Jaroba + Keith Cary, Bryan Day, Turquoise Yantra Grotto

Last week I attended an evening of “sonic innovations” at the Turquoise Yanta Grotto, a new venue for experimental and eclectic music here in San Francisco.

Based in a modernist Eichler-style house nestled in the Diamond Heights neighborhood, the Turquoise Yantra Grotto hosts a monthly series in an intimate setting. The performance space itself is a giant musical instrument, with every inch covered with sonic creations that provide both aural and visual interest. Among the more formal instruments one can find here is this gamelan piano, but one can see that even it is adorned with other musical possibilities.

The sonic possibilities extend out into the adjacent courtyard where tuned metal cylinders share space with tropical birds.

The first set featured a collaboration by Jaroba and Keith Cary on a variety of invented musical instruments, with Jaroba focusing on winds and reeds while Cary focused on strings.

Their collaboration worked well musically, moving back and forth between harmonic and inharmonic sounds, playing with the defined rhythmic structures, and weaving in some idiomatic elements like a bass line from one of Cary’s instruments. I do also like drones or wild runs of notes, but musical phrasing and rhythm makes a performance more distinct and memorable. I was also quite fascinated with Jaroba’s changing instruments, which included combinations of pipes, standard mouthpieces, bells, and amplification. One of the most fun was a long tube that fed into a large bullhorn. The resulting sound reminded me of an analog synth moving from long sub-bass notes with a rhythm of their own to high piercing cries.

Jaroba also played an old found instrument: a “player saxophone” that used player-piano style roles. It turns out that this is a Q.R.S. Playasax from the 1920s. I found it intriguing as an usual piece of “music technology.”

Host David Samas joined the duo for a final piece, featuring the gamelan piano shown above and other of the instruments around the venue. His use of metallic sounds filled in the space between the winds and strings nicely.

The second set featured Bryan Day on an intricate contraption of his own design.

The music was quite a contrast to the first set in that it featured metallic sounds instead of winds and strings. There is something captivating about the sound of metal, whether it is tuned or not. In the case of Day’s sounds, it is clear that worked quite hard to get his sounds and modes of interaction. The “instruments” in the rig ranged from tuned tape measures to suspended magnets to small bits of metal with contact microphones. This was definitely an electro-acoustic setup rather than acoustic, and I even saw a Kaoss pad in the mix.

[Photo courtesy of David Samas.]

The sounds were as varied as the sources, and assembled together into long rhythmic phrases. There was enough rapid motion to focus attention on the musicality, while pauses allowed the timbres to linger and the audience to take in the unusual sounds. You can hear a short except of Day’s performance in this video.

As with the first set, David Samas joined Bryan Day for a closing piece, and provided contrasting sounds and textures including wood, water and shells.

[Photo courtesy of David Samas.]

Both the timbrally rich music and setting of the concert made for an evening that was both captivating and peaceful at the same time, even with sounds that could get loud and noisy at times. I am glad to have discovered this venue and series, and look forward to many creative concerts there in the coming months.

Outsound Music Summit: Fire and Energy

The final concert of the 2012 Outsound Music Summit was Fire and Energy, a night of “improvised-jazz-inspired-music.” Labeling a new-music concert as jazz can often be treacherous, with some people all-too-quick to join arguments about what does and does not qualify as “jazz.” But in the case if this evening’s artists, who all had long established histories in the world of improvised free-jazz, there should be no argument.

The concert opened with a solo set by Jack Wright, a long-time veteran and leader of the Bay Area improvised music scene. His performance began on soprano saxophone with discrete notes and short phrases filled with overtone, microtones, percussive sounds. The were some moments that were quite subtle, with long notes that had deliberate microtonal variations or timbral variations on a single pitch- I found this to be quite expressive. There were other more melodic sections that made reminded me of old popular jazz recordings from the 1930s. Wright communicated a lot of emotion in his improvisations, with some parts sounding quite plaintive, almost a lamentation, while others were bright and happy. The first have of his set ended with some exceptionally high notes.

[Jack Wright. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Wright then switched to alto saxophone. There was something about this piece that just seemed “jazzier” – it’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing, but perhaps it is just the nature and expectations of the alto sax. This piece was also a bit louder and aggressive, with numerous scoops, bends, growls and noises. He employed extended effects with the bell to change the dynamics and timbre of the instrument (including at one point playing with the instrument pointed into his knee), and used key clicks, buzzing and voiced tones.

The next set featured Dave Bryant, first performing solo on acoustic piano and then in a trio with drummer Dax Compise and bassist Bryan Clark. Bryant is best known for his work as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime TIme group, and as an expert and teacher of Harmolodic Theory. His solo piano work was an impressive virtuosic display, with a barrage of fast moving chords up and down the keyboard that nonetheless were quite expressive. It felt like the music was constantly moving towards something, a bit frantically. Then all at once the energy was released as if in a sigh. He spent a fair amount of time in the often under-appreciated lower registers of the instrument, and kept the velocity of the performance going. The big loud low chords were followed by softer high chords in a moment that was reminiscent of late Romantic piano music. As he continued, he was joined on stage by Comprise and Clark, and in an instant the solo turned into an acoustic jazz trio.

[Dave Bryant Trio. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

After a short section, Bryant switch to electric keyboard and the character of music changed considerably. It became softer and dreamier, with the bass setting the tone and pace. But there was still forward motion to the performance, and more of Bryant’s virtuosic high-speed chord work that at times seemed superhuman. The pace slowed down again, with a distinctly blues-like line and then pentatonic glissandi. After another reset, a new harmony and rhythm emerged with Bryant leading the group into heavy, almost final-sounding cadences. In between, there were bass and drum solos and more frenetic work, but the cadences remained as the framework. It all came to a sudden by definite stop.

The following set featured Vinny Golia with his sextet, including Gavin Templeton on alto sax, Daniel Rosenboom on trumpet, Alex Noice on guitar, Jon Armstrong on electric bass, and Andrew Lessman on drums. Of all the performances on this evening, this one most embodied the concert title “Fire and Energy.” There was an intensity to the full ensemble in both fast runs, hits, and the driving rhythm that underpinned the set-spanning piece. It began rather quietly, with Golia on pray bowls. Soon, the other members of the group entered with long drone sounds, along with soft symbols, trumpet noise and a chime harmony. Golia always has a collection of saxophones and other wind instruments at his disposal, and he switched to a smaller instrument that looked like a soprano sax but with a bent neck, which he played together with Rosenboom on trumpet. The music gradually became more animated and evolved in a unison rhythm and eventually into a rather funky groove. I can easily get absorbed into music like this.

[Vinny Golia Sextet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The rhythm continued for a while, with various interruptions, including some solos – Rosenboom in particular tore it up during his trumpet solo. Then there was a sudden change in rhythm and texture, led by Templeton on alto sax. Rather then the unified driving rhythm, the ensemble played a complex intricate orchestration that still retained a rhythmic structure. There were more extended effects and sounds, such as squeaking and percussive effects, and Noice used a Kaoss Pad with his guitar. Golia switched to bass clarinet for a slower section of music that included a short four-part “chorale”. The ensemble quieted down and the prayer bowls returned, before everyone joined in for a final segment to close the set.

The final set of the evening and of the Summit as a whole was also the largest in terms of personnel. Tony Passarel’s Thin Air Orchestra is a project that brings together a large number of improvising musicians, and on this night the group swelled in number to include several musicians from the previous sets, including Vinny Golia and Dax Comprise, as well as regulars from Outsound. Festival director Rent Romus was able to temporarily remove his directors hat and play saxophones in the ensemble. Other players that evening included Ross Hammond, Randy McKean, Keith Kelly, John Vaughn, Cory Wright, Ken Kawamura, Tom Djll, CJ Borosque, Murray Campbell, Keith Cary, Mike Turgeon, Bill Noertker and Gerry Pineda.

[Tony Passarel’s Thin Air Orchestra. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The first piece began with unison trumpets, soon joined by viola. The texture was very sparse, but they were soon joined by Hammond on guitar and the other instruments followed in a crescendo made of small bits of sound. There was a brief sax-and-flute duo, and playing inside the piano strings by Passarell. The next piece began with the rhythm section (piano, electric bass and drums) in a fast sparse motion, followed by a huge cloud of sound from the entire ensemble. The music became more rhythmic for a bit and then everyone hit one big chord.

For the next couple of pieces, vocalist Loren Benedict joined the group. After an intro with ponderous piano and then a funky rhythm, Benedict launched into an impressive stream of fast highly rhythmic scat singing. The other musicians joined in the rhythm with him. Rent Romus also had a particularly crazy double-sax solo in this piece.

One of the last pieces was softer and did not have as intense a rhythm. The guitar and viola were rather bluesy and were joined by Tom Djll with extended-technique trumpet noises. Hammond’s hard-driving guitar and minor chords combined with the others made this the ensemble’s “Miles Davis Moment” (with apologies to Raskin and Haryman from the Sonic Poetry Night). Benedict came back and joined the group for a big finale.

This was once again a long concert, but it went by rather fast given the energy and vitality of the music. It was a very strong final concert in what was a particular strong Outsound Music Summit this year.