RIP Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018)

We learned yesterday of the passing of another of our musical heroes, Cecil Taylor.

This segment of solo piano demonstrates how his playing is incredibly complex but remains thoroughly musical.   The fast runs contain a unique contrapuntal language.  And more importantly, there is phrasing, contour, and emotion that unifies the performance.  Taylor had an uncanny ability to combine European classical tradition, jazz, and other African American influences into a unique musical language that he dubbed “black methodology”.  This quote from poet and critic A. B. Spellman, included in the official New York Times obituary, sums it up well.

“There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”

 

It is hard for me not to compare Taylor with another contemporary of his, Ornette Coleman, who passed away in 2015.  Coleman is one of my favorites – Taylor takes the level of complexity to another level.  Both remain huge influences.  We leave you with this recording of “Calling It the 9th”.

 

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.

Ornette Coleman Birthday Tribute

Today is the birthday of the great Ornette Coleman.  In tribute, we are reposting this comic by J.B.

 

 

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).

Grex and Two Aerials, Octopus Literary Salon

Last Thursday we at CatSynth returned to the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland to hear two groups whose work we follow, Grex and Two Aerials.  The show was also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV video, which can you see below.

There are similarities between in terms of style and songcraft, and they worked well in tandem.  Two Aerials, led by Mark Clifford (vibraphone) and Crystal Pascucci (cello, voice), had a jazzier vibe and more reminiscent of art-rock and prog of the early 1970s.  Clifford’s frenetic but luscious vibes are a lot of the reason for this, but solid backing from Brett Carson on keyboard and Jordan Glenn on drums added to the overall sound and structure.  There were sounds and textures reminiscent of Henry Cow, especially during the songs that featured Pascucci on voice.  There were also sections that reminded me of Frank Zappa’s best lineups from the early to mid-1970s.
 
 two aerials
 
Grex has gone through a few iterations of style and personnel in the time I have known them.  The current incarnation features principals Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboards, but they each take on additional musical duties with electronics, foot-driven percussion, and voice.
 
Grex
 
Musically, they also have a style that falls somewhere in the realm of art rock, but with a dreamier, more psychedelic feel.  They move effortlessly back and forth between very tender lyrical songs and frenetic pedal-heavy guitar solos from Evangelista, as well as space in between those poles.  We particularly enjoyed the quote of Princess Leia’s theme during their final song.
In all, it was a fun evening with friends and music.  And the Octopus Literary Salon is fast becoming a frequent destination for us for eclectic and intimate musical performances.  We look forward to more.

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.

Arma Agharta and Song & Dance Trio, Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

Today we look back at the recent show featuring Song & Dance Trio and Lithuanian sound-and-performance artist Arma Agharta at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

I have seen the members of Song & Dance Trio, Karl Evangelista (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Cory Wright (baritone saxophone) many times before in many musical contexts, but this was the first time I saw them as a trio. As one can hear in the video, they mixed complex virtuosic avant-garde performance with familiar jazz idioms. And they made it work. There was a strong rhythmic sense throughout the set, with the musicians moving freely between a relaxed shuffle and frenetic staccato runs. The familiar jazz figures sprinkled throughout were fun, but the more experimental interludes were a palette cleanser that made the grooves stand out more strongly.


[Song & Dance Trio (Evangelista, Glenn, Wright)]

Next up was a solo performance by Arma Agharta, a Lithuanian sound-performance-artist who was kicking off the west-coast swing of his United States tour. I didn’t know quite what to expect, even after looking at his interesting setup with a mixture of sound-making objects and electronic instruments.


[Arma Agharta’s colorful electro-acoustic rig]

And then he took the stage wearing a large pointed had and colorful robe. Things started quietly but very quickly turned to a loud, frenzy of sound, movement, and vocals.


[Calm and anything-but-calm moments with Arma Agharta]

This was one of the most physically and sonically intense solo performances I have seen in a while, and the energy was nonstop for most of the duration, with just a few ebbs and pauses. An endurance test for performer and audience alike. I haven’t heard anything quite like it, and it is hard to do justice either in written or video form. The intense sounds were from many layers of electronics, including recorded sounds played at high volume along with Arma Agharta’s own powerful voice howling, bellowing, and other vocalizations.

It was interesting to see such different performances in the same show and to assemble them into a single 3-minute video. But it worked both live and recorded. We wish Arma Agharta well on his next tour (last we saw he was in Turkey) and hope to hear more from him. We, of course, will continue to follow Evangelista, Glenn, and Wright on their musical adventures here in the Bay Area.

James Chance and The Contortions, Seaport Music Festival, New York

This past weekend marked the 15th annual Seaport Music Festival at the South Street Seaport in New York, and we at CatSynth were there on Sunday afternoon to see James Chance and The Contortions.

James Chance and the Contortions

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. This is actually the second time we have seen him and his band, including collaborators Mac Gollehon on trumpet and valve trombone, Eric Klaastad, and Richard Dworkin on drums, in 2017, the previous being at the Knockout in Francisco in March.

For the Seaport show, they were joined by Chris Cochrane on guitar and Robert Aaron filling out the horn section on tenor saxophone.  The San Francisco performance was great, but this performance was even better.  There were the tight funky rhythms with blaring saxophone and trumpet lines along with Chance’s fancy footwork and intense stage presence that channeled James Brown, but the band as a whole was more of an imaginative musical whole.  Cochrane seemed more in tune with the rest of the band and shined on slower tune “Jaded” with a cool Robert-Fripp-like countermelody using an e-bow.  The combined horns of Gollehon and Aaron brought out the jazz and funk elements that separated James Chance from others in the No Wave scene.  And Klaastad was full and powerful on eight-string bass.

The energy of the performance fit well with the setting.  It was a beautiful late-summer day, with the Brooklyn Bridge and waterfront bathed in golden-hour sunlight, matched by Chance’s yellow blazer and trademark pompadour.

James Chance

It was also special to see him performing in New York, given his long history in the local music scene.  Later on walking in the West Village, we espied this old poster advertising one of his shows from the early 1980s on the wall of the former Bleecker Street Records (sadly, now a Starbucks).

James White and the Blacks

We would be remiss if we did not also mention the other bands we saw at the Seaport Music Festival.  The Contortions were preceded by Wolfmanhattan Project, a supergroup featuring Kid Congo Powers, Mick Collins (Dirtbombs/Gories), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth).  They played to a quite enthusiastic audience.  The Nude Party combined sounds of hard rock scene of 1970s New York with a Southern edge from their hometown in North Carolina.  And Martin Rev (formerly of Suicide) played an energetic solo set on keyboards with backing rhythms from a variety of sources, including classic soul such as the Ohio Players.  A fine day of music on the waterfront.

[Jason Berry contributed to this article.]

Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

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.