A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.
Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue. The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance), Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone). They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.
Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions. There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album. It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space. The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece. Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space. Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.
We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well. There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.
It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind! We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco. You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.
It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss. A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.
We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner. Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments. Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop. Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones. The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.
Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts. The book is divided into four sections based on different colors. This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances. For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book. There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me. There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations. I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.
Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration! We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun. I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.
In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender. Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol. It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all. I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.
It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again. And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event! Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.
[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]
Today’s Mensa Cats cartoon by J.B. touches a dilemma many of us face as artists. Can we make a living from our art? Sadly, in the late-stage capitalism envisioned by Milton Friedman, it is particularly challenging by Morton Feldman. We at CatSynth have day jobs.
We learned yesterday of the passing of another of our musical heroes, Cecil Taylor.
This segment of solo piano demonstrates how his playing is incredibly complex but remains thoroughly musical. The fast runs contain a unique contrapuntal language. And more importantly, there is phrasing, contour, and emotion that unifies the performance. Taylor had an uncanny ability to combine European classical tradition, jazz, and other African American influences into a unique musical language that he dubbed “black methodology”. This quote from poet and critic A. B. Spellman, included in the official New York Times obituary, sums it up well.
“There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”
It is hard for me not to compare Taylor with another contemporary of his, Ornette Coleman, who passed away in 2015. Coleman is one of my favorites – Taylor takes the level of complexity to another level. Both remain huge influences. We leave you with this recording of “Calling It the 9th”.
Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.
We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸
There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP. Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.
A few years ago, I traveled California’s Highway 41 on my 41st birthday. I had hoped to make this a regular tradition, but various circumstances have kept me from following through, until this year, when I drove the southern half of CaliforniaHighway 45. It wasn’t exactly on my birthday, and I didn’t complete the route, but was still a fun and eccentric way to celebrate the conclusion of my 45th year of life. It was also a good excuse to try out the new travel-mapping feature in our Highway☆ mobile app.
Highway 45 begins in the small town of Knight’s Landing in Yolo County, so I first had to schlep up there via Interstate 80 and then turn north on Highway 113 near U.C. Davis. 113 is a major freeway at this point, but a bit further north it narrows to a two-lane country road before reaching the junction with 45.
Knight’s Landing was actually a very small but cute town along the Sacramento River. Before embarking on the formal part of the trip, I stopped along the levee at Front Street to view the continuation of Highway 113 across the river. Front Street was rather beaten up compared to the rest of the town center, perhaps due to the nature of the levee or to discourage unnecessary driving, but it made for a nice little walk.
I then returned to the car and finally turned onto Highway 45, heading northwest out of town.
The highway zig-zagged on a grid between fields on the western side of the Sacramento River, but far enough for the river to mostly remain out of sight. But there were some lovely wide-open farmland vistas, made more dramatic by the bands of clouds in the sky marking what was a lovely day after a week of dreary weather.
It is when the landscape opened up that I was able to fully relax into the trip. There is always a point along the journey during which stresses, mundane or otherwise, start to melt away and the road, landscape, and solitude take over the mind. As Highway 45 is remarkably well signed, there was no ambiguity or uncertainty. The result is a sense of flow and well being that allows one to both think about other ideas, like music, while remaining fully engaged in the moment. It is something I have experienced many walking the streets of San Francisco, but not lately. I certainly hope it isn’t gone – as much as I enjoy these long excursions to other regions, I would love to return to the sense of external flow in my own community as well. Perhaps it is the familiarity or the many stresses and dramas, but I hope to regain it.
The highway turned due north in Colusa County, providing great views of the Sutter Buttes, considered to be one of the worlds smallest mountain rangers.
The Buttes are a small circle of volcanic lava domes that rise suddenly from the rather flat Sacramento Valley. The contrast is fascinating, and I would love to come back and explore the geology at a warmer time of year. Unfortunately, public access to the Buttes remains limited as far I can tell. (If any readers have any advice or new information about public access to the Sutter Buttes, please share in the comments.)
At this point, Highway 45 comes closer to the river, and between Grand Island and Grimes, comes right up against levees, before turning north again. It is not surprising to see such high levees, as the entire region seems like a giant flood waiting to happen.
Further north, we join with California Highway 20, a major east-west highway in this rural part of the state connecting to Yuba City to the east and to Lake County far to the west. The road became wider, smoother, and significantly busier as we continued on the duplex into the town of Colusa.
Colusa is a picturesque town on the river, with a small but nice town center and a quiet park along the levee and riverbank. It had warmed up considerably since I last got out in Knight’s Landing, so stopped for a bit to enjoy the sight and sound of the river. You can see a bit in this Instagram video.
Nearby I found The Tap Room, a small pub that had a large selection of beers including some local brews. I don’t think they had Sutter Butte Brewing, but they did have some selections from Berryessa brewing including this IPA.
In the enjoyment of the trip, I had completely forgotten that it was St. Patrick’s Day. But I was quickly reminded by the bartender who was decked in bright green regalia and informed me of the holiday pub crawl that would be happening that evening. This was the talk of the local patrons who started trickling in as the afternoon wore on. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, but a night of drinking was not going to be compatible with my plan to get back to the city safely at a reasonable hour. So I bid farewell and headed out on Highway 20 back to I-5 and I-505 to return to the Bay Area.
Tired but accomplished, I crossed the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco and home later that evening. That would usually be the end of the story, but after resting, we made the last-minute decision to go out again that night. So I found myself getting dressed up and heading back over the bridge for the third time to Oakland to see Chrome withHelios Creed. We met up with quite a few friends at the show and had a great time. You can see a bit of Chrome’s performance in this CatSynth TV.
It was a great day of diverse geography and experiences, albeit a long one. Not every day can or should be like this, but hope there are more to come this year…
See more Northern California in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
I have been spending a lot of time at the main software-development and video workstation of late. As we have seen before, Sam Sam loves to drop by and say hi.
She seems to really like the open shelves as much as I do.
As one can see, cat decor abounds in the studio. But we also have some other items on display in these shelves.
On the left (of course) is a Bernie Sanders action figure, made by Brooklyn-based FCTRY, as well as a signed card from the 1990s when we still just Vermont’s representative. And to the right of Bernie is our Lego recording studio.
The studio is from a series of Lego kits specifically aimed at young women, and I loved the idea of having a “studio in the studio.” It’s great the engineer is a woman, but we thought it needed one more addition.
Yes, that’s a little Lego black cat! A tribute to Luna, whom we still miss dearly. 💜
Apparently, even Lego cats shed. But our life-size studio tends to be entropy-prone as well, especially before and after live shows. It definitely needs another clean-up…but first we have a lot of creative projects ahead this weekend. We hope you all have a happy and productive weekend as well.
It’s time for another round of catch-up on recent musical adventures around the Bay Area. And so today we look back at last month’s performance by Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room in Albany, California, where the celebrated the release of their new album Rogue Star. It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.
As Romus explained on stage (and in our video), Rogue Star is a deliberate reference and homage to David Bowie’s final masterpiece Black Star. In particular, it is inspired by the work of saxophonist Donnie McCaslin (Romus’ brother-in-law) on Black Star. Indeed, the title track of the new album as performed that night did reference the style and material of McCaslin’s work. But this was a point of departure, and the ensemble moved in different directions as they performed other tracks from the new album.
Several of the band members contributed compositions to the album and to the performance that evening, including “Think!” by Heikki Koskinen (e-trumpet) and “Space is Expanding” by Safa Shokrai. Shokrai’s piece picked up on the theme of space and cosmos that winds through many of Life’s Blood Ensemble pieces as well as through Romus’ other projects. Koskinen’s composition offered frenetic ensemble runs punctuated by silences and small staccato hits from his e-trumpet as well as other instruments.
Rounding out the ensemble were Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Timothy Orr on drums, and Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone. As always, I was impressed at the way the ensemble functioned as a unit, whether in the middle of a swinging “cool jazz” idiom or more seemingly free and chaotic sections. In some ways, it is in the silences between phrases where this is most apparent.
Before closing, I should also say something about the Ivy Room. This venerable institution has gone through multiple incarnations in the ten years since I moved to San Francisco and started playing and attending shows there. Of course, I had a lot of fun performing at “Hootenannies” back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and enjoyed the kitschy decor. But from a musical point of view – and especially a jazz-ensemble point of view – this current incarnation is the best, with a sizable stage, lighting and sound reinforcement. I hope to bring my current band there sometime soon.
As we get ready for our next Pitta of the Mind show this Thursday, March 8, we look back at our recent show at Pro Arts in Oakland, where we were joined by Usufruct, Alex Cruse, and Murder Murder. You can see a bit of all four groups in this recent CatSynth TV episode.
Pitta of the Mind’s color theme (we always have a color or pattern theme) for this evening was blue and featured blue-themed poems by Maw Shein Win, many from her new book Invisible Gifts.
[Photo by Tom Scandura]
I used the Prophet 12 synthesizer, along with the modular system, my trusty Nord Stage, and some percussion instruments to create a musical interplay with the words as well as the space between them.
Even though we haven’t performed in a while and only had one rehearsal, I felt this was one of our strongest performances – and the feedback I got from the audience backed up that perception. In particular, I think the poem “You Will Be With Me in a Town Called Paradise” came out particularly well, with a sultry vibe and jazzy accompaniment on electric piano.
After our set, Usufruct, the duo of Polly Moller Springhorn and Tim Walters took the stage.
[Photo by Tom Scandura]
As the word “usufruct” implies, they make use of materials for which they have usage rights beyond ownership, such as public-domain text sources. Polly’s vocal interpretations of the texts are processed electronically by Tim using custom programs written in SuperCollider. The end result is simultaneously dark and playful. But beyond the text sections, I was particularly taken with the instrumental portion at the beginning, which featured bass flute live and electronically processed.
Alex Cruse brought a very different vibe and sensibility to the evening, with an electronic performance that focused on beats, loops, and hits.
There were many delightful sounds and many hard-edged industrial noise moments as well. The vocals were deliberately obscured by heavy distortion and other processing but provided a percussive element that worked well with the rhythms.
The final set by Murder Murder was again something altogether different. With two drummers, two horns, two electronic performers, and vocals, it was nonstop intensity from the first drum hit.
The intensity continued for several minutes and then came to a sudden close. It was the musical equivalent of a tornado tearing through our calm evening of voice and electronics, but perhaps it was a fitting coda to the evening.
We thank Pro Arts and Sarah Lockhart for having us at this series, which has become quite a mainstay of the Oakland scene. I hope to be back again soon with one of my other projects. And of course, we are looking forward to our next Pitta of the Mind Show – where we will once again be joined by Usufruct – at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco on Thursday, March 8 at 8 PM.