual rendition of Rainforest V, complete with audio. It works in a browser and can apparently be played on a VR device as well. It’s nice to experience in solitude, but it was also worthwhile to be there, with other people making their own discoveries.

The bad news is that it closed on Jan. 5, so you can’t go see it there. But it’s a traveling exhibit, so maybe it will come to a town near you.

Nicole Mitchell at Happylucky No.1

IMG_5786 brooklyn nostrand ave.I’ve stayed in Brooklyn multiple times and try to visit any time I’m in New York, but I don’t really see Brooklyn. I’m usually in the Park Slope area — quiet and gentrified, lots of trees, lots of bars and hip eateries. At twilight, the sidewalks fill with young couples pushing strollers. It’s not a far walk from Barclay’s Center and downtown, but it feels a world apart to me.

IMG_5792 thestone marqueeFarther east, you get into neighborhoods like Crown Heights, which is more old-school Brooklyn: a little grittier — or, really, just more well-worn. On a commercial street called Nostrand Ave. is an art gallery called happylucky no.1, where The Stone presents shows on weekends. I ventured out there to see Nicole Mitchell (flute) in an ebullient trio with Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Liberty Ellman (guitar) — three musicians whose recordings I’ve enjoyed but whom I’d never seen perform.

This was the weekend of an unseasonable arctic chill, and temperatures hovered near freezing all evening. That might have kept the audience low. Only four or five of us, not counting the two curators at the door, were on hand, but we got to see a vivacious set built around Mitchell’s compositions.

Even internationally known names like these three have faced small crowds before and still give it their all. They’re pros. This felt like something more, though, like a small party, with all three players in high spirits even before the show started and eager to dig into the work and share the music, even if only with a few people. The music was alive and fun, brimming with the energy of three players locked into the same zone.

Just down the block, on the other side of Nostrand, is a little burrito grill that serves empanadas. Someday, when it’s warmer, I’ll grab a bite there before stepping into happylucky no.1 for another show.

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Sound check, seen from the outside.

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Nicole Mitchell’s stage.

 

Binging ‘The Stone:’ Peter Evans, Nicole Mitchell, Aurán Ortiz

Early in November, for the first time in a few years, I was in New York with enough free time for some music. I didn’t intend to only see shows at The Stone, but it worked out that way.

I hadn’t been to The Stone since it moved. Originally a black-box venue on the lower east side, it’s struck up a partnership with The New School, an arts college up on West 13th Street, where The Stone now gets to occupy a comfortable streetside performance room. I got to see two shows there: Trumpeter Peter Evans with a chordless trio, and pianist Aurán Ortiz in trio demonstrating his Afro-Cubism concept.

The Stone also presents weekly or monthly shows at some ancillary venues. So on a Saturday night, I ventured deeper into Brooklyn than I’ve ever gone before, to Nostrand Avenue, for a chance to see Nicole Mitchell.

The usual Stone rules apply: No food or drink allowed inside, and no photography during the shows.

IMG_5753 peter evans stone

Peter Evans can do plenty with extended technique and sound experimentation, but he’s also adept in contexts closer to the jazz tradition, as with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This set showed off both sides but leaned toward more traditionally “musical” sounds, using Evans’ compositions as a foundation and presenting lots of experimental twists (one piece focused heavily on air-through-the-horn sounds, for instance). Evans’ fast fast playing showed up quickly during the first piece — a flood of crystal-precision tones flowing over long unison tones from Alice Teyssier (flute) and Ryan Muncy (sax).

The three of them had performed together in a 50-person George Lewis concert where they apparently played the prankster role, moving through the mass of other musicians and generally causing trouble. Some of that attitude showed up here. One piece gave an unaccompanied solo to each player, and Muncy’s consisted of one long multi-tone wrested from the sax.

I wish I could remember more about the compositions themselves, but I remember it being a bright, easygoing set overall, with some challenging but pleasant assignments in the music. At times it felt like a casual chamber-music set, which I suppose was the theme of the concert in general.

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Source: Sound It Out NYC

Aruán Ortiz performed with Darius Jones (sax) and Ches Smith (drums) as the trio Firm Roots, presenting one long-form improvisation. Afro-Cubism, featured on his solo album Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017), comes across to me as a patient style of free playing, where pauses and quietude darken the dense, gnarled harmonies. I don’t mean to say it’s all slow — Ortiz does get into rapid, splashy playing. But he relishes the journey in getting there.

On a macro scale, the piece followed a fast-slow-fast progression — with plenty of deviations, of course, but the opening segment featured Jones in a forceful, declarative mode, favoring long herading tones, and the end built up to a more quick-handed intensity.

The Evans and Ortiz shows bookended my trip. In between there was Nicole Mitchell, and I’ll devote the next blog entry to that.

Back Pages #4: Tim Berne’s Bloodcount

berne-bloodcount(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I might have been the first mail-order customer for Tim Berne’s Screwgun Records, only because I couldn’t accept an invitation to drop by his house.

Screwgun is Berne’s second record label. He’d cut his teeth on Empire Records starting in 1979, having learned from the example of Julius Hemphill. In 1996, he was ready to give it another go.

He started with Bloodcount Unwound, a gloriously DIY effort: three CDs in a cardboard package with a gloriously insane fold-up card that combines credits, track listings, and a vegan cookie recipe by Jim Black. Artist Steve Byram‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.

bloodcount

I was in New York some weeks prior to Unwound‘s release, and I struck up a conversation with Berne after a gig — at the old Knitting Factory, I think. He was talking about getting a mail-order label started, with a live Bloodcount album as the first release. “But you know,” he said, “you could just drop by my house tomorrow and pick one up.”

Two problems. First: Berne lives in Brooklyn. Being new to the New York experience, I was nervous about wandering outside Manhattan, not out of snobbery, but because we didn’t have GPS devices and cellphone maps back then. Stepping a few blocks off the grid to find the Knitting Factory was disorienting enough; I didn’t think I stood a chance at navigating Brooklyn.

More importantly, I had a flight to catch the next day. I theoretically had time, but — I would have to find Berne’s house in one try, then find a cab (I was savvy enough to assume Brooklyn wouldn’t be swarming with them), and hope for forgiving traffic along the slog to JFK.

I honestly considered it. But with my trip nearing its end, the grown-up in me took over. I declined.

I don’t recall what happened next, but most likely, Tim provided me instructions for mailing a check. (Berne had no website at the time, and online credit-card processing wasn’t in the hands of most DIY types anyway.) Some time later, Bloodcount Unwound found its way to our little townhouse in San Jose.

Unwound is the best of the Bloodcount albums, capturing the band at their fiery peak. “These recordings were not produced!” the liner notes proudly proclaim. (In the photo above, it’s at the top, near the center.) Berne essentially bootlegged his own concerts with a DAT recorder — another practice that’s commonplace today but seemed forward-thinking in 1996.

The new tracks on the album were a treat, but I also enjoyed hearing older pieces like “What Are the Odds?” and “Bro’ball” (a combination of “Broken” and “Lowball” from the 1993 trio album Loose Cannon). You get all the subtleties of Bloodcount’s long improvisational phases as well as moments of sheer, oversaturating power, particularly from Jim Black’s drums. Check out “Mr. Johnson’s Blues:”

 
This is what happens when a band gets familiar with each other in a good way. If you want to learn why this band remains so popular, Unwound  is the place to look.

My recollection is that Unwound‘s original run of 2,000 sold out, and Berne eventually printed more. DIY CDs were looking like a promising business model for independent musicians.

But for Berne and other musicians, that dream would be chipped away in the coming years, first by piracy (despite what pop-music fans seem to think, “touring” isn’t a substitute for selling records) and more recently by the paltry royalties of streaming services. Berne found haven in the form of an ECM contract — in fact, his Snakeoil band has a new album that I’m overdue to pick up.

Screwgun, despite tougher odds, lives on; screwgunrecords.com remains Berne’s home page, where he still sells CDs and now offers MP3s of some out-of-print titles. (Unwound isn’t among them yet, but you can find it on Bandcamp.) The label recently produced a Matt Mitchell solo CDForage, and a Berne/Byram art book called Spare. Long live DIY.

NYC Part 2: Strings & Halvorson

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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.

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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.

Human Feel and the Magic of Discovery

Human Feel: Rosenwinkel, D'Angelo, Black, SpeedSeeing that Human Feel has tour dates here in the Bay Area makes me nostalgic —  not just for the band, but for the bygone era they represent to me.

Thursday, June 26, the band is playing at Yoshi’s Oakland, and Monday, June 30, they’ll be at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz — their only Bay Area appearances that I’m aware of since about 1997. They’re touring in advance of a new album, coming out in June.

Which is awesome news. All four members — Andrew D’Angelo, Jim Black, Chris Speed, and Kurt Rosenwinkel — have careers of their own, so it takes an alignment of planets to get Human Feel back in the studio, let alone on the road.

But here’s what’s really on my mind.

Tim Berne’s Bloodcount is the band that got me into the whole avant-jazz thing in the first place, an interest that eventually fueled the radio show that eventually fueled this blog.

Human Feel 2014 tour poster, from FacebookThat was around 1997, and I was in New York, visiting the Knitting Factory (which still supported avant-jazz big-time, for a few final, glorious years). I’d gotten to see Tim Berne play, and I’d picked up a free music magazine called M3 or something like that. In the back were CD reviews, including one for Human Feel’s second album, Speak to It.

That’s how I found out that Black and Speed, both from Bloodcount, had been in another band. I wanted to hear that band.

Understand this: The Internet in 1997 was not what it is today. You didn’t just look up a band’s web site — web sites literally hadn’t existed five years earlier — and digitizing music, let alone downloading it, was barely even a dream for most of us.

No — back then, you had to rely on magazines and real word-of-mouth. The blind faith of mail-order was always an option, but it was more exciting to stalk the record-store bins, bypassing the big names (Pat Metheny, Gary Burton) to go straight for the alphabetical dividers, where the more obscure “M” and “B” artists — or the ones the store’s clerks hadn’t heard of — were hiding.

At the time, I didn’t know any New York records stores other than Tower, and I didn’t have time to shop anyway. So the next time I was in Berkeley, I sped over to Amoeba Records and scanned the “H” bin, with little hope.

Human Feel: Welcome to MalpestaBut there it was. A CD that, weeks ago, I would have bypassed: Human Feel’s Welcome to Malpesta. It had that same Steve Byram-looking cover that Tim Berne’s albums did, chaotic and scribbled, promising a mind-bending experience.

Listening to the album was a joy. Andrew D’Angelo’s “Sich Reped” opens it — a catchy, maddening 7/4 theme like a nursery rhyme gone bad (“Three Blind Mice” in a blender, I think a friend called it), hitting all the crazy angles my ears were hoping for. It’s followed by Chris Speed’s “Iceaquay,” the kind of drifting, improv-heavy piece I was just starting to appreciate.

That’s what it used to be like to find music. The hard work of panning for gold, and the sweet victory of discovery.

Today, I scan the bins, and the delight has faded. Some of that has to do with volunteering at KZSU, where I got exposed to a lot of new releases, but mostly it’s the Internet. I don’t get to hear every Clean Feed or Firehouse 12 release that comes out — but I do know that it’s come out. Little surprises are harder and harder to find.

That’s why Human Feel, in addition to being a good band, has a special place in my heart. They were one of my few great New York finds before the Internet brought New York to my doorstep. Don’t get me wrong; I love being able to follow musicians on the Internet, keeping up with their recordings and their careers. But, as old people will always say to young people, it’s not the same.


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