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.

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.

Magma in San Francisco

The acclaimed French band Magma recently toured the United States for the first time in quite a long time. And we at CatSynth were in attendance when the played at Slims in San Francisco about a month ago.

Magma at Slims in San Francisco

For those not familiar with Magma, it was founded in France in 1969 by drummer Christian Vander. Musically, the band combines some of the best aspects of jazz fusion and progressive rock from the early 1970s with a unique (and somewhat apocalyptic) vision. All the the lyrics are written in Kobaïan, a constructed language invented by Vander that reflects the story from the band’s first album in which settlers fleeing Earth settle on a planet Kobaïa. The vocal arrangements feature a mixture of complex solo vocals and rich choral sections, all the while backed by Vander’s drumming and intricate rhythm from the full band.

Christian Vander and Stella Vander

The overall energy level was intense to say the least, but the thing I noticed most was how tight they were at all times throughout the performance. This is especially key for the fusion aspects of their music, and something that I found quite inspiring. Take some of the more fast-paced and intricate examples from Herbie Hancock’s early 1970s bands, and layer the vocals on top with punctuated rock hits. Although these elements can be found in other bands of the era, there is something distinct about their sound that made it immediately recognizable upon entry to the venue (we were slightly late and they had already started the first song). It is also interesting to note that the music has a very optimistic quality (and a bit of exuberance) that belies the rather dark theme of the lyrics and concept for the band.

Magma bathed in light in San Francisco

Magma played to a packed house that evening. Slims is not a large venue, but it’s not the smallest either. There were definitely a lot of long time fans who clearly recognized the songs, but I’m sure some new listeners discovered them and hopefully went away wanting to hear more of them. For the overall experience and the musical inspiration, I am quite happy to have been in attendance.

Pitta of the Mind, Obando/Pumpelly/Wallace Trio

As Pitta of the Mind prepares for our upcoming show next week, we look back at our last show in February at Outsound’s periodic Soundspeak series featuring experimental music and poetry groups.

For our set we performed several new pieces on the theme of film, with several poems evoking treatments and plots for possible (or impossible) films. The music featured a mixture of piano, Moog Theremini, modular synth and DSI Prophet 12, which made for quite an impressive setup.

Theremini, analog modular, Prophet 12, Nord Stage keyboard

As with most Pitta of the Mind shows, we had a color/pattern theme. On this evening the theme was white.

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Maw Shein Win and Amanda Chaudhary Amanda Chaudhary
[Photos by Annabelle Port. Click to enlarge.]

The performance overall went quite well. You can here some audio excerpts below.

We were proceeded that evening by a trio featuring Nick Obando with Rob Pumpelly and Eli Wallace. The group performed several extended-length jazz pieces layered with Obando’s hip-hop-infused poetry.

Nick Obando with Rob Pumpelly and Eli Wallace

I have to admit I do not recall much of the words/poetry, but the instrumental performance was quite memorable. I am a fan of Eli Wallace’s keyboard performance style, and Pumpelly and Obando brought their own strong technical skills to the mix. I particularly liked one piece that featured a funk rhythm with complex solos and patterns on top. The rhythm cut out in a few spots for freeform improvisation that was just long enough before returning to the funk pattern.

Overall, it was a good show, though a quiet night – possibly a combination of other performances happening that evening and the fact that the Luggage Store Gallery is at a temporary location while the main building is being renovated. But we certainly look forward to performing again, and hearing more music in the meantime.

Idris Ackamoor Quartet, Amanda Chaudhary, IMA, Voicehandler. Second Act SF

Today we look back at a memorable show I played in a couple of weeks ago at Second Act here in San Francisco. Four acts each brought a different style of performance, instrumentation and experimentation to the stage.

First up was IMA, an electro-acoustic duo featuring Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie-Aprille Tang.

Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie-Aprille Tang

Their sound blends the noisier edges of percussion with a range of electronic sources, including loops, samples, and percussive hits that complement the acoustic sources. It was a loud and intense affair, but with quiet sections. Dunkelman also used her voice during the performance as another instrument.

Then it was time to take the stage. This was another set featuring Moog Theremini and analog modular synthesizer. The color theme for this performance was blue.

Amanda Chaudhary with Moog Theremini
[Photo by Tom Djll]

As with many of these electronic improvisation sets, it starts off very structured and then moves in different directions based on the audience, room, instrument behavior and inspiration. You can see the full performance in this video.

Amanda Chaudhary at Second Act from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the performance and the audience reaction.

Next up was Voicehandler, a duo of Danishta Rivero and Jacob Felix Heule.

Voicehandler

Their sound was a bit more subtle than the previous acts. It featured Rivero on extended vocal techniques with a water-based electro-acoustic instrument of her own invention, the Hydrophonium; and Heule on extended percussion techniques that were often subtle and precise before veering into more energetic territory.

The final act was a quartet led by Idris Ackamoor featuring Mark Heshima Williams on bass, Bob Marshall in drums, and David Molina on guitar and laptop with Ableton Live!

Idris Ackamoor Quartet

Several of the musicians and musical pieces were familiar from Ackamoor’s renowned “afro-futurist” group The Pyramids. Indeed, the performance followed a similar structure with both a rhythmic entry and recessional. The rhythm section of Williams and Marshall was solid and perfect for some of the funkier grooves; and Ackamoor managed to move effortlessly between roles as horn-player and solo tap-dancing. It was interesting to hear David Molina and his guitar+electronic work, which I have heard before as a solo project, blended into this context.

Idris Ackamoor

All together it was a good show from all four groups, a diverse range of music. The large audience seem drawn to all the acts even if they initially came following one. And it’s great to see spaces like Second Act continuing to host shows like this in San Francisco. I hope to play there again sometime soon.

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.

Base 4 and the Bay Area Improvising Tag Team Ensemble

Despite being extremely tired from a major event as well as a rehearsal this past weekend, I did manage to catch a performance of jazz and improvisational antics at Berkeley Arts this Sunday evening. The evening opened with Base 4, a jazz trio featuring Bruce Friedman on trumpet, Derek Bomback on guitar, and Alan Cook on drums and percussion.

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They performed very abstract versions of standards, including Afro Blue and Solar, two favorites of mine. There was also free improvisation and some lesser-known compositions. It was a technically strong performance, a full of creative details.

Then we switched rooms for a completely different experience with the “Bay Area Improvising Tag Team Ensemble.” Not really an ensemble, this cast of characters assembled by Moe! Staiano performed free improvisation “refereed” by Gino Robair. Basically, performers were given signals of when to start and stop, and could within that context tag one another to play together and switch instruments. There were, however, penalties that could be levied against performers. A penalty meant holding a can of motor oil and not playing until it lapsed or another penalty was committed.

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As with sporting events, one could find disagreement with the referee. In this case, I strongly disagreed with Gino’s giving Polly Moller a penalty for using a wah-wah pedal. We at CatSynth approve of wah-wah pedals.

Here are some other scenes from the evening’s performance. We begin with Matt Davignon on turntable and Moe! Staiano on drums.

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Bandmates Polly Moller (Reconnaissance Fly) and Melne Murphy (Surplus 1980).

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Mark Clifford and Kyle Bruckmann. Mark does not usually play bass.

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Brian Tester and Yacob Roli Glowniss.

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Rounding out the ensemble for the evening were Dominique LeoneJacob Felix HeuleJason Hoopes, and others who I have missed.

Overall it was a lot of fun to watch, especially when things got more rhythmical or when a penalty was eminent. The performers who I talked to seem to have a lot of fun as well.

Outsound Music Summit: Lords of Outland, Lewis Jordan, Kyle Bruckman’s Wrack

The 2013 2013 Outsound New Music Summit concluded last Saturday with an evening of energetic jazz composition and improvisation, including the world premier of two large-scale works.

The concert opened with a set by Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland. Romus was joined by guest artists L.A. Jenkins on guitar and Hasan Razzaq on saxophone, along with regulars CJ Borosque on trumpet and electronics, Philip Everett on drums and Ray Scheaffer on bass.

Lords of Outsound
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The Lords of Outland performed The Proceedings of Dr. Ke, a suite of original compositions inspired by the essays of experimental psychologist Dr. Charles Ponce on what he termed “Blade Runner Psychology.” The music was high-energy and frenetic, as I have come to expect from this group, but punctuated by unison hits and silences. There were also spaces for each of the ensemble members to come to the front, in particular Jenkis and Razzag, as well as Romus on double-saxophone. One piece in particular centered around CJ Borosque on electronic effects pedals, with an extensive the rest of the group joining in with sounds that matched the noise elements from the electronics.

Lords of Outland was followed Lewis Jordan’s Music at Large. On this occasion, the ensemble included India Cooke on violin, Karl Evangelista on guitar, John-Carlos Perea on electric bass, and Jimmy Biala on drums/percussion.

Lewis Jordan's Music at Large
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The piece, composed by Jordan, was anchored by text relating to his experiences as an only child. The music was a mixture of scored and improvised material, and ranged from more luscious harmonic sections to fast virtuosic runs by Evangelista, Jordan and India Cooke. It was punctuated by quieter moments where the narrative text (read by Jordan) came to the front. Although there was improvisation mixed in, the music maintained a somewhat melancholy sound throughout. One of the more memorable elements came near the end, with a series of repeated “false cadences” with very idiomatic chords. After each repeat it built up more and added more improvised elements, eventually leading to a completely different section of more atonal sounds, before returning back to the harmonic cadence one more time.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The final set featured Kyle Bruckmann’s Wrack and the world premier of Bruckmann’s …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, a 2012 CMA New Jazz Works commission. This large-scale piece was inspired by the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, specifically three of his novels V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow. Bruckmann took cues from the many song and song-like elements in these novels, and his composition traverses just about every jazz idiom imaginable along with a variety of other song styles from the early and mid 20th century. Often these style quotes were quite humorous, especially when they took listeners by surprise.

Kyle Bruckmann's Wrack
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music never stayed in one place for very long, but there were a couple of extended sections, including a fun one that featured trombonist Jeb Bishop displaying his talent in both traditional and extended techniques. Guest trumpeter Darren Johnston was featured in sections as well. Rounding out the ensemble were Jen Clare Paulson on viola, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Anton Hatwich on string bass, and Tim Daisy on drums. The group made what was undoubtedly a very complex piece sound rhythmically and timbrally tight.

It was a musically impressive show, but also a very well-attended one with a packed house and possibly one of the highest attendance records for a Summit program. Now it time like to look forward to next year’s festival.

Outsound Music Summit: Opera Wolf, KREation, Wiener Kids

The concerts of the 2013 Outsound Music Summit opened with an evening of acoustic ensembles that combined improvisation and composition, each to quite different effect.
The evening opened with a performance by Opera Wolf, a trio featuring Crystal Pascucci on cello, Joshua Marshall on saxophone, and Robert Lopez on drums. They performed four pieces: one composed by each member of the group, and a free improvisation.

Opera Wolf
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

One structural quality that carried over all four pieces was the use of strongly punctuated phrasing. The initial opening sounds with harmonics and sparse arrhythmic hits was separate by a delineated silence before switching texture completely to growls and intricate cello runs, and then again into more melodious bowed phrases accompanied by the sounds of metal on a drum head. This punctuation continued into the second piece as well, which began quite noisily with scratching and unusual harmonics, but after a pause changed suddenly into jazzy runs followed by vocal effects and whistle tones. Other interesting sonic moments included Marshall cooing and purring with his saxophone against long bowed towns on the cello by Pascucci, and an extended run by all three members with scraping, tapping and clicking sounds.

Next up was KREation, an ensemble led by Kevin Robinson. KREation features a varying lineup, and this evening was somewhat different from the previous time I had encountered them. Along with Robinson, there was Christin Hablewitz, John Schwerbel and Tony Gennaro.

KREation
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Their performance was a single continuous flow of music, starting with a modal and quite serene recorder duet of Robinson and Hablewitz. This gave way to percussion and prepared piano, and then to more fast runs on sax and piano accompanied by loud key clicks on the bass clarinet. The more melodious feel gave way to darker and more tense textures, but then got quite jazzy and rhythmic, especially when John Schwerbel switched over to a Rhodes Stage 73 electric piano (yes, it is one of my favorite instruments).

Rhodes Stage 73

The textures and energy levels came in and out over the course of the performance like waves. There were some intricate counterpoints, including between recorder and saxophone, some pretty piano runs, and sections that moved between slower dramatic tones and bursts of fast motion.

The final performance of the evening featured Wiener Kids, a trio of Jordon Glenn, Aram Shelton and Cory Wright. Ostensibly, the group is a drummer with two masters of reed instruments, but on this occasion all three members also employed a wide selection of percussion.

Wiener Kids
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

This was a bit different from the previous Wiener Kids performances I have heard, which usually took place at clubs along side avant-rock bands. A couple of the pieces did employ the same sparse but rhythmically complex and driving sound I recalled, but there was also more detail and variety. The performance started with a somewhat humorous ensemble sound, like an odd-meter march. But it soon morphed into a solid four-beat funky rhythm with Wright on baritone saxophone acting as the all-important bass. The group came back to this funk idiom throughout their performance, and I thought it was their strongest element. They also employed complex polyrhythms and extended techniques as well as long melodic runs – one piece in particular featured a virtuosic saxophone solo by Wright.

The set ended with back-to-back songs starting with a more jazz rhythmic sound combining sax and drums, then moving into a second piece that was more percussion oriented, with polyrhythms and a focus on metallic percussion that gave the music a gamelan-like quality. Then it was back to the driving funkier 4/4 sound up to the finish.

In all, it was a strong start to this year’s Summit concerts, with dynamic performances. And it is quite a contrast to what comes next.