Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 1: Vacuum Tree Head and More

We conclude our reverse-order look at the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. This day featured Vacuum Tree Head among several other acts.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Karen de la Cuesta]

This was among the best Vacuum Tree Head shows I have experienced since joining the band, in terms of energy and musical tightness. The rhythm section, anchored by Justin Markovits on drums and John Shiurba on bass functioned well as a unit and provided a foundation for the rest of the band. We had three horn players: Joshua Marshal, Jason Bellenkes and Richard Lesnik. Our guitar section featured Richard Corny, and Michael de la Cuesta, who also was part of the synth/keyboard section of the band with me. And Jason Berry ran the show with new tunes, new arrangements and interstitial entertainment. We will have a full video of our set soon along with a more detailed review, but for now here is a little clip courtesy of our friend Rick Rees.

As mentioned in previous articles the overarching theme of HSP2017 was “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.” The first two acts of the evening took the theme quite seriously. Earspray projected videos along with Beefhart clips mixed with live improvisations.

Earspray

The group features Ann O’Rourke on electronics and video, Carlos Jennings on electronics, and Mark Pino on percussion. Mark returned in Crow Crash Radio, which also featured Brian Strang on guitar Andrew Joron on theremin along with guest Garrett Caples on vocals.

Crow Crash Radio

Like Earspray, Crow Crash Radio worked the Beefhart theme directly into the contact of their set, with Caples channeling him in his vocal sound and style as the band covered Diddy Wah Diddy and other songs. If there was one thing that didn’t work, it was not being able to hear the vocals well, though perhaps that was part of the concept.

The band performances contrasted sharply with a quiet so set by Jakob Pek on guitar. He uses extended techniques on the instrument, preparations, and electronics to create unusual soundscapes. The sound is mostly long tones and timbres, but punctuated by percussive elements as well.

Jakob Pek

The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.

Lost Planet

This band, which features Dave Slusser on winds and electronics, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Len Paterson and Steve Clarke on guitars, mixed loud rock elements with space jazz for an energetic set. In some ways, they combined elements prominent in the previous band sets of the evening.

It was fun to play with VTH on this night and hear the other groups, as I also did with CDP on night 3. We would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo for organizing this event, as well as Elijah Ponteocorvo, Kersti Abrams, Mark Pino and everyone else who followed teared to make it a success.

CDP and Lingua Incognita Session at All Tomorrow’s After Parties

Last week we reported on the the first night of NextNow Presents All Tomorrow’s After Parties that featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head. Today we look at the next night of that festival, which took place on June 4 in Berkeley.

CDP Trio

That event marked the debut of one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (or CDP). For this set, I was joined by Mark Pino on drums and Rent Romus on alto sax. The concept for this group is to combine my increased focus on jazz and funk with experimental sounds and ideas. We did two compositions of mine, plus an improvisation based on a graphical score painted by Mark. You can see and hear our full performance in this video.

CDP at Berkeley Arts, June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the set, and we all had a lot of fun. There is still some work to do tightening up the tunes (particularly White Wine), but that will come with time and practice. We were at our best with the rhythmic and idiomatic improvisation sections in all three pieces, especially the straight-eighth jazz and “disco” sections. And Rent did a tremendous job sitting in with the group, bringing a unique sound and style that I hope to continue in future performances.

All three of us also participated in the Lingua Incognita Session a project conceived by Mika Pontecorvo that also debuted at this event. The large ensemble featured two bassists (Eli Pontecorvo and Robert Kehlmann ), two drummers (Mark Pino and Aaron Levin, four wind players (Rent Romus, Kersti Abrams, Jaroba and Joshua Marshal, trumpet (Tony Passarell), keyboard (myself), and experimental electronics (Jack Hertz).

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This was quite a cast of characters to put together in a single group, let alone a purely improvisational group that had not rehearsed together before. And it could have pure cacophony, but everyone did their part to make this work. We started with a concept based on A Love Supreme, with different performers moving in and out of the texture, which moved between sections of rhythmic jamming and more abstract tones. I know I had a lot of fun, as did others, and we hope to do this again sometime.


The day began quite a bit earlier with Shiva X, which featured Tony Passarell on tenor saxophone and Robert Kehlmann – both of whom were part of the Lingua Incognito set – along with Jim Frink on drums.

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This group has some conceptual similarities with CDP, combining noisy elements with steady rhythmic drums and bass, but with a more freeform upper layer provided by Passarell’s saxophone. My favorite moments were when things converged on a groove.

Shiva X was followed by Trois Chapeaux. The group featured Jaroba, Kevin Corcoran and Jorge Bachmann (with regular member Tania Chen absent on this occasion).

Trois Chapeaux

This was a much more abstract sound, combining both small electronics and acoustic elements along with Bachmann on modular synth. Recognizable sounds and fragments came in and out of focus throughout the set, while clouds of noise and complexity coalesced and then dissipated.

Jack Hertz was next with a solo electronic performance. Sitting alone and unassuming at the from the room, he brought forth a variety of sounds from synthesizers, recordings, and other sources into a continuous force of music and noise. There were some soft but still delightfully crunchy moments in there as well.

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The following set shifted from electronic to acoustic, but in such a way that many of the same sonic elements were preserved. There is probably few acoustic duos that sound as “electronic” as T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on sketch boxes.

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The sounds of the sketch box are quite unique, and particularly tuned with the musicians who play it the moment. But there is still a tremendous variety.

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly, featuring the new lineup that now includes Brett Carson on keyboards along with Polly Moller (flute, guitar, voice), Tim Walters (bass), Rich Lesnick (winds) and Larry-the-O (drums).

Reconnaissance Fly

The played a variety familiar tunes from the band’s catalog, including a couple from the first album, the recent regular rotation, and a couple of brand new songs. The overall sound of the group has coalesced into something that has strong jazz elements also quite whimsical and esoteric.


After CDP was v’Maa, a “drone band based upon Sami shamanism and spider mythology” (as described on Mark Pino’s blog). The group featured video and music with Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams and Mark Pino. They were joined on this occasion by Lau Nau on voice.

v'Maa

After the intensity of many of the previous sets (including CDP), there was a more subdued quality, a bit more floating and meditative. The swells and ebbs in the overall texture worked will with the changes in the video; and it was a great way to relax musically after performing.

Next up was the “Bill Wolter Project”, featuring Bill Wolter on guitar, Moe! Staiano on percussion, Ivor Holloway on horns, and Ron Gruesbeck on synth.

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The entire set, which was shrouded in mystery ahead of the evening, focused on made-up tunings anchored by Bill on fretless guitar. The music unfolded truly as an experiment, as the performers moved in out of various sounds within the confines of the new tuning.

The Bill Wolter Project was followed by Earspray, featuring Ann O’Rourke, Carlos Jennings and Mark Pino, who is definitely the hardest working man in the new music scene.

Earspray

The set was a full explosion of noise, lights and video, made more stark by the performers’ lab coats. The sounds were a mixture of samples, synthesis and drums.

The final set of the evening was Tri-Cornered Tent Show. The current line-up for band features Philip Everett, Ray Shaeffer, Anthony Flores and Valentina O.

Tri Cornered Tent Show

As with previous times I have heard the group, there was a foundation of explosive electronics and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and melodic lines. And there is a theatricality to the performance. But this performance with Valentina O was more cabaret style with humor and a certain intimacy. Between vocals, drum hits, and electronic sounds from Everett there were bits of quiet and silence perfectly timed for the theater of of the set.

This was an exhausting day of music, both as a performer and an audience member, but a rewarding one. I’m glad we stayed around for the entire day to hear everyone and the wide variety of sounds and styles. Thanks again to Mika Pontecorvo and Eli Pontecovro for putting on this evening, bring together so many musicians for a good cause.

Vacuum Tree Head Live at Berkeley Arts, January 10, 2016

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

On January 10, 2016, Vacuum Tree Head performed at Berkeley Arts as part of the “Hardly Strictly Personal” benefit festival curated by Mika Pontecorvo. We played a short instrumental set that featured refinements of existing songs from our previous performance as well as new compositions. You can see and hear the highlights in this video.

As you can see from these highlights, it was short and energetic, and we certainly had a lot of fun playing.

Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head.
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

The band was led as always by Jason Berry, who also played soprano saxophone and electronics. The rest of the best included Amanda Chaudhary on Nord Stage and Moog Sub Phatty keyboards, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synthesizers, Rich Lesnick on saxophone and bass clarinet, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Stephen Wright on bass. Mixing, editing, and interstitial music was done at CatSynth HQ; and the animations were by J.B.

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.

Vacuum Tree Head at Outsound New Music Summit

Vacuum Tree Head at Outsound New Music Summit, July 30

The band Vacuum Tree Head returns for a performance at this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. The event will be on July 30, 8PM at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street in San Francisco.

Vacuum Tree Head is led by Jason Berry – that’s “J.B.” who draws the Mensa Cat Monday cartoons. The poster that appears above is his artwork as well. The new lineup for the band features Amanda Chaudhary on keyboards, Rich Corney on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar, orchestral chimes and synthesizers; Tom Ferguson on bass; Richard Lesnik on saxophones and bass clarinet, Justin Markovits on drums, and Amy X Neuburg on vocals and custom electronics. From the Summit website:

VTH has created music ranging from ambient electronics pieces scored for feedback, bass clarinets, singing bowls and bowed gongs (Tar’Hai Wizard, a piece dedicated to the great Jean “Moebius” Giraud), to tightly composed, guitar-based punk/prog songs (the album “THIRTEEN”), to abstract electronics and audio collage (the album “Aum Carve Etude H”), and all stops in between. The band is currently moving into areas involving the intersection of tightly composed compositions and free improvisation

The even also includes two other great bands. Cabbages, Captain, & King is a trio of Jon Arkin (drums), Karl Evangelista (guitar), and Eli Wallace. I have heard Wallace’s virtuosic piano a few times already this and looking forward to more. Finally, we will be treated to a performance of a new project avantNOIR by Lisa Mezzacappa with her Bait & Switch.

Please visit the Outsound New Music Summit for a full rundown of all the evenings. (We at CatSynth will be the to cover all four concerts.)

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Reconnaissance Fly with Hay Fever and The Sibleys at The Palms

Today we look at the first of Reconnaissance Fly’s recent shows in the high desert of southern California near Joshua Tree. This show took place at The Palms in Wonder Valley, California. Wonder Valley is an odd place east of the town of Twentynine Palms. Wonder Valley is a community of sorts, but not really a town in its own right (indeed, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Wonder Valley is). But the Palms is a destination for locals and others and often features live music.

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The evening opened with The Sibleys, which featured Laura Sibley on guitar/vocals and James Sibley on drums. They also happen to be the owners and operators of The Palms.

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Their original songs could be described as energetic rock-and-roll, with fun lyrics – I think many of us went away remembering “Black Kawasaki, I feel lucky…” And Laura Sibleys strumming and solos pushed the music forward. They were definitely a favorite among the local crowd, some of whom could be seen dancing.

Next up was Hay Fever, featuring Emily Hay on flute and vocals with Wayne Peet on various keyboards, and Steuart Liebig on bass and effects.

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Hay Fever is an improvising group, with a continuous ever-changing stream of music that spans the entire set. There were many moments that would fit into a “space music” show, with drones and arpeggios, but also more intense sections with vocals and playing, and very sparse moments leading back into a thick fog of sound. Liebig’s bass playing added some particularly interesting textures to the rest of the group’s sound.

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Then it was time for us, Reconnaissance Fly, to take the stage.

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We did a set that featured several of our tracks from the album, as well as some of the newer songs. Particularly when we got to the funkier tunes like Itzirktna or the harder rock sounds heads and ears from the bar turned in our direction. It may not have been our tightest performance, but we had a lot of fun and presented with energy.

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Overall, it was quite an experience to play at The Palms, perhaps a bit surreal given the desert surroundings and activity around us. We certainly hope to come back again some time.

Reconnaissance Fly at DUENDE, Oakland (March 26)

Today we look back at Reconnaissance Fly’s recent performance at DUENDE on Oakland. DUENDE is a venue and tapas restaurant/bar that has been quite supportive of the new music community (I have been remiss in writing reviews for some of the other shows I have seen there), and also has delicious food and wine.

patatas bravas and Tempranillo

The patatas bravas are simple but delicious. The Tempranillo was quite nice as well.

The performance itself was fun. We had a good audience, mostly filled with familiar faces but that is always welcome. And we premiered a couple of new pieces, Spirograph by Polly Moller and Undeciphered by Tim Walters, which featured text in the undeciphered Linear A script (go look it up). Here are some views from the show.

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Amanda Chaudhary
[Photos by MSW.]

Yes, I deliberately matched the color of the Nord.

Rounding out the band as always were Rich Lesnik on reeds and Larry the O on drums.

We are now busy working in more detail on those pieces and at least one more new one for our next show at the Makeout Room in San Francisco in early May.

Reconnaissance Fly CD Release and Plurality of Worlds

Well, our CD release show for Reconnaissance Fly has come and gone, and it was quite a successful evening. We were joined in celebrating the release of our album Flower Futures by Emily Hay, half of a new project with Polly Moller called Plurality of Worlds.

Our preparation for the day started quite early, with stage setup, sound checks, and professional lighting design by our friend Travin McKain. But we got it all done, cleaned ourselves up and made ourselves presentable for the evening.

Reconnaissance Fly
[Photo by Michael Dawson.]

As you can see, we are a rather eclectic bunch, which is very much in line with the music we play.

First up was Plurality of Worlds, which brought together Polly Moller and Emily Hay for the first time as a duo of avant-garde flutes and vocals. Each brought both a standard concert flute and one of the bigger models, bass flute for Moller and alto flute for Hay. Their vocals played off one another in amusing ways, with absurdist babblings (Hay) responding to recitations from written texts (Moller). It was clear they were having a lot of fun performing, and we all enjoyed watching them.

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[Photo by Michael Dawson.]

They were joined by Reconnaissance Fly bassist Tim Walters on Supercollider, providing all variety of effects processing that filled the spaces both temporally and timbrally in the sparse texture of the duo.

Then it was time for us to take take the stage, with band members Amanda Chaudhary (keyboard), Rich Lesnick (reeds) and Larry-the-O (drums) joining in. As with our album and many of our live performances, things began with the ritualistic first note of Small Chinese Gong.

Small Chinese Gong

We then went into a full set that mixed selections from the album such as One Should Never and the combined Electric Rock Like a Cat / sanse is crede nza, with newer pieces such as Spiders and Snakes and How Now is Soon (actually, and older piece, but relatively new to Reconnaissance Fly). The set was quite lively and energetic, and also filled with humorous moments, and the audience responded well to those.

Reconnaissance Fly at Berkeley Arts
[Photo by Michael Dawson.]

The above picture does not include Larry, so here he is.

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[Photo by Michael Dawson.]

Overall, it was a good night, with great stage lighting, a packed house at Berkeley Arts, and even a few CDs sold. If you are interested in checking the album out, you can do so via Edgetone Records. And if you want to see us live, we have a few more shows coming up, including at The Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market Street in San Francisco) tonight (Thursday, Feubrary 13)!

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