CatSynth Pic: Phantom and Yamaha DX21

Phantom performs on a Yamaha DX21 synthesizer. From Andreas Gregor via Facebook.

This was Phantom. He had an ear for synthesizers. I recorded him on my DX21 one day. I think he might be the only cat that released a track on iTunes and Amazon. Lol.

The track Naptime Electronique is available on Amazon and Apple Music.

CatSynth Pic: Merce, Jomox Resonator Neuronium, MicroKORG, and Fluxus

Our friend Merce joins us again, with the Jomox Resonator Neuronium along with the MicroKORG. He also shares this classic Fluxus piano piece by George Brecht.

When you can’t even get a Fluxus piece right. George Brecht, “3 Piano Pieces,” from Water Yam, 1962

Even we at CatSynth sometimes find it hard to Fluxus right in these anxious times.

RIP Manu Dibango 1933-2020

We say goodbye to another musical hero. Manu Dibango passed away today at his home in France, apparently of complications from Covid-19.

Like many others, I knew Dibango’s music initially through the song “Soul Makossa.” I had heard it on and off over the years, but it was after delving more seriously into the history of 1970s disco in 2010 that I rediscovered the song and its connection to the early disco gatherings of New York including David Mancuso’s Loft parties. It was a B-side of a single that Mancuso found and it became an instant proto-disco hit, and on regular rotation in my own playlist in the early 2010s. It also went on to be a major influence on R&B and funk. It was instantly recognizable with the chat “Soul Makossa”, Dibango’s growling saxophone and catchy horn hook.

Dibango was originally from Cameroon – indeed makossa is a traditional style of Cameroonian music and came up in central Africa’s jazz scene, including African Jazz in Kinshasa, Congo. Over the years he has collaborated with other heroes of ours including Fela Kuti and Herbie Hancock, with whom he recorded the album Electric Africa in the 1980s.

It is jarring to hear of Dibango’s death being so connected to the current crisis, and certainly not the last. His music represents, at least for me, simpler and brighter times, the optimism and nostalgia of the 1970s, and more. RIP.

Wordless Wednesday: Lute (New York)

Lute sculpture in Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan.

LadyJams (Brooklyn, New York)

It’s one of those serendipitous moments that happen in New York. At the end of last week’s Ambient Chaos show, I received an invitation from Neb Ula the Velvet Queen to come to LadyJams is a monthly get-together where women get together and perform in randomly selected groups. I loved the idea, and especially the coincidence of this meeting; so on Friday I grabbed my trusty Arturia MicroFreak and headed out on the L train to Bushwick.

The festivities took place at Synesthesia, a gallery and art space in the apartment of Mio Nakai. Amidst objects and curios from the turn of the 20th century – and an old-fashioned bar to match – was an exhibition of sculptures that evoked both a delicate graceful quality and a confounding misplacement of human forms. It was in the midst of this milieu that Ladyjams unfolded.

Photo by Laura Feathers

I made some more new friends that evening, including Laura Feathers, Teena Mayzing, and Yana Davydova, who performed on electronics, voice, and guitar, respectively. I performed with them and others over the course of the evening in several miniature improvised sets. You can hear an example in this video.

This truly spur-of-the-moment music, as I had never performed with any of these artists before. The MicroFreak was definitely the right choice of instrument, given its versatility and immediacy (as well as being extremely light). I had some light melodic spacey touches, as well as deep bass pedal tones and various sound effects. I particularly enjoyed a call-and-response with Yana Davydova on guitar – we both were able to match one another’s melodic fragments and respond with variations that moved the performance forward. I also tried to choose sounds and notes to complement the words of Teena Mayzing and others during vocal sections.

Photo by Laura Feathers

Neb Ula and I also had a chance to perform together, as seen in the photo above and following video clip.

Although New York – and perhaps Brooklyn in particular – is an exceptionally fertile place for an event like this, I am left wondering why not try to do something similar in San Francisco? I certainly know enough women and non-binary performers to make it a possibility, so perhaps it will happen.

Ambient Chaos at Spectrum (Brooklyn, New York)

It is that time of year when I invariably return home to New York for a visit. And this time it began in dramatic fashion with a return to the Ambient Chaos music series at Spectrum. Perhaps not quite a return, as Spectrum as since moved to a new location on the waterfront in Brooklyn. But it was still the same concept, hosted by Robert L. Pepper of Pas Musique, with a variety of local and visiting musicians performing adventurous electronic music.

The evening opened with a duo featuring Public Speaking (aka Jason Anthony Harris) and pianist Gabriel Zucker.

The unfolded in with sparse but structured piano set against electronic sounds evoking metal machinery. Both elements started out slow and quiet with lots of empty space but increasingly got more dense and urgent. After a brief interlude, a new phase of the music began with vocals set against fast piano runs. The vocals began very expressive and plaintive but soon morphed into a complex electronic sound under vocal control. Underneath this, an incessant thudding drum emerged.

Next up was The Tony Curtis Experience, a trio led by Damien Olsen on keyboard and electronics, Jeremy Slater on guitar and electronics, and Neb Ula the Velvet Queen on theremin – specifically, a Moog Theremini with which we at CatSynth are quite familiar.

Their performance mixed long tones on theremin, slide guitar + electronics, and synthesizer pads with loud percussive moments. The early portion of the set evoked some fantastic futuristic nightclub with crystalline hits and pedal tones. But Olsen’s keyboard brought it back to the present and near past with melodic and harmonic playing reminiscent of mid-20th century cabaret as well as synth-pop of the 1980s. The theremin, acting as both sound source and controller, provided antiphonal counter-subjects to these familiar sounds; and the guitar drones glued everything together. It was a fun set, especially with Olsen’s playful performance and his use of familiar idioms.

Then it was my turn to take the stage. And I compacted the setup for travel, with the Arturia MicroFreak, laptop, Novation LaunchPad Pro, tiny modular with Qu-bit Prism and Strymon Magneto, a new handmade touch synthesizer, and Crank Sturgeon Pocket Gamelan.

I planned a slimmed-down version of my solo set from the Compton’s Cafeteria Series show in August, including White Wine and an evolving improvisation over an 11/8 groove.

Overall, the set went well – a highly dynamic performance with a lot of melodic elements, jazz riffs, and noise solos layered over rhythms. A few items misfired, but all recoverable. I particularly enjoyed the sections of melody and jazz improvisation where I floated back to the sounds of the 1970s; it seemed the audience appreciated that, too. Finally, it was also just fun to be playing in New York again after an extended break. Watching the video of the set (which will be shared soon as an episode of CatSynth TV), I particularly thought this noisier and more “electronic” version of the 2019 set worked well in Spectrum and especially with the every-changing “spectrum” of light from yellow to violet and everything in between.

The final set of the evening featured 4 Airports, a duo of guitarist Craig Chin and synthesist Nathan Yeager. Chin performed with guitar and an array of pedals, while Yeager brought a large synthesizer setup complete with a modular system.

Perhaps more than the preceding sets, they lived up to the “ambient” in Ambient Chaos. Chin’s guitar gestures were subtle as he guided the sound into the electronic arena of the pedals, and Yeager’s synthesizer sounds were complex but still lending themselves to long ideas even when the tones and timbres moved between quick and slow. From the chaotic undertones and singular and dreamy landscape emerged, with occasional ebbs and flows and punctuations.

Overall, it was a wonderful night of music in this corner of the Brooklyn waterfront, with an intimate crowd in the cavernous but cozy space. I would also be remiss if I did not give a shout out to Sofy Yuditskaya for her video projections that reflected the music on stage. I certainly hope the gap until my next performance here is much shorter than the last.

[Photos by Banvir Chaudhary and Amanda Chaudhary]

[Full video coming soon. Please subscribe to CatSynth TV to be noticed when it is available.]

Wordless Wednesday: Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

The Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley at sunset. I featured this image in my recent music video celebrating Death Valley – a “painting with music.” Please check it out if you haven’t already.

King Crimson returns to the Fox Theater, Oakland

Our incredibly musical two weeks that began with Herbie Hancock concluded with King Crimson’s return to the Fox Theater in Oakland. We at CatSynth saw their last visit in 2017 and were excited to hear what the brought this time around.

It was a pleasure to see King Crimson back in action again, albeit with another lineup change.  This time around, Bill Reiflin was not with the group, and so there was no full-time keyboardist.  His duties were taken over by drummer Jeremy Stacey, and, at times, winds player Mel Collins. Of course, Robert Fripp was there, holding court seated stage left next to his tower of gear, as were longtime members Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick and Jakko Jakszyk on lead vocals and guitar. Rounding out the trio of drummers were Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto.

The group once again made a great overview of their 50-year history.  I was particularly pleased to hear “Cat Food” from the 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon played. “Cat Food Cat Food…again!” The music is malleable and adaptable to the current band’s instrumentation and abilities.  Choruses are reharmonized, as was the case with “Cat Food”; vocal numbers are re-arranged into extended instrumental pieces, as in “The Construction of Light”; new melodies were added, as in “Indiscipline”; and so on. There were also new lyrics to the chorus of “Easy Money”. The combination of the three drumsets was even tighter than the previous tour, and more nuanced as well with each playing entirely different parts in a three-voice counterpoint that occasionally coalesced into a massive syncopated thunder. It should also be noted that the drums were a bit lighter because of Stacey’s keyboard duties.

The sound in the first set was a bit challenging at times; the winds and vocals in particular suffered.  Thankfully, this was all corrected going into the second set. And just when it seemed they were going to get through the entire night without playing “21st Century Schizoid Man”, they returned with the tune as their encore, with extended abstract solos and instrumental sections.

As always, King Crimson is very strict about photography during their concerts, but at the very end, they ritualistically share a moment taking pictures of the audience while we picture them. This time both Tony Levin and Robert Fripp snapped pictures of the audience as we returned the favor.

King Crimson on stage at the end of the show
King Crimson photographs us photographing them

Here is a photo of the audience from Tony Levin’s blog. We are somewhere in the lower left of the orchestra.

Tony photographs the audience
Tony photographs the audience [Tonylevin.com]

[Jason Berry contributed to this story]

Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater, Berkeley

It’s been a wonderfully musical couple of weeks for us at CatSynth. Two days in the recording studio, our recent performance…and all of this bookended by concerts featuring our musical heroes. Today we visit the first of those concerts featuring Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.

Those who have been longtime readers of this site or familiar with some of my recent music will recognize the tremendous influence of Herbie Hancock, especially his Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands of the 1970s. For a concert in 2019, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But from the moment the maestro took the stage, I was not disappointed.

Together with his current band – Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin on horns and keyboard – he revisited many of the old classics, but with new twists. Some, like Chameleon and Cantelope Island, pretty much followed their classic forms and were a delight. Others, like Butterfly and Sunlight were quoted more subtly or obliquely, teasing us a bit through solos, chord changes, and excursions before landing on the tune’s head just long enough of us to recognize it and use it as a point of departure for the next section. This is something that we have heard Wayne Shorter do in his more recent performances as well – just enough of a hint of the original tune for us to notice before departing into new musical territory. It was pretty much everything I would hope for from this concert.

The music that I so love and admire (and try to play) but not as a museum or conservatory piece but as something dynamic and vital. He did a full rendition of Actual Proof, complete with introductory description – this piece is perhaps one of my favorites of his, in part because it is so rhythmically confounding – it is in 4/4 but the way the main riff spreads over bars, it can be hard to tell where the measures begin and end. I also enjoyed how he broke out the keytar and the vocoder from the late 1970s in several songs.

It wasn’t all updates on old favorites, as there was newer material as well. And he remains a consummate showman, giving his personal energy back to the crowd. Towards the end of the set, he led all of us in a wave while beaming from ear to ear – this then served as the introduction to a final encore jam of Chameleon where Kamasi Washington and others joined him on stage.

Kamasi Washington’s own set was also full of energy and complex music – perhaps a bit overshadowed for me by Herbie, but still a favorite of the crowd many of whom were sporting Washington’s t-shirts. He had an interesting band with two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr) and Cameron Graves on keyboard/synth. Rounding out the band was Ryan Porter on the trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, and Miles Mosley on bass. Perhaps the most touching moment was when Washington’s father, Rickey Washington, came out to join the band on soprano saxophone.

The opening set featured Robert Glasper and his band. A local favorite, his music weaved together elements of jazz with hip-hop. Centered around Glasper on keyboards, his group brought together different elements such as upright bass and turntable.

Overall, the show taken as a whole was one of the best live concerts I have seen in a while, which each group building on the foundation set by its predecessor, culminating in Herbie Hancock’s musical odyssey (there was, however, no Arp Odyssey this time). Even as an even chill settled into the Greek Theater during his set, I barely noticed. As as I practiced for my own music the coming week, I couldn’t help but notice myself doing more of those chromatically rising fast runs that are so characteristic of his solos. It’s not copying, but rather influence and tribute – a subject for another article at another time.

Compton’s Cafeteria Series

This past Thursday, the Center for New Music launched Compton’s Cafeteria Series, a set of occasional concerts featuring transgender performers. And I was there both the cover the show and be a part of it!

For those who are not familiar with the story, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a small restaurant chain and its Tenderloin location at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets was one of the few places where transgender individuals, and especially transgender women, could safely congregate. There was, however, some tension between transgender patrons and the staff, who often called the police, with arrests and harassment ensuing. In 1966, this pattern led to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots.

In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant.[8]Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant.[8] In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria.[9] Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco.[9] On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton’s called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. Police officers were known to mistreat transgender people.[10]When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face.[2] According to the director of Screaming Queens, Susan Stryker, the cafeteria “erupted.”[5]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compton%27s_Cafeteria_riot

This was nearly three years before the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York but has not gotten nearly the visibility in the time since. There is a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former site at 101 Turk Street, and there is now an honorary street renaming of the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way – we featured the sign in our most recent Wordless Wednesday post.

More importantly, the immediate vicinity has been recognized by the city as a “Transgender Cultural District.” As the Center for New Music is located in the heart of this new district, it seemed natural for them to host a series celebrating transgender visibility (and audibility), and I am grateful to the staff there and to my friend David Samas for proposing this and making it happen.

The show itself was a successful event featuring vary different performances, although they all made extensive use of hardware synthesizers. You can see some of the highlights in my latest video.

The evening started with a set by Rusty Sunsets (aka Cara Esten). Her performance was divided into two sections, the first featuring acoustic guitar and voice, and the second incorporating synthesizers and drum machines. Both parts were unified by Esten’s folk-song style, with a series of compositions about her upbringing in Oklahoma and loves lost and found. Perhaps the poignant was a love song inspired by the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York where 146 workers, the vast majority of whom were women, perished. My favorite was the final song which brought together a Moog Mother-32 and other synthesizers with plaintive but optimistic singing.

Rusty Sunsets

Next up was Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win). We performed a short set with a featured color of blue – set against the fuschia background lighting and my automated multicolor blinking lights. Musically, it had a very punctuated quality with abstract sounds from the modular and Arturia MicroFreak against some of Maw’s poems that featured open space and short lines. We mixed it up for the final piece, which had lusher and more emotive quality with longer lines and acoustic piano – these pieces are a strength for us and we always include at least one.

Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win)

Then it was time for the final set, featuring my solo electronic performance. I started with the solo version of White Wine (and a cup of white wine). The Casio SK-1 was sampled and remixed in Ableton Live, with the statement of the melody and cords, followed by a cacophony leading into two distinct rhythmic sections: first a funk/disco sound featuring MicroFreak bass and a jazz piano improvisation; and then a Stereolab inspired electric-organ solo leading into a final section of tape-delayed metallic sounds (Strymon Magneto and Pocket Gamelan from Crank Sturgeon).

After that, it was on to the cat-infused and disco-and-French-House inspired Donershtik. The piece is just a lot of fun, a classic 70s analog melody (in this case on the Arturia MiniBrute) in Phrygian mode followed by playful modular improvisation (anchored by the MOK Wavewazor) going into the electric piano disco/house section.

Overall, I think this was one of the best of my live solo sets, tightly choreographed with a relatively diverse and robust setup, and well-defined and well-rehearsed pieces. Once again, structure and hard work paid off.

But I also fed off the positive energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, which brought together regular friends and fans with members of the transgender community. It was a beautiful night overall, and I look forward to both being present and helping organize the next in this series.