Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room

It’s time for another round of catch-up on recent musical adventures around the Bay Area.  And so today we look back at last month’s performance by Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room in Albany, California, where the celebrated the release of their new album Rogue Star.  It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

As Romus explained on stage (and in our video), Rogue Star is a deliberate reference and homage to David Bowie’s final masterpiece Black Star.  In particular, it is inspired by the work of saxophonist Donnie McCaslin (Romus’ brother-in-law) on Black Star.  Indeed, the title track of the new album as performed that night did reference the style and material of McCaslin’s work.  But this was a point of departure, and the ensemble moved in different directions as they performed other tracks from the new album.

Life's Blood Ensemble

Several of the band members contributed compositions to the album and to the performance that evening, including “Think!” by Heikki Koskinen (e-trumpet) and “Space is Expanding” by Safa Shokrai.  Shokrai’s piece picked up on the theme of space and cosmos that winds through many of Life’s Blood Ensemble pieces as well as through Romus’ other projects.  Koskinen’s composition offered frenetic ensemble runs punctuated by silences and small staccato hits from his e-trumpet as well as other instruments.

Rounding out the ensemble were Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Timothy Orr on drums, and Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone.  As always, I was impressed at the way the ensemble functioned as a unit, whether in the middle of a swinging “cool jazz” idiom or more seemingly free and chaotic sections.  In some ways, it is in the silences between phrases where this is most apparent.

Before closing, I should also say something about the Ivy Room.  This venerable institution has gone through multiple incarnations in the ten years since I moved to San Francisco and started playing and attending shows there.  Of course, I had a lot of fun performing at “Hootenannies” back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and enjoyed the kitschy decor.   But from a musical point of view – and especially a jazz-ensemble point of view – this current incarnation is the best, with a sizable stage, lighting and sound reinforcement.  I hope to bring my current band there sometime soon.

RIP Bento, the Keyboard Cat

This is such heartbreaking news.  Bento, the Keyboard Cat has passed away 😿

His humans made this wonderful tribute to Bento and his legacy, including many classic clips; and a sweet story about how he was a source of inspiration for his human companion, Charlie Schmidt.

Bento was actually the second Keyboard Cat.  The original, Fatso, also lived with Schmidt but passed away in 1987, long before the age of internet memes.  You can read more about the story of Fatso, Bento, and Schmidt at the Keyboard Cat Wikipedia page. Like my cats, Bento was a shelter cat and became a public face for the Shelter Pet Project.  We saw him featured in billboards and bus stops here in San Francisco.

Keyboard Cat has always been a favorite of mine – how could it not, given the combination of interests.  We always had fun with the early “play him/her off” videos, and it became a frequent tag-line of mine to say “You have been played off by the Keyboard Cat”, especially when someone loses a political election.  I wish we had been able to cross paths in person.

We at CatSynth extend our sympathies to Charlie Schmidt and the rest of Bento’s family.  Rest in peace, Keyboard Cat, you have been played off. 💕

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: Exploring the Modular and Roland JP-08

Sam Sam checking out the next studio setup

Sometimes Sam Sam ends up in CatSynth pics of her own, as when she recently got up to explore the redesigned studio space.  She is fascinated by the new decorative shelves as well as the narrow band between the video/office corner and the modular synth.

Perhaps she is picking up some scents on the modular case from our recent live performances.

I have been having a lot of fun in the studio lately, especially making videos and exploring our synthesizer collection in greater depth.  I really should be working on some more formal compositions, but it seems I am in more of experimenting and exploratory mood at the moment.  I have also, unfortunately, been battling insomnia.  It ebbs and flows, and on the worst night (about a week ago), I decided to sit up for a while and play with the Roland JP-08 boutique synth.

Sam Sam and the Roland JP-08

The size is actually ideal for playing in bed late at night.  I spent some time exploring the architecture (it’s basically a Jupiter 8 with a few extensions) and came up with some new and unusual patches.  We hope to share them with you in an upcoming CatSynth TV.


CatSynth Pic: Rufus Meowing with Modular

Our ginger feline friend Rufus returns, courtesy of iamshadowdancer on Instagram.  He looks ready to serenade us with a new song.

He has a rather impressive modular setup!  The upper case is by Goike.  It contains a wide variety of modules – we see a classic Metasonix yellow, a Mordax DATA on the right, a Make Noise Maths, and many others that whose identification we leave as an exercise to the reader.

NAMM 2018: Blipblox

Among the more unique instruments that we saw at NAMM this year was the Blipblox, a fully functional synthesizer in a plastic shell reminiscent of children’s toys.

Blipblox at NAMM 2018

Don’t be deceived by its appearance. The Blipblox is a full-featured monophonic synthesizer with selectable signal topologies and oscillators; a low-pass filter; a sequencer; and even a drum machine.  There is also a modulation matrix to complete the feature set.  In some ways, it seems similar to overall style and concept of the Moog Mother-32, though it is of course a very different instrument.

You can hear a bit of our attempt to play the Blipblox in this video.

It certainly seems like an interesting way to introduce kids to synthesizers and both the science and art of sound.  But it also seems quite usable for live performance – if it’s rugged enough for kids, it’s probably rugged enough for the stage.  We look at it an immediately think of the repurposing of musical toys for experimental electronic performance via circuit bending.  Whether a Blipblox is bendable or not is beyond the scope of this initial look, but it would certainly fit in with a setup that includes such modified instruments.

More info can be found at