MZM

Miya Masaoka, Zeena Parkins, Myra MelfordMZM (Infrequent Seams, 2017)

mzmPicture1-500New combinations of familiar names always make for a compelling bill in jazz or improv. I don’t think I’ve encountered any two of Zeena Parkins, Miya Masaoka, and Myra Melford together in any project, so the idea of all three dabbling together in the studio is irresistible.

It’s an all-strings combo — Melford on piano, Masaoka on koto, and Parkins on harp — but Parkins also adds electronics for a wider range of sounds and a sense of sustain.

They explore a wide set of strategies and moods on MZM. “Bug” goes for a straightforward attack, driven at times by a pulsing of dense piano chords. Along similar lines, “Eight-Burst” is a briskly moving piece that turns up the electronics from Parkins, coupled with some frenzied koto and splashy, jazzy piano from Melford.

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Copyright Heike Liss

On the slower side, “Saturn” tracks an appropriately spacey vibe, spiced by reverb on the koto. “Rosette” and “Spiral” likewise provide good doses of creeping, lingering atmosphere. The latter builds from the koto’s rich, mysterious twang in pure form. Melford sprinkles icicles from what might be a toy keyboard, while Parkins provides a deep throb of a bassline, subtly moving underneath.


I like the tight-knit rumble in the piano on “Retina,” which eases up as the piece progresses. And then there’s “Ant,” an edgy track full of small, curled-up sounds. It plows forward on the back of a stumbling piano non-rhythm and small stabs of koto, led by squelching electronics. It feels like a conscious effort to create something different, and it works — a new shape architected by three masterful improvisers.

Zeena Parkins Gets Back to Basics

Zeena ParkinsThree Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics (Good Child, 2017)

zeenaparkins-threeharpsI tend to encounter Zeena Parkins primarily as a composer and electronics performer, including electronically enhanced harp. But of course, her base instrument is the harp itself, so it’s a change of pace to hear so much of the unadorned acoustic harp on Three Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics.

Harps are good for spinning a sense of wonder and calm, and you get plenty of that on Three Harps. But you also get lots of creative, non-traditional playing, even before the electronic enhancements and tuning forks come in. The simple plinking of harps, played aggressively by Kristen Theriault, Megan Conley, and principal harpist Nuiko Wadden, plus Parkins herself on occasion, yields some engaging results with an overarching tunefulness built by minimalist, abstract strings of melody.

“Muted” starts with a lively, tickling pulse. What keeps it rather quiet is the nature of the harps themselves, but the track is still full of moments such as a sudden run of notes from one harp, or small strumming motions — musically percussive slaps — coloring one short segment.

On “Determined,” Parkins (or possibly Ikue Mori) adds splashes of electronics consisting of sampled harps compacted into small splashes of gibberish. “Mouse” then introduces a truly new array of sounds: Vibrato, percussive scraping, and a gray electronic roar join a backdrop of scurrying, minimalist flickers on the untreated harps.

The contemplative “Tuning Forks” is, of course, where the tuning forks come in, played by Mori. They’re played straight, creating shimmering tones that are so abstract as to feel almost tuneless at times. The overtones linger, creating a contemplative backdrop for Parkins’ swampy array of electronics.

Based on music written for a 2008 dance projectThree Harps is a nice showcase for technique and compositional approach, and it works as a single, coherent piece — it has that narrative thread to it.

Cosa Brava

Cosa BravaRagged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)

Is this the right time to admit I’m not that versed in Henry Cow and Art Bears? No?

I do know the music of violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, who is Fred Frith‘s main foil on this deep, serene art-pop album. The rest of the cast is terrific, too — Zeena Parkins on harp/accordion/keys is probably more widely known than Kihlstedt and absolutely no slouch, and neither are Matthias Bossi (Mr. Kihlstedt) on drums and percussion and the man named The Norman Conquest adding some sound manipulation.

But it’s Frith’s guitars and bass, his chirpy British vocals, and Kihlstedt’s violin — ranging from lyrical to threatening — that stand out on most of these songs. And there’s a similarity between the artsy pop of this album and the songs Kihlstedt has produced with the band 2 Foot Yard: musical atmospheres that can be pleasant but give you the feeling that something in the world is not quite right.

The tempos don’t lag and the guitar lines are bright — and yet, this isn’t easy pop. “Blimey, Einstein” is a good starting point: a heavy song, but with a strong beat and exotic Middle Eastern flourishes add up to a catchy sum.  That’s the dichotomy here: Many songs don’t feel happy — there aren’t many concessions to sweetness — but there’s a joy in the playing of them.

That’s true even in the darker pieces like “Pour Albert.” That one is slow and ominous, with verses sung in a meterless narrative,  and a chorus of dark voices singing, “I’d like to see you again.” There’s poignancy, aggression, and dread all at once.

I don’t mean to make the whole album sound morose.  It opens with two bright instrumentals. The tricky “Snake Eating Its Tail” is a kind of grand entrance that has multiple instruments playing a theme in unison, possibly blurred together by The Norman Conquest.  “Round Dance” is a folky, sunny instrumental replete with Irish/Celtic joy and time-signature tweaks.

“For Tom Ze” is a comic pop kaleidoscope: an easy and airy song that shifts into the “wacky modern compositional techniques” that Frith says he likes in Ze’s songs. (But only after a surprise bossa nova break!) Something about Frith calling wacky music “wacky” is really charming.

Frith has focused on improv in recent years, but the composing here includes plenty of prog rock trickery, too. That’s part of what makes it fun.

You can count the shrinking time signatures in the refrain of “Falling Up,” going 7/8, then 6/8, then 5/8, then 4/8, as the walls close in. This may be the poppiest song on the record, by the way. The instrumental theme is downright pleasant and radio-friendly, and the lyrics play over cute Philip Glass-like violin patterns.

There’s more prog fun to be had with “Out on the Town with Rusty, 1967,” a stern rocker with thick, brash guitar and reed-thin accordion stepping through irregular patterns. The sound combination alone screams “not normal pop/rock,” and the melody, especially where the violin joins in, is full of spiky protrusions, heady stuff.

Several of the songs are dedicated to influential people from Frith’s experiences, with short explanations provided in the CD card. One standout among these is “R.D. Burman,” Frith’s tribute to the famed Indian film composer.  It’s one of the most upbeat songs here, full of swirling Bollywood drama and intensity, and featuring a kicking tabla solo from Anantha Krishnan.

Then there’s the story behind “Rusty, 1967,” told in short, basic sentences but crafting a touching little story.

The Norman Conquest, who’s apparently touring with the band, deserves a quick mention. His sound manipulations are quietly slipped into the stream, bubbling up enough to add some edge, not usually so thick as to distract. His presence adds sparkle to certain moments — like the watery effect over Kihlstedt’s violin solo on “Round Dance” — and yet can be easily missed. I like that.  The only track where he’s too heavy-handed is “Falling Up,” where there’s a falling-up/falling-down effect that’s too obvious.

Ragged Atlas is a long-awaited CD, as the band’s music has been out, in performances and YouTube videos, for a couple of years now. Some, taken from live shows in Europe, are quite professionally filmed. The first video below is from a series of 4 that’s nicely produced; the second is from Mills College, part of a concert in honor of Professor Frith’s 60th birthday.