Outsound New Music Summit: neem and Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air

The third concert of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit was truly a study in contrasts between minimalism and large-ensemble exuberance.

First up was neem, the duo project of Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin) and Kelley Kipperman (double bass).

neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul)
[neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul). Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

This was minimalism in its truest form, starting with the deliberate silence led by Fluke-Mogul before the first note was intoned. The music unfolded in a similarly sparse manner, with plenty of room to observe the details the sounds from both artists’ extended techniques. Although open and spacious, there was also an intimacy in some sections where the two closely followed one another musically, bouncing sounds from one instrument to the other. Whether intentional or not, one could envision the music unfolding in a natural landscape.

By contrast, Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air, was large and exuberant, and featured a ten-piece ensemble. In addition to Brown, the group featured Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorin Benedict on voice, Andrew Joron on theremin, Dave MacNab and John Finkbeiner on guitars, Dan Zemelman on piano, and Vijay Anderson and Alan Hall on drums.

Sheldon Brown's Blood of the Air
[Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The work centered around “speech melodies” created from readings by the Beat-era poet Philip Lamantia. Each piece began with a recording of Lamantia reading his poetry, and one of the musicians (often Brown himself) responding in a melody that matched the prosody of Lamentia’s speech. The melodies served as points of departure with the ensemble responding with rhythmic vamps, countermelodies, and solos. When I wasn’t watching Brown’s solos or drawn into Lorin Benedict’s frenetic scatting, I found myself captivated by Zemelman’s virtuosic piano playing, both comping and solo. It was both musically and technically impressive. But the group functioned together as a unit, even in a setting that featured a lot of improvisation, and remained tight.

It is interesting to note that despite the musical contrast, both groups were very much focused on listening as a central element. For Blood of the Air, it was listening to the melody of the rhythm and poetry, and then to one other to form the tightness and musical phrasing of the ensemble. In neem, it was also listening and responding to one another, but was also “deep listening” to the individual sounds of the instruments, and especially to the spaces between the sounds. Yes, all good music requires disciplined listening, but sometimes it’s good to step back and take note of it.

Outsound New Music Summit: Usufruct and Evil Genius

The concert portion of the Outsound New Music Summit opened on Tuesday with performances by Usufruct and Evil Genius. The groups both have unique and fun names, but offered up quite different performances and aesthetics. But they both included instruments that I feel are under-utilized in contemporary music: bass flute and tuba.

Bass flute and tuba

Usufruct is the duo project of Polly Moller on voice, flute and bass flute; and Tim Walters on electronics (specifically, software processing using custom SuperCollider programs). The word usufruct means “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property”, a concept which is reflected in the duo’s use of found texts and musical materials from the public domain, modified and reassembled in new and surprising ways.

Usufruct.  Polly Moller and Tim Walters

The music unfolded with a sparse texture that featured single broken lines on flutes and voice interspersed with electronics. Some of the electronic sounds could be readily traced to their sources from Moller’s performance, but others were more obscure. There was often a rather deep and ominous quality to many of the electronic sounds. The texts were interpreted in short bursts that often hid the original sources, although an early section was clearly from some legal document – it almost seemed like it was defining and proscribing punishments for treason. The sections of text from the Star Spangled Banner in the later portion of the set was much clearer, even when broken up. It’s hard to imagine that these texts were not chosen with our current political milieu in mind.

Polly Moller
[Polly Moller on bass flute. Photo peterbkaars.com]

The bass flute is an instrument ripe for electronic processing, and the segments in which it was featured included both harmonized and delayed accompaniment as well as hits and noisier elements derived from extended techniques. Overall, Usufruct’s performance was dark, a bit foreboding, but simultaneously quite clever and playful, as fitting the personalities and aesthetics of the artists.

Calling your band “Evil Genius” sets very high expectations. There were no diabolical death rays, but the Los-Angeles-based trio features Stefan Kac on tuba, Max Kutner on guitar, and Michael “Bonepocket” Lockwood on drums; and performed an energetic an imaginative experimental jazz set.

Evil Genius
[Evil Genius. Photo peterbkaars.com]

Kac’s tuba anchored the group musically. At times he was a bassist, providing solid rhythmic foundation alongside Lockwood’s whimsical and frenetic drumming. But he also made the tuba a melodic instrument at times. Kutner’s sometimes harmonic and sometimes percussive guitar hovered above the other elements. I appreciated the rhythmic grounding of the trio, even as they punctuated it with dry noisier sections. The music freely mixed experimental sounds and rock idioms with their jazz foundation. It has brash, it was hard, but it was also meticulous and filled with softer moments. And they left room for empty space and sparse elements before returning to a driving funky vibe. Quite a variety from what is structurally a “power trio.” The set was divided into several discreet compositions, with all members of the band contributing. So, are they “evil”? Not at all. Indeed, I was quite impressed with the group musically, and I did pick up a copy of their debut CD at the show and look forward to listening to it.

Overall it was a strong start to this year’s Summit concerts. We will bring you the remaining three nights as they unfold.

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.

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.

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.

The Amy X-Perience at the Jewish Community Center, Berkeley

As we are in the middle of Passover, it seems like a good time to look back at a Jewish-themed show in which I participated earlier this year. The Amy X-Perience brought together a mix of artists in solo, duo and ensemble sets at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, California. The evening was curated by our friend and collaborator Amy X Neuburg.

The night began with a piece by Neuburg featuring electronics and potato chips. Yes, potato chips. Small vending-machine-sized bags were distributed to the audience, who were instructed to on cue open the bags and start chewing the (edible) contents loudly, as Neuburg manipulated the sounds and added additional musical layers.

Amy X Neuburg

I was up next. Regular readers have likely already heard part of my solo set from this show – I posted the performance of piece White Wine in this article a couple of weeks ago. I also performed a live version of my piece Donershtik (Yiddish for “Thursday”), which you can see below.

Amanda Chaudhary performing "Donershtik" at JCC East Bay from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I was quite happy with how both solo pieces came out, but the real treat was having Amy join me in a duo of my piece North Berkeley BART, humorously appropriate for the location that evening.

North Berkeley BART w/ Amy X Neuburg – JCC from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I have always been impressed with Amy’s musicianship, discipline and ability to learn songs quickly, and very much appreciated her joining me. We also performed an avant-garde rendition of the American standard All of Me later in the evening.

Amanda Chaudhary and Amy X Neuburg

Between the two of us, there was quite an impressive collection of musical electronics on stage.

My solo set was followed by Alex Kelley, a veritable one-man band on cello and electronics.

Alex Kelley

His music blended jazz, klezmer and rock influences with experimental sounds. His cello acted not only as a melodic instrument, but also as the rhythm section, with Kelley striking it like a drum at times, and recording bass lines into a live looper and then riffing on top of that. His performance was both tight and humorous and a lot of fun to watch. You can hear a little bit in this video:

Next up was Solstice: A Female Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, several members of the group were unfortunately absent that evening due to illness, but that didn’t stop the remaining trio from delivering a strong performance.

Solstice’s repertoire spans a variety of styles and languages, and their set that evening included pieces from several places. I was quite impressed with their ability so sing in so many languages.

The second half of the program brought together the various artists in different combinations. I already mentioned my duo rendition of All of Me with Amy X Neuburg. She also performed show tunes with Alex Kelley, and joined Solstice for a virtuosic rendition of an Eastern European song. And finally, all of us joined together for a rousing rendition of Mein Herr from Cabaret. It was a fun and fitting conclusion to the evening.

Second half brought many voices in many languages and showtunes #AmyXNeuburg

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All of the performances were well received by the enthusiastic full house. Thank you to Amy X Neuburg for inviting all of us to participate in this event, and to the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay for hosting! Please visit their website to find out about the many performances and other cultural programs hosted by the JCC.

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.

SFJAZZ Honors Zakir Hussain

Just before departing for NAMM back in January, we had the opportunity to attend the SFJAZZ Gala honoring Zakih Hussain with a lifetime achievement award.

One of the unexpected guests of the evening was a torrential rain that peaked just as we were arriving. This video from our Instagram gives a small taste.

Crazy rain for #sfjazzgala ☔️

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

But inside it was warm, the drinks were flowing, the music was as expected. We had seats in the bleachers which provided an excellent view of the stage. And the backs of the musicians, including the maestro himself.

You can see a much better view of Zakir Hussain performing with saxophonist John Handy is the Instagram photo from SFJAZZ.

It was a sweet and delightfully simple jam, which capped an evening of performances featuring the SFJazz Collective, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalist Mary Stallings, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana.

The award presentation itself was preceded by a tribute video made by Hussain’s daughters, which highlighted his genius as a musician and rhythmic master as well as his good humor and down-to-earth nature as a person. This was also apparent in his remarks upon accepting the award. (The same could not be said for the verbose and pretentious introduction by Mickey Hart.)

After the presentation, it was time to party, with more music and dancing filling the hall.

We didn’t stay too late because I was off to NAMM the next morning, but I am glad to have braved the storm to celebrate a great musician.

NAMM 2017: Mike Garson Plays Synthogy Ivory II

Mike Garson is a legendary keyboardist. He is perhaps best known for his collaborations with David Bowie – indeed that is how we primarily know him. But he is quite the performer in his own right, combining avant-garde and jazz together into a very rhythmic style of playing. He was performing today at NAMM on Ivory II, the flagship virtual piano from Synthogy. You can see a segment of his performance in this video.

The performance, which lasted over 30 minutes, featured a variety of styles and ranged from improvisations to familiar tunes. It is quite virtuosic, but not for its own sake as the fast runs and driving low-note chords serve the music well. Towards the end he played in a heavy style that I like to call “avant stride.”

I was quite happy to get such a good visual and sonic spot to see him; and aftwords had a chance to think him for his music and inspiration to my own playing.