Posing with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat at the Outsound benefit dinner a couple of weeks ago. Although about the same height, size, and silhouette, our color and texture were true contrasts. Black vs white, solid vs patterned. Yin and yang.
You can see our video from the performance at the benefit dinner below.
For the final night of the Outsound New Music Summit, we invited two jazz legends to collaborate with noted local musicians. Each of them has performed and recorded with a whos-who of jazz in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Sometimes such collaborations can go awry in practice, but we at CatSynth are happy to say that both were a resounding success.
Bobby Bradford has had a long career as cornet player and composer who enjoyed long collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Carter. He has taught multiple generations of musicians, including Bill Noertker, who invited Bradford to lead a project for this year’s summit. The cornetist and bassist teamed up with cornetist Theo Padouvas and bassist Scott Walton to form Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass.
The performance focused on Bradford’s compositions, but as in any good jazz setting, each of the musicians brought their own creativity to the set. The instrumentation makes for a sparse texture, with each member of the group having to perform multiple duties on melody, harmony, and rhythm. But the result is an unusual sound. Bradford’s cornet led the way, with Padouvas filling in some of the space with fast runs and other sounds. Noertker and Walton took turns on the rhythm at times but also worked together as a unit. They also doubled as additional melodic instruments in the group. One memorable moment featured Noertker playing long bowed harmonics atop Walton’s back-and-forth plucked bass notes. There was a ballad with Bradford and Padouvas playing nearly the same line what seemed like a different scale and harmony to the basses, resulting in a very haunting effect. Another faster tune was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman in the 1960s (i.e., before the Prime Time era).
As Bradford is perhaps best known as a sideman and a teacher, it was great to see him lead the band with his own music on this occasion. The group did end with a more open improvisation, which Bradford himself admitted he wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. It was short and sweet, with the musicians bouncing off one another but not overstaying their moments. Overall, I thought this group had a fine debut, and it will be interesting to see if they play together again, perhaps in Bradford’s home turf of Southern California.
The second set brought together pianist Marilyn Crispell with Kevin Robinson’s KREation Ensemble that also included Lee Hodel on bass and Tony Gennaro on percussion.
On the surface, this coming together would seem to be a more traditional jazz quartet, but Gennaro had an unusual percussion kit with a variety of hand drums, bells, and more. Indeed, there were times it seemed all four musicians were playing melody lines. And there was a lot of open space, with Robinson’s meditative poses acting as a fifth instrument.
Robinson has a very sparse, detailed and contemplative style of playing, even when he was playing faster sections. This contrasted with Crispell’s frenetic runs on the piano. Hodel was able to match her with percussive notes on the bass. I really liked the way the two of them interplayed. I found myself re-focusing throughout on Crispell to see what she would do next. There was something clever, even mischievous, about her playing, even when it was darker long chords.
The ever-changing style and energy throughout the set make sense in the context of the work being premiered. As stated in the program, “Through the Twisting Prisms is a collection of intervallic, rhythmic, harmonic labyrinths and mazes that explore ideas convergence, expansion, contraction, and meditation.”
Together, the two sets made a fine conclusion to this year’s Outsound Summit. And we had a full house at the Community Music Center, even in the balcony. We finish exhausted but satisfied at a job well done and a great week of music brought to life.
While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band CDP. We shared the bill with Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.
I often get asked what “CDP” stands for. And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino. That’s me on keyboard and vocoder, Tom Djll (synthesizers), and Mark Pino (drums). Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone. As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.
We had five tunes for this concert. Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White Wine, North Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia). Marlon Brandoand Konflict Mensch rounded out the set. Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out. Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in. The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.
We got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section. From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser). Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience. Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll. Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.
The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well – in some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics – though there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band. I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.
You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.
For the second set, Dire Wolvesbrought a completely different energy to the stage. Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.
There was a sparseness to the music, with Jeffrey Alexander (guitar + winds), Sheila Bosco (drums), Brian Lucas (bass) and Arjun Mendiratta (violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape. Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic. Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.
My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance. Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup. But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.
Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable. And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set. We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.
The Outsound New Music Summit continued on Wednesday with a night featuring explorations of electroacoustics and noise. Once again, the two acts were quite contrasting in their interpretations of the night’s theme.
SO AR (formerly Ze Bib) is the collaboration of electronic musician and cellist Shanna Sordahl and percussionist Robert Lopez. We had the chance to meet with them ahead of the summit and shared our encounter in this video:
The set unfolded as a series of conversations between Sordahl – first on cello alone and then with electronics – and Lopez. The ups and downs in the pitches, rhythms, and intensities seemed to imply spoken language at times. This was especially true during the more staccato and percussive sections at the beginning and end of the set.
The long tone sections brought in more of the electronics – Sordahl’s rig featured a Korg MS-20 and iPad. The percussion once again seemed to match the longer tones, with extended rolls, long drum tones, and additional percussion. But there were also moments where the texture diverged, between long electronic tones and rhythmic percussion runs.
Even at its most intense, there was a quiet quality to the music that seemed fit with the starkness of their stage presence and the darkened hall. Even at low volume, the moments of silence stood out, with a bit of tension in the air. Space and breath are an important part of how the duo approaches their music, and this comes out strongest in the quietest sections.
X A M B U C A is a solo electronic project by Chandra Shukla. We had the opportunity to first see him perform last year with Hans-Joachim Roedellius at The Chapel in San Francisco; we were glad to see him join the lineup for this year’s Summit.
[X A M B U C A]
On a completely darkened stage, X A M B U C A delivered a set that was simultaneously rich and minimalist. There were segments of long drones cut with high-pitched sweeps, and sections of fast drum-machine runs. The styles of various sections (which segued from one to the next continuously) included fragmented dance-music patterns, elements of rock, and noise. It is, of course, hard for me not to consider electronic music without also considering the instruments used.
Shukla’s rig was anchored by an Elektron Analog Keys, along with a Korg Electribe, a Stylophone, and sundry pedals. Looking at these instruments, I can better understand how he was able to move so freely from drum patterns and hits to long tones and dense pads to distortion and noise. It was quite a dynamic performance, showing the more “experimental side” of X A M B U C A compared to what we had experienced previously.
It was a solid night, and perhaps the most “out” of the Outsound Summit shows this year, as subsequent nights embraced more idiomatic forms of musical expression. We hope to bring you those reviews over the next few days.
Musical innovation can arise from pushing the boundaries of traditional musical instruments or inventing entirely new instruments. The opening concert of the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit featured two groups whose work falls squarely in the latter category.
Tim Thompson is a longtime innovator in the space of expressive control of music using custom hardware and software. His latest creation is the Space Palette Pro, a panel with four highly sensitive touchpads that control sound and visuals via MIDI. You can hear Tim’s explanation of his invention in this video:
The Space Palette Pro is an evolutionary step from the original Space Palette, which allowed users to move their hands through holes in a large panel to drive music and visuals via a Kinect motion sensor. The newer incarnation is smaller in size and replaces the space with pads, but in many ways uses the same principles of three-dimension gestural control. Indeed, much of the software from the original was repurposed for the new version. But the Pro is definitely more of a performance instrument, rather than a “casual instrument”, as Thompson explained both in the video and at the concert.
Musically, his performance was a series of several movements that segued from one to the next. Each had its own sonic and visual palette which Thompson performed in real time. So in a sense, this was an improvised performance, but one that was constrained by the sound, visuals, and patterns in each section.
The first section was soft with spare graphics, while the second was more pointed and percussive with geometric shapes. Further movements featured lush timbres and graphics, and popular-music idioms with synthesizers and electronic drums. Many of the segments were “quantized” to fixed scales and harmonies (as well as rhythms), though Thompson could introduce new pitches and scales into the mix using a MIDI keyboard, along for more melodic and harmonic variety.
The focus during the performance was squarely on the screen and the live visuals. These were beautiful and captivating. I would have liked to be able to see more of the performer and the instrument as well, as it was for me an important part of the set.
The second set brought us (mostly) out of the electronic world and back into the realm of acoustic musical instruments, albeit instruments of unique design. Pet the Tiger is a Bay Area collective of musical instrument inventors. Their recent work has centered around a set of instruments that use strict harmonic-series tuning. Together the instruments and musicians comprise a “harmonic-series gamelan.” You can see a demonstration of some of their instruments in this video.
The music is anchored by the harmonic compass, a set of metallophones designed and built by Stephen Parris and commissioned by group director David Samas. However, there were a wide variety of instruments, including string and wind instruments by Bart Hopkin and Peter Whitehead, and even a series of meticulously tuned loose plastic tubes.
For this concert, the ensemble performed an interpretation of the fairies’ subplot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes many of the plays most memorable lines (including Puck’s final soliloquy). The text was subdivided into several songs, and they were indeed songs with melody and harmony, albeit in the slightly alien world of the harmonic series, which can be simultaneously soothing and anticipatory at the same time – it always feels like it is waiting to go to the next note. The songs were in a variety of styles and alternately song by Samas, Hopkin, and Whitehead. The instruments and their playing gets most of the attention, but I think the singing deserves praise as well. All three have great singing voices, and working in an alternate tuning is no small feat. I was particularly impressed with Bart Hopkin’s return to his songwriting roots, singing against a harmonically tuned guitar of his own making. And David Samas’ voice is always rich and sonorous. I have known this group and its members for several years now, and I have watched not only the instruments grow in precision and sophistication, but also musicianship in putting together an entire performance like this. The audience were very clear in their appreciation and approval as well.
In all, it was a beautiful night of music and instrumental innovation. We conclude with an exchange that occurred during the pre-show question-and-answer session when Outsound director Rent Romus asked the performers “why bother with the complexity of creating entirely new instruments?” I found Bart Hopkin’s answer quite memorable.
There are a lot of reasons to stick with conventional instruments. You could write a pretty convincing paper on why to stick with convention instruments including ones you might not normally think of…When you work with conventional instruments and you write for it, you can simply hand someone the score because there are trained musicians who can keep one eye on the score, one eye on the conductor, and “another eye” playing the instrument. They don’t have to look at their hands. There are a million advantages you wouldn’t even think of to working with conventional instruments. BUT, you know, with unconventional instruments you find musical territory you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. And that really makes it worthwhile.
We at CatSynth agree and look forward to more unconventional musical territory in the future.
This past Monday, the Outsound New Music Summit featured a screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary by Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet. From the Outsound Summit website:
The Breath Courses Through Us” (2013) is a documentary film about the early 1960s avant-garde jazz group, the New York Art Quartet. The film focuses on the group’s 35-year reunion, while reaching back through their recollections of their foundations and innovative musical ideas. The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of this group, and a revolutionary period in jazz music, which declared its existence in the October Revolution in Jazz, in October 1964. “The Breath Courses Through Us” mirrors the newly open improvisationary style of “free jazz” that subverted the traditional structure of jazz. Unfolding in free time and enveloped in their music, the film helps the viewer better understand the human element of the creative process, by focusing on their interactions in the present.
It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale. It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999. In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.
Musically, it connects the current scene of free and avant-garde jazz to the creative foment of 1960s New York. We hear from the founding members: John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and Milford Graves, along with one of the original bassists Reggie Workman and poet Amiri Baraka. The five reunited for the early 2000s concerts as well as the documentary. We get to hear their distinct personalities. Tchicai brings a serious and brooding discipline, Rudd an exuberance and enthusiasm for playing, and Graves his quirky and humorous character. Workman was one of three bassists that performed with the group during its brief existence in 1964 and 1965; Baraka often read poems to the quartet’s improvisations, including his famous “Black Dada Nihilismus”, parts of which are included in the documentary. It seemed like an improbable coming together that depended on a series of coincidences and connections, but together they informed a style and practice of music that was “revolutionary” in its time, and still in many ways sounds fresh.
Although the documentary has been out for a few years now, this was its first public screening on the west coast. Hopefully, this will lead to future screenings. Even immersed as I have been in the music influenced by the New York Art Quartet, I was not as familiar with them as I should be. I think it will be a valuable experience for those who perform and listen to free jazz, as well as though who are new to it.
More information on the film, including screenings, can be found at the official website.
We are just a few weeks away from the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit! And as always, we kick off the countdown with the annual benefit dinner featuring live creative music by local artists. This year we were pleased to have Actual Trio perform.
Actual Trio is led by composer and virtuoso guitarist John Schott and features John Hanes on drums and Dan Seamans on upright bass. To simply label them as a “contemporary jazz trio” would be a disservice to all three musicians, who bring a wide range of compositional and performance experiences to this group. Their music ranges from laid-back grooves to fast frenetic runs to sparse percussive punctuated passages. Overall, they delivered a highly dynamic performance that was well received by all in attendance. You can hear a bit of it in our recent CatSynth TV video.
As Schott states in the video, there is something special about the trio format. Trios are three-legged stools which depend on the contributions of each member and their ability to listen and perform together. But it is still relatively sparse and spare compared to larger ensembles. Actual Trio has a very small toolset of drums, bass and guitar (although Schott brought quite a few bits of vintage and modern electronics along as well). But they get a lot out of what they have. Schott and Hanes function together as a rhythmic and melodic unit, and they seemed to be able to finish each others lines, whether fast runs or vamps. Seamans brought a melodic sensibility to his bass performance even while providing a solid foundation for the music. And they were just fun to watch and listen to.
[Vintage amp and spring reverb units used by John Schott]
The Outsound Benefit Dinner is a “thank you” of sorts to our core supporters in the community – an instance of the time-honored tradition of plying supporters and donors with food, drink and entertainment. All in attendance enjoyed the performance by Actual Trio and the food provided by Slippery Fish Catering. But this year, Outsound owes an even greater debt of gratitude to its individual donors and supporters as grants for small arts and music groups becomes even harder to come by than it has in the past. But we are looking forward to another excellent summit this year. Please visit the website for tickets and to find out more about the shows, which take place at the Community Music Center in San Francisco from July 22 through July 28, 2018.
A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.
Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue. The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance), Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone). They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.
Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions. There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album. It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space. The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece. Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space. Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.
We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well. There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.
We proudly present the inaugural episode of CatSynth TV!
This first episode visits the Luggage Store Gallery for the regular Thursday night new-music series. This particular evening had two intriguing and performative sets: a solo for santour and drums by Sahba Sizdahkhani and a duo by PC Muñoz and Karl Evangelista on percussion/electronics and guitar, respectively.
Sizdahkhani’s set was a thing of beauty, with layered loops from the santour providing a rich harmonic and rhythmic background. The drums in many ways functioned as the melodic instrument, with expressive phrasing of the rhythms and textures. Muñoz and Evangelista had some powerful jams in odd-time meters, along with some more subdued moments featuring pedals and Muñoz on Korg Delay Monotron and spoken word.
CatSynth TV is not replacing our long-form articles, but rather a complementary offering. Please do subscribe to our new channel to catch more installments. There is another coming this week 😺
The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured a performance by Karen Borca, returning to the Bay Area for the first time in two decades. For those not familiar with Borca, she is one of the few bassoonists in avant-garde jazz and free jazz; and she had a long and illustrious career playing with many of the greats in the field, including Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. On this night, she was joined by two figures in the local jazz and experimental-music scene, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums.
Bassoon is a hard instrument to play in any genre, let alone jazz. But Borca made it sound effortless. There were sections that featured the instrument’s well-known lower registers, but also higher melodic lines and runs more often associated with saxophones. Interestingly, Borca discussed how she started on saxophone in school and was shredding the instrument until she was advised to try the bassoon, as it was both more challenging and more likely to make her stand out for scholarships and such. And this turned out to be the right decision. Musically, things unfolded with sparse lines and harmonies and the three performers bounced off one another. The best moments were when the notes from bassoon, bass and drum all seemed to form a single line.
It was a shorter set, but very well received with audience clamoring for more afterwards. But I can understand that the music took a lot of energy. But it was a great experience, and Karen Borca has now taken her place alongside Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and all the other women in music that I want to be when I finally grow up.
The Karen Borca trio was preceded by Positive Knowledge, a project of Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet and other instruments) and Ijeoma Thomas (voice). They were joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.
I have heard Positive Knowledge before, and know how their music unfolds. There are sparse, scratchy lines from Oluyemi’s bass clarinet and other wind instruments, including a shawm (or similar instrument), interspersed with Ijeoma’s vocals, which include passages of spoken word as well as more extended sounds. The music is at times quite percussive, but also melodic and energetic. There was an exuberance and joy in the sound, even in the moments that seemed to be melancholy. And Atwal’s drums added a foundational underpinning the sustained the set.
So this concludes our coverage of the 2017 Outsound Music Summit. It was the longest we have covered, with five concerts plus Touch the Gear. It can be a bit of overload, so much music and fellowship in a week, but worth the effort. We look forward to next year, and the inspiration for all the musical adventures between now and then.