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CHAMA — Hexagono (Falcon Gumba, 2020)

CHAMA applies a garage-band approach to creative jazz, creating music that’s rigorous but just feels fun. The violin-guitar-drums trio met years ago in Venezuela (where “chama” is colloquial for “girl”) and have since reconvened in New York. Having released a couple of EPs a few years ago, they’ve been issuing digital tracks this year on the Falcon Gumba label, run by violinist Leonor Falcón.

On “Hexagono,” CHAMA dips into smart math rock, built on a glitchy phrase that ends with an unmistakable flourish. “Carupano” runs at a cooler temperature on a sly but energetic jazzy groove. And “Kids,” written by drummer Arturo García, puts heavier emphasis on Juanma Trujillo’s guitar, a midtempo chugging followed by slow, bluesy reverb.

Outside CHAMA, Falcón’s creative music output has tracked closer to jazz. Her album IMAGA MONDO, esperanto for “imaginary world,” includes Trujillo alongside bass clarinet and drums, playing music ranging from modernized swing (“Gnomes”) to abstract melodic sketches (“Nymphs and Spaceman,” with multiple overdubbed violins) to an uplifting anthem (“Humanoides.”) A playful violin-viola duet called Peach & Tomato, pairing Falcón with Sana Nagano, operates on a sense of conversational forward motion, adding some electrified sounds for texture.

Trujillo has some output on Falcon Gumba too. El Vecino is a quartet with trumpet; Sferos is a trio with sax and drums that gets into some looser, untethered exploration.

Here are a few more snippets of CHAMA in action.

Kafka, Kihlstedt, Concerto

One year after marveling at Lisa Bielawa‘s “Kafka Songs” at the Other Minds festival — almost in time for the next Other Minds festival, actually — I’m finally realizing that “Kafka Songs” has been available on CD for years. Call me slow.

Bielawa more recently worked with Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobsen on a double violin concerto, performed with Colin Jacobsen. On this piece, as on “Kafka Songs,” Kihlstedt’s voice and violin are put to use simultaneously, creating a role that’s rare in classical music and probably challenging to pull off.

First, to the part many of you knew all along: “Kafka Songs” came out on A Handful of World, (Tzadik, 2007),  paired with two of Bielawa’s vocal works.

At Other Minds in 2010, Kihlstedt introduced each of “Kafka’s” seven movements by reciting the text to come — an important step for those of us who’ve always had trouble interpreting the words in classical singing. That’s not on A Handful of World; you’re flying blind. On the plus side, this keeps the mood of the piece intact — there was a bit of fourth-wall breaking in Kihlstedt’s introductions — but I liked that touch with the live version. It made us consider the texts as well as dwell on the music.

As I recall from last year, there’s a definitive character to each of the segments — the flutter of a bouncing bow, on “Lost,” or the massive intervallic leap that recurs on “A Handful of World,” set up each time by three quick notes, a poise-and-jump reflex. Each is like a little study in a different violin technique, accompanied by slow, airy singing drawn from the gray skies of Kafka’s world.

The suite has some of the emotional weight you’d associate with Kafka, and yet it’s not too heavy. The gentle, fading riff that ends the piece even has some lightness to it.

(Side note: The Kihlstedt photo above, shot by Harold Carr, is from the very performance I saw, at Other Minds 15 in March 2010.)

“Double Violin Concerto,” included on In Medias Res (BMOP/sound, 2010), is more about the orchestra — that is, it’s about the soloists, but I found myself getting snared into the sound of the full orchestra, sometimes at the expense of listening to the actual lead violins. It’s a patient, moody piece, and the soloists’ fireworks are subtle. On “Portico,” the calmly sad opening movement, the soloing is almost camouflaged by the gossamer background strings.

Kihlstedt’s vocal soliloquy comes in the second movement of three, “Song,” wandering slowly against a repeated arpeggio (you can’t help but recall that Bielawa once sang in the Phillip Glass Ensemble). It’s another movement with a slow mood, but more tense than “Portico,” more suspenseful. The mood bursts open when Kihlstedt’s song — taken from Goethe’s Faust — winds up dramatically, calling up the entry of some circusy brass to quickly end the movement.

There’s some lovely very-high-register dialogue in the third movement, “Play Within a Play.” For a couple of passages, the two violins toss phrases back and forth, as if completing each other’s sentences. Late in the movement, they ally in a series of unison and near-unison phrases, finally teaming up with the orchestral strings sometimes answering with the same theme. This movement, taking up about half the total concerto time, was where I could really savor the sounds of the two soloists.

The Double Violin Concerto gets a brief mention in this NY Times review, from which the photo below was cribbed.

The Bass Stands Alone

Henry GrimesSolo (ILK, 2008)

So, can I do it? Can I make it through a two-CD set of solo bass — solo bass! — a set that documents an uninterrupted improvised performance?

Sure sounds daunting. You all know the jazz joke about “when drums stop,” right?

Solo turns out to be an easier listen than it appears. Grimes shows he’s still got not only bass chops, but rhythm and some tunes in him. The atmosphere is more springy than academic. And he alternates between bass and violin, taking the intimidating edge off the “all solo bass” stigma. (Yes, that invalidates this entry’s title. Blogger’s prerogative.)

On top of that, the CD isn’t the single uninterrupted piece I was expecting. Each CD has only one track on it, and the whole thing does appear to have been recorded without interruption. But the performance is filled with long pauses as Grimes switches instruments. You even hear the clacking of a bow being put down, or the sounds of the bass being moved into place. I’m guessing he’s taking some breathing time in there as well, letting the music resettle inside his mind.

So, it’s an easier listen than you might gather. Inside the dauntingly blank, deep-colored packaging is a warm shower of colors.

The music is mostly an exploration of sounds and tones. When using a bow, especially on violin, Grimes tends to stay in one tonal center. This lets him use open strings to put long ringing tones into the mix, letting them blend with a scattering of other notes. Lots of double-stops (moments of playing two strings at once) show up on the violin passages. The result is almost like a drone, but more dynamic and colored. It’s screechy, recalling Leroy Jenkins.

Grimes’ bowed bass goes further out, adding a deeper variety but following similar strategies. It’s the pizzicato bass passages that I like best, though. That’s partly because I love that sound in the first place. But it’s also because these passages are where Grimes really digs deep. The changes in melody, rhythm, speed, and ideas all come more quickly and feel more considered, less instinctual, than the violin or bowed-bass segments.

I appreciate that the session carries the feel of a performance, rather than a practice. Grimes speaks only once or twice, fragments of words to himself, and he makes an effort to get each new segment moving quickly, without tentativeness. As Dusted Magazine notes in its review, the time passes quickly because there’s just so much going on.

Other bass releases that come to mind:

Michael FormanekAm I Bothering You? (Screwgun, 1998) ….. Solo bass, with Formanek playing compositions rather than pure improvisations, a touch that’s a bit different.

Peter Kowald and Damon SmithMirrors: Broken, but No Dust (Balance Point Acoustics, 2001) ….. Kowald was a master improviser and an idol to Smith, who must have been overjoyed at the chance to do this recording. Smith more than holds his own in a set of meaty, tough-fisted improvisations.

Any other suggestions?


Minamo [Satoki Fujii/Carla Kihlstedt] — Kuroi Kawa [Black River] (Tzadik, 2009)

Minamo, as Fujii and Kihlstedt now call their piano/violin duet, is producing strong music that’s just this side of classical. These pieces combine the stern precision of serious chamber music, opened up with the rhythms of jazz soloing and the daring openness of improvised music. They have an overtly classical sound but tickle my ear the way good jazz improvising does.

The two have performed together since at least 2002 and released an earlier CD, titled Minamo, on Henceforth Records out of San Diego (a label with some really intriguing titles in its young catalogue).

I thought I would favor the longer pieces, but the short snippets on the 18-track Disc One, the one recorded in-studio, caught my ear more. Combined, they sometimes play like multiple movements of a single, thought-out piece, each movement conveying its mood and then stepping aside. Most of these tracks don’t cross the 3-minute mark and stick to one mood or sound, yet they pack the detail of novellas.

“Kagami” (“Mirror”) is a spooky hallway, marked by alien high squeaks of violin and the metallic crash of hands on bare piano strings.  “Suiheisen” (“Between Sky and Water”) is a slow interlude, leading into the playful chamber sparseness of “Koneko” (“Kitty”).

“Kibo” (“Hope”) uses accordion and trumpet violin played in sad, small figures. “Chihisen” (“Between Sky and Land”) plays like a sonata but throws some jazzy chords from the piano, little curveballs in an otherwise slow, emotional sonority.

The five longer pieces (and one exciting 3-minute encore) are on Disc Two, recorded live at the 2008 Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Despite what I said about liking the short pieces, I do enjoy hearing how Fujii and Kihlstedt take advantage of a wider margin of time, whether it’s a slowed-down contemplative seriousness that builds (“Aoi Saka”/”Blue Slope”) or a quiet rustle giving way to an upbeat allegro dance (on the title track, which includes some of the best moments on the album).

The passages of extended techniques that show up on both discs are admirable, but some of the strongest effects come from more traditional playing, whether in calm contemplation or flashy slashing and pounding. You can sense this strongly on the live track, “Midori No Shinkiro” (“Green Mirage”): It has a wispy segment consisting of swirly sounds whispered off of metallic strings, but it’s afterwards, when it settles into a more classical-sounding mood, that it reaches a deeper level of improvisation.

Other Minds: Kafka Songs

So, I really did make it to the first night of the Other Minds festival. Very nice experience.

Rather than describe the show in sequence, I’m just going to cut to the end: Carla Kihlstedt was terrific, and Lisa Bielawa‘s Kafka Songs is a very interesting and involved piece. It consists of seven segments, each one a violin-and-vocal combination to be performed solo (written with Kilhstedt in mind).

Each song opened with Kihlstedt reciting the short Kafka text. That was good, because it let us catch the mood of the text and mentally encapsulate it, enhancing the mood of the music that followed. It also guaranteed that we knew what the text was; as with most vocal classical works, Kafka Songs stretches syllables into long tones, making it difficult to keep track of sentences or even words.

The piece began life as a single song and gradually expanded into seven movements. That explains why the first two songs seem to be the most athletic. There’s a lot of bow trickery, such as having Kihlstedt draw the bow for one note and pluck a left-hand note on another string (something I think I’ve seen her do in concert, but it’s still a good effect).

Not that things calm down after that opening. “Ghosts,” the fourth song, consists of ukelele-like strumming, if the ukelele were a harsh, forceful instrument. It was hard on the strings; Kihlstedt had to retune before moving on.

It does not look like an easy piece. I don’t know if “counterpoint” is even the right word to describe the diverging vocal and violin paths; they swoop and cross like independent diving birds. And the violin parts show off Kihlstedt’s rich mix of techniques well.

As for the rest of the program: Varied, and challenging in a good way.

Eva-Maria Zimmerman played a short 53-year-old piano piece by 87-year-old Chou Wen-chung (pronounced “soo-wen-sung” by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian). Titled “The Willows Are New,” it made impressive use of the high register, putting those skinny high notes to menacing use, like poisoned darts alongside the dark, bombastic low-register cannons. The piece comes to a quiet ending where the high notes are their usual, quiet selves, but most of it is dark and spiky. (Test my memory: Listen to the piece on Wen-chung’s site.)

A longer Wen-chung piece, Twilight Colors, was performed by a double trio of Left Coast Chamber Ensemble members — three strings and three woodwinds. It was a dynamic piece in three or four movements, full of serene overlapping lines and frequent passages of fun intensity. There were some sublime moments where a gently drawn-out note from one instrument would be handed off to another imperceptibly — bass clarinet into cello, or low flute into low violin.

The concert opened with the 30-minute Streichquartett II by Jürg Frey, performed by Quatuor Bozzini, a Montreal-based string quartet. It’s a minimalist piecewith an engaging premise: All four members play unison whole notes, using the edges of their bows so that the tones are a scratchy whisper. Tones change from one note to the next, creating a series of drifting chords that start mostly sublime, but drift toward more dissonant territory. It’s a bit of an endurance test. But one thing I appreciate about minimalism is the commitment to a structure that, even for quiet pieces, is sometimes daunting in scope.

In addition to this being my first Other Minds festival, it was my first time at the Jewish Community Center. I didn’t know the place was so huge. At least one class was taking place in a remote corner of the first floor. There’s also a cafe that includes wine, beer, ice cream, and, if the hour is early enough, food.

Other Minds 15 continues with shows on March 5 and 6 at 8:00 p.m.  Check out the program.

Other Minds

Time to get psyched about another Other Minds festival — the 15th, and the first that I’ll get to attend.  It runs for three nights, starting tonight, in at the Jewish Community Center at 3200 California, in Pacific Heights (northern SF, near the Presidio).

The festival collects musicians and composers from around the world for performances of new music. It seems scaled down from the more elaborate programs that used to be held downtown at Yerba Buena … but then, it occurs to me that because I’ve never gone, I can’t really back up that statement.

In fact, because I’ve never gone, I can say with equal confidence that this will be the best Other Minds festival ever. Ever!

On the Sequenza21 site, Polly Moller has a good Q&A with Lisa Bielawa, whose “Kafka Songs,”  for violin/vocal will be performed tonight by Carla Kihlstedt. The piece was written for Kihlstedt and has had the seasoning that comes with multiple performances: “Carla has taken these songs with her through so many twists and turns of life, they really do just keep growing and deepening,” Bielawa says.

Bielawa was also featured in an SF Chronicle article yesterday. Nice to see the festival get some big-paper exposure.

There’s what appears to be an outright jazz-improv spot on the Friday night bill.  Saxophonist Kidd Jordan will appear with William Parker (bass) and Warren Smith (percussion).  Jordan has recorded some great ecstatic jazz, including some quartet work with Fred Anderson (sax) by his side — specifically, I’m thinking of the CD Two Days in April (Eremite, 2000).

I became a fan of the Del Sol String Quartet after catching one of their concerts on a whim.  (They’re based here.)  Lively, vibrant interpretations of new classical music. On Friday, they’ll be performing String Quartet No. 2 by Paweł Mykietyn.

Kihlstedt returns in spirit to close out the Saturday evening program: Her composition, “Pandæmonium,” will be debuted by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet.  That just sounds so cool I could burst. (Bonus: According to the ROVA site, the composition is “is a one-of-a-kind piece of tactile art made from individually sewn cloth graphic scores.”)

Sadly, it looks like Thursday is my big chance to catch any of Other Minds 15. I’ll learn a little about composers Jürg Frey and Chou Wen-Chung, and of course I’ll get to experience that Bielawa piece. It should be a really good evening.