SFJAZZ: Donny McCaslin Group / Antonio Sanchez Migration

In mid June, we at CatSynth were treated to a greatl concert at SFJAZZ that featured Donny McCaslin’s “Blackstar” Band and Antonio Sánchez’s group Migration. McCaslin and his quartet are perhaps best known for their collaboration with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar (which we have discussed previously), but they are a remarkable group in their own right.

Donny McCaslin
[Donny McCaslin]

Indeed, our interest in this show was not just the Bowie connection, but reviews from friends who had previously seen the Santa Cruz-born-and-raised McCaslin live and were blown away by the performance. And as soon as the band started in on their first tune, “Shake Loose” from their latest album Beyond Now, we understood why. It was thunderous, aggressive, but complex and intricate at the same time. There was an intensity, and even a bit of a punk sensibility to the way they powered through the entire set, which included additional selections from the album, a new composition by McCaslin, and “Lazarus” from Blackstar. The encore was also a Bowie song, but a surprising one: “Look Back in Anger.” There really wasn’t a bad moment in the entire set, and it went by quickly with the group’s frenetic pace and energy.

While McCaslin was front and center both visually and musically – he is rather tall as well as a very expressive performer – I was also very impressed with Jason Lindner on keyboards. He freely mixed synthesizers, classic electric piano, and acoustic grand in a performance that was solid harmonically and rhythmically, but again complex and multi-linear. Rounding out the quartet were Mark Guiliana on drums and jazz multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood on bass.

The first half of the show featured Antonio Sanchez Migration performing Sanchez’s long-form composition The Meridian Suite. While the piece has classical influences in its structure, it was unmistakably jazz, and Sanchez himself told the audience that unlike classical-music concerts, the audience was encouraged to applaud between movements and anywhere else the felt warranted such a reaction. The unusually long piece moved through several styles and textures, from very sparse modern jazz to more funky riffs, all anchored by Sanchez’s versatile and precise drumming. Some of the movements included lyrics sung by Thana Alexa. The band also featured Chaise Baird on tenor saxophone, John Escreet on keyboards, and Matt Brewer on bass.


Overall, it was a concert we were happy to have the chance to see; and I will certainly be on the lookout for McCaslin’s next appearance in the Bay Area. In the meantime, we will be enjoying his newest album.

Church of the Superserge at Robotspeak: Djll, Day, Normalien

The monthy Church of the Superserge event at Robotspeak in San Francisco has been going on five years. We at CatSynth were on hand to mark this milestone during the May show.

Musically, the highlight was a solo set by Tom Djll on modular synth and mini trumpet. It was quite musical, blending rhythms and phrases with the timbral elements, even a “melody” of sorts from the processed trumpet.

The afternoon opened with a set by Normalien, also on modular synthesizer. Some delightfully weird sounds with rhythmic elements.

And Carson Day closed things out with a forceful set that included Novation and Dave Smith instruments.

It’s always a fun afternoon at Robotspeak. Not only do I enjoy the music and technology in the performances, but also just browsing the display cases on the wall, seeing what instruments I should covet next. This little DIY synth stood out this time, especially juxtaposed between the giant vacuum tube and the WMD pedal.

We look forward to next time, and perhaps playing again soon.

Outsound Summit Benefit Drive and Ze Bib!

The annual Outsound New Music Summit is less than a month away. We at CatSynth are looking forward to participating in Touch the Gear and enjoying four nights of concerts, especially after having to sit out last year’s summit entirely. You can see the full lineup and schedule at the website.

We attended the annual benefit dinner for the Summit earlier this month at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley, California. In addition to good food and good friends, we were treated to a live performance by Ze Bib, a duo featuring Shanna Sordahl on cello and electronics and Robert Lopez on percussion.

The music featured sparse textures that blended Lopez’s percussion worth Sordahl’s electronics, as well as more rhythmic and forceful sections laying cello, electronics and drums. We are grateful that they shared their music with us for this event.

While the dinner is over, the fund drive for the summit continues. You can find out more information on how to donate here. And if you are the Bay Area, we encourage you to attend one or more of the Summit programs at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, July 23-29.

Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ

This spring the Wayne Shorter Quartet returned to the SFJAZZ center, and we at CatSynth returned to see them.


[Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ. Photo by Bill Evans. Via SFJAZZ on Instagram]

In addition to Mr Shorter, the quartet included Danilo Perez on piano and John Patitucci on bass. Terri Lyne Carrington sat in on drums in place of Brian Blade. Carrington is a longtime collaborator with Shorter, but she brought a very different energy to the quartet than Blade did when we saw them in 2015. The result was a more lush and melodic rhythm line that was in sharp contrast to Blade’s more minimalist rhythms. It was, however, Perez who shown brightest on this particular night with a virtuosic and athletic piano performance throughout. Perez’s long fast runs contrasted with Shorter’s very spare and minimal style as they danced around both classic and new tunes, never really presenting the heads in their entirety but hinting at them enough for many of us in the audience to pick up on what was happening. More than one tune was completely framed by Perez’s piano solos. Nonetheless, it was still Wayne Shorter holding court in the middle of the stage, each spare note from his instruments placed carefully.

Not surprisingly, it was a full house at the Miner Auditorium that evening; and the audience got what they came for in seeing a living legend of jazz but also experiencing new music at the same time. As in 2015, the quartet played new compositions in addition to older well-known tunes. It’s great to see someone of Wayne Shorter’s stature and long career continuing to break new musical ground in live performances.

CDP at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco

Today we look back at the May 1 performance by Census Designated Place (CDP) at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, as part of the monthly Monday Make-Out series.

We were all very excited to play this show. And then things started going awry. First, our synth player Tom Djll was ill an unable to make the gig. And when we were about to go on, I found myself with cable faults and other technical issues. I had actually anticipated many things and had several redundancies, but also a few blind spots, particularly around 1/4” cables. That will not happen again. And after the anxiety of those mishaps in front of a packed room, we played on, and it turned out to be a great show. We played very well, indeed the heads of the various tunes came out as well as I have heard them, and the energy throughout was great. We even had folks dancing in the audience.

You can see a bit of our set in this clip, featuring our newest tune Marlon Brando.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

We were preceded by two other bands. First was a project from our friend Lucio Menegon from New York, together with Janie Cowan on upright bass and John Hanes on drums.

Lucio Menagon Trio

Lucio’s guitar performance had a very narrative, almost storytelling quality. This was set against a mixture of idiomatic rhythms and percussive stops from Cowan and Hanes.

They were followed by a quartet featuring Anton Hatwich from Chicago together with Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Josh Smith on saxophone and Hamir Atwal on drums.

Anton Hatwich Quartet

During this time, the crowd at the Make-Out room continued to grow, and by the time we were setting up it was as crowded as I have seen there since I played there with Surplus 1980 some four years earlier. Which made the technical difficulties all the more stressful. But as stated earlier, the show ultimately went well as a trio with myself, Mark Pino on drums and Joshua Marshall on saxophones. The music was very well received by the audience and the other musicians.

Thanks to Karl Evangelista for organizing the series, Rent Romus for helping with logistics on that night, and all the folks at the Make-Out Room. Overall, it was a good show, and some important lessons learned on technical blind spots. We will get back to composing, rehearsing and preparing for next ones.

Jean-Michel Jarre at the Greek Theatre, Berkeley

This past Friday, we at CatSynth had the chance to see electronic-music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre perform live at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California. It was part of his ambitious “Electronic World Tour”, which includes his first North American tour in…well, a long time.

jean-Michel Jarre on stage

Jarre is perhaps best known for his innovative albums in the 1970s and 1980s, blending electronics and idiomatic music without veering too much into the dreaded New Age world; and for putting on live concerts that are truly spectacles. He did not disappoint in that regard, with a massive sound and light setup that included three sheets of LEDs, banks of lasers, and a three-piece ensemble that would make any synth nerd very envious. The lights were mesmerizing and captivating at times.

LED light patterns

Jean-Michel Jarre in lights

Robots

When the lasers were operative, it was sometimes most interesting to turn away from the stage and look into the crowd; and towards the back of the theatre and the trees behind it, where undulating patters of warm-colored lights danced among the leaves that were barely visible in the night sky.

Lasers across the Greek Theatre

Jarre’s music has long included rhythmic elements (often shunned by contemporaries in the academic electronic-music world), which made him a major influence for techno, electronica, and EDM genres. But his current performance fully embraces the contemporary EDM aesthetic, with intense pulsing beats, as well as a performance style with stomping and pointing as one sees with younger electronic performers and many DJs. Perhaps even a little macho. However, not only does he do it better, it is on a much grander scale. Even assuming much of the sound and visuals are sequenced, the complexity to pull this off cannot be underestimated. And Jarre’s performance was quite physical, often jumping and sometimes coming out in front to perform on keytar.

Jarre on keytar, musicians on vocoder

It was nonetheless an ensemble performance, with his fellow musicians providing live electronic drums as well as vocoder-based harmonies.

The concert, which lasted about 90 minutes, included some of his classic works such as selections from Oxygene, but with the newer EDM sound as described above. He also presented newer pieces, including a collaboration with Edward Snowden that mixed Jarre’s music with clips of Snowden’s statements. The piece was very well received by the Berkeley audience.

One of my favorite moments and one of the most technically challenging – even Jarre himself joked that it may not work – was when he stepped forward to play a giant light harp consisting of towering green lasers.

Jean-Michel Jarre Light Harp

It went off flawlessly – or at least it looked and sounded that way from the audience perspective.

I am glad I was able to be there for this event, as it doesn’t happen often. Having seen this performance, it is leading to go back and review some of his classic recordings as well; and draw inspiration for my next electronic-music adventures.

KSW Presents Means of Exchange: Program Launch

We at CatSynth have a special place in our hearts for art about our home neighborhood in San Francisco, South of Market (SOMA). Means of Exchange is a new project presented by Kearny Street Workshop that teams up artists Weston Teruya and Kimberley Arteche with local businesses in the neighborhood to create storefront artworks that highlight the history and culture of the neighborhood.

SOMA has a rich and diverse history. Long a sprawling district of warehouses and working-class houses with large streets and small alleys, it became a mecca for artists, bars, and clubs. It was a thriving center of gay culture in the city and still includes the “Leather District.” It is a center for the Filipino diaspora in San Francisco, and includes the SoMa Pilipinas historic district. In the 1980s and 1990s some of its most run-down areas were turned into the Moscone Convention Center and a hub for several museums and cultural centers. And more recently, the neighborhood has become home to many large technology companies, as well as a proliferation of luxury high-rises and not-so-luxury-but-still-expensive apartment complexes. With so many different forces at work, the neighborhood means different things to different people, and tensions and conflicts inevitably have arisen between many of the longtime residents and institutions and newcomers.

The publicly viewable artworks will celebrate many of these aspects of the neighborhood. But the history, contradictions, and conflict were also highlighted by the readers and performances and the launch event this past Friday. The evening opened with a reading by Mary Claire Amable, a Filipino-American writer who was raised in SOMA and the adjacent Tenderloin neighborhood.

Mary Claire Amable

Amable reflected on her upbringing, including the struggles and challenges faced by her immigrant parents, the small apartments where she lived that are now threatened by redevelopment, and the increasing unaffordability of the neighborhood for many longtime residences, particularly immigrants and people of color. Her story provides a different perspective on places and streets I have come to know well.

Next was a reading by Tony Robles, a longtime poet and activist in San Francisco who was a short-list nominee for poet laureate of SF 2017.

Tony Robles

Like Amable, Robles was born and raised in San Francisco, and his writing reflects on the changes in his hometown and the effect it has on his communities, on artists, and on those facing displacement. He spoke both nostalgically and somewhat cynically of San Francisco’s mythic past and of the struggles of people to survive here in the present; but he also shared writings from his visits to the Philippines, including a humorous piece about “The Province.” You can get a feel for his writing Maryam Farnaz Rostami, a San Francisco-based performance artist who has staged several solo and ensemble shows, including her latest Late Stage San Francisco.

Maryam Farnaz Rostam

Rostami also works as a designer in the architectural world, and her performance cleverly weaves that experience into laments about gentrification and displacement in the city. She decries the traditional “enforced cuteness” of San Francisco architecture, but also questions contemporary minimalism, as it applies both to design and life. She took us on a tour of The Battery, an exclusive club that popped up a few years ago and most of us loved to hate from the moment we heard about it. The descriptions of glass and metal contrast with the ugliness of the institution’s sensibilities and target clientele. But Rostami also offered notes of optimism and hope, such as ways we could organize the city more equitably and sustainability (e.g., more high-rises, but also a lot more natural space). And she did this with a heightened exaggerated style from her drag performances.

We had a large and appreciative audience for the event, full of familiar faces from the KSW community as well as newcomers. I look forward to seeing the full art project as it unfolds on the streets of my neighborhood.

Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 1: Vacuum Tree Head and More

We conclude our reverse-order look at the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. This day featured Vacuum Tree Head among several other acts.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Karen de la Cuesta]

This was among the best Vacuum Tree Head shows I have experienced since joining the band, in terms of energy and musical tightness. The rhythm section, anchored by Justin Markovits on drums and John Shiurba on bass functioned well as a unit and provided a foundation for the rest of the band. We had three horn players: Joshua Marshal, Jason Bellenkes and Richard Lesnik. Our guitar section featured Richard Corny, and Michael de la Cuesta, who also was part of the synth/keyboard section of the band with me. And Jason Berry ran the show with new tunes, new arrangements and interstitial entertainment. We will have a full video of our set soon along with a more detailed review, but for now here is a little clip courtesy of our friend Rick Rees.

As mentioned in previous articles the overarching theme of HSP2017 was “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.” The first two acts of the evening took the theme quite seriously. Earspray projected videos along with Beefhart clips mixed with live improvisations.

Earspray

The group features Ann O’Rourke on electronics and video, Carlos Jennings on electronics, and Mark Pino on percussion. Mark returned in Crow Crash Radio, which also featured Brian Strang on guitar Andrew Joron on theremin along with guest Garrett Caples on vocals.

Crow Crash Radio

Like Earspray, Crow Crash Radio worked the Beefhart theme directly into the contact of their set, with Caples channeling him in his vocal sound and style as the band covered Diddy Wah Diddy and other songs. If there was one thing that didn’t work, it was not being able to hear the vocals well, though perhaps that was part of the concept.

The band performances contrasted sharply with a quiet so set by Jakob Pek on guitar. He uses extended techniques on the instrument, preparations, and electronics to create unusual soundscapes. The sound is mostly long tones and timbres, but punctuated by percussive elements as well.

Jakob Pek

The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.

Lost Planet

This band, which features Dave Slusser on winds and electronics, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Len Paterson and Steve Clarke on guitars, mixed loud rock elements with space jazz for an energetic set. In some ways, they combined elements prominent in the previous band sets of the evening.

It was fun to play with VTH on this night and hear the other groups, as I also did with CDP on night 3. We would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo for organizing this event, as well as Elijah Ponteocorvo, Kersti Abrams, Mark Pino and everyone else who followed teared to make it a success.

Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 2

We continue with our temporally reversed coverage of the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley in March. Today we look at day 2.

The evening began with Oa, the voice-and-electronics duo featuring Matt Davignon and Hugh Behm-Steinberg.

Oa

Oa’s music involves the processing and manipulation of vocal sounds, often based on Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s words and voice. But on this occasion they featured vocal samples of Captain Beefheart. It was an appropriate twist given that HSP2017 is officially billed as “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.”

Next up was Skullcrusher, a solo project of Phillip Everett.

Skullcrusher

Skullcrusher featured a variety of sonic implements, some processed and amplified, along with an Arturia Microbrute synthesizer. There were harsh noise elements throughout the set, but also snippets of melodic and harmonic material mixed in. Interestingly, the set elided into the next one featuring Joshua Allen on saxophone, with the two playing together in a frenetic improvisation before Skullcrusher faded out and Allen continued on his own as a solo set.

Joshua Allen

There were several solo sets featuring wind instrumentalists on this evening. Joshua Allen was followed by Jaroba, who played an exceptionally inspired set with bass clarinet and percussion.

Jaroba

Jaroba coaxed very subtle and intricate sounds from his instruments, but with dramatic moments as well. The dynamic range, phrasing and narrative structure made it very musical indeed. His sounds managed to remain punctuated even in the complex and bizarre acoustics of the Finnish Hall. The music also had a emotional and spiritual dimension to it, which added to the listening experience. It was a joy to hear, and we congratulated him after the set.

Jaroba

Next up was Dire Wolves, featuring Sheila Bosco on drums, Brian Lucas on bass, Arjun Mendiratta on violin, and Kelly Ann Nelson on voice and electronics. There was also video projection along with the music, which mixes “space music”, folk, and other elements into an undulating flow of rhythms and harmonies.

Dire Wolves

Dire Wolves was followed by Arrington de Dionyso on saxophones, part of his epic “This Saxophone Kills Fascists” tour.

Arrington de Dionyso

There is nothing subtle about the message, or the music. de Dionyso’s playing is loud, strong, frenetic, no-holds-barred. But he also had some soft moments that broke things up. While in large part a solo set, he also performed as a duo with drums, and a trio that included Rent Romus on saxophone.

Arrington de Dionyso Trio

The final set of the evening brought Voi! Maa! to the stage. This group features event-organizer Mika Pontecorvo on flute, guitar, and laptop manipulating sounds from other members of the band, which included Kersti Abrams on winds, Mark Pino on drums, Eli Pontecorvo on bass, Adrienne Pontecorvo on cello, and Jaroba sitting in on bass clarinet.

Voi! Maa!

Thet music unfolded with Mika cuing the other members of the group in various configurations, with loud hits, noise pads, but also some more subtle sounds, particular from Adrienne Pontecovero, Abrams and Jaroba. In the middle of the set, the music quieted down as Meg Pontecorvo read selections from her science-fiction writings. Overall it was a fitting close to the evening, especially as it brought the folks whose hard work made this event possible onto the stage.

There is one more day to present in this backwards progression: Day 1. We will share that in a separate article soon.

Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 3: CDP and More

We finally catch up on the remaining show report in our backlog: the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. We will be presenting it out of order, with Day 3 first. This day featured my band CDP (Census Designated Place) among many other artists.

We had our full four-member lineup for this event, including myself, Tom Djll on synthesizers, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, and Mark Pino on drums. We played three tunes with extended improvisation sections. The energy on stage was great, and the music just seemed to flow. This was the band and style of performance I always wanted. You can here a bit in these two videos, featuring our tunes White Wine and North Berkeley BART.

CDP Playing White Wine at Finnish Kaleva Hall from CatSynth on Vimeo.

CDP "Playing North Berkeley BART" at Finnish Kaleva Hall from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Mark and I form the rhythm section, where I lay down vamps over his solid drums. The interplay of Tom and Josh on melody and open solos wasn’t planned per se, but adds a lot to the sound of the group. We got a great reception from the audience, and definitely looked forward to our future shows.

The evening opened with Alphastare performing a solo electronic set.

There were a lot of interesting timbres that I liked, some quite thick and noisy, that were woven into a narrative.

We were on second, and then followed by United Separatists, featuring Drew Wheeler on guitar and Timothy Orr on drums.

The instrumentation can sometimes be treacherous in an experimental-music setting, but I like what I’ve heard from this duo whenever I have heard them. There is phrasing, punctuation and space that gives it a captivating feel. Sometimes Orr’s drums are the melodic instrument and Wheeler’s guitar is the percussion. This photo of Wheeler framed by Moog Theremini (not mine) and a water phone was a fun coincidence.

Next up was ebolabuddha with their unique combination of black metal and improvised literary readings.

In addition to the musicians on stage, including Eli Pontecorvo on bass, Mark Pino on drums, Plague, Tom Weeks, Lorenzo Arreguin and Steve Jong, there always a wide selection of books scattered about. Members of the band read from them at various points, but the audience is encouraged to participate as well.

An ebolabuddha performance is always an intense experience but it was even more so in the Finnish Hall with its delightfully bizarre acoustics and the friendly audience. Here is Mark having a quintessential “ebolabuddha moment.”

They were followed by Double-A Posture Palace , a trio featuring Andrew Barnes Jamieson on keyboard and voice, Joshua Marshall returning on saxophones, and Aaron Levin on drums.

It was a quieter set (especially in comparison to what preceded it), but the gentle piano sounds in the opening belied the extremely clever and snarky nature of what was unfolding, as Jamieson sang an ode to performing experimental music that simultaneously celebrated it and pointed out some of the musical shortcomings that many of us discuss only privately. It was truly funny and ingenious, and I congratulate all three members of the set on this performance.

The final set of the evening, and of the festival as a whole, featured the latest incarnation of Instagon is an ever changing set of musicians, never the same. For this version, project creator Lob was joined by Rent Romus on saxophone, Hannah Glass on violin, Leland Vandermuelen on guitar, and Mark Pino on drums – Mark once again demonstrating why I refer to him as the “hardest working man in the new music scene.”

Overall the third day of the festival went well and showcased a variety of music. I am glad that CDP played early so I could relax and enjoy the sense of accomplishment while listening to the subsequent sets. The festival is a fundraiser for EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center, both fine causes that many of us stage are proud to support. I would also like to give a special thanks to Mika Pontecorvo for organizing the event, and to Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams, Rent Romus and others who worked hard to make it happen.