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.

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.

Scott Amendola’s Orchestra di Pazzi at Slim’s, San Francisco

Our first music report of the year features the final show we saw in 2017. Scott Amendola assembled a cast of seasoned improvisers for a concert at Slim’s in San Francisco that took us on quite a journey over two full-length sets. It was the subject of our last CatSynth TV.

As one can hear in the video, there were a variety of textures throughout the two sets. My favorites were the forceful rhythmic sections, some of which came at the very start of the performance. There were also quite a few “operatic” segments that featured the voice of Pamela Z, who was also manipulating samples through various electronic processes. Aurora Josephson’s vocals provided a counterpoint with different timbres and style.

Aurora Josephson and Pamela Z

The ensemble includes three electric guitars (Henry Kaiser, John Schott, and Fred Frith) and three percussionists (Jordan Glenn, Robert Lopez, William Winant). As we have often remarked, doubling and tripling of such powerful instruments can be treacherous, especially in an improvised setting. But it worked here, as everyone had a distinct sound, and the good sense to always listen and lay out when appropriate. In fact, to my ears the music, especially during the more operatic less rhythmic sections, was dominated by the concert string section, consisting of Christina Stanley and Alisa Rose on violin, Crystal Pascucci on cello, Zach Ostroff on string bass, and Soo-Yeon Lyuh on haegeum. At various points, Mark Clifford cut through the harmonies and timbres on the ensemble with frenetic solos on vibraphone.

 Crystal Pascucci

The ensemble was rounded out with the wind section, which included the entire Rova Saxophone Quartet: Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin. I felt like I didn’t hear as much of a distinct voice from the saxophones as I did from the other sections, but that was perhaps because they blended with the violins and cello.

In all, it was a fine night of music to wrap up the year. As we often do at Slim’s, we enjoyed the concert from the balcony over dinner and drinks, but we also had the chance to mingle with our many friends in the ensemble and the audience. We look forward to more music from everyone in their own projects in 2018.

Base 4 and the Bay Area Improvising Tag Team Ensemble

Despite being extremely tired from a major event as well as a rehearsal this past weekend, I did manage to catch a performance of jazz and improvisational antics at Berkeley Arts this Sunday evening. The evening opened with Base 4, a jazz trio featuring Bruce Friedman on trumpet, Derek Bomback on guitar, and Alan Cook on drums and percussion.

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They performed very abstract versions of standards, including Afro Blue and Solar, two favorites of mine. There was also free improvisation and some lesser-known compositions. It was a technically strong performance, a full of creative details.

Then we switched rooms for a completely different experience with the “Bay Area Improvising Tag Team Ensemble.” Not really an ensemble, this cast of characters assembled by Moe! Staiano performed free improvisation “refereed” by Gino Robair. Basically, performers were given signals of when to start and stop, and could within that context tag one another to play together and switch instruments. There were, however, penalties that could be levied against performers. A penalty meant holding a can of motor oil and not playing until it lapsed or another penalty was committed.

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As with sporting events, one could find disagreement with the referee. In this case, I strongly disagreed with Gino’s giving Polly Moller a penalty for using a wah-wah pedal. We at CatSynth approve of wah-wah pedals.

Here are some other scenes from the evening’s performance. We begin with Matt Davignon on turntable and Moe! Staiano on drums.

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Bandmates Polly Moller (Reconnaissance Fly) and Melne Murphy (Surplus 1980).

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Mark Clifford and Kyle Bruckmann. Mark does not usually play bass.

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Brian Tester and Yacob Roli Glowniss.

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Rounding out the ensemble for the evening were Dominique LeoneJacob Felix HeuleJason Hoopes, and others who I have missed.

Overall it was a lot of fun to watch, especially when things got more rhythmical or when a penalty was eminent. The performers who I talked to seem to have a lot of fun as well.