Posts tagged ‘new york’

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.

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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.

December 17, 2017 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

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.

August 5, 2017 at 11:24 pm Leave a comment

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.

August 1, 2017 at 9:59 pm Leave a comment

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.


See also:

 

June 25, 2014 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

Sharp Attack on Strings

Elliott SharpCut With Occam’s Razor (zOaR, 2013)

Jack Quartet performing "Boreal" at New College of Florida.

Jack Quartet performing “Boreal” at New College of Florida,

As part of Elliott Sharp‘s residency at The Stone in early October, JACK Quartet performed two of his compositions — two companion pieces similiar in strategy, both dynamic and exciting. One of them, “The Boreal,” also happens to lead off Sharp’s latest CD of classical works.

I caught the concert (and a couple others to be mentioned later) during my latest visit to New York.

“The Boreal” was written in 2009, and “Tranzience,” its followup, is a new composition that got its premiere at this show. Both involve alternatives to the string bow — springs, metal bars, ball-bearing chains — mixed with traditional bowing in slashing, cathartic passages.

As with most modern pieces, there were passages of near silence as well. The JACK Quartet impressively stayed precise and focused against The Stone’s Indian-summer heat and the Avenue C street noise.

Both pieces featured stretches of one-note rhythms, played hard and fast, and lots of tapping, plucking, and scraping the strings — which was no surprise, considering how percussive Sharp’s music can be. His guitar work often involves lots of hammer-ons, and some of his homemade instruments are along the lines of the slab, a horizontal bass played with mallets. I like that stuff. My introduction to Sharp’s music was the super-percussive piece, “Larynx,” whose sections are punctuated by solos from four different drummers.

E#'s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zoarmusic Tumblr; click to go there.

E#’s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zOaRmusic Tumblr; click to go there.

“The Boreal” opens with short metal springs scraping rhythms against the strings, small sounds forcefully pressed into being. It produced some great sounds (more about that below), but the springs weren’t particularly nimble. The players were limited to simple rhythms, sometimes accidentally hitting little nursery-rhymey patterns. Later, the piece sent JACK through some traditional bowing but in not-so-traditional motifs: twisty passages at breakneck speed, providing some of the most exciting moments.

“Tranzience” was very much a companion to “The Boreal,” rather than a sequel. The sheet music was on long, vertical pieces of paper, for a striking and artsy visual difference, but that atmosphere and attitude continued from “The Boreal’s” foundation. So did the extended-technique implements — customized metal dowels this time. In addition to tapping the springs, these were used in a guitar-slide manner, curving a tone into a glissando by moving up or down the neck. I found myself wondering how  notated those parts are; does Sharp dictate where the pitch should start and end?

“Tranzience” started with viola and cello hammering out background notes percussively (this really reminded me of Sharp’s slab) with crazed, scattered notes from the violins. This peaked ferociously as the quartet stopped on a dime — one of many pauses during the two pieces that made for particularly exciting moments.

“Tranzience” had the more exciting coda of the two, with the four players slashed frenetically through near-unison melodies near the end.

I enjoyed hearing the two pieces side-by-side, but they’re very similar; it was an awful lot of the same colors spread across 45 minutes. But that didn’t occur to me until near the ending, maybe because I spent most of the concert not knowing what to expect. I don’t think I’d want to hear them together again — but the same can’t be said for other audiences who haven’t experienced them.

(Elliott Sharp’s zOaRmusic Tumblr, which I discovered after writing this entry, has more details about this show.)


From my copy of Cut With Occam's Razor.

Like most zOaR releases, Cut With Occam’s Razor is a limited edition.

“The Boreal” opens Cut With Occam’s Razor slowly — as I suppose it must have in concert — but quickly picks up the pace, first with springs-grinding rhythms and then with one-note unison stabbing patterns. One of the best moments comes midway through the 15-minute piece, when the players form a counterpoint with the metal springs that builds up to a big, buzzy sound with shifting tones.

The next piece, “Oligosono,” gives us a solo piano executing Sharp’s percussive attack. This track was my first exposure to that combination, with Jennifer Lin often two-handedly pounding away at a dissonant chord or even dryly hammering on one note. It produces a nice effect in those low, low registers, where the resonating metal of the strings creates its own coppery overtone.

Add to that some splashes of higher notes and quasi-prepared piano in the form of Lin holding a string down (adding a dull thud to that hammering vocabulary), and you’ve got yourself a piece. “Oligosono” is often repetitious, but it’s full of engaging patter, as in this segment.

The piece culminates in a more colorful type of piano percussion, stacking tones one after the other for an almost flowery effect.

(Sharp writes more about “Oligosono” here.)

“Occam’s Razor” is a string octet commissioned for Sharp’s 60th-birthday marathon at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. It was recorded in 2011 by the JACK and Sirius string quartets.

It’s a series of shimmering sound blasts that slowly rise and fall in intensity, while keeping all eight instruments involved for a density of sound. Long tones criss-cross in a Grand Central Station bustle, where there’s so much motion going on (passengers flitting across the huge causeway) yet so little change (the crowd as a whole, like a river, remaining in one place while continually moving).

As the pace slows, the long tones of individual players become evident again, and we’re in familiar E# territory, with percussive strikes replaced by long bowing motions. Same idea, different perspective.

After about 15 minutes, “Occam’s Razor” boils down to a quick but satisfying ending — not a fadeout, but more a collective expression of, “Yeah, that’s all we had to say.” I think I favor “The Boreal” or “Tranzience,” but “Occam’s Razor,” while more difficult to take in, is still a really good piece.

November 4, 2013 at 12:09 am Leave a comment

Barbès at Last

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Monder setting up. Vexingly, I don’t seem to have taken any other pictures of the show.

For a couple of years, I’ve eyed the Barbès calendar jealously. Tucked into the toney Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, the little bar hosts rock, world, and avant-jazz music, but I’ve never managed to have the proper night free in New York to go check out the jazz part.

That finally changed. On this recent trip, the one that included the Stone and Story Collider shows, I took an extra day for myself to explore Brooklyn, ending it with Barbès and Tony Malaby‘s Trio Paloma, a sax-guitar-drums subset of the quartet on his album, Paloma.

Barbès is quite a bit smaller than I’d expected, a cozy neighborhood bar with a dark back room that can’t hold more than a few dozen. The place filled up quickly, and I actually got squeezed over to a seat in the front corner, where I would get the full blast of Ben Monder’s guitar and Malaby’s sax (but no view of Nasheet Waits on drums).

Rather than draw from Paloma, they improvised — two half-hour pieces, intentionally stretched. Frequently, especially during the first piece, Monder and Malaby would settle on a resolution point, but then one would start up something new, nudging the group into the next phase.

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Crowd shot, revealing the coziness of Barbès’ back room. The place must be a furnace in August.

Subtlety was checked at the door; these guys went for a big sound. Malaby led the first piece with slow and grand melodies, elephantine fireworks. Often, the music grew into a bright blur, like a song-ending fanfare stretched out. (I started thinking of Neil Young’s Arc, the collage of feedback and song-ending fanfares. I’ve never heard it, but the descriptions I’ve read matched the feeling I was getting here.)

The second piece started with bumpy melodies from the sax, a more quirky sound aided by a steady eighth-note babble from Monder. The sound was big but more defused, a more relaxed vibe. Toward the end, Waits started playing a light drum roll that felt like it lasted about five minutes, a constant hum that flickered over each of the drum heads without losing that hummingbird buzz. It was like a bass pedal tone underneath the guitar and sax, a damn impressive touch that stayed subtle and ran like an undercurrent through the music.

When Malaby’s set was over, the Mandingo Ambassadors stepped in for their regular Wednesday late-night set.

They’re an African pop/jazz band led by Mamady Kouyate, who grew up in Guinea learning a musical mix of Guinean tradition and electric jazz. His was one of three electric guitars filling the space with that happy, clickety sound I associate with African music. The rest of the band was rounded out by horns, percussion, drums, electric bass, and a vocalist. This didn’t seem like a jam session; they were clearly a band.

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The Mandingo Ambassadors settle in.

The first few songs were like light grooves, mildly funky music that sort of lingered pleasantly. Closer to midnight, the bar really started filling up, with more of the crowd filtering back into the music room, and that’s when the bass got turned up and the horns put more of a punch into their unison themes. What I’d been hearing was a warm-up; the band smartly saved the top-shelf stuff for a crowd. Only a few people danced, with most of the audience content to loiter around the back wall just tapping feet and nodding heads, but the band had their full attention.

When I left, the bar was crowded, the music room was even more crowded, and Malaby’s trio was still hanging around. It was a good time.

June 1, 2013 at 6:22 pm Leave a comment

Interlude: Story Time

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Ben Lillie and Erin Barker, Story Collider hosts.

Dumb luck is sometimes on my side. My friend Erin is a producer with The Story Collider, a nonprofit group that organizes storytelling performances — creative non-fiction — about how science has changed people’s personal lives. Story Collider is based in New York, so I always thought it was a shame I would never get to see one of their shows.

And then I got assigned to a one-day trip to New York, and what should be happening that very evening but the Story Collider’s third-anniversary show. It was idiot-proof! I blocked out that evening’s calendar and bought a ticket a couple of weeks in advance.

The event was at a theater called The Bell House, which features a generous stage room with a bar to one side — a great place for an indie-rock show. This particular night, it was filled with a couple hundred folding chairs, and the place did fill up. Story Collider has a following strong enough that Erin and Story Collider founder Ben are being invited to take the concept to universities and conferences on the east coast and even in London.

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The irrepressible John Rennie.

A usual Story Collider event consists of five or six speakers, each delivering a 10- or 15-minute story around a particular theme. This being a birthday bash, there was no theme; Ben and Erin instead went out and got some real heavy hitters — a former child actor, a Macarthur fellow, a couple of prominent psychologists.

And they were great. The funny stories were damn funny — John Rennie sticking his arm into liquid nitrogen, on purpose, with effects that weren’t as bad as you’d imagine, but still weren’t good. Others swam into deeper waters. Amy Cuddy finished the show with the story of her own brain injury leading to a career studying the effects of brain trauma — and coping with losing the person she’d been before the accident.

You can hear for yourself: Stories from that evening have begun appearing on the Story Collider podcast, with Mara Wilson and Esther Perel leading it off.

I know Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte organized monthly storytelling shows in San Francisco several years ago, and I would guess someone else in the Bay Area has since picked up the torch. It’s a fine experience, if you happen to stumble upon one. Story Collider travels around, so keep an eye out for them.

June 1, 2013 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

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