Mulatu Astatke w/ Meklit at The UC Theatre

We at CatSynth have long admired the music of Ethiopia from the 1960s and 1970s, with its blending of traditional rhythms and scales with funk, soul, and jazz. And there are few names as synonymous with Ethiopian jazz, or “Ethio-jazz” as Mulatu Astatke. Astatke developed his Ethio-jazz sound while studying in the U.K. and the United States, playing alongside with jazz and Latin artists, including many from Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. He combined the melodies and harmonies of Ethiopia with rhythms and instrumentations from his Western training and collaborations, along with his own unique complex system of poly-rhythms. There is also a strong element of funk is some of his work. The bulk of his groundbreaking recordings were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the “golden age” of Ethiopian music. After the fall of the Ethiopian Empire and the coup that brought a brutal new regime to power, the thriving music scene in Addis Ababa faded and these recordings fell into obscurity. But they were later prized by record collectors and eventually found a wider audience through reissues and inclusion in the French Éthiopiques series of records in the 1990s. Indeed, that was how he first came to my attention. Since then, Astatke and his music have had a renaissance, with frequent collaborations with musicians around the world, such as his 2008 recording with London based jazz/funk band The Heliocentrics and others. When we learned that he was coming to the U.C. Theater in Berkeley this summer, we know we had to be there.

The evening began with a set by Meklit, an Ethiopian-American musician, songwriter, and bandleader based in San Francisco.

Meklit

Like Astatke, Meklit combined jazz and Ethiopian influences in her soulful and energetic performance. Indeed, she was open about the influence of “Dr. Mulatu” on her own music and waxed poetic on being able to open for him in the concert. Meklit’s voice and movement were backed by a band that featured both a drum set and frame drum tupan, along with horns and bass. The result was continuous energy and rhythm that flowed from one composition to another, even when the tempo was slower. The group performed compositions from Meklit’s latest album The People Move and the Music Moves To as well as her earlier compositions and some more traditional tunes.

Meklit and band

And then it was time for the maestro himself to take the stage.

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu began on his signature instrument, the vibraphone, with fast runs in his unique tonality that were picked up by the horn players. But he also played electric piano and drums during the set. The rhythms were intricate and often poly-rhythmic or contrapuntal, with lilting triple time and odd times that propelled the music forward. The harmonies had a dark color but still delivered with energy and exuberance. This was music to dance to, and many members of the audience did (including Meklit who was dancing in the aisle not far from our seat). There was a mixture of newer compositions (I thought I heard at least one familiar tune from his work with the Heliocentrics) as well as classic 1970s compositions. The band was solid and deft at Astatke’s complex rhythms and fit with his more recent work that includes musicians from host countries.

Mulatu Astatke, Jason Lindner, and other band members

We did espy Jason Lindner on keyboards, including synthesizers and electric piano. We had previously seen him with Donny McCaslin a couple of months ago. He brought a similar sense of harmony and tight playing across instruments to this performance. He had a command of the complex rhythms and also provided the lush electric-piano sounds that I quite enjoyed in Astatke’s classic recordings.

It was a wonderful and unique night of music, and the audience at the sold-out concert showed their appreciation for it. And having now seen Mulatu Astatke perform live, I will be hearing his recordings in a new light.

James Chance and the Contortions at the Knockout, San Francisco

James Chance and the Contortions made a rare appearance in San Francisco, and we at CatSynth were on hand at The Knockout to see it. For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps more than most in that scene, he incorporated jazz and funk, not merely as decorative elements but foundational to the music as a whole. His music has been described as “combining the freeform playing of Ornette Coleman with the solid funk rhythm of James Brown, though filtered through a punk rock lens” [Wikipedia].

At around midnight, he took the stage with his trademark pompadour and saxophone blaring.

From the start it was a high-energy experience, especially up front near the stage where we were. The rhythm section was solid, whether playing a bouncy ska-like rhythm or the funk rhythm and details that so characterize and separate the band from others in its original scene. Every so often, Chance would break out into fancy footwork reminiscent of James Brown in between vocals that were simultaneous playful and aggressive. And the rhythm remained tight even when the horns went on long free runs, occasionally cutting out for a voice solo and keyboard hit, and then coming back in on the beat. It has been said that Chance hold his bands to a high standard of tightness and musicianship and it shows.

Another fun aspect of the set was the interplay between James Chance and Mac Gollehon on trumpet and keyboard. In additional to some classic horn-section hooks to complement the funk rhythms, Gollehon used a dynamic-filter effect on his trumpet that worked extremely well in context, turning the horn into a rhythm-section instrument playing riffs that in more conventional bands are covered by guitar.

It was a sold-out show with an enthusiastic crowd packing the small space of the Knockout, and it spans a wide age-range from those who may have seen James Chance in the 1970s and 1980s to younger people likely seeing him for the first time. And having a great time of it. We certainly did. And I draw some inspiration from the mix of funk and jazz with punk and avant-garde elements. We at CatSynth wish them well on the remainder of this west coast tour.

RIP Sharon Jones (1956-2016)

When I discovered the album 100 Days 100 Nights in 2009, it was a breath of fresh air. It was a time when my life was very oriented towards Asia and my own Asian heritage, but musically I was returning to the funk and soul music that I have long adored and wished to play myself. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings fit perfectly into that milieu. The songs, especially the title track and “Tell Me” quickly became part of my regular rotation. The strength of music is of course mostly due to Ms Jones and the band, but the production also intrigued me, as they went back to some of the technologies that made those earlier records. Both the physical artifact and the music references James Brown, one of our musical heroes, and the band intersects other more recent favorites such as Amy Winehouse and The Budos Band.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
[By Jacob Blickenstaff [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharon Jones’ battle with cancer, which ultimately took her life this past week, also hits home for us at the moment. She had a long fight that included remission and optimism only to watch it come roaring back. It’s a painfully familiar story for us at CatSynth.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities

Healing after a major medical procedure leaves one with quite a bit of time for reading. This was the case for me in July and August. Today we look at the first of a few books I completed during that time.

Herbie HancockPossibilities is Herbie Hancock’s autobiography released in late 2014, not long after I saw him accept his lifetime achievement award at the SFJAZZ gala. Like the gala event, the book attempts to weave together the earlier (and in my opinion best) work with his continuing to be vital and creative artist. It didn’t change my over all assessment of his music – I revere what he did in the 1970s with The Headhunters and Mwandishi as close to musical perfection, but shrug at what most of what he did in the 1980s through the end of the century (with notable exceptions like Rockit).

Throughout the book, Hancock and his co-writer Lisa Dickey weave together personal life with several different aspects of music – the music itself, the engineering, the business, and relationships. It is the mixture of all of these that makes for an interesting read, especially when placed in the context of the music. Hancock’s Buddhist practice permeates the entire story. One sees how it was a beneficial force for him personality and also affected his music, particularly with the open structure of Mwandishi and then in Head Hunters and Thrust. One of the fun anecdotes here was the naming of Actual Proof, and a discussion of how the piece got its confounding rhythm. The language is detailed enough that it gives me insight into the musical process – but not so overly technical that non-musicians should be able to get something from it as well.

He also goes into great detail about his dive into music technology through synthesizers; and his collaborations with engineers to push the instruments. I of course knew the story of the Fender Rhodes entering his music via Miles Davis; and the use of the Arp Odyssey in Head Hunters. I didn’t realize just how much he was involved in customizing the instruments for his live performances, taking advantage of his own electrical-engineering background and numerous long-time collaborations. I was particularly intrigued by the story of the vocoder (a Sennheiser VSM201) and prototype “keytar” featured in Sunlight. I also have seen that some of these sounds and elements are used by critics against him as “selling out” or some such thing. Such criticisms have long bothered me because it dismisses is best work, and the work I most love. Hancock himself seems unbothered by that and focuses on his need to explore new musical styles, ideas, and technologies – like Buddhism, this a theme that keeps recurring throughout the book. After delving into deep technical and musical detail about one song or one performance, he then simply moves on to the next.

The personal details are of course part of the story, but sometimes difficult to read. There is tragedy in his family. And he struggled at various times with drugs – the candid story about his being a closeted crack user in the 1990s was unexpected. But it is primarily the music and “story of the music” where my attention settled, and where I got the most from the book. It has in a way added to my enjoyment of the music.

Amanda Chaudhary Solo Set at Second Act, San Francisco

We pick up our reports from the epic musical month that was June.

Amanda Chaudhary at Second Act

On June 15, I performed a brand new solo set at Second Act in San Francisco, part of a monthly evening of experimental electronic music. It was a bringing together of my more experimental electronic work with the jazz and funk direction my music. The modular and Moog Theremini were featured heavily, but so were the Moog Sub Phatty as my “left hand” bass, and of course the Nord Stage, aka “The Big Red Keyboard”. I also used a Casio SK-1 extensively. You can hear the entire set in this video.

Amanda at Second Act June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I thought it went quite well musically. I like how the funk bass worked with the Sub Phatty and Phonogene on the modular. The venue was full, and I got an enthusiastic response from the audience. I don’t think they were expecting this level of jazz and funk, but seemed to really appreciate it. I will definitely continue working in this direction in future solo sets.


The concert began with a noise set by Passions Nouveau, who performed with synthesizers and sundry electronics.

20160615-IMG_0359

The set unfolded as a single continuous soundscape, with noise pads and drones, but occasional loud swells and complex details.

I was followed by bran(…)pos. It had been a few years since I shared a bill with him, but has excited to hear what he had come up with recently. As per his pervious appearances, he performed inside a tent onto which a mixture of live and processed video was projected.

20160615-IMG_0429

And once again the performance centered around the use of his face and voice visually and sonically. But the instrumental accompaniment was a new direction, mixing sounds from the turn of the 20th century with pitched synthesizers and beats. It was a very polished and complex sound overall, bringing a tightness to his unique style of performance and presentation.

Overall, it was a great performance, and I was happy to be a part of it. Performing at Second Act is always a great time, and I would like extend my thanks to the folks who continue to make this venue and series work for the musical community.

Ornette Coleman, 1930-2015

Ornette Coleman

By Geert Vandepoele (Ornette Coleman) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We lost another of our musical heroes today. Orientate Coleman was deeply influential in the development and blossoming of jazz in the era-after bebop, where the music went in different, surprising and (for some) controversial directions. From the seemingly mathematic transformations of bop idioms in songs like Zig Zag to the driving funk of Jump Street from Of Human Feelings (a personal favorite of mine), his music and professional example were inspiring.

In addition to his composition and playing, he was an accomplished band leader, bringing together disparate performers to play complex music that remained rhythmically tight. There was the Ornette Coleman Quartet that cemented his reputation as an experimenter, and later his band Prime Time, which took on electronic elements and fusion idioms while retaining oblique rhythms and counterpoints.

I also find myself identifying the descriptions of him as soft-spoken and taking a deeply intellectual (perhaps bafflingly so) approach to describing music. Many jazz greats are sons and daughters of the South, and Ornate Coleman was no exception – but it is interesting to see him and others transcend that heritage to something of a different time and place, or perhaps no particular place at all. We should follow his example and keep jazz an alive, evolving, and often challenging music.

Ornette Coleman at 85: Sleep Talk

This evening we at CatSynth would like to pay tribute to one of our musical heroes who is still alive and well and still swinging, Ornette Coleman. Known for his avant-garde jazz and free improvisation explorations, I am particularly taken with his funk/disco inflused 1979 album Of Human Feelings. As a tribute for his 85th birthday, here is that album.

#OccupySF October 26

On Wednesday, I returned home to San Francisco around 9PM and was greeted by the sounds of helicopters overhead. I went outside to the patio and saw a helicopter flying closer to CatSynth HQ and lower to the ground than I had ever seen. We had all seen what had happened across the bay in Oakland the day before, with tragic results. Twitter was alight with concerns and rumors that a raid of #OccupySF was possible, and the official protest feed exhorted followers to “come join us”. So I did.

There was a fairly large crowd when I arrived at Justin Herman Plaza, and a rather festive atmosphere. In the center of the plaza, north of the camp, there was a large circular procession like a picket line. A small brass and drum band was playing a funky riff. Indeed with the bass line, pentatonic scale and four-on-the-floor rhythm it had a bit of an old disco feel! You can hear a bit in this video:

The sound from the iPhone recording was not that great, so the lower brass instruments are a bit soft. But there was a bass line, and the bass line is key to the disco/funk feel (something I suspect most Tea Party rallies lack).

However, underneath the party-like veneer it was a bit tense. The nearby BART station was shutdown (as were the stations in downtown Oakland), and reports were flying over Twitter of various groups of police massing, most notably in the Potrero Hill area where they were seen to be boarding MUNI busses. This led to all sorts of jokes about the fact that if they were riding MUNI they would probably never make it here. But jokes aside, organizers and participants took the threat of a raid quite seriously. We had frequent drills for those who were going to hold the camp (and thus risk arrest), and those who were going to form a more diffuse perimeter. There were advisories on what to do in the event of tear gas being used. It involved vinegar. It did not sound pleasant at all.

Hours went by, alternating between the festive party-like scene, the drills, and an open mic. No sign of any police activity – a fire truck with horns blaring did pull up near the camp, but that was it. Still, conflicting reports and rumors continued to circulate. There was even talk that people from #OccupyOakland who wanted to come across the bay to support us would attempt to cross the Bay Bridge, which is a busy freeway even at night and has no pedestrian sidewalks of any sort. (It was amusing to follow that from the point of view an anthropomorphized @SFBayBridge). This of course did not actually happen, though a small number of people from Oakland were able to come across by using alternate BART stations or other means and did speak to the assembled crowd, including accounts of what had happened on Tuesday and what people in Oakland were doing that evening, and a moving account of what happened to Scott Olsen.

Several political figures from the city were on hand as well, including several members of the Board of Supervisors (our city council equivalent) and a few mayoral candidates. Current Mayer Ed Lee was not present. However, my own Supervisor, Jane Kim, whose district covers my neighborhood as well as the plaza itself was present – I had actually run into her and (almost literally) earlier in the evening but not recognized her at first. At first, the officials started speaking so a small crowd of media people around 2AM, but after a back and forth with protest representatives, they came to speak to us, using the official “mic check” and call-and-response system:


[video by josborn25 on YouTube.]

There was one really annoying heckler, even though he seemed to be echoing the immediate and long-term concerns of many in the Occupy Wall Street movement, he was not respecting the mic system, the speakers or the audience, and its not clear to me if we was really an agitator rather than an overly enthusiastic supporter. For example, he was demanding portable bathrooms, even though the city had already provided several that were present and available at the time.

In some ways it was a lonely experience. I did not really have any close friends there. But I did feel connected to a community online on Twitter, with people I know across the bay in Oakland who sent and solicited updates, and with readers beyond who let me know they supported my being there.

I ended up departing around 3AM. It felt like a raid was not likely. And I was happy to see the next morning that it did not happen. It’s not clear if there was a raid in the works that was called off or if it was never really planned. It will also be interesting to see how the movement and the events this week and next week play into local politics (we do have a mayoral election coming up in less than two weeks).

New Podcast: Remix of Ninjam sessions June 15/17, UCSC DANM exhibition.

Well, it's another Sunday, and another podcast for the CatSynth Channel.

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Tonight's podcast features some live internet improvisation using NINJAM, a system that allows people to share live audio in real time and thus jam together over the internet. To overcome network latency that has stymied most systems for online collaboration, NINJAM actually adds delay so that everyone's audio conforms to a particular meter and tempo, i.e., everyone's down beats are in sync though they may be a measure or two off from one another. This leads to either simple “groove” jams on one or two chords and a steady beat (think of the 70s jazz classic Chameleon), or freeform improvisation.

The particular sessions used in this remix were from June 15 and 17 featuring several performers live at the Digital Media Factory in Santa Cruz California as part of the MFA Exhibition for the Digital Art and New Media (DANM) program at UC Santa Cruz. Though I am not a student, one of my best friends is, and so I had the opportunity to perform in several of the jams with local musicians as well as others over the internet.

Out of several hours of material, I made a 30-minute “remix” of several of the jams. The feel ranges from free-form to driving funk/jazz rhythms to a relaxed fusion/lounge feel (this happened when most of the musicians turned out to be keyboard players) and more.

All recorded mixes from the NINJAM AutoSong Archive, which are the sources for this track, are released under the Attribution, Noncommercial, Share Alike Creative Commons License v2.5..

Collaborators on the various jams include synthany, mvollrath, dbkick, tbfx, Funkify, leftyf, Oubien_ke, ekinox, hotdog, and chazz. (Sorry if I missed anyone).

Synthany is Synthia Payne and friends at the DANM exhibition, where I played as well. For my parts, I used E-MU Emulator X2 on my PC laptop, doing keyboard/piano, rhythms (using TwistaLoop), and even some bass when it was needed.

As always, comments are welcome. I'm not sure my brief discription really did justice to the topic or this particular example of online music collaboration, so feel free to ask more about it, or research the topic for yourself. In the meantime, enjoy.

RPM 2007: Twista Dilemma

Latest from my RPM 2007 blog:

I have been playing around with some of the loop-based sound sets that come with Emulator X2, including the “TwistaMania” bank – mostly just looking for some inspiration for the techno and beat-based sections of the album, but I found I really liked what I was playing. Plus, it's got that really addictive funky disco thing going. You can hear a brief sample here. This could be the kernel of a track for the album, possibly even the first full track after the intro – but it leads to what I am calling my “twista dilema.” Anyone else with Emulator X2 could easily do something similar, and more abstractly a 4/4 techno-dancy thing might sound trite in the context of my work.

UPDATE: since the original post on RPM, I heard an interesting, and quite timely, program on radio open source. Between the discussion in praise of creative appropriation, and my own sense of energy and enthusiasm for the funk disco sound, I think this track will be a part of the album – and it will be titled “Twistadilemma”, probably the second full track.