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.

11010618_1633998410154415_3277870502222074142_n (1)
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.

20140413-IMG_050920140413-IMG_0511

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.

20140413-IMG_0526

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.

20140413-IMG_0522

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

20140413-IMG_0519

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

20140413-IMG_0535

Brian Tester and Yacob Roli Glowniss.

20140413-IMG_0530

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.

A99-03794
[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.

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.