Alex Jenkins Trio

Alex Jenkins Trio will perform on Feb. 15 at Studio Grand (3234 Grand Ave, Oakland), opening for the Ross Hammond Group.

Alex Jenkins TrioJumping Ship (self-released, 2015)

jenkins-lessonsJumping Ship is an easygoing inside-jazz session with rigorous drumming by the leader, Sacramento-based Alex Jenkins. The interplay of the sax-bass-drums trio is strong and always performed in service of the straightforward, friendly construction of the tunes.

The simplicity is attractive. “For Laura” might be the strongest composition on the record — not a fiery one, but a compelling melody with a plaintive intensity, where the theme feeds directly into some spiraling and dancing sax twirls by Jacam Manricks. Bassist Gerry Pineda also gets showcased on the track, first with an unaccompanied intro and then with the best of his solos on the album, a passage that’s brief but densely involved. Jenkins caps it off with a nifty solo of his own.

The album opens with “Lessons Learned,” a straightahead composition where the hook is a lone heartbeat-skip bar of 5/4 — catchy, once you latch onto it. “Slither” is an upbeat groove driven by simple sax riffs in a buzzy, forceful tone. It’s anchored by Jenkins laying down a gritty groove with a bit of funk. The title track features Manricks’ flute spinning a lightly mysterious melody that starts with a slow, grand Persian feel.

Jenkins gets to show off on two short solo tracks. “Djemke” is a springy display on hand drums, while “Dedication” has him preaching from the drum kit.

As often happens in jazz, the record leaves you wondering if the band can dial it up a notch in a live setting — such as Jenkins’ regular gig at Sacamento’s Shady Lady saloon. They’ll get a chance to show Oakland their stuff on Feb. 15, playing at Studio Grand as part of the ongoing Oakland Freedom Jazz Society series.

You can find Jumping Ship on CDBaby. Here’s a bit of “For Laura,” including some of the main theme and the introductory part of Manricks’ solo:

Swimming in Bengal

Swimming in BengalVol. 1 (Lather, 2014)

Swimming in Bengal -- Vol. 1It’s the drums — the hollow, ringing sound of a hand drum and the percussion of what sound like a half-dozen found implements. Not just that, it’s the sitar-like sounds, produced by Jed Brewer’s custom-made guitar that has a gourd for its body and a raised wooden bridge for that twangy sustain.

Or maybe it’s just the name. Swimming in Bengal feels like a mashup of Indian music, “world” music percussion, and King Crimson-style improvisation. The kind of improvisation where long, held guitar tones create a backdrop at once droning and alive. The mix of styles builds grooves and improvisations to get gloriously lost in.

Vol. 1 gives us three doses of the band, each track speaking that raga-like language for nearly 20 minutes, but with different accents. “Slow Burn,” contrary to its name, turns into a forceful, strumming guitar jam. And “Scattered” uses aggressive sax to suggest a jazzy sound, where Alex Jenkins‘ drumming has almost a swingy feel — only to settle back into the psych-jam exploration of a Brewer guitar solo.

The band is a trio of players active in Sacramento’s jazz/improv scene: Brewer; Jenkins on tabla, drums, and who knows what else; and Tony Passarell on saxophone, flute and percussion.

Passarell is the band’s wild card. On “Walking Alone,” Passarell waits several minutes before he starts drawing lines in the sandbox, beautiful and fast-fluttery. In a way, the sax is an alien voice brought into this world-jam world — and yet, it’s perfect, adding just the right tint. The effect is a bit like the John Lurie National Orchestra: one saxophone carving out lines of melody that seem untethered and free but are actually working within the geometric knitting of the percussion and, in this case, the sitar-like drone. Passarell’s voice and personality on the sax differ from Lurie’s of course; I’m just referring here to the skeleton of the music.

Passarell gets more of a lead voice on “Scattered” — and then, on “Slow Burn,” his soprano sax is the cathartic climax, stepping in a the height of a rock-jam phase, leading to a final few minutes of sunburst jamming.

Swimming in Bengal is one of several projects Brewer is involved in. Find out more on the Lather Records blog; read about this particular band in the alternative weekly Submerge (pages 12-13); and check out the album on Bandcamp.

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.

Ross Hammond’s L.A. All-Stars Ride Again

Ross Hammond plays at Duende on Saturday, July 6, in trio with Phillip Greenlief and Oliver Lake.

Ross Hammond QuartetCathedrals (Prescott Recordings, 2013)

Source: Bandcamp. Click to go there.

It’s satisfying, the way Ross Hammond’s burning, blues-infused guitar co-mingles Vinny Golia’s saxophone. Maybe it’s just a natural combination of timbres, but when the two combine for unison lines on “Tricycle,” a track late on Cathedrals, it’s like two colors that become stronger next to each other, where the complements and contrasts hit the eye together. It gets even better when they swirl together in overlapping solos.

Cathedrals is Hammond’s second album with the L.A. all-star backing band of Golia (soprano and tenor sax, and flute), Steuart Liebig (bass) and Alex Cline (drums), and of course, that sax/guitar combination sound is the album’s foundation. It’s a blend worth savoring, and all four players go all-out to create their often furious free-jazz brew.

I’d mentioned a rock/psych lilt to the first album, Adored, and that’s certainly present here, maybe in something like a soul-jazz vein when it comes to the chugging guitar and free-flying flute on “Hopped Up on Adrenaline.” Hammond’s slow-sunburst guitar comes out firing as his solo takes over, and I love the way Golia’s flute fills in a few final spaces before letting the guitar fully take hold:

Sometimes, Cathedrals feels like an instrumental rock album that just happens to have free-jazz guys on it.  “This Goes With Your Leather” chugs and burns like something from the jukebox at a biker bar. Sure, it starts with unaccompanied sax improv, but Golia makes some damned convincing harmonica noises with the soprano, and that bluesy, blazing sound carries over when the band digs into a hard, fast beat. (Liebig’s band, The Mentones, used an actual harmonica to tread this territory; their albums are worth seeking out.)

“She Gets Her Wine from a Box” has a jazzy theme to it, appropriately whimsical (and excerpted below). It’s followed by jumpy solos first from Hammond, then from a caffeinated Golia.

The title track shows that you can have a free-jazz freak-out within the confines of a mellow tune. Carrying the vague feeling of a gospel song, it opens gradually, riding on warm contentment before twisting into a vicious soloing space for Cline. The others get fired up as well, but it seems as if at any given point, either Golia or Hammond is carrying on with the original, even-handed mood. They’re not exactly calm, just rooted.

It’s easy to see why Hammond wanted to revisit this band, this time with compositions written especially for them. The results are energetic and insightful, and yes, they rock. I’m hoping there’s enough headroom for another couple of albums out of this band.

When Oliver Lake Comes to Town

It’s been encouraging to see Oakland’s Duende restaurant keep up its support of creative music, and they’re kicking it up a notch with a four-night residency for saxophonist Oliver Lake, July 5 through 8.

Source: Sampsonia Way; click to go there.

It’s at least the second time Duende has done this in just a few months, after Nels Cline’s multiple-night, grand-opening performances. I don’t know how the economics work out, but it seems to be a good way to make a Bay Area stop worthwhile for an out-of-town artist. (Granted, Cline is from L.A., so a trip up here is relatively common for him.)

Duende has doggedly kept up support for avant-garde and creative music.  Marco Eneidi’s trio played on June 27. Jon Raskin and Larry Ochs of ROVA have shows coming up in July. Positive Knowledge, the long-standing sax/poetry group with a rich mystical/spiritual vibe, has a Saturday night gig on July 20.

Mixed in there are plenty of more conventional jazz acts, which do seem like a better fit for Duende’s crowd and atmosphere. I don’t know how long Duende can keep up its musical chops, but I hope to savor the experience whenever I can.

Oh, right, Oliver Lake
But back to the original point.  Lake is coming to California for two solo performance at the Healdsburg Center for the Arts on June 29, at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.  He’s accompanying a visual art exhibit called “Flying Home: Inspired by Jazz,” which apparently includes some of his own artwork.

olake-sig-bigSamples of Oliver Lake’s paintings and mixed-media work are on his web site, and you know what — they’re quite good and have a strong personality: colorful, slightly whimsical.

Healdsburg is well north of the Bay Area, up Highway 101. After that show, he’ll stay at the same latitude to play in Sacramento. He’ll be doing the July 1 installment of Nebraska Mondays, the series at Luna’s Cafe, performing with Ross Hammond (guitar), Dax Compise, and Mike Palmer.

After that, it’s off to Oakland and Duende:
* Fri., July 5 — Duo w/ Myra Melford
* Sat., July 6 — Trio w/ Phillip Greenlief & Ross Hammond
* Sun., July 7 — Duo w/ Roscoe Mitchell (They’re charging $25 for this one, rather than $15.)
* Mon., July 8 — Trio w/ Scott Amendola & Todd Sickafoose

Getting In the Flow

That’s Bows and Arrows, inside the ivy-covered cube.
Sacramento’s In the Flow festival was weeks ago, so I’m late in saying I made it to Day Two (May 9), the Thursday evening showcase at Bows and Arrows.

It was the only day I could make, due to a host of weekend commitments including Mother’s Day. But for the past couple of years, I’d thought about making the two-hour drive to Sacramento for at least one day of the festival, or even to check out the Monday-night shows at Luna’s Cafe some week. It was a matter of setting the time aside on my calendar and just doing it.

Luna’s and Bows and Arrows are in an older part of Sacramento, where the streets form the number/letter grid that’s found in every Central Valley city. (Luna’s is near 16th and N, for instance).

A glimpse of Bows and Arrows' indoor cafe area.
A glimpse of Bow and Arrows’ indoor cafe area.

I expected a dusty, decaying downtown, but Sacramento’s old town is lush with the calming, shady trees. Old homes — not decaying and maybe more importantly not turned into McMansions — abut pockets of gentrification, such as the stately brick Safeway complex that faces Bows and Arrows.

It’s not all perfect. Just down the street was a closed-down restaurant that clearly hadn’t had a long lifespan. But it’s the kind of neighborhood you root for, a place that wouldn’t be bad for a leisurely afternoon. The weather was comfortably cool on the night I arrived, and the neighborhood would have been a nice place for a stroll.

Bows and Arrows itself is a Bohemian neighborhood in-a-box: a clothes boutique up front, a cozy cafe in the back, and a small art gallery in the space joining the two. There weren’t many tables, but the place overall was spacious. I could see making this my home for four hours.

DSCN2504The first act played on the outdoor patio, starting at 6:30 p.m. when the sun was still bright and the cool evening air was settling in. They were the Element Brass Band, an ensemble of funky horns with soulful jazz soloing and a party attitude.

It's not a festival unless some little kid dances insanely.
It’s not a festival unless some little kid dances insanely.

Element isn’t quite a marching band, although their low end is held down by sousaphones and a bass drum. They’re closer to a funk band. They sing, with simple call-and-response phrases that get the whole band chanting along. “I feel like funkin’ it up / Feeeel like funkin’ it up,” went the opening number. Big fun.

Festival organizer Ross Hammond planned this night well: Element started the program with the most crowd-pleasing, easy-to-love music, and it would get progressively more “different” from there.

After the set, Hammond decamps us to the indoor cafe.
After the set, Hammond directs us indoors.

Element wasn’t avant-garde stuff by any stretch, but they were a lot of fun and got the crowd on the festival’s side. Sitting on the bright, sheltered porch, with a beer in hand and a cup of corn-tomatillo soup at the ready, I was plenty happy.

The patio filled to standing capacity, and much of the crowd lingered with the band afterward. The rest of us went inside, where things got more serious and electric.

Gentleman Surfer played a set of vicious math rock, with a splintering sound and complex changes — prog sent through a particle collider. The music on their recent album, Blalks, is more even-handed in it complexity, DSCN2533a geometry easier to grasp. The stuff they gave us was more of a precision assault, with the band in perfect but relentless odd-time lock-step. Any groove or melody that emerged got perverted with a frenetic shift out of meter. Even the poppy parts never got too poppy.

“How do you rehearse that music?” asked one audience member (who later turned out to be part of the Braxton ensemble, so he knew a thing or two about complex music).

Math-rock bands need sweaty drummers.
Math-rock bands need sweaty drummers.

Gentleman Surfer turns out to be led by drummer Jon Bafus, and while he was boisterous for most of the set, toward the end he turned in an amazing solo, full of fast, quiet thundering — proof that he knew what he was doing. That was impressive.

By now it was 8:30, and the place was still hopping. Culture was alive on a suburban Thursday night.

Lovely Builders is the duo of Scott Amendola (drums) and Ross Hammond (electric guitar; you’ll recognize his name as the festival organizer mentioned earlier). They asked for no photography during their set, so I’ve cribbed a photo from their MySpace page.

lb.amendolaThey played one long improvisation with a coolly sustained sense of drama, the mood surging and receding through open jazz territory. Here, Hammond picked quaint rhythms to back up an airy, bustling drum segment; there, Amendola toned down to a trance-like jam on the toms while Hammond tested shimmering chords. Contemplative stretches would eventually spark into angrier, intense moods full of sunburst chords and thunderous drumming.

In a sense, it was the most “difficult” of the four acts, but it seemed to have enough jam-band elements to keep the non-jazzers enticed. They might have stretched it a little longer than they should have, but they cranked up the energy for a satisfying ending.

Phillip Greenlief’s band had the most difficult set in a technical sense, but the grouping of a dozen or so musicians made it easy to watch. He’d come up from Oakland to lead a Sacramento ensemble in Anthony Braxton’s Composition 255, one of the early Ghost Trance Music pieces.

Setting up for Braxton.
Setting up for Braxton.

(He’d originally aimed for Composition 344, but it was too much: “We could not have done that one with one-and-a-half rehearsals,” he said, introducing the piece.)

Braxton’s compositions are modular, so No. 255 got interspersed with music by Pauline Oliveros, Greenlief, and Erik Satie. The breaks were evident, as the band would slip out of the “trance” and into a freer interlude, usually peppered with solos — and then they’d snap back into step.

If you’re not familiar with Ghost Trance Music, it’s based on a maddening, non-steady pulse that, on the surface, can seem like the musical equivalent of a guy reciting pi. But there’s much more going on, as I mentioned here — and when you’ve got a large group of friends performing, it almost develops a party atmosphere.

Yes, the ongoing pulse was there, with the bumps and deviations and the strident tone, the elements that separate GTM pieces from Glassian minimalism. It seemed less convoluted than other GTM works, though — maybe I’m kidding myself there, but I did start thinking it before learning that No. 255 was an earlier piece.

Non-Braxton moment: Element Brass members chilling after their set.

The band was driven by two basses and a drummer, fronted by a mix of strings and woodwinds. They also had a tuba player who would occasionally switch to harmonica — harmonica! Greenlief played as well, taking some sparkling circular-breathing solos, and he conducted the group, counting off the beat to start each new Braxtonian phase.

Braxton’s music can strike people as cold, but Greenlief’s enthusiastic conducting added life and energy. It really did feel celebratory.

Everything was finished just after 10:00, and Bows and Arrows stayed open through the aftermath. A crowd of young beer-drinkers had gathered around the cafe section, while the musicians collectively lingered in the gallery and boutique — friends talking about the music, or just catching up on one another’s lives. In terms of mood, it was a fitting end to the night. I hope the rest of the festival was just as uplifting.


Ross Hammond’s A-List Jam

Ross HammondAdored (Prescott Recordings, 2012)

Adored shows off an exciting combination of ideas, with psychedelic rock jamming executed by one heck of a free-jazz backing band from L.A.: Vinny Golia (sax), Alex Cline (drums), and Steuart Liebig (bass).

It’s also got a nice link to the In the Flow Festival, which I’d mentioned previously. Guitarist Ross Hammond, organizer of the festival, lives in Sacramento and is responsible for Nebraska Mondays, the weekly creative-music series at Luna’s Cafe. Those activities gather musicians from the whole pan-California jazz/improv world.

On Adored, Hammond is working with some of the all-stars of the Southern California scene, producing some exciting results. Everyone here has done his share of mixing rock and jazz ideas, particularly Liebig, whose band The Mentones mixes barroom rock with prog/jazz virtuosity. (You’ll find them on the pfMentum record label.)

“Sesquipedalian” is a cosmically unfolding jam, with the guitar and sax spiraling outwards from the get-go. An improv cool-down middle stays just as active, with Golia bleating away and Liebig adding some ninja-quick electric bass riffs. Golia and Hammond similarly jam on “Maribel’s Code,” a calmer outing but not at all sedate. Over a steady foundation of drums and bass, the sax and guitar each take a turn at scribbly, intense soloing.

Maybe I’m taking the psych comparison too far, but there’s a bit of Santana in the guitar sound — the sublime, bluesy “She’s My Little Girl” being a prime example. The best moments, though, are when the band takes the idea of a psych jam and uses their talents and knowledge to stretch it further. Most of “Hands Up” is a choppy and grumbly group improvisation, with lots of different directions knitted together — and then, out of the blue, there’ll be a bashing rhythm from Cline for a moment of rocking-out bliss.

“Water Always Finds Its Way, Like the Soul” ends the album with a glorious comedown, full of lovely major-key tonalities (Wayne Peet helps out on piano) but just as much fever as some of the prior tracks.

It’s good stuff. Have a listen over at Bandcamp.