Animals & Giraffes, Text & Music

Animals & GiraffesJuly (Edgetone, 2017)

animals-july.jpgAnimals & Giraffes is a project combining the poetry of Claudia La Rocco with sound-based improvisations by Bay Area musicians. It’s music for thinking, with La Rocco’s deadpan delivery as a central point, orbited by the stillness of the music.

That’s music in an abstract, sound-based vein most of the time. There are some tones, such as Evelyn Davis’ prepared piano on “Night Harbor,” but most tracks are closer to the slaps, scrapes, and clacking of John Shiurba’s guitar on “Grammar.”

The project is the brainchild of saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, who was looking for an avenue for mixing text and music. He appears two tracks, and he was at the remixing board for a few others, but his real contribution is the shaping of the overall project, recruiting Bay Area musicians to contribute — different players and different sounds for just about every track.

 
Tim Perkis was a inspired choice. His electronics create the perfect punctuation around two shorts: “A Partial Philosophy of the World” and “Instruction Manual.”

He also appears on “The Ferry Is Turning Course Now, Away From the Sun,” pitting small scribbles against Karen Stackpole’s muted bells and gongs. At the song’s peak, the music builds patiently against La Rocco’s traffic jam of run-on sentences and tiny bits of repetition.

 
Public Access” is an interesting departure. It appears to be a straight conversation between David Boyce and La Rocco, couched as a two-way interview. The backing of Boyce’s saxophone and electronics starts at an innocuous level but intensifies as Greenlief, at the mixing board, warps it into more sinister shape by the end of the 7-minute piece.

The poetry itself is inscrutable to me, a patchwork of mostly immediate images: settings and actions taking place now or in recent memory. But it doesn’t follow a linear flow, feeling more like stream-of-consciousness. Jennifer Krasinski summarized it well for Bomb magazine:

“One of the many things I love about her writing is how it records the particular flicker of her synapses, swerving between subjects, veering in many directions in order to find the sharpest views, no matter if fractured or fleeting.”

For me, Animals & Giraffes works better as an experience than as a document. The lingering atmosphere could be captivating in a live performance, as in the video above. The text’s shifting landscape takes a kind of concentration that I’m having trouble latching onto in CD form — but I do enjoy the variety of musicians on the disc, and the “Public Access” experiment works well.

Social Stutter & Barbed Wire

On the docket at Studio Grand in Oakland last Monday night: a yet-unrecorded saxophone quartet and the latest installment of a graphical-scores project. And it happened between storms, so I didn’t even have to get that wet to see it.

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Social Stutter was the saxophone quartet, playing the compositions of Beth Schenck. I’m accustomed to the quartet format of one-of-each-type-of-saxophone, but Schenck doubled up on altos (herself and Kasey Knudsen). They often joined forces on lead themes — pleasant melodic lines poking at one another in counterpoint. It was a compelling effect of overlapping, similar sounds.

Phillip Greenlief held down the tenor sax and Cory Wright the baritone — although Wright occasionally switched to tenor, doubling up on that overlap effect. In Schenck’s own words: “Some of the pieces are composed for two altos and two tenors, which leads itself to denser harmonic territory and a uniquely homogenous sound.”

During a break, Schenck had a good quip related to that sound: “You know those couples who look like each other, people that date other people who look like themselves? Playing in a saxophone quartet is like that.”

The first three pieces focused mostly on hopping rhythms and cross-cut melodies, less so on the thick jazz chords that a quartet of saxophones can bring out. That made the fourth and final piece extra dramatic, with the sudden appearance of big, sweeping low chords (baritone sax came in handy here).

Good stuff that certainly had a sound and color all its own.

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Phillip Greenlief’s Barbedwire was next, in the format of two vibraphones accompanying Greenlief on reeds. Barbedwire is a set of 37 graphical scores that Greenlief created in 2015, and he’s been performing the pieces with varying combinations of instruments. Each page is written for a trio, with each musician’s trajectory represented by a free-drawn line pocked with semi-regular scribbles that represent barbs.

The improvisations are timed, with each barb representing one minute and the “shape”of the line between barbs serving as the player’s instructions. Some of the scores have a linear look or suggest a minimalist approach (tiny crooked lines), while others are outright nuts, with lines twisting and intersecting. In the end, the pieces are improvised, but there’s a planned trajectory of sorts, and the combination of the score, the timekeeping, and the act of listening all factor into the performer’s decisions.

I would imagine that for some graphical scores, it’s fun for the performer to dive in cold. Barbedwire is not such a piece. I asked Tim DeCillis about that after the set, and he said that he went into these pieces with at least an inkling of a strategy.

The trio played three pieces, each combining one or two of the Barbedwire sheets with pre-assigned solo improvisation segments. Greenlief, on saxophone, used a lot of extended techniques, devoting his solo to air-through-horn sounds and a long, ragged siren blare.

As for the vibes, they filled the air — sometimes literally, with those dissonant vibrations piling up enough to rattle your skull. Mark Clifford, standing to our right, spent a lot of time creating gorgeous strings of tones. DeCillis, on the left, did a lot of work with bowing, particularly during the solo that opened the final piece, filled with lingering, shimmering tones.

Berkeley Arts’ Last Stand

dscn3521-greenlief-cutFor five years, Berkeley Arts Festival has hosted a variety of music shows, including a creative-music series curated by Phillip Greenlief. It’s also an art gallery that’s hosted various exhibits and events.

An oasis like this rarely lasts, especially when it’s in an economically desirable spot like downtown Berkeley, one block from the U.C. campus. Berkeley Arts is pulling up stakes in a few days. I’m assuming it’s the usual story of the building being sold. In fact, the hardware store next door has already vacated.

For his final show at the space, Greenlief convened a couple dozen musicians last night to perform one big, sublime, conducted improvisation called “Index.”

“Index” was based on a graphical score, with Greenlief cueing musicians in and out, creating episodes that crested and then shrank back down. After the show, he talked about the “reverence” that permated the piece — no one broke loose and really went nuts. There was a conscious effort to keep within the boundaries of the piece, maybe in deference to the community feel of the concert. This being the final Berkeley Arts show, dozens of people turned out.

For an additional emotional note, this band was considered a convening of OrcheSperry, the improvising orchestra created in honor of bassist Matthew Sperry, whose life was cut short in a traffic accident more than a decade ago.

Each phase of “Index” began with Greenlief picking one or two players to rebuild the sound from silence or near-silence. Most of the entrances were subdued, letting the blanketing air linger around the music. Gradually, Greenlief added more players until an active jam developed. He’d let that ride for a while, then drop out most or all of the musicians at once, flashing a sign with the Ø symbol to queue them to wrap up their statements.

Electronics figured heavily into the piece. Not just laptops, but good old fashioned analog as well — check out Thomas DiMuzio‘s cabling in the photo up top. Even Tom Bickley, who plays recorder, put a mic on his instrument, turning it into a growling nightmare wolfhound. (This was really cool.) The four electronics players each had their solo moments, but their main contribution was to color the periods when the energy began to surge, filling the gaps with crunches and swirls. It was a nice effect of busy-ness that helped spur the music forward.

One thing to understand about Berkeley Arts: It’s divided into two long, thin galleries, which meant the large band and relatively large audience were both arranged in long rows. I sat to one side of the band and didn’t get to see who was on the other end, in the percussion section.

dscn3519-setup-cutThat created some pleasant surprises. I hadn’t realized there was a vibraphone in the house, or that someone would be playing the piano, but boom, there they were. There was a long percussion solo that sounded like sand being poured onto a drum. I didn’t find out who that was, but Suki O’Kane, who’d brought an enormous bass drum, seems like a good suspect.

The point is, some sounds seemed to come out of nowhere. Even people in the band were saying they had that experience.

One thing that made Index work was that Greenlief, as far as I could tell, never felt obligated to get the entire band playing at once, not even for a “grand finale” moment. That kept the sounds focused, with few cases of players drowning one another out. What we essentially heard was a rotating ensemble, ranging from 1 to maybe 10 people at a time. And when violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul and cellist Crystal Pascucci hit the right moment during a duet — with Fluke-Mogel playing a few loud strums on the violin, as if it were a guitar — it was time, and the piece ended.

In all, it was a nice finale for Berkeley Arts. But it was also a chance for all of us, including members of the band, to thank Phillip for curating this series. It’s hard work, but it helps the community so much. Thanks, Phillip.

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microspoke and the Day of Noise Archive

Here’s a new Bay Area duo in the “lower-case” vein of quiet improvisation. Quoting directly from the Bay Improviser calendar:

Thu 5/21 9:30 PM Studio Grand [3234 Grand Ave, Oakland]

microspoke is a new duo project from Phillip Greenlief and Tim Perkis that uses quiet, microscopic noise as a landscape to explore highly detailed electro-acoustic improvisation. the duo made their west coast premiere at this year’s KZSU’s Day of Noise.

… Here’s the awesome part: KZSU recorded the 2015 Day of Noise and posted all 24 hours to archive.org. So you can get a preview of microspoke. They’re No. 28 on the program, listed under Greenlief and Perkis’ names.

It’s a half-hour set, sometimes prickly and abrasive, especially from the saxophone side, and sometimes calm and ambient. Actually, “ambient” might be the wrong word, considering the music changes character and direction readily — this is a dynamic set of improvisation, using the light touch of restraint to keep the mood spectrum on the contemplative side.

Skip to around 13:20 for a nice passage that surges to a high point, then retreats back into small sounds. When Greenlief moves into small scribbles, Perkis responds with some rubber-band sine-wave noises — a nice choice that displays his ability to wring musicality out of his laptop sounds.

Go have a listen to microspoke and more: https://archive.org/details/kzsudayofnoise2015.

And yes, the duo will be playing on May 21 in Oakland, as noted above. Also on the bill is the trio of Amy Reed (electric guitar), Phillip Greenlief (woodwinds), and Shanna Sordahl (cello and electronics).

Phillip Greenlief on KCSM, Friday Morning

The Lost Trio, with Greenlief at left. Source: Evander. Click to go there.
The Lost Trio, with Greenlief at left. Source: Evander. Click to go there.

Every Friday morning at 9:00 a.m. Pacific, radio station KCSM hosts a musician for “Desert Island Jazz,” where the guest plays the game of picking a few albums they’d want if stranded on a deserted island. (The rules, if you’re not familiar with the game, assume you have the resources to play any medium you’ve brought along. You’re also not allowed to obsess about food, water, wild animals, and so on.)

Anyway. I just found out that tomorrow’s guest (Friday, Feb. 13) is going to be Bay Area saxophone legend Phillip Greenlief.

You should tune in. Greenlief, who’s mentioned frequently in these pages, will no doubt talk about the jazz players who’ve influenced him. (I’m thinking Steve Lacy is going to get a mention.) And he’ll hopefully get a chance to play something from The Lost Trio’s new album, Monkwork. This is a group that’s been together for 20+ years, playing jazz that’s deceptively accessible, sometimes using pop or country songs as the basis for rich, open-ended explorations of melody.

The Lost Trio is even kicking off a tour with a Feb. 14 show at Duende.

Greenlief has his avant-garde side, too. He reunited with bassist Joëlle Léandre earlier tonight (Feb. 12) for some improvised duets, a format they’d recorded years ago for That Overt Desire of Object, eventually released on CD by the Relative Pitch label.

And I still remember Seared Circuit Incident, a solo album of sound exploration that collects some of the most extreme sax playing, including some extremely quiet work. It came out in 2006 on his Evander Music record label, a labor of love that started in 1995.

I’m thinking that stuff isn’t going to come up. No matter — I’m going to alter my commute plans so that I’m in the car at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. You can listen via the web, here.

Bartok at the Deli

greenlief wright bartokI can’t say I’m “into” Bela Bartok, but I tapped into some of the string quartets. I was egged on, unintentionally, by a friend who mistook the stern violin-pulsing intro to King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Part 1” for a Bartok piece. This wasn’t a friend who’d be into King Crimson. I figured I had to check out Bartok.

The string quartets didn’t scream Crimson-ness to me. What Bartok is better known for, apparently, is his use of Hungarian folk idioms. That side is the basis for a duo project that Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright have been working on — two clarinets playing selctions from Bartok’s 44 duets (originally written for violins), adding stretches of solid improvisation.

They’re playing Monday, Nov. 17, at Saul’s Delicatessen in Berkeley. It’s a restaurant that hosts live klezmer music regularly — and Greenlief and Wright have played their Bartok music there before.

I saw them perform some of these pieces in April, at Studio Grand in Oakland. It was a fun session, and relaxed. Greenlief and Wright had the whole book of 44 duets ready to pick from. Between pieces, they’d briefly huddle and pick which of the short duets they’d string together to form the next song.

What few notes I scribbed down are lost to time, but what I remember is that the set was fun. You really could hear the elements of folk music in the themes, and Greenlief and Wright used those springboards to spin long improvisation, wringing the jazz out of Bartok’s notes.

Given the amount of variation that’s possible with this project, it’s good to see them performing it multiple times. Monday’s show will be their last performance in 2014, though.

Braxton’s No. 255

Earlier this year, I saw Phillip Greenlief conducting Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 255, at the In the Flow Festival in Sacramento.

A music fan named Charles has done dedicated work filming music concerts in that area. He got No. 255 on tape, and also recorded part of a rehearsal, for a feel of what it’s like preparing this kind of work.

I’ll embed both videos here. You don’t get to see these kinds of works live very often, so it’s nice to have a visual document to refer back to.

The Full Blown Citta di Vitti

Phillip Greenlief, enchanted by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, wrote about 40 melodic fragments inspired by the films. This was in 2006, as he explains here, and the end result was an imaginary soundtrack to the movies. (Click that link for some samples.)

He’s been performing the pieces with a trio. But their recent show at The Uptown expanded the band into a septet, putting some big-band punch into the music. With Antonioni’s L’eclisse running silently in the background, they played songs that matched with individual scenes.

I forgot my camera and had to settle for what my cellphone could do. That’s Greenlief in the foreground left. The four added members of the band are on the right-hand side of the stage, out of frame.

L’eclisse was a good choice, because the stock market figures heavily in the plot. Greenlief wrote bustling, busy jazz for that setting, appropriately New York-ish, with some strong swinging from the three additional horns and John Schott on guitar.

The trio pieces are good, too — Greenlief’s sax fills the space nicely, as he’s proven in so many other contexts. But it was fun to hear the music fully fleshed out.

The tunes aren’t scripted to match the film exactly. Each song began at a scene marker on the DVD and ended when it ended, so we skipped ahead through the film from beginning to end. Greenlief announced some of the plot details as we moved forward — we missed most of the effect of the movie but at least had an idea what was going on.

The ending was interesting. (And yes — SPOILER alert — I’m about to give away the ending. Kind of.) One of the things that had impressed me about the film to this point was the placement and framing of the actors. It was especially deliberate during the first scenes, with two characters in an apartment and lots of long silences. The end, though, shows us a images of stark emptiness. Most of the settings are unpeopled, and if someone is in the shot, they’re shown in unsettling close-ups or fragments. The music was likewise stark and lingering, full of ringing dissonances. Afterwards, Greenlief told me the ending was stepping through settings from earlier in the movie, showing you what they’re like with the characters removed. You’re forced to accept the place as an entity of its own, a single imposing character dominating the frame. What’s it all mean? Well, it’s very Film 101 of me, but I made the mental leap to nuclear war (which had been hinted at, in a newspaper headline late in the film), maybe showing how impotent the human world is without humans there to power it. I’m going to have to watch the whole film now and find out.

Greenlief/Léandre, Four Years Later

Phillip Greenlief/Joëlle LéandreThat Overt Desire of Object (Relative Pitch, 2011)

On my radio show in 2006, I’d played tracks from That Overt Desire of Object,
an upcoming duo album by Phillip Greenlief and Joëlle Léandre.  It was a good album, 11 tracks organized into “variations” for Léandre’s contrabass and Greenlief’s different horns — clarinet, alto sax, soprano sax, etc.

Greenlief, who I believe has been interviewed on my show more often than anybody else, had fronted us an early CD-R, already mastered. On the show, we discussed the imminent CD release. It was fun to have a bit of a scoop.

That was four-and-a-half years ago.

At the Angelica Sanchez concert in April, Greenlief told me the CD was only now being released. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the gap; I’d just assumed the release had happened as planned.

But it hadn’t, bitten by the usual difficulties of the DIY/avant-garde world. Big thumbs up, then, to the folks at Relative Pitch — a newly formed Bay Area label — for releasing this music to the big, bad world. (UPDATE: Relative Pitch is in the New York area, as noted below. Thanks, guys!)

In our 2006 interview, Greenlief mentioned that particularly in duo improvising, he prefers creating shorter pieces. He comes into each one with a strategy, a single idea he hopes to articulate in the space of a few minutes. Of course, that doesn’t preclude going with the flow if his partner finds a new direction to explore — or if they both shift plans at once, almost telepathically, which does sometimes happen.

The template, though, is one of crisp focus, rather than stringing phases together to form a musical novel. It pays off in some of the shortest tracks here. “2nd Variation for Clarinet and Contrabass” is a compact adventure, a flurry of speedy clarinet with classical tones, backed by some quick sawing on bass. The moment fades down quickly, making for a tart 90-second snack.

Often, Greenlief and Léandre try contrasting approaches with one horn, as on the two pieces for alto sax and contrabass. “1st Variation” starts with tight, twisting sax, descended from free jazz. “2nd Variation” is just as fast but has a different bounce. Léandre starts it with springy bowed notes, from which Greenlief builds a more abstract and more dynamically varied sax part. You might call it a more serious sound.

Among my favorite tracks is “2nd Variation for Soprano Sax and Contrabass,” which has the sax playing between-toned flutterings, like the patterns of speech, while the bass patiently strums the start of what could have been a roots/blues tune. The piece wanders forward, like a spoken monologue over a spare bass pulse in a smoky jazz bar.

“2nd Variation for Tenor Sax and Contrabass” actually starts with bold, dramatic bowed tones, but the sax arrives as a toneful, calming presence, speaking in pillowy short phrases. It’s a really nice combination.

The album ends with two solo tracks, both long, at 11 and 12 minutes. “1st Variation for Soprano Saxophone and Voice” features growls and wails sung by Greenlief into the saxophone, contrasted with fierce overblown growls produce by the saxophone itself. Its second half gives way to more conventional sax playing, extracting power tones and quick angles out of the soprano sax. (Kenny G, eat your heart out.)

Léandre responds with a bold voice-and-contrabass piece, starting with buzzy-toned bass sawing that gets into an athletic frenzy, lots of ferocious virtuosity. Much of the playing focuses on the sounds from the bow, riding one tone and/or a set of fast glissandos while the bowing hand works on the different sounds produced by varying angles and pressures.  The “voice” part comes in late, starting with Léandre’s melodramatic breathing, then briefly opening into growly throat noises. You wouldn’t call the voice siren-like, but the bass part certainly is, especially the loud, assertive tones near the end. It’s bass with authority and attitude, which of course is a known strength of Léandre’s.

Phillip Greenlief in NYC

If you’re reading this and you’re in New York or Philadelphia, take note. Phillip Greenlief is coming to your town.

(If you’re in the Bay Area and you’re reading this — you can see Greenlief and The Lost Trio every Monday night, free, at Kingman’s Ivy Room, in Albany right near Berkeley. Except the next couple of Mondays because, hey guess what, he’s coming to New York and Philadephia.)

A highlight of the east-coast swing will be Greenlief playing with bassist Trevor Dunn. Think of it as a 14-years-later celebration of the duet album they put out on Greenlief’s Evander Music label, back when Dunn lived in the Bay Area. Actually, their promo slogan for the upcoming shows is “17 years in the making,” so they’re counting back even further.

The itinerary:

* Oct. 31 at Downtown Music Gallery. With Tim Perkis. Um, yeah, you already missed this one.  There’s a reason I don’t bill this site as a news site.

* Nov. 2 — at Konceptions at Korzo with an NYC trio: Angelica Sanchez (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums). 667 5th Ave. (btw 19th and 20th), Brooklyn.

* Nov. 3 — at Barbes, duo with Trevor Dunn.  376 9th St. at 6th, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

* Nov. 4 — in Philadelphia: Duo with Trevor Dunn. Also appearing: The Zs (2 guitars, percussion, sax).  Presented by Ars Nova Workshop at Kung Fu Necktie, 1248 North Front St.

* Nov. 5 — at 295 Douglass, Brooklyn, with Jen Baker (trombone) and Matt Ostrowski (electronics). More about Baker’s solo album here.

* Nov. 6 — at iBeam. Trio with Angelica Sanchez (piano) and Tom Rainey (drums). What a cool way to end the tour. 168 7th St., Brooklyn.

You can see it all at the Transbay Calendar — scroll down to “Events Outside the Bay Area.”