Aretha Franklin: Rock Steady

We pay tribute to the late Aretha Franklin with one of my favorite tracks, “Rock Steady” from the album Young, Gifted and Black.  It is the perfect coming together of soul and funk. Regular readers know that even as I am immersed in all things synthesizer and electronic, soul, funk, jazz fusion are close to my musical heart.

RIP, Queen of Soul 😿

 

Outsound New Music Summit: CDP and Dire Wolves

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”.

CDP at the Outsound New Music Summit

We had five tunes for this concert.  Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White WineNorth Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia).  Marlon Brando and 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.

Amanda Chaudhary and Joshua Marshall, CDPWe 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.

Tom Djll's synth

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 Wolves brought 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.

Dire Wolves

[Photo by Michael Zelner]

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.

Jeffrey Alexander Sheila Bosco

[Photos by Michael Zelner]

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.

Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (Mensa Cat Monday)

Herbie Hancock's Headhunters

After a long hiatus, we have a new cartoon from J.B. (aka Jason Berry) today.  This one features the story of Herbie Hancock’s transition to his funk band Headhunters, as related in his memoir Possibilities (by Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey).

John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring at the Warfield, San Francisco

Today we look back at the recent concert by John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring at the Warfield in San Francisco. We at CatSynth were fortunate to have been in attendance for this event.

It was billed at as “The Meeting of the Spirits Tour”, and the two groups, officially Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip and John McLaughlin & The Fourth Dimension were far more connected musically than in many bills. This connection was established with the first song from Herring’s set, the Miles Davis composition “John McLaughlin.” There were other covers in the set as well, including a tune from The Allman Brothers Band and another Miles Davis tune “Black Satin.” But there were also several of Herring’s originals, including “Matt’s Funk” which I quite enjoyed. It was an extremely tight funky number, which harkened back both to the 1970s and to Herring’s own musical heritage from the jam band era of the 1980s and 1990s.

After a break, the maestro himself took the stage with the other members of The Fourth Dimension.

John McLaughlin
[John McLaughlin]

They played selections from their recent album Black Light but then launched into classics from Mahavishnu Orchestra to the delight of us at CatSynth and many others in the audience. In true “Mahavishnu” style, these were extended jams with everyone taking turns providing solos and rhythm-section work. And this led up to “Meeting of the Spirits” and bringing Herring and the members of The Invisible Whip back on stage for an extended third set.

Meeting of the Spirits
[Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip join John McLaughlin and The Fourth Dimension]

A “supergroup” set like this can be treacherous, even with master musicians. This is especially true when combining multiple bassists and drummers. But it worked, and worked well, as the two bands blended together into a Mahavishnu tribute. And the doubled bass and drums locked in together into something reminiscent of a live King Crimson set. (See our review of King Crimson at the Fox in Oakland from earlier this year.). I suspect this collaboration got better over time and coming near the end of the tour we probably got to hear one of the best versions.

Mulatu Astatke w/ Meklit at The UC Theatre

We at CatSynth have long admired the music of Ethiopia from the 1960s and 1970s, with its blending of traditional rhythms and scales with funk, soul, and jazz. And there are few names as synonymous with Ethiopian jazz, or “Ethio-jazz” as Mulatu Astatke. Astatke developed his Ethio-jazz sound while studying in the U.K. and the United States, playing alongside with jazz and Latin artists, including many from Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. He combined the melodies and harmonies of Ethiopia with rhythms and instrumentations from his Western training and collaborations, along with his own unique complex system of poly-rhythms. There is also a strong element of funk is some of his work. The bulk of his groundbreaking recordings were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the “golden age” of Ethiopian music. After the fall of the Ethiopian Empire and the coup that brought a brutal new regime to power, the thriving music scene in Addis Ababa faded and these recordings fell into obscurity. But they were later prized by record collectors and eventually found a wider audience through reissues and inclusion in the French Éthiopiques series of records in the 1990s. Indeed, that was how he first came to my attention. Since then, Astatke and his music have had a renaissance, with frequent collaborations with musicians around the world, such as his 2008 recording with London based jazz/funk band The Heliocentrics and others. When we learned that he was coming to the U.C. Theater in Berkeley this summer, we know we had to be there.

The evening began with a set by Meklit, an Ethiopian-American musician, songwriter, and bandleader based in San Francisco.

Meklit

Like Astatke, Meklit combined jazz and Ethiopian influences in her soulful and energetic performance. Indeed, she was open about the influence of “Dr. Mulatu” on her own music and waxed poetic on being able to open for him in the concert. Meklit’s voice and movement were backed by a band that featured both a drum set and frame drum tupan, along with horns and bass. The result was continuous energy and rhythm that flowed from one composition to another, even when the tempo was slower. The group performed compositions from Meklit’s latest album The People Move and the Music Moves To as well as her earlier compositions and some more traditional tunes.

Meklit and band

And then it was time for the maestro himself to take the stage.

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu began on his signature instrument, the vibraphone, with fast runs in his unique tonality that were picked up by the horn players. But he also played electric piano and drums during the set. The rhythms were intricate and often poly-rhythmic or contrapuntal, with lilting triple time and odd times that propelled the music forward. The harmonies had a dark color but still delivered with energy and exuberance. This was music to dance to, and many members of the audience did (including Meklit who was dancing in the aisle not far from our seat). There was a mixture of newer compositions (I thought I heard at least one familiar tune from his work with the Heliocentrics) as well as classic 1970s compositions. The band was solid and deft at Astatke’s complex rhythms and fit with his more recent work that includes musicians from host countries.

Mulatu Astatke, Jason Lindner, and other band members

We did espy Jason Lindner on keyboards, including synthesizers and electric piano. We had previously seen him with Donny McCaslin a couple of months ago. He brought a similar sense of harmony and tight playing across instruments to this performance. He had a command of the complex rhythms and also provided the lush electric-piano sounds that I quite enjoyed in Astatke’s classic recordings.

It was a wonderful and unique night of music, and the audience at the sold-out concert showed their appreciation for it. And having now seen Mulatu Astatke perform live, I will be hearing his recordings in a new light.

James Chance and the Contortions at the Knockout, San Francisco

James Chance and the Contortions made a rare appearance in San Francisco, and we at CatSynth were on hand at The Knockout to see it. For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps more than most in that scene, he incorporated jazz and funk, not merely as decorative elements but foundational to the music as a whole. His music has been described as “combining the freeform playing of Ornette Coleman with the solid funk rhythm of James Brown, though filtered through a punk rock lens” [Wikipedia].

At around midnight, he took the stage with his trademark pompadour and saxophone blaring.

From the start it was a high-energy experience, especially up front near the stage where we were. The rhythm section was solid, whether playing a bouncy ska-like rhythm or the funk rhythm and details that so characterize and separate the band from others in its original scene. Every so often, Chance would break out into fancy footwork reminiscent of James Brown in between vocals that were simultaneous playful and aggressive. And the rhythm remained tight even when the horns went on long free runs, occasionally cutting out for a voice solo and keyboard hit, and then coming back in on the beat. It has been said that Chance hold his bands to a high standard of tightness and musicianship and it shows.

Another fun aspect of the set was the interplay between James Chance and Mac Gollehon on trumpet and keyboard. In additional to some classic horn-section hooks to complement the funk rhythms, Gollehon used a dynamic-filter effect on his trumpet that worked extremely well in context, turning the horn into a rhythm-section instrument playing riffs that in more conventional bands are covered by guitar.

It was a sold-out show with an enthusiastic crowd packing the small space of the Knockout, and it spans a wide age-range from those who may have seen James Chance in the 1970s and 1980s to younger people likely seeing him for the first time. And having a great time of it. We certainly did. And I draw some inspiration from the mix of funk and jazz with punk and avant-garde elements. We at CatSynth wish them well on the remainder of this west coast tour.

RIP Sharon Jones (1956-2016)

When I discovered the album 100 Days 100 Nights in 2009, it was a breath of fresh air. It was a time when my life was very oriented towards Asia and my own Asian heritage, but musically I was returning to the funk and soul music that I have long adored and wished to play myself. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings fit perfectly into that milieu. The songs, especially the title track and “Tell Me” quickly became part of my regular rotation. The strength of music is of course mostly due to Ms Jones and the band, but the production also intrigued me, as they went back to some of the technologies that made those earlier records. Both the physical artifact and the music references James Brown, one of our musical heroes, and the band intersects other more recent favorites such as Amy Winehouse and The Budos Band.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
[By Jacob Blickenstaff [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharon Jones’ battle with cancer, which ultimately took her life this past week, also hits home for us at the moment. She had a long fight that included remission and optimism only to watch it come roaring back. It’s a painfully familiar story for us at CatSynth.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities

Healing after a major medical procedure leaves one with quite a bit of time for reading. This was the case for me in July and August. Today we look at the first of a few books I completed during that time.

Herbie HancockPossibilities is Herbie Hancock’s autobiography released in late 2014, not long after I saw him accept his lifetime achievement award at the SFJAZZ gala. Like the gala event, the book attempts to weave together the earlier (and in my opinion best) work with his continuing to be vital and creative artist. It didn’t change my over all assessment of his music – I revere what he did in the 1970s with The Headhunters and Mwandishi as close to musical perfection, but shrug at what most of what he did in the 1980s through the end of the century (with notable exceptions like Rockit).

Throughout the book, Hancock and his co-writer Lisa Dickey weave together personal life with several different aspects of music – the music itself, the engineering, the business, and relationships. It is the mixture of all of these that makes for an interesting read, especially when placed in the context of the music. Hancock’s Buddhist practice permeates the entire story. One sees how it was a beneficial force for him personality and also affected his music, particularly with the open structure of Mwandishi and then in Head Hunters and Thrust. One of the fun anecdotes here was the naming of Actual Proof, and a discussion of how the piece got its confounding rhythm. The language is detailed enough that it gives me insight into the musical process – but not so overly technical that non-musicians should be able to get something from it as well.

He also goes into great detail about his dive into music technology through synthesizers; and his collaborations with engineers to push the instruments. I of course knew the story of the Fender Rhodes entering his music via Miles Davis; and the use of the Arp Odyssey in Head Hunters. I didn’t realize just how much he was involved in customizing the instruments for his live performances, taking advantage of his own electrical-engineering background and numerous long-time collaborations. I was particularly intrigued by the story of the vocoder (a Sennheiser VSM201) and prototype “keytar” featured in Sunlight. I also have seen that some of these sounds and elements are used by critics against him as “selling out” or some such thing. Such criticisms have long bothered me because it dismisses is best work, and the work I most love. Hancock himself seems unbothered by that and focuses on his need to explore new musical styles, ideas, and technologies – like Buddhism, this a theme that keeps recurring throughout the book. After delving into deep technical and musical detail about one song or one performance, he then simply moves on to the next.

The personal details are of course part of the story, but sometimes difficult to read. There is tragedy in his family. And he struggled at various times with drugs – the candid story about his being a closeted crack user in the 1990s was unexpected. But it is primarily the music and “story of the music” where my attention settled, and where I got the most from the book. It has in a way added to my enjoyment of the music.

Amanda Chaudhary Solo Set at Second Act, San Francisco

We pick up our reports from the epic musical month that was June.

Amanda Chaudhary at Second Act

On June 15, I performed a brand new solo set at Second Act in San Francisco, part of a monthly evening of experimental electronic music. It was a bringing together of my more experimental electronic work with the jazz and funk direction my music. The modular and Moog Theremini were featured heavily, but so were the Moog Sub Phatty as my “left hand” bass, and of course the Nord Stage, aka “The Big Red Keyboard”. I also used a Casio SK-1 extensively. You can hear the entire set in this video.

Amanda at Second Act June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I thought it went quite well musically. I like how the funk bass worked with the Sub Phatty and Phonogene on the modular. The venue was full, and I got an enthusiastic response from the audience. I don’t think they were expecting this level of jazz and funk, but seemed to really appreciate it. I will definitely continue working in this direction in future solo sets.


The concert began with a noise set by Passions Nouveau, who performed with synthesizers and sundry electronics.

20160615-IMG_0359

The set unfolded as a single continuous soundscape, with noise pads and drones, but occasional loud swells and complex details.

I was followed by bran(…)pos. It had been a few years since I shared a bill with him, but has excited to hear what he had come up with recently. As per his pervious appearances, he performed inside a tent onto which a mixture of live and processed video was projected.

20160615-IMG_0429

And once again the performance centered around the use of his face and voice visually and sonically. But the instrumental accompaniment was a new direction, mixing sounds from the turn of the 20th century with pitched synthesizers and beats. It was a very polished and complex sound overall, bringing a tightness to his unique style of performance and presentation.

Overall, it was a great performance, and I was happy to be a part of it. Performing at Second Act is always a great time, and I would like extend my thanks to the folks who continue to make this venue and series work for the musical community.

Ornette Coleman, 1930-2015

Ornette Coleman

By Geert Vandepoele (Ornette Coleman) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We lost another of our musical heroes today. Orientate Coleman was deeply influential in the development and blossoming of jazz in the era-after bebop, where the music went in different, surprising and (for some) controversial directions. From the seemingly mathematic transformations of bop idioms in songs like Zig Zag to the driving funk of Jump Street from Of Human Feelings (a personal favorite of mine), his music and professional example were inspiring.

In addition to his composition and playing, he was an accomplished band leader, bringing together disparate performers to play complex music that remained rhythmically tight. There was the Ornette Coleman Quartet that cemented his reputation as an experimenter, and later his band Prime Time, which took on electronic elements and fusion idioms while retaining oblique rhythms and counterpoints.

I also find myself identifying the descriptions of him as soft-spoken and taking a deeply intellectual (perhaps bafflingly so) approach to describing music. Many jazz greats are sons and daughters of the South, and Ornate Coleman was no exception – but it is interesting to see him and others transcend that heritage to something of a different time and place, or perhaps no particular place at all. We should follow his example and keep jazz an alive, evolving, and often challenging music.