Outsound New Music Summit: Vacuum Tree Head, avantNoir and Cabbages, Captain and King

While the first night of the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit was billed as “Quiet Noise”, the second night was something altogether different. The concert features three exuberant but very different bands spanning a wide variety of musical techniques and styles.

First up was Cabbages, Captain and King, a trio featuring Eli Wallace on piano, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Jon Arkin on drums.

Cabbages, Captain and King
[Cabbages, Captain and King. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

I have become quite a fan of Eli Wallace’s piano playing, which is virtuosic and energetic. Combined with Evangelista’s intense and varied guitar performance and Arkin’s drums, the trio packed quite a punch. The speed and energy rarely let up throughout the 45-minute set. The music had an unsettled quality, always moving forward and never quite reaching a groove or tonal center. There were occasional quiet moments when the overall intensity of the performance let up, and the final notes with prepared piano were a nice touch.

Eli Wallace
[Eli Wallace. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Next up was Liza Mezzacapa’s Bait & Switch performing her project avantNoir. The pieces in this project were all inspired by noir fiction. The first half was based on “hard-boiled” stories by Dashiell Hammett set in 1920s San Francisco – with many familiar places and streets references – and the second half was based on “soft boiled” stories by Paul Auster set in 1980s New York (also a familiar setting).

Lisa Mezzacapa's avantNOIR with Bait&Switch
[Lisa Mezzacappa’s avantNOIR with Bait & Switch. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The music fit into the punctuated jazz style I have heard many times from Mezzacapa and her bands. But there was a distinctly 1970s crime show vibe to many of the pieces that contrasted with the times and places of the original stories’ settings. The interplay of bass, guitar with wah wah and drums, along with some of the electronic sounds from guest performer Tim Perkis led to this 1970s feel. The project itself suggests film scores for the stories, and I liked the idea of changing listeners’ expectations, especially if they have seen Hollywood versions of these stories. In addition to Mezzacapa and Perkis, the set featured Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, Jordon Glenn on drums, John Finkbeiner on guitar and special guest William Winant on vibraphone and sound-effects percussion. I found Winant’s seltzer bottle and tiny door particularly amusing.

Aaron Bennet and William Winant
[Aaron Bennett and William Winant. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Then it was time for Vacuum Tree Head to take the stage.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Vacuum Tree Head. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Led by Jason Berry who was conducting this evening, led us through fast-paced set of short pieces that ranged from classic jazz to deep funk to something approaching metal rock. Above the fray were vocals by Amy X Neuburg, who brought her theatrical and operatic voicings to the rather challenging music along with her very distinctive performance personality.

Amy X Neuburg, Vacuum Tree Head

Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amy X Neuburg and Jason Berry. Photos: peterbkaars.com.]

Many of the pieces, which were composed primarily by Berry and Michael de La Cuesta who together formed the band in 1989(!), were premiers. The band made the most of the variety of music, with an extended fusion keyboard solo by Amanda Chaudhary in DL DS, deep funk from the whole band behind Rich Corney’s guitar in EMS, a blindingly short jazz tune inspired by the Akhnaton dynasty of ancient Egypt, and a loud metal tune that may have been a first for an Outsound New Music Summit.

Amanda Chaudhary et al, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amanda Chaudhary et al. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Rich Lesnick (also a band-mate of mine in Reconnaissance Fly) brought solid saxophone and bass clarinet, including an extended moody bass-clarinet solo in Cushion Fortress; and Michael de la Cuesta featured in many songs on analog synthesizer, guitar and glockenspiel. Justin Markovits held things together with his drumming, assisted in the rhythm section by Tom Ferguson on bass. There was even a bit of abstract electronics from Amy X Neuburg on Blippo Box and Amanda Chaudhary on modular synth.

Michael de la Cuesta, Vacuum Tree Head Justin Markovits, Vacuum Tree Head
[Michael de la Cuesta and Justin Markovits. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The set was very well received by audience, some of whom were longtime fans of the band and some hearing us for the first time. And personally, it was quite a privilege to be part of the band for this event.

Overall, it was a strong evening for the summit, one that stood out as quite contrasting among the sets as well as with the other concerts.

Friendly Galaxies: Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Sun Ra, an artist whom we at CatSynth quite admire. There have been many tributes this year, and Reconnaissance Fly was fortunate to have played in one of them this past Wednesday.

“Friendly Galaxies”-Celebrating Sun Ra at 100 was “a celebration of the cosmic musical force of Sun Ra and his legacy….bands,beer,the sounds of joy!!! universal convergence” at the Center for New Music here in San Francisco. It featured three groups who combined his music and poetry with their own artistry. We even had Saturn cookies!


And Reconnaissance Fly was up first! We definitely got into the theme of the evening, with otherworldly and science-fiction themes. And our set included two of Sun Ra’s pieces from the album Lanquidity: the title track and Where Pathways Meet.



We also included selections from our own music that matched the sound and vibe including Itzirktna and Undeciphered. You can hear our performance of Undeciphered in this video.

Overall, this was one of our better-performed shows, and we received a great response from the audience.

We were followed by Electropoetic Coffee, a music-and-poetry duo featuring Ross Hammond and NSAA.


As usual, Hammond’s guitar work was virtuosic and filled with lush and complex moments. I am pretty sure the poetry and spoken featured some of Sun Ra’s own writings, a topic that was part of the groups introduction. It was interesting to hear the combination of words and music. At times they came together strongly, at others seemed to drift a bit in different direction. Overall, I did like the performance and how it fit into the evening. But I do think would have been stronger if it was shorter – I don’t think the 45 minute duration served them well and it would have been better to keep it compact and energetic.

The final set was a special group for the evening, the UBU RA BIG BAND. It featured Joe Lasquo on piano and electronics, with Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, Lisa Mezzacappa, John Hanes, Myles Boisen, Aaron Bennett, Dan Plonsey, and David Slusser, along with a vocal team that included Katt Atchley.


This was truly a treat to hear. These are of course all top-notch musicians who can hit the appropriate sounds and rhythms for jazz as well as dive into free-improvisation. Their arrangements of Sun Ra’s compositions were tight and energetic, and just fun to listen to. And this band really grooved, in that funk/jazz/fusion way that I adore. One of my favorites was the final piece, UFO, a straight-ahead disco tune from 1979. I wanted that one to keep going.

Overall, this was a fun show and a joyous celebration, and something I think we were all proud to be a part of. We had a full house, all of which seemed to be very much in the moment as well. Certainly a memorable night and a fitting tribute. A special thanks to Jan Michaels for organizing this event and to the Center for New Music for hosting us!

Ivy Room: The Final Hoot

Wednesday, May 18 was the final installment of the long-running Ivy Room Experimental/Improv Hootenanny series. It’s a bit sad to see it go, as I quite liked this home of weird music, mixed drinks and eclectic European-inspired decor. The evening was curated by Kattt Atchley (who together with Kenneth Atchley shared the bill with my quartet at the December Hootenanny). It was a very diverse program, ranging from experimental video to ambient electronics to “heavy metal jazz.” Special “cocktail menu” programs were provided. Here you can see the program next to a Manhattan, part of my personal ritual at these events.

The evening opened with Kerry Laitala presenting her appropriately named “Chromatic Cocktails”, selections from her 3D video work. Audience members were provided with 3D glasses for the full experience.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Among the pieces were two premiers, Chromatic Cocktail 180 Proof and Chromatic Reveries performed with live music accompaniment by Kenneth Atchley. These pieces focused on abstract shapes with undulating colors and motion, although Chromatic Cocktail 180 Proof also included realistic images if women that appeared and vanished within the abstract context. In Pin-Up in 3D, the figurative elements (short animated silhouettes of classic pin-ups) are more integrated into the abstract in that they are part of the chromatic effects

[Photo by Amar]

[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

In the past, I have seen a video of Laitala’s that featured cats, though I did not see that in this set.

The overall experience of Laitala’s videos was mesmerizing. The images are their own universe with their own consistent rules about how color and motion work, so the viewer is naturally drawn in to process the entire experience. The source material is simple enough that it provides interest without getting in the way. Similarly, the music was abstract enough to enhance the feel of chromatic and spatial movement within the pieces without imposing a strong sense of narrative. Although the pieces took advantage of digital technology, there was something decidedly retro about her images – there was both the sources (such as the silhouettes of models) and the colorization effects that make it seem like it could have been part of a 1960s background film projection.

Kenneth Atchley followed with a solo set of ambient electronics. His sounds incorporate more harmonic ambience, noise, and some very distinct and punctuated synthesizer sounds. What I find interesting to listen to are the different levels of these elements, where a harmonic pattern seamlessly gives way to a section of more timbral interest. It is a little challenging to listen in detail in a crowded bar environment, however, and as such more ambient music becomes part of the environment and vice versa.

The final set of the evening, and of the series, was Go-Go Fightmaster, an ensemble featuring Aaron Bennett (saxophones and drinking straw), John Finkbeiner (guitar and drinking straw), Vijay Anderson (drum set), Lisa Mezzacappa (contrabass), Aram Shelton (saxophone), and Cory Wright (winds).

[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The set could be described as “avant jazz,: which veered between more experimental and more idiomatic styles over several pieces. There were very loud, punctuated percussive moments, and others where more expressive rhythmic patterns. The rhythmic sections tended anxiously build up in volume and complexity before getting software – a pattern I often hear in experimental jazz – rather than settling into a particular groove. With at times as many as three saxophones playing at once, along with guitar, bass and drums, there was a lot of energy – indeed quite aggressive and expressive at the same time. I don’t recall seeing any drinking straws. With punchy, staccato cadences and endings, this was a perfect conclusion to the series.

And so it ends. Thanks to Lucio Menegon, Suki O’kane, and others who have made the 14 installments of this series possible. So this leaves us with the question of where to go next? I have seen my share of experimental music series (and experimental-music-friendly venues) come and go. And as some disappear, new places emerge. But I think it’s important for us have a series and venue that isn’t too severe, where one can enjoy a nice cocktail while listening to weird music. The current thinking is for a Monday night series, “definitely not before September, and definitely involving fermented liquid.”