Jazz and the Beginning of the Universe

Something interesting has been happening this year at Bird & Beckett, a bookstore in San Francisco’s tranquil Excelsior neighborhood. Lisa Mezzacappa‘s latest sextet has been running an extended workshop, putting on jazz salons every couple of months around a new set of material. It’s going to culminate in a two-set performance of the polished pieces on Nov. 3.

The songs are based on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a clutch of stories reimagining cosmology in Calvino’s fantastical way. Based on Mezzacappa’s descriptions and one passage she read aloud, the stories are both philosophical and whimsical, sometimes knowingly absurd.

It’s the latest in a series of terrific theme-based projects by Mezzacappa. In 2017, she released avantNOIR (Clean Feed), cool and jazzy pieces inspired by Dashiell Hammett. Glorious Ravage, based on the journals of 19th-century female explorers, was a spellbinding live performance that was eventually captured on CD (New World, 2017).

The sextet for Cosmicomics is a crew who have worked with Mezzacappa and one another for years: Aaron Bennett (sax), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums), Tim Perkis (electronics), Mark Clifford (vibes), and Mezzacappa on bass. These are springy, dancing free-jazz compositions with strong themes and plenty of room for exploration. The vibes add shimmering atmosphere, and Perkis’ laptop sounds slide into the music naturally, whether as accompaniment or soloing.

There’s an abstract element to setting written-word “moods” to music, but Calvino’s stories gave Mezzacappa some hooks to follow literally. “All at One Point” (and you’ll have to forgive me if I’m getting the story titles or plots mixed up) supposes that before the big bang, when all of the universe was condensed into a zero-dimensional dot, all of the people were living together in that one point. Don’t worry about the physics; this is a fairy tale! Anyway, it’s a crowded place, but one popular, beautiful woman comes up with the idea of spreading out, to create space. And they do — hence the big bang — but no one ever sees the woman again.

Musically, this gets realized with a single note played by band members in unison. Then they gradually diverge, matching the concept of the universe separating, creating freedom while losing the comfortable order of the single point.

Another of the stories concerns three particles endlessly falling in the pre-matter void of the universe. Mezzacappa read a passage that pointed out the particles could, in fact, be rising instead of falling — who’s to say, considering there’s no universe? The story is a love triangle, with the narrator particle dreading that he might be falling away from his would-be mistress. Mezzacappa turned this into a trio improv game of pursuit and pursuers.

Other songs follow a more conventional jazzy flow, as with “The Soft Moon” in the video above. It’s a bit light, a bit swingy, a bit off-center. If I remember it right, the namesake story is based on the “theory” that the moon is a thick semifluid, and portions of it occasionally glop down onto Earth to form things like the continents.

The only Calvino I’ve managed to read is Invisible Cities, but that gave me a good feel for his imagination. He’s way out there, but with a matter-of-fact voice that’s almost folksy, miles away from the usual tones of sci-fi or fantasy. I’d sought out Calvino because so many musicians seemed to be dedicating pieces to him — Ken Vandermark, among them — and I can see why his voice, like an Alexander Calder sculpture, would be inspiring to artists of any stripe.

Mezzacappa’s next Bird & Beckett performance will be on Thursday, Sept. 13.

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.

Sonata for Laptop and Piano

Tim Perkis & Scott WaltonApplied Cryptography (pfMentum, 2016)

PFMCD106These tracks, many of them miniatures, pair Tim Perkis’ mastery of laptop electronics music with Scott Walton’s piano. It’s chamber music, as serious and deep as anything you’d find in classical section.

At times, Perkis’ command of the laptop rivals that of an acoustic instrument — such as a brief moment of sustain on “Oblique Compact,” so similar to a violin or saxophone holding a high note for dramatic effect. Composer Lisa Mezzacappa once noted that she not only includes Perkis in her bands but also hands him sheet music, and touches like this demonstrate why.


Much of the “classical” feel can be attributed to Walton. Even though he uses prepared piano at times, much of his playing has the feel of modern chamber music. “Naked Egg” is delicate and patient, as fragile as its title. At the other end of the scale, “Partial Ordering” uses lower-register hammering for a sense of drama, and Perkis responds with curt and relatively stiff sounds.

“Normal Form” takes that darker mood a step further, descending into heavy string-scraping on the piano and a buzzy undertone from the electronics. Here’s a segment that gets into some heavy keyboard work.


“Blind Signature” (all of these titles look like they do come from cryptography) offers a bit of crashing abandon and shrieking sounds, but it still leaves enough blank space to feel like a serious venture. It even has a mini-cadenza for some bleating, buzzy electronics. The album ends with “Zero-Knowledge Proof,” a miniature that’s peppered with the small, tightly clean sounds that Perkis does so well.

KZSU Day of Noise 2016, Happening Now

2016“Now,” meaning Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, Pacific time.

Every year, KZSU puts on 24 hours of mostly improvised, mostly noisy music — electronics, ambient, jazzy, sound-wall-ey, you name it. It’s a glorious tradition led by DJ Abra (aka Dr. Information).

From 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m., you’ll hear The Voice of Doom — a barrage of exotic instruments from the collection of Doom the KZSU DJ who started the Day of Noise tradition years ago.

From 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., bran(…)pos will be on. I know him for harsh, vocal-driven noise, but who knows — he could perform anything.

Improv-rock group Lost Planet performs from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

From 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., you’ll hear a couple of groups from the Bay Area improv scene, combining classical and jazz ideas with good old noise. Jacob Felix Heule, Aurora Josephson, and John McCowen perform first, followed by Tania Chen, Matt Ingalls, and Ken Ueno.

Day of Noise favorite Henry Plotnick, a teen prodigy who weaves hypnotic layers of keyboard minimalism, performs from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Computer-music pioneer Tim Perkis seizes the airwaves from 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Rent Romus and Collette McCaslin of longstanding jazz outfit Lords of Outland play as part of a trio from 6:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. They’re both very noisy people when they want to be; don’t expect “jazz.”

… And there’s a lot more that I’m probably missing as I skim the schedule. The whole thing is listed here, and you can listen online at kzsulive.stanford.edu.

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).

Uptown

Aram Shelton, in quartet @ The Uptown

Last week, I finally made it to one of The Uptown‘s avant-garde Tuesdays. Took long enough. For several months now, the club — normally a rock venue, and one with a nicely renovated bar at that — has handed the keys over to the improv crowd for an evening of no-cover music.

It’s great when clubs do that. The Uptown is particularly well suited for it, because the regulars who do trickle in on these otherwise slow nights don’t have to watch the music. There’s a long wall separating the stage and performace space from the bar. The sound goes around the wall easily, so the bar patrons and the musicians are probably distracting each other the whole time — but as bar gigs go, it’s not bad at all.

(Flashback: This space used to be called the Black Box, and the bar half was an art gallery. Moe! Staiano’s Moe!kestra did a gig here where two orchestras were set up in each half, with Moe! sprinting back and forth to conduct each group. I wasn’t there, but the results were recorded for the album, 2 Rooms Of Uranium In 83 Markers: Conducted Improvisations Vol. II.)

I hope they keep this up. Don’t know what the bill is for September yet. (These shows tend to get posted to the Uptown’s calendar only a week or two ahead of time).

Anyway, a summary of what I managed to see:

Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey — A sax/drums duet from NYC who had crossed this way a few months ago on tour. This time, they were on vacation and just taking the opportunity for a quick gig. They did two mid-sized improvisations, probably 10 minutes each, showing off a good rapport and a nice variety of styles. I’m familiar with Rainey through his work with… well, everybody, especially Tim Berne, so it was great to get a chance to chat with him for a minute or two.

From left: Perkis, Greenlief, StinsonTim Perkis, Phillip Greenlief, G.E. Stinson — An interesting middle piece with the lights down, and abstract video projected onto a screen. After a while, you could tell the video consisted mostly of outdoor shots of streets and lonely buildings, distorted beyond recognition. The music shifted from ominous droning sounds to occasional slashes of noise, particularly from Stinson (guitar). Greenlief’s sax often stuck to subtle tones and bleats, blending into the mix of electronics (Perkis) and guitar effects.

Aram Shelton Quartet (pictured up top) — Back to more acoustic-minded improvising, although the quartet included Perkis for some more electronics fun. The quartet, rounded out by Damon Smith (bass) and Jordan Glenn (drums), played a few good improvisations. Nice stuff, and a good contrast to Shelton’s jazzier work with Dragons 1976 and the Ton Trio (as noted here).

SperryFest Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Burn

Grosse Abfahrt — Everything That Disappears (Emanem, 2009)

source:emanemdisc.comThe name, they assure us, is German for “great departure,” and it’s assigned to a varying collection of Bay Area improvisers teamed up with European guests. This is the third such venture, with Le Quan Ninh (bass drum) and Frederic Blondy (piano) occupying the guest chairs. (More about Ninh here.)

Like the other Grosse Abfahrt album I’ve heard, erstes Luftschiff u Kalifornien (Creative Sources, 2007), there’s a patient aesthetic at work. Although <i>Everything That Disappears</i> isn’t as relentlessly quiet, the pieces build patiently, loose membranes of sound drifting by.

While you’ve got four different players doing some level of electronics, it’s not always easy to distinguish the electronic sources from the acoustic ones. Some of the high-pitched whistles on the third track could conceivably be coming from an acoustic source — a bowed piece of metal or styrofoam in Gino Robair‘s hands, maybe. It adds up to a swampy mystery, odd sounds that could be coming from wispy acoustic playing.

The opening track is a foreboding hum, atop which are sprinkled tiny sounds: metallic tinkles or the tap of a drum. The title here is “The lack Americans connected What disappears.” (Titles are taken from the first words in succeeding lines of a book, a very “This night wounds time” exercise.)

The minimalism there is an exception, though. Track 2, “negativity paradox achieved in humour realm” gets into some recognizable squiggles from the acoustic instruments, like Matt Ingalls’ clarinet, or the thumping of objects placed on Ninh’s drum, or the hush of air blown through Tom Djll‘s drumpet.

“Admittedly, social relations This” gets even noisier, packed with the crinkled and curled sounds common to acoustic free improv, ominous calm tones from the bass and/or bass drum, and smatterings of electronics added as otherworldly decorations.

Track 4 is the longest, at 38 minutes, and it opens like the start of a epic. A metallic hum, maybe some guitar feedback, and lightly ghostly sounds conjure up images of a barren desert plain. A slow-moving cacophany builds up — the individual sounds might flit past quickly, but the overall flow feels slow. You’re wading an ancient river here, not getting face-planted by a tsunami. The flow dissolves into brief silences or near-silences a couple of times — one intriguing example being just before the midpoint, where a calm percussion rhythm takes over, then gives way to subtle, hearing-test tones from the electronics. It ends with tense, high-pitched electronic squeals backed by what sounds like Ninh scraping mallets against the bass drum.

Track 4 even has an epic title: “geometric undulating driveway symmetrical, all the road of masters.”

It takes discipline for nine people to craft an improvisation with this level of delicacy. You might not like the band name, but this is a compelling ongoing project.