Zorn Piano Trio

John Zorn — The Hierophant (Tzadik, 2019)

I have to admit, I expected all of The Hierophant to sound like this:

Turns out, a lot of it sounds like this:

Can you blame me? Upon reading the obi, with phrases like “modern chamber music” and “not like any piano trio you have ever heard,” my imagination went to dark, scary places — as it often does with Zorn.


But of course, Zorn has done lots of accessible music. Not everything is Torture Garden. And it turns out, these nine compositions based on tarot cards often let the trio sound like, well, a contemporary piano trio. It has that sparkle.

Those excerpts are from “The Devil” and “The Lovers,” respectively, and it’s not surprising that they are so different, given the theme of Tarot cards and their potentially divergent meanings. The point is, The Hierophant is truly a jazz piano trio album, ableit one that throws a few experimental twists at you.

Zorn’s name is on the CD as a composer only; it’s Brian Marsella on the piano, executing these compositions with brisk flair. It’s fun to hear Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass in an out-jazz capacity; that’s how I first got introduced to him. Fellow Bay Area transplant Kenny Wolleson holds down the drum chair with a light touch and tight energy.

This is not to say The Hierophant is harmless. “Death” features snail’s-pace bowing and a prepared piano that sounds like a sinister rattling of bones. The main theme of “The Tower” opens with insistent Morse code tapping, not exactly cocktail hour fare. And the title track is a dizzying speed run, as if many hands were clawing at you from every direction. Marsella’s playing can be simultaneously fleet and expansive, and some of the best passages of The Hierophant have him conjuring beauty while still speed-tap-dancing forward.

Metal-Jazz Done Right

Burning Ghosts play at the Hemlock Tavern (1131 Polk St., San Francisco) on Thursday, May 13. Openers include The Lake Millions, veterans of KZSU’s Day of Noise.

Burning GhostsReclamation (Tzadik, 2017)

burning-reclamationNot every moment of Reclamation as in-your-face as the promo video suggests, but Burning Ghosts‘ new album, released last Friday on Tzadik, does deliver on its claims of mixing metal with jazz.

Descriptions like that always leave me skeptical, since the mixing of any two genres tends to select the weakest tonics from either side, particularly the jazz. (That was especially true of jazz/hip-hop mashups, as I often discussed with KZSU DJ M-Smooth in the mid-2000s.)

But this mix works. Daniel Rosenboom‘s trumpet is at the center of the music, played in bright, crisp tones that very much signal “jazz.” On the metal side, it’s Jake Vossler and Richard Giddens swimming in the throttling smoke of guitar and bass, driven by Aaron McLendon on the drum kit.

Rosenboom has explored similar territory with the Los Angeles band DR. MiNT, mixing jazz horns and outer-limits guitar. He’s at home here, as you can hear on “FTOF,” a track that gets Reclamation off to a zooming start.

The opening of “Harbinger,” meanwhile, is a slow drag through thick brambles, leading to a shredding attack:

Rosenboom describes Burning Ghosts as an activist band, and you can hear traces of that in the dire urgency of “The War Machine” and the scorching grandeur of “Revolution.” There’s anger in here, but it’s packed with brainy and adept musicianship.

I get a jazzier vibe from the band’s 2016 Curve Line Space performances, with Tina Raymond on drums and Tim Lefebvre (of Donny McCaslin’s band) on bass. On Reclamation, Rosenboom and Vossler are more intent on going for the jugular, airing the band’s metal side. But don’t discount the jazzy moments like the bass-drums shuffle of “Gaslight” and even the light-touch rhythm section backing the guitar shredding on “Catalyst.”

Larry Ochs’ Fictive Five

Larry OchsThe Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)

Larry Ochs -- The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)The track “Similitude” opens with a blast from the two horns in Larry Ochs‘ latest group, the Fictive Five, and the steady blare continues for a good nine minutes. Nate Wooley blares out a trumpet solo made of crisp color and passionate growls, propelled by the rhythm section of drummer Harris Eisenstadt and two basses: Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper.

That track is the opener to another well-crafted improv album by Ochs, playing with a cast of veterans. But there’s another facet to The Fictive Five: The three major pieces that make up the album are dedicated to filmmakers — Wim Wenders, Kelly Reichardt, and installation artist William Kentridge.

As Ochs explains in his own liner notes (posted on his website and not available with the CD), the dedications reflect his feeling that there’s a visual aspect to the music, a movie of the mind. “I’m inspired to create musical landscapes that the listener when closing her eyes can then imagine her own visual images into, inspired by my music,” he writes. Like a choreographer working without music, Ochs is playing the role of soundtrack composer without a film.

While it’s common for an improvised piece to develop a particular character, what follows in The Fictive Five are well sculpted pieces that do indeed feel like narratives. Ochs is good at this; he’s frequently convened improv groups that work from compositions or skeletal structures that guide the impulses of the moment toward a common goal.

“Similitude” is forceful and bold, evoking a bright energy even as the piece moves to a slower phase in its second half — a bigger-picture view, like a camera panning back, but with plenty of action still playing out.

“By Any Other Name” opens with the groans of arco basses and dark, solemn horn statements. The mood brightens as the group works short passages of small subsets — and eventually, a kind of round-robin forms, with players hopping in and out to form duets and trios of intriguing small sounds. Trumpet and drums take a turn, then there’s a basses-and-drums moment with one bass bowed, the other plucked. It’s a musical game whose pieces fit into a macroscopic novel of music. A fiery group passage lands the piece back in the dark underworld where it began, a satisfying bit of symmetry.

“Translucent,” the Reichardt dedication, has a personality that stands out the most. It starts out choppy and high-strung, with tension surrounded by white space. Ochs abbreviates his sax phrases, a start-stop patter that plays well against Eisenstadt’s forceful snippets of drums. The sound softens as the basses and trumpet come in, building a brisk flow that’s not overwhelming. The final third of the 15-minute piece is a lingering denoument that patiently comes in for a landing.

Be sure to check out Ochs’ website for those detailed notes (again, not available elsewhere) about why he chose the song dedications.

Here’s part of the opening to “Similitude,” dedicated to Wim Wenders, incorporating some two-horn phrasing that seems to be composed:

Screaming in Color

HypercolorHypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)

Hypercolor (Tzadik, 2015)It’s easy to categorize Hypercolor as a prog power trio, one with metal leanings in the blistering guitar. But drummer Lukas Ligeti (yes, the classical percussionist; all of these guys have roots in jazz/classical) describes the band’s style as something looser. It’s about “learning complex arrangements and playing them back completely wrong,” he states in the press flier.

The music still has a proggy feel and a sense of structure; this isn’t the kind of free-form quasi-rock you’ll find on Mirakle, the Tzadik album that pitted Derek Bailey’s alien syntax with the grooves of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. But as Ligeti promises, Hypercolor breaks from the prog mold by foregoing pinpoint complexity for jamming and discovery.

The music still retains a rhythm and a spiky, edgy rock/jazz sound with, as bassist James Ilgenfritz explains it, a dash of no-wave attitude. Here, for example, is the ending of “Squeaks:”

The structures aren’t hidden. You can hear the bluesy roots in “Transit” and the pop-song flow behind “Chen,” at least before Eyal Maoz‘s guitar shifts into noisy hyperdrive. The relatively mellow “Ernesto, Do You Have a Cotton Box?” works from something resembling a country/roots framework, chopped up into incorrect measures and backed by Ligeti’s indifferent torrent of snare and hi-hat; it has the sound of a song falling apart.

“Palace” even opens in an outright punk/rockabilly spasm. Fun!

Hypercolor, the album, has its quiet side too. “Forget” is a pretty tune, although it bursts into an anthemic, thundering solo, and “Quixotic” is a slice of jazz introspection, liquidy and patient.

Then there’s the powerful 11-minute epic, “Little Brother.” Abandoning the abandon of other tracks, it digs into some reverent guitar riffing. The tone is serious but aggressive:

This is an album with a lot of facets and some blurred boundaries. Hypercolor, the band, has many more facets than just ear-splitting rock — but the ear-splitting is a lot of fun on its own.

If you’re in NYC, catch Hypercolor at The Stone on April 3, part of Lukas Ligeti’s week-long residency.

Metheny and Zorn

Pat MethenyTap: Book of Angels Vol. 20 (Nonesuch/Tzadik, 2013)

metheny-tapI’d read that I should expect Tap to sound like a Pat Metheny record, considering each track consists of Metheny overdubbed on Metheny, adding only Metheny’s drummer (Antonio Sanchez) to glue it all together. Well, OK then. What happens when Metheny fills your ears but mind of John Zorn is pushing  the buttons?

This is not another Song X or Zero Tolerance for Silence — that is, Metheny fans won’t cover their ears. You could mistake any one track for a Metheny original that happens to have some Middle Eastern influence to it.

But while the whole album carries his unmistakable sound, it seems to me Metheny also took seriously the mission behind the Book of Angels albums — that is, he’s trying to extrapolate the possibilities lying inside these Zorn compositions. That means covering them with his own fingerprints, yes, but he also cuts loose in ways that fit the Tzadik mold, and he uses a variety of guitars to create different sounds and personalities — it’s as if he brought a few different bands to the gig. The result is a really good album.

Metheny’s trademark cinematic soaring? It’s in there, in places. But a track like “Mastema,” the opener, also serves notice that Metheny is opening the creative box. It’s a pleasant, upbeat song, based on an ostinato that’s maybe spikier than Metheny’s usual melodies, and a driving beat by Sanchez that gets the blood flowing. With a bit of imagination, you could hear Zorn and Dave Douglas playing the short main theme in unison, flexing that Klezmer scale.

For most of the piece, Metheny solos over the main pattern — rocking out, basically, and it sounds great. He doesn’t use the usual synth-horn guitar; in fact, what Metheny adds is some hard-rock distortion on one of the soloing guitars for some unexpected punch. It’s later in the song that Metheny unleashes a staticky, scribbly guitar — like controlled feedback, played at an almost subtle volume, an edgy touch that tells you this album isn’t meant to be Masada Lite.

Similarly, “Sariel” opens in a traditional, folky vein and follows the arc of a typical Metheny song. Toward the end, though, it turns into an electric Metheny freakout over intensely strummed, zithery cords. The finale is a two-minute crash like an airliner coming apart in slow motion, with Metheny grinding away at electric guitar and Sanchez splashing a collision of drums into the foreground once in a while.

pat-tapA more normal Metheny shows up on the mellow, acoustic “Albim,” where he picks at a slow, gentle melody that’s allowed to unfold at its own pace. The song’s Klezmer roots twinkle in a comforting Spanish-guitar solo. The backing guitars are breezy, the drums a smooth rock bed.

“Tharsis” is jumpy, springy fun, probably in criss-crossing time signatures (it’s going to take another few listens for me to count it out). During a slower, airy stretch, we get full-force Metheny; here’s where the synth-horn guitar shows up, and the small metallic percussion to mark the beat (an effect he’s used for decades), and the sweeping cymbals in Sanchez’s drum work.

“Phanuel” is the slow, creeping one: dark shades and drifting metallic tones that eventually give way to the comfort of a slow, tender acoustic guitar. And Metheny apparently plays piano (or possibly MIDI-triggered piano via guitar) on “Hurmiz,” something I don’t think I’ve ever heard from him. That track is just the piano and Sanchez, blasting away gleefully, and it’s something you won’t find on Zero Tolerance, The Sign of Four, or any of Metheny’s other infamous albums. This track, or the closing of “Sariel,” are the places to start if you’re just out to annoy your Metheny-loving friends.

Language As an Open Box

Raskin and Harryman appear Weds., July 18, at the Outsound New Music Summit, and they’ve got a KFJC appearance Sunday night, July 15. Details below.

Jon Raskin and Carla HarrymanOpen Box (Tzadik, 2012)

For Open Box, Jon Raskin wrote music to frame the poems of Carla Harryman. It sounds artsy and serious, but the album starts with a sucker punch: the searing metal of electric guitars.

That track, “Fish Speech,” isn’t typical of the rest of the album, but it serves to upend your expectations, setting you up for a variety of music and moods.

You’d expect Raskin, the “R” in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, to back Harryman’s abstract word collages with equally abstract music, maybe something improvised or driven by a graphical score. And you’d be right — but he applies other ideas as well, putting to work different combinations of Bay Area and former Bay Area musicians in a total project that took three years to complete.

“Fish Speech” dangles sharp-edged guitar and bass over bleak verbal images of the nothingness before time. The words alternate between power and whimsy. (“There were no stories or bones … no lizards, pelicans, or fish.”) But the music sticks to the “power” side, conjuring an empty, chthonic universe — a “nothingness” that’s writhing and explosive, like the near-infinite heat in the microseconds following the Big Bang.

That piece gets an extra edge early on, when the vocals shift from Aurora Josephson’s silkiness to a harsher voice that I’m guessing is Roham Sheikhani. His accented, staggering voice arrives stern and biting: “Silence was neither dominant nor peaceful nor silent. There was no sound or smell.”

But the album spends longer stretches on improvised music — a suitable backing to the work of Carla Harryman, a teacher at Eastern Michigan University and Bard College whose work is categorized with avant-garde language poetry.

Harryman’s work is indirect, as you’d expect. We’ve all been exposed to that kind of poetry, but in listening to Open Box, I tried to pay particular attention to the words. Sometimes, I tried immersing myself in the language, the specific syntax; other times, I could let the words flow through my ears, like a kind of music, a language not intended for directly semantic interpretation.

The two-part title track is built of fragmented and purposefully incongruous phrases, like the framework of a framework, delivered in plain-fact style by Raskin and Harryman. Ideas appear in long expositions such as: “The psyche of the poet exceeds the poem without the poem disappearing into an exterior world in which the poem cannot survive / The poem is therefore a representation of an edge performed in other worlds, not this / Once /”

It’s during the closing minutes of Part 2 that Raskin and Harryman diverge, reaching completely separate parts simultaneously. Even with their voices reading calmly, the tension wells up quickly as their non-thematic lines shove one another out of the way. I found my ears hearing one, then the other, as if the words were two colors of ribbon spiraling in front of me. It’s a good effect, creating a coda without having to superficially punch up the music.

The music follows a similar path, free improvisation in small motions, like construction activity going on in the background: sparse, rattly sounds from percussion, guitar, and electronics, and the occasional sweetness of Raskin’s sax or, in Part 2, the crinkle of Liz Allbee’s trumpet.

I find myself being drawn back to “A Sun and Five Decompositions,” which somehow feels like more of a narrative flow, maybe because of the balletic and criss-crossing among the three speakers (Josephson, Sheikhani, and Harryman) and the music’s interplay with the words. Blips of sax, guitar, and percussion build and release tension in time with the moods of the intertwined spoken parts — three speakers calling-and-responding, sometimes repeating one another’s phrases or meeting in unison briefly. You get the sense of the voices having been orchestrated, a foreground scored to sit with the musical improvising.

It’s serious, and yet … there’s a passage where “Don’t be silly!” appears right after someone says “potato head.” Josephson does a particularly good job changing voices throughout the piece, ranging from poetic seriousness to flighty dingbat.

But I’d started off talking about variety: “JS Active Meme” closes the album with blistering guitars, a psychedelic sunburst. “Song for Asa” is an actual song, crooned by Aurora Josephson against long tones of sax, then it turns into a quietly bubbling improvisation, with small, popping vocalizations and crackling electronics sounds. The singing, coming up in the middle of the album is an odd sensation after an half our or so of spoken word.

Raskin and Harryman, will be participating in the “Sonic Poetry” night of the annual Outsound New Music Summit, on Weds., July 18 in San Francisco. Their set will include Gino Robair on piano.

And Harryman and Raskin will also be on KFJC-FM on Sunday, July 15, sometime between 8:00 p.m and 10:00 p.m., to discuss their collaboration.  Details on Facebook.

Domes in SF: Charming Hostess & The Bowls Project

I’m reading about wood, steel, and earthquake reinforcements.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is building an installation called The Bowls Project, which will house some musical events but will otherwise sit out in the open, just there near Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, for several weeks this summer. Charming Hostess is involved, which automatically makes this cool. Trio singing, Jewish history, and steel, together at last.

Now, The Bowls Project also happens to be the title of a new Charming Hostess album on Tzadik. But the Bowls Project at Yerba Buena is much more: an art installation and a venue for some music shows.

Here’s the explanation at the Yerba Buena Web site:

Housed within a stunning double-vaulted masonry dome created by celebrated architect Michael Ramage and featuring videography by multi-media artist Shezad Dawood, The Bowls Project creates an intimate, powerful and satisfying intersection between the ancient and modern worlds. The dome is a private place to share secrets and public forum to hear live music on Thursdays, participate in rituals on Fridays and encounter embodied text on Sundays.

Charming Hostess is Jewlia Eisenberg’s band, and while its size, shape, and sound have varied, its core has always been a core trio of female vocalists capable of stunning, intertwining harmonies.  (Past singers have included Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt.)  In the past, the band was fleshed out by members of what’s now Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, putting an aggressive rock stance on the sound. Their live shows were parties, featuring lock-step musicianship and a dash of punk abandon.

As for the music itself, it drew from Balkan and Jewish traditions, but also from modern sources, even country music, all of it driven by Eisenberg’s propulsive musical direction. Some songs are bright and bouncy (“Ferret Said” was always a favorite of mine) but others draw from a deep emotional well. Their version of “Long Black Veil” was energetic, rocking, and also a tear-jerker.

Charming Hostess and guests will be performing at the Bowls Project on Thursday evenings from July 15 to Aug. 19, and it’s all going to kick off with Eisenberg leading a musical procession and dedication ceremony at noon on Tuesday, July 6. You can read more of the schedule, including non-musical events at the Bowls, here.

That link also includes a few songs from the new Charming Hostess album.  Two rocking tracks, two serious ones — it sounds terrific.

Playlist: January 29, 2010

Click here for the complete KZSU playlist for Friday, Jan. 29, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.


* Aram Shelton’s Fast Citizens — “Big News” — Two Cities (Delmark, 2009)A band that used to be fronted by drummer reeds player Keefe Jackson but is now considered to be of rotating leadership, according to the CD cover. Shelton’s turn, at first glance, adds more abstraction to the mix, but it’s still a good free-jazz band with a rich late-’60s influence and a penchant for crazy solos, especially when it’s Fred Lonberg-Holm’s turn (cello).  Looking forward to giving this one a close listen later on.

* Noah Creshevsky — “Red Carpet” — To Know and Not To Know (Tzadik, 2007) … I’m not familiar with Creshevsky’s modern-classical work. This particular piece is a manic jumble, apparently built of spliced-up segments from a chamber ensemble.  The music sounds like it was active and jumpy in the first place and becomes even more so after Creshevsky’s edit.  Big three-minute fun, and it even ends on a traditional, classical-sounding final note.

* Gordon Beeferman — “No Meat” — Music for an Imaginary Band [7″] (Generate, 2009) … One of the three aforementioned 7″ vinyl releases we got from Generate. This one’s a jazz septet that puts the emphasis on the horns in a post-’60s setting. I may end up spinning both sides quite a lot.

* Komeda Project — “Ballad for Bernt” — Requiem (WM, 2009)I don’t know the music of Krzysztof Komeda. I do know the name, and that he’s a Polish film composer and jazz musician. So, I don’t know how typical this set of Komeda compositions is. As with the Herbie Nichols Project, the Komeda Project bears the goal of presenting its namesake composer’s music. This album doesn’t have the heaviness that I’d assumed Komeda would bear (that’s prejudice about Eastern European moods on my part); songs I’ve sampled have had the strong, traditional air of a midsized jazz ensemble. Even this one, which evokes a bit of a sad mood but doesn’t get despairing.

* Zevious — “Glass Tables” — After the Air Raid (Cuneiform, 2009) … Prog with a touch of menace in the guitar. A fairly heavy trio that favors the loud. Made for a very good pairing with the new Henry Threadgill album.

POP NOTES: Chloe Makes Music makes pretty solo guitar-and-vocal songs, bright and with a not-too-introspective vocal outlook. (“You have been stuck like a penny for months in the couch…”) ….. Greyboy Allstars aren’t really pop; they’re funky groove jazz that happens to feel poppy in the context of my shows.  They’re tied to the acid-jazz ’90s but presented music with more depth than most acid jazz had. We had tickets to give away to a show of theirs, so I gave ’em a spin.