Friendly Galaxies: Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Sun Ra, an artist whom we at CatSynth quite admire. There have been many tributes this year, and Reconnaissance Fly was fortunate to have played in one of them this past Wednesday.

“Friendly Galaxies”-Celebrating Sun Ra at 100 was “a celebration of the cosmic musical force of Sun Ra and his legacy….bands,beer,the sounds of joy!!! universal convergence” at the Center for New Music here in San Francisco. It featured three groups who combined his music and poetry with their own artistry. We even had Saturn cookies!


And Reconnaissance Fly was up first! We definitely got into the theme of the evening, with otherworldly and science-fiction themes. And our set included two of Sun Ra’s pieces from the album Lanquidity: the title track and Where Pathways Meet.



We also included selections from our own music that matched the sound and vibe including Itzirktna and Undeciphered. You can hear our performance of Undeciphered in this video.

Overall, this was one of our better-performed shows, and we received a great response from the audience.

We were followed by Electropoetic Coffee, a music-and-poetry duo featuring Ross Hammond and NSAA.


As usual, Hammond’s guitar work was virtuosic and filled with lush and complex moments. I am pretty sure the poetry and spoken featured some of Sun Ra’s own writings, a topic that was part of the groups introduction. It was interesting to hear the combination of words and music. At times they came together strongly, at others seemed to drift a bit in different direction. Overall, I did like the performance and how it fit into the evening. But I do think would have been stronger if it was shorter – I don’t think the 45 minute duration served them well and it would have been better to keep it compact and energetic.

The final set was a special group for the evening, the UBU RA BIG BAND. It featured Joe Lasquo on piano and electronics, with Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, Lisa Mezzacappa, John Hanes, Myles Boisen, Aaron Bennett, Dan Plonsey, and David Slusser, along with a vocal team that included Katt Atchley.


This was truly a treat to hear. These are of course all top-notch musicians who can hit the appropriate sounds and rhythms for jazz as well as dive into free-improvisation. Their arrangements of Sun Ra’s compositions were tight and energetic, and just fun to listen to. And this band really grooved, in that funk/jazz/fusion way that I adore. One of my favorites was the final piece, UFO, a straight-ahead disco tune from 1979. I wanted that one to keep going.

Overall, this was a fun show and a joyous celebration, and something I think we were all proud to be a part of. We had a full house, all of which seemed to be very much in the moment as well. Certainly a memorable night and a fitting tribute. A special thanks to Jan Michaels for organizing this event and to the Center for New Music for hosting us!

Fun with Highways: The Port of Oakland

I found this photo on Facebook yesterday while following events at the General Strike in Oakland.

More people protesting a little later….the freeway is full on their way to the Port of Oakland during the #GeneralStrike. People can’t drive….10,000 people are marching.

In actuality, it is not a freeway. But it does appear to be the point in West Oakland where Adeline Street crosses over the train tracks and becomes Middle Harbor Road, which would be en route to the port where demonstrators successfully and peacefully shut down operations for the remainder of the night. That is quite an impressive feat.

I unfortunately was not able to join in the events in Oakland yesterday because of health reasons, but I am planning to be out again with a group in San Francisco on Saturday. In the meantime, here is a first-hand account from fellow Bay Area new musician Myles Boisen. He plays a mean blues guitar.

Shut Down! – Occupy Oakland 11/03/11 Vol. 7

Vol. 7 in a series by Myles Boisen

Port of Oakland SHUT DOWN
Wells Fargo SHUT DOWN
Bank of America SHUT DOWN
Comerica Bank SHUT DOWN
Chase Bank SHUT DOWN
Union Bank SHUT DOWN
Bank of the West SHUT DOWN
Burger King SHUT DOWN
Walgreen’s SHUT DOWN

Highlights of the Oakland general strike:

10 a.m. As I start reading news feeds I see Angela Davis is addressing the early morning crowd at 14th and Broadway. Unconfirmed rumors come and go that the Port of Oakland is already closed, with possible wildcat strike action and trucks unable to get through.

12 p.m. I arrive at Oscar Grant Plaza. On the way over radio coverage on KPFA-FM says that Wells Fargo bank is already shut down. People are streaming continuously toward downtown on foot and on bicycles. The crowd at 14th and Broadway is estimated at 5,000 or more. With friends I tour the area, photographing banks and corporate businesses that have shut their doors due to the strike. The crowd is made up of elders, working people, union representatives, teachers, religious leaders, and schoolchildren present with their parents.

By the BART station we meet Ethel, a senior citizen who is gathering signatures on a petition to end the death penalty in California. One member of our party – Phil, a well-read anarcho-syndicalist – has recently moved to Alameda County, and Ethel suggests that he can go to City Hall to get the requisite voter registration papers. Could City Hall possibly be open today? We go on a mission to find out.

After finding a side door that is open, we are ushered into an eerie calm of City Hall by a private security guard. There is practically no one inside. Entering the Office of the City Clerk, there is once again no one around, though there is a small hotel bell at the counter. After ringing the bell for a few minutes, this Kafkaesque scenario is resolved when a woman emerges and directs Phil to the proper documents. I ask her “How’s it going today?” She gives me “the look” and replies “ask me after 5.”

1:30 p.m. Our group wanders about, taking in dance performances, rappers, signage, the bustling kitchen, the music stage, and more. We run into two stilt walkers that I am acquainted with, as well as my friend Victor Lewis who is immediately recognized by someone as being the guy from the film The Color of Fear. Victor gets that a lot.

2:30 p.m. I return to my car to find a parking ticket – my first one of the year. Damn! A bite of lunch, and I fall in with a group of musicians associated with Mills College. From there it’s off to move my car and survey downtown on my own, again taking photos of shuttered banks. There are broken windows at the Chase Bank downtown, with reports of additional vandalism at the Whole Foods grocery by Lake Merritt.

5:00 p.m. I return to Oscar Grant Plaza to try and meet a friend when I notice the march to the port is moving out. People walk briskly, excitedly, and despite my best efforts I can’t catch up to the beginning of the procession stretching many blocks in front of and behind me. We wind through industrial West Oakland with minimal police presence.

6:00 p.m. The final approach to the Port of Oakland (the fifth-largest port in the US) is by way of an overpass that sweeps gracefully over once-bustling trainyards. The top of this overpass affords a stunning vista with the iconic cranes to the west, a maze of train tracks to the north, and Oakland’s office buildings to the east. Sunset yields a golden light with its own rich photo ops. Then darkness finds most of the crowd on the move again, back to Oscar Grant Plaza, BART, or homes and family. After a final visit to OGP I see broken windows and anarchist graffiti at the Wells Fargo Bank, then return home to write and work on photos. Arriving home I read that a frustrated driver ran into two marchers in downtown Oakland, sending both to the hospital and then being allowed to go home himself after filing a report with the OPD.

2:07 a.m. As I am finishing up this post I get a call from Cherie. Police have moved into downtown and tear gas is being used at 16th and Telegraph. My heart sinks into my stomach, and yet somehow I find the energy to drive back downtown to see what is going on. Many streets are blocked off by lines of police. At 16th and Telegraph there are three dumpsters turned over in the middle of the intersection, contents spilled and a burnt trash smell. I hear that the camp is surrounded, with no one getting in or out. Walking seven blocks around the perimeter of the police-occupied area I find this is not true.

14th street is open, and there is lots of graffiti with anarchy A’s that was not there this afternoon. Windows are broken, including the Tully’s coffeeshop at 14th and Broadway which overlooks Oscar Grant Plaza. A double line of police spans the broad intersection of 15th and Broadway. Asking around, I learn from an eyewitness that “anarchist kids” had set the dumpster fires using M-80s or road flares, and that a fire was also set around an abandoned building that had been occupied. One young man named Chris had been tear gassed earlier, and was concerned about his friend who had been missing since then. I gave him the NLG hotline number, wished him luck, and returned home to write.

5 a.m. Bedtime for citizen journalists.

The presence of violence and a destructive element in our midst is deeply troubling. And I am really saddened that such a powerful, peaceful and successful strike involving so many has been stained by the anger of a few. These actions present a new challenge for a movement which is committed to non-violence. Just yesterday I wrote this: When the police turn violent, the Occupation thrives. But if Occupy turns violent (or is perceived as being violent) that will be the one thing that will bring it down. The vandalism is not widespread – just broken glass and spray paint as far as I know now – and it should be cleaned up in a couple of days. But it will now be a long struggle for the movement to effectively distance itself from a violent minority, and somehow deal with similar incidents in the future.

The phrase on everyone’s lips after the strike is “what next?” Well, what do YOU want to happen next? Get down to the Oakland GA (7 p.m. every night in Oscar Grant Plaza) and make a proposal. I can’t be at the GA on Thursday, but I know there will be a lot to talk about.

On Thursday Nov. 3 5:30 P.M. (today!) a City Council special meeting will address the police actions of 10/25/11. Council chambers of Oakland city hall.

Matthew Sperry Festival: Tag Team Trio Shift

Last Thursday I attended and performed in the Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. This event was part of the Eighth Annual Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, a festival held every year in honor of local composer and bassist Matthew Sperry since his tragic death in 2003.

The event featured a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new music scene, improvising three at a time, with John Shiurba acting as referee.

[John Shiurba as referee, with Gino Robair entering a trio.]

Each of us was given a name card. At any given moment, three musicians would be performing. Anyone could hand in their card at any time and replace one of the three current musicians. Thus, there was an ever changing set of trios. For the most part, musicians entered and exited individually, but in the second half of the program we could submit three cards at once as a planned trio. The music ranged from trios of synthesizers and electronic noise, to purely vocal trios, to free-jazz improvisation (saxophones and bass), and all combinations in between.

[Tom Nunn on skatch box and Tom Duff with Bleep Labs Thingamagoop.]

[Vocal trio of Agnes Szelag, Aurora Josephson, and Myles Boisen.]

There were many strategies one could use for deciding when to hand in his or her card and replace someone. For me, I timed my card to coincide with others with whom I wanted to play, or moments where I thought my sounds would work well with the texture.

One could also be competitive and “cut” someone else’s improvisation (as one might do in a traditional jazz-improvisation setting). I can’t say that anyone did that, but there were certainly some playful back-and-forths with people replacing each other.

I brought the trusty Kaos Pad as well as my iPhone, with the BeBot app and a looping/playing app that I used for the Pmocatat ensemble. The latter (which featured variable-speed sounds of Luna and my Indian instruments) got some attention from the other musicians. Scott Looney, who was sitting next to me, and an interesting new instrument that used Reactable icons on a surface with a keyboard, to create a sort of “electronic prepared piano”:

[Scott Looney’s new control surface (photo by catsynth).]

There were some fun moments. One of Philip Greenlief’s improvisations involved his attempting to balance his saxophone in the palm of his hand, constantly moving and shifting in order to keep it from falling. He was clearly hoping for someone to replace him quickly, but we actually let him keep going for quite a while.

[Philip Greenlief’s balancing act.]

The sounds from busy Market Street outside contributed to the music at various times – indeed, the street should have gotten its own card.

Among the attendees were Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, who appropriately closed out the second set with the sound of shaking keys fading out.

The full roster of participating musicians included: Myles Boisen, Amar Chaudhary, Matt Davignon, Tom Duff, Tom Djll, Phil Gelb, Lance Grabmiller, Philip Greenlief, Ron Heglin, Jacob Felix Heule, Ma++ Ingalls, Travis Johns, Aurora Josephson, Scott Looney, Bob Marsh, Lisa Mezzacappa, David Michalak, Polly Moller, Kjell Nordeson, Tom Nunn, Dan Plonsey, Garth Powell, Jon Raskin, Gino Robair, Tom Scandura, Damon Smith, Moe! Staiano, Agnes Szelag.

[Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs in this article are from Michael Zelner. You can see a full set of photos from the performance at his flickr page.]

Blood Moon Concert, Luggage Store Gallery

Last Thursday, in addition the gallery and art walk, I also attended the Blood Moon Concert at the Luggage Store Gallery. This was latest in Polly Moller’s moon concert series and focused on the “Blood Moon”, a traditional name for the closest full moon to the autumnal equinox. It is associated with the fall harvest, and also with the hunting of game and the slaughtering of livestock ahead of the winter season. The two halves of the concert couldn’t have been more different, an experimental electronic/noise texture performance followed by “avant-gard blues”, but they both worked intimately with the evening’s theme of the “blood moon.”

The concert opened with the duo of James Kaiser and Andy C. Way reimagining a piece that originally recorded on a blood moon several years ago. Both the original recorded version and this live performance featured “minimal electronics, voice, metals and much atmosphere”. The performance began with a noise swell, like a strong wave, embellished by ornamental sounds on a cymbal. Actually, the cymbal was part of a larger instrument, and mounted on top of a bicycle wheel. It was bowed to produce a variety of metallic resonances that blended with the electronics. Overall, the piece had a relatively constant texture. It was static, a dark tonescape, fitting for the theme. But there were also a variety of details that changed throughout. In addition to the bowed cymbal and bicycle wheel, there were breathing sounds, the use of voice to drive electronic effects, dark scratches and drones, noise glitches. Later on these were joined by loud bursts and “incidental pitches” from periodic noise. There was one sound that reminded me of the closing doors on a New York City subway train. The piece ended with a strong resonance and rumble, and then faded out.

The second half of the concert featured the trio Past-Present-Future, with Myles Boisen on guitar, “Hollerin’ John Hanes” on drums, and Lisa Mazzacappa on bass.

[Click to enlarge.]

They premiered a Blood Moon Suite written for this concert. It began with a “free-improvisation” section characterized by harmonic and rhythmic swells. In particular, I noticed Boisen’s combination of chromaticism and harmonics admist the ensemble’s clusters of rhythm followed by more free-form sounds. Over time, the piece became more “bluesy” in terms of the scales and chords. There were still very linear chromatic jazz chords, but with a framework rich blues idioms on the guitar and bass. One memorable section featured a straight slow blues rhythm with guitar and drums (with a heavy swing feel), that moved immediately into a serious staccato notes and then to a slow expressive end. The next movement began with a strong six-eight rhythm with low guitar and chromatic thirds. It was definitely more steady rhythmically and harmonically than the previous movement, with occasional hits and stops, and overall more traditional harmonies, and a cool bass solo by Mazzcappa. Things got more free-form later in the piece, and morphed into something slower and darker. The final section was more minimalist, with an interplay between slide guitar and bass that sounded quite “southern”, with lots of slides, bends, octaves/unison and blues-scale lines. It ended more dramatic, and noisy elements on the guitar and bass.

The Blood Moon Suite was followed by another piece, “Devil’s blues”. It featured a latin rhythm, with the bass and drums repeating a rather addictive pattern. The guitar was repetitive and subtle at first, with blue notes and tritones and inharmonic effects all within the rhythm.

One interesting coincidence for this concert was running into Jeff Anderle at the taqueria below the Luggage Store. It was only an hour or so earlier that I had seen him perform at Steven Wolf Fine Arts at First Thursday. Yes, it was quite an evening of art and music.