Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and Dan Plonsey’s Quartet

Today we look at the recent premiere of Current Events by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and a new quartet from Dan Plonsey. Both groups performed on April 28 at Berkeley Arts.

We have featured recordings by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble (JCDE) a few times on The World of Wonder radio show and podcast, but this was an opportunity to see them perform a live improvisation to short experimental films. Joining Dubowsky for this performance were Hall Goff on trombone, Erika Johnson on percussion and Rufus Olivier III on bassoon.

Current Events is structured around five short films concerning recent events or contemporary topics. The first film featured TV footage and simulations of Air France Flight 447 that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The second featured a variety of video sources concerning both the technical aspects and controversy about drone warfare. Through both of these sections the music was relatively pointed, with short and often inharmonic notes from all members of the ensemble. While this was the natural state for the percussion, is particularly noticeable for the trombone and bassoon. Dubowsky was mostly on acoustic piano during these films, but did switch over to the synth for some longer extended sounds.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky

The next film featured “futurist cities”, 20th century utopian designs for cities of the future that are long in the past. This was my favorite of the films, primarily because of the material – I am a sucker for past visions of the future and lament that fact that our time does not always live up to their ideals, at least in terms of design. Musically, this was a transition piece with more long tones leading into the final two films which focused on nature. The first was about the polar regions, including the melting ice caps. But it also featured penguins (and who doesn’t love penguins?).

Penguin in Polar Ice Caps video

The music for this piece did veer into some of the cliches of high sounds and noisy drones that often accompany images of ice and snow, but there were also parts that were simply musical improvisation. The final piece on the desert was more inviting, partly because of the warm environment it portrayed but also the variety of musical elements compared to the polar piece. In all, the suite as performed was a particularly fun live set combining music and visuals, and I thought it was well done and well prepared.

The second set featured the debut performance of Dan Plonsey’s new quartet with Steve Lew on bass, John Hanes on drums and John Shiurba on guitar.

Dan Plonsey quartet, 3 of 4 members

Between generous amounts of verbal banter – much of it around the relative difficultly and quality of the numerically titled pieces – the band delivered the type of jazz that still celebrates driving rhythms and strong harmonies alongside complex lines. I particularly liked the final “jam/funk” piece. It was just different enough to be original, but had the familiar qualities that makes funky pieces so addictive.

John Hanes and John Shiurba

Personally, I could have done with less of the banter. It did get a bit repetitive, especially when members of the audience started chiming in. Even Plonsey himself, a voluble individual, suggested that they could have gotten to more music if there was less of it.

While Plonsey’s big band is fun, too, I do like the spare and focused nature of the quartet and hope they continue to perform in the future.

Outsound Music Summit: Fire and Energy

The final concert of the 2012 Outsound Music Summit was Fire and Energy, a night of “improvised-jazz-inspired-music.” Labeling a new-music concert as jazz can often be treacherous, with some people all-too-quick to join arguments about what does and does not qualify as “jazz.” But in the case if this evening’s artists, who all had long established histories in the world of improvised free-jazz, there should be no argument.

The concert opened with a solo set by Jack Wright, a long-time veteran and leader of the Bay Area improvised music scene. His performance began on soprano saxophone with discrete notes and short phrases filled with overtone, microtones, percussive sounds. The were some moments that were quite subtle, with long notes that had deliberate microtonal variations or timbral variations on a single pitch- I found this to be quite expressive. There were other more melodic sections that made reminded me of old popular jazz recordings from the 1930s. Wright communicated a lot of emotion in his improvisations, with some parts sounding quite plaintive, almost a lamentation, while others were bright and happy. The first have of his set ended with some exceptionally high notes.

[Jack Wright. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Wright then switched to alto saxophone. There was something about this piece that just seemed “jazzier” – it’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing, but perhaps it is just the nature and expectations of the alto sax. This piece was also a bit louder and aggressive, with numerous scoops, bends, growls and noises. He employed extended effects with the bell to change the dynamics and timbre of the instrument (including at one point playing with the instrument pointed into his knee), and used key clicks, buzzing and voiced tones.

The next set featured Dave Bryant, first performing solo on acoustic piano and then in a trio with drummer Dax Compise and bassist Bryan Clark. Bryant is best known for his work as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime TIme group, and as an expert and teacher of Harmolodic Theory. His solo piano work was an impressive virtuosic display, with a barrage of fast moving chords up and down the keyboard that nonetheless were quite expressive. It felt like the music was constantly moving towards something, a bit frantically. Then all at once the energy was released as if in a sigh. He spent a fair amount of time in the often under-appreciated lower registers of the instrument, and kept the velocity of the performance going. The big loud low chords were followed by softer high chords in a moment that was reminiscent of late Romantic piano music. As he continued, he was joined on stage by Comprise and Clark, and in an instant the solo turned into an acoustic jazz trio.

[Dave Bryant Trio. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

After a short section, Bryant switch to electric keyboard and the character of music changed considerably. It became softer and dreamier, with the bass setting the tone and pace. But there was still forward motion to the performance, and more of Bryant’s virtuosic high-speed chord work that at times seemed superhuman. The pace slowed down again, with a distinctly blues-like line and then pentatonic glissandi. After another reset, a new harmony and rhythm emerged with Bryant leading the group into heavy, almost final-sounding cadences. In between, there were bass and drum solos and more frenetic work, but the cadences remained as the framework. It all came to a sudden by definite stop.

The following set featured Vinny Golia with his sextet, including Gavin Templeton on alto sax, Daniel Rosenboom on trumpet, Alex Noice on guitar, Jon Armstrong on electric bass, and Andrew Lessman on drums. Of all the performances on this evening, this one most embodied the concert title “Fire and Energy.” There was an intensity to the full ensemble in both fast runs, hits, and the driving rhythm that underpinned the set-spanning piece. It began rather quietly, with Golia on pray bowls. Soon, the other members of the group entered with long drone sounds, along with soft symbols, trumpet noise and a chime harmony. Golia always has a collection of saxophones and other wind instruments at his disposal, and he switched to a smaller instrument that looked like a soprano sax but with a bent neck, which he played together with Rosenboom on trumpet. The music gradually became more animated and evolved in a unison rhythm and eventually into a rather funky groove. I can easily get absorbed into music like this.

[Vinny Golia Sextet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The rhythm continued for a while, with various interruptions, including some solos – Rosenboom in particular tore it up during his trumpet solo. Then there was a sudden change in rhythm and texture, led by Templeton on alto sax. Rather then the unified driving rhythm, the ensemble played a complex intricate orchestration that still retained a rhythmic structure. There were more extended effects and sounds, such as squeaking and percussive effects, and Noice used a Kaoss Pad with his guitar. Golia switched to bass clarinet for a slower section of music that included a short four-part “chorale”. The ensemble quieted down and the prayer bowls returned, before everyone joined in for a final segment to close the set.

The final set of the evening and of the Summit as a whole was also the largest in terms of personnel. Tony Passarel’s Thin Air Orchestra is a project that brings together a large number of improvising musicians, and on this night the group swelled in number to include several musicians from the previous sets, including Vinny Golia and Dax Comprise, as well as regulars from Outsound. Festival director Rent Romus was able to temporarily remove his directors hat and play saxophones in the ensemble. Other players that evening included Ross Hammond, Randy McKean, Keith Kelly, John Vaughn, Cory Wright, Ken Kawamura, Tom Djll, CJ Borosque, Murray Campbell, Keith Cary, Mike Turgeon, Bill Noertker and Gerry Pineda.

[Tony Passarel’s Thin Air Orchestra. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The first piece began with unison trumpets, soon joined by viola. The texture was very sparse, but they were soon joined by Hammond on guitar and the other instruments followed in a crescendo made of small bits of sound. There was a brief sax-and-flute duo, and playing inside the piano strings by Passarell. The next piece began with the rhythm section (piano, electric bass and drums) in a fast sparse motion, followed by a huge cloud of sound from the entire ensemble. The music became more rhythmic for a bit and then everyone hit one big chord.

For the next couple of pieces, vocalist Loren Benedict joined the group. After an intro with ponderous piano and then a funky rhythm, Benedict launched into an impressive stream of fast highly rhythmic scat singing. The other musicians joined in the rhythm with him. Rent Romus also had a particularly crazy double-sax solo in this piece.

One of the last pieces was softer and did not have as intense a rhythm. The guitar and viola were rather bluesy and were joined by Tom Djll with extended-technique trumpet noises. Hammond’s hard-driving guitar and minor chords combined with the others made this the ensemble’s “Miles Davis Moment” (with apologies to Raskin and Haryman from the Sonic Poetry Night). Benedict came back and joined the group for a big finale.

This was once again a long concert, but it went by rather fast given the energy and vitality of the music. It was a very strong final concert in what was a particular strong Outsound Music Summit this year.

CatSynth pic: Yamaha Electric Organ

This is a vintage late-1970s Yamaha electric organ that I played at a jam session yesterday evening. I am not sure of the exact model, but I think is a B40 from 1977.

Organs can be a bit of a challenge to play if one is trained on piano and synthesizer. Basically, I just try to find a few settings that work and stick with them. Nonetheless, it was a good session, with talented drummers including one out-of-town visitor. The only harmonic instruments were organ and bass guitar, so essentially we were just a giant rhythm section. And we were able to get some interesting rhythms, including a 6/4 version of John Coltraine’s Equinox, and an extended minor blues that moved freely among different rhythmic styles and pulses while maintaining a beat.

Antibodies, Sk Orchestra, Do Make Say Think, The Happiness project

On Saturday, I went a couple of very different performances in various neighborhoods of Brooklyn, ranging from poetry reading and performance art to experimental jazz and pop. At Central Booking in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, I saw a performance by the Sk Orchestra, which uses Casio SK-1 sampling keyboards as their main instrument. The SK-1 is a very playable instrument for low-fi real-time sampling and lends itself well to live performance. On this evening, the orchestra was more of “chamber ensemble”, with two SK-1 performers plus a third performer playing an old-style hand-cranked telephone. The SK-1s were used for live sampling in a “call-and-response” style, with one player sampling a phrase in his own voice, and the other providing a sampled response. The back-and-forth of samples at different rates of attack and pitches got increasingly confrontational as the performance went on, even approaching “fake violence” as the players hid behind a screen from which screaming sounds could be heard.

The performance was actually part of a release party for the book Antibodies, a collaboration of the interdisciplinary artist and musician Brandstifter and the word-and-sound artist Dirk huelsTrunk. The art book was based on found text and images from German medical textbooks. The authors performed a live reading from the book, reading lines once in German, once in English and the sung in both languages simultaneously. The performances featured a wide variety of musical and theatrical styles, from popular to more subdued to noisy/avant garde.

At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, I saw a show featuring the Toronto-based band Do Make Say Think. Their music combined rock and pop with jazz and experimental elements, moving seamlessly from a driving rock rhythm to a rhythmless section of extended delay lines and analog-synthesizer drones to an acoustic chorale of trumpets and saxophone. They were able to blend the timbres of the core instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard) with the large horn section and their rather impressive array of electronics – each performer appeared to have a large collection of dedicated pedals. The overall show had a lot of energy and seemed to move forwarded from one song to another without stopping (hence the joke towards the end of the set that they were “now going to play their second song), and resonated with the full but not claustrophobic audience.

Beforehand, a subset of Do Make Say Think performed as Happiness Project, an intriguing set based on recordings made by bassist and lead Charles Spearin of his neighbors. He was intrigued by the prosody of the spoken words, with their wide variety of intonations, rhythms and phrases, and created several musical pieces that followed five of the neighbors’ recordings. We heard an old Jamaican woman’s voice followed by closely by saxophone’ Spearin’s daughter’s complaints interpreted by a violin against a minor-key jam; a very moving speech by a woman who was deaf until the age of 30, and her melodic description of what is was like to hear for the first time; a rather amusing repeated phrase from a six-year old girl as funky brass hits against a latin rhythm; and a duo of a bass and the words of a old Caribbean man. I have certainly seen musical performances before that attempt to capture the pitches and rhythms of speech closely, though this project worked quite well, and was certainly memorable. And it gives me something to think about for future pieces…

RIP Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

Well, we have one more influential musician to remember before the year ends. The great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson passed away on December 23:

Called the “Maharajah of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson is considered to have been one of the greatest piano players in the history of jazz. He played to audiences worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years.

While Stockhausen (whom we remembered on his death two weeks ago) was an inspiration for his composition, electronic innovations, and ideas about music, Peterson was all about performance and technique, and joy of playing jazz at a high level. As a young jazz pianist, I used Oscar Peterson's piano solos as practice. In particular, I remember playing the minor bluesy Roundalay, which was my successful audition piece for All State Jazz in New York. Certainly, I could never even attempt to match the actual solos at full speed.

You can get a sense of the real thing from this video:

We close with these comments from the CBC:

Renowned for his speed and virtuosity as a pianist, Peterson ? who was born in Montreal and later made Toronto his home ? made hundreds of recordings in his career, even after a stroke in 1993 disabled his left hand…

…”The world has lost the world's greatest jazz player,” Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga and Peterson's friend, told CBC News on Monday afternoon.

UPDATE: You can read his obituary from Mississauga.

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

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

Click here to subscribe.

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.

Charles Mingus Cat Toilet Training Program

Speaking of Mingus and cats, I might as well post this surprising article from the legendary Jazz bassist himself. Here is the Charles Mingus Cat Toilet Training Program. It ends with the following:

It took me about three or four weeks to toilet train my cat, Nightlife. Most of the time is spent moving the box very gradually to the bathroom. Do it very slowly and don't confuse him. And, remember, once the box is on the toilet, leave it a week or even two. The main thing to remember is not to rush or confuse him.

Good luck. Charles Mingus

Yes, I wasn't sure this was for real, either, but it does appear on an official site that includes information about the Mingus Bands as well as the life and activities of his wife Sue Mingus following his death in 1979.

As one other bookmark on del.icio.us states, “I respect Mingus even more now.”

RPM update: Trieste 116

Yes, this is the second RPM post in a row, but the project has been dominating my outside-of-work life the last few days, at least the parts not taken up with eating, drinking, sleeping and playing with Luna.

Even though I didn't spend a huge amount of time this evening, I think I produced my best track to date, as I described earlier on my RPM blog:

Well, this is the first recording I have made for this project that felt truly inspired – even as I was working on it, I had the feeling “this is going to be really good.” So even if I never release the RPM album to the public as a whole, this piece will be released in some form no matter what.

It is called Trieste 116, and splices together an improvisation done with my favorite custom patch “116” on the DSI Evolver, with excerpts from a live recording of a jazz combo with pennywhistle at Cafe Trieste in San Francisco (yes, that's the famous Beatnik hangout). The Evolver patch features non-linear feedback and filtering only (i.e., no traditional oscillators), and has an unstable flute-like quality that I attempt to blend with the pennywhistle in the Cafe Trieste clips. It all works together, at least for me. Additionally, the track opens with a quiet recording of a Dixieland band, an element I wanted to use somewhere in the album as a New Orleans tribute.

The Cafe Trieste recording as well as the Dixieland band were obtained from the freesound project and released on the Creative Commons Sampling Plus 1.0 License.

Once again, a demo track is available to RPM participants (do any RPM participants read this forum?) via the Sample Engine, just look for “Amar” in the Author column. One can also get a pretty good idea by listening to the October 14, 2006 podcast, which also featured an improvisation using my Evolver patch “116.”

UPDATE: Trieste 116 is up on the front page of RPM today!

I also recommend checking out “Angie Fights Crime”, I had coincidentally looked at them yesterday, too.

Spotted Cat in the news

While I was back in New York thanksgiving weekend, the Sunday Times ran an article on New Orleans in the travel section. Not only that, they featured the Spotted Cat, both in the article and as the cover photo for the section:

Readers may remember that I also featured the Spotted Cat in my article on NOLA night life. It has unfortunately been getting bad press lately, but not because of the music or the club itself, which remains one of the best venus in New Oreleans. Rather, the Marigny neighborhood has seen a spike in crime over the past few months, including some nasty murders – the most disturbing one involved a former Spotted Cat employee. It appears to be part of an overall increase in crime in New Orleans since people returned after Katrina.

With such negative perceptions, it's important to highlight the positive in New Orleans and it's institutions. In addition to my articles, others are doing their best to provide some good press for the Spotted Cat.

NOLA Night Life

In addition to the late-night events at the conference, I made of exploring other aspects of New Orleans’ famed night-time culture.

While the French Quarter at night is a rather unique experience, there’s only so much one can take of endless streams of loud, drunk tourists. One of the concerns after Katrina is that this would become the only story in New Orleans. There are, however, good opportunities to hear local music at small venues outside the tourist district.

One neighborhood that stood out was the Fauborg Marigny district. This is small triangle area to the east of the French Quarter, a lot funkier, with a feel more like a trendy “up-and-coming” neighborhood in New York or San Francisco. It seems to be the main hangout for the local crowd as well as local musicians outside the standard tourist circuit. I kind of “adopted” this neighborhood for many of my evenings – in particular, I found myself at a club called The Spotted Cat several times. It’s a cozy place, with interesting artwork and decor, and what is often described as some of the “best local live jazz in New Orleans.”

It’s a rather small operation, cash only – and it looks like their website “thespottedcat.com” is offline and (like more of New Orleans’ real estate) apparently in the hands of speculators. But it seems like a safe bet to just drop in a see who is playing. I heard quite a variety of music, a local character known as “Chaz Washboard” who played, not surprisingly, a washboard, but one augmented with a couple of resonant metal cans and a hotel bell. As someone interested in homemade and alternative instruments, this was a little bonus. The following night I heard an ad-hoc group playing jazz standards, but featuring a remarkable pedal-guitarist named “Dave” who could make his instrument sound like a “strummed piano.” The next band that night was a set of local jazz musicians doing an extended bebop jam – musica gratia musicae. One regular group, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, plays old swing and popular jazz every Friday. I went with a couple of friends from the conference at the place was packed, spilling out into the sidewalk (where drinks are of course legal). This club was also a great place for socializing, and made friends with a few recent arrivals to the city.

I did finally get a chance to visit the Circle Bar last night. This is also a funky little place for local music, in this case more rock than jazz, and in a lot of ways felt more like a New York club than something unique to New Orleans. But from a local perspective, one can see how this fits into the scene. It’s located away from the tourist areas at the edge the Arts/Warehouse district, not too far from the freeway. It’s even “cozier” than the Spotted Cat, with the main room being a “parlor” of sorts, with it’s notable feature the overhead “k&b” clock – I believe this was a hold-over from a previous club at the same location (?).

I was keen to try the special of the night, Good Riddance Rummy (Baccardi and Coke), but opted for a nice safe Guiness as I was driving that night. The band playing was a local group called the Bipolaroids – straight ahead driving rock, with a bit of 60s British influence in chords and rhythm (e.g., triplets a la Penny Lane, flat seven chords, etc.) The keyboard player had a Minimoog along with a standard keyboard, but I could barely hear any of it with the band being as loud as they were.

So in summary, one should go see the French Quarter at night at least once, but then explore elsehwere in the city for something more real. Spotted Cat gets my strong recommendation for jazz! Circle Bar is cool as well for a funky, alternative night with local musicians.