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.

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.

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.

Fred Frith Trio, IMA and Watkins / Peacock at Starline Social Club, Oakland

Today we look back at the December show at the Starline Social Club featuring the Fred Frith Trio, IMA, and Watkins / Peacock. It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

In addition to giving a great interview, Zachary Watkins performed a great set with collaborator Ross Peacock, featuring a large array of electronic gear, with interesting rhythms, harmonies, and timbres throughout. The largely improvised set included several patterns and patches from Watkins as well as solo work by Peacock on a vintage Korg MS-20.

Wakins and Peacock

IMA, the duo of Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie Aprille Tang (aka Amma Ateria) provided a very different sound and style combining percussion and electronics.

The timbres of Nava Dunkelman’s percussion and Tang’s electronics complement each other, with the electronics weaving between the frequency ranges and timbres of the percussion. This worked especially well with the metallic sounds. Having played together as a unit for a while now, IMA’s improvised sounds have a tight structure and narrative quality.

Then it was time for the Fred Frith Trio to take the stage. In addition to Frith, the trio features Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums.

Like IMA, the trio locked in even in more free-form improvised sections to maintain a rhythmic and virtuosic quality. They have developed a musical language among the three of them that allows them to converse and also listen during “monologues”, like Frith’s solos or Hoopes’ dramatic bass patterns.

We had a great time at this show – the Starline is a good place to see live music. The stage lighting was almost a performer in its own right, constantly changing and adapting to the music. The fog could have been a bit lighter, though.

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.

Outsound & VAMP Present A Holiday Pop-Up Benefit Show

Recently, John Lee, the creator of bayimproviser.com donated a portion of his extensive record collection to Outsound. And our friends at VAMP are helping us sell them to fund our continuing mission of promoting new music in the Bay Area and beyond. To launch this effort, Outsound held a benefit concert at VAMP on December 1.

I performed a solo set with my trusty Nord Stage EX, modular synth, and Casio SK-1.

Amanda Chaudhary setup for show with Nord and modular

As with most of my current solo performances, I try to combine both idiomatic jazz and funk elements with more experimental electronics. I opened with White Wine (instrumental) with the extended solo section morphing into a more free-form electro-acoustic improvisation that also included the garrahand drum. It moved from sections of disco and bossa nova rhythms to noise to complex harmonies from the drum and Make Noise Echopon module. It was a fun set with an appreciative audience of both attendees and record-store patrons.

Amanda Chaudhary

After my set, Tri-Cornered Tent Show took stage. Anchored by bandleader Philip Everett on clarinet and electronics and Ray Schaeffer on bass, the band explored a variety of sounds and styles from noisy electronics and percussion to R&B grooves to psychedelic serenades featuring Valentina O on vocals. Anthony Flores rounded out the band on drums.

Tri-Cornered Tent Show

It was interesting to see how both sets explored the intersection of avant-garde electronic and acoustic sounds with more familiar idioms. Soul, funk, and R&B were present in both sets, but then we each veered off in different directions. Between us, we might have covered many of the genres in VAMP’s record bins!

It was a fine night of music and fellowship, and it’s great to see an independent (and idiosyncratic) store like VAMP flourishing in downtown Oakland. You can find out more about them here. And please visit Outsound’s website to find out about upcoming programs and how you can help support our work bring new music to our community.

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.

Serena Toxicat and #OaklandCatFashionWeek

Today we look back at the recent art and fashion show featuring the work of Serena Toxicat. I was fortunate to be a part of this show as a model, and it was featured in Episode 9 of CatSynth TV.

Serena Toxicat is a multi-disciplinary artist, working as a writer, visual artist, musician, and now a fashion designer – longtime readers may recognize her via our reviews of her band Protea. Her paintings were featured on the walls of Farley’s East in Oakland as the fashion show took place in the lobby. She also had her music, books, and cat-themed tarot cards on hand.

One sees themes that repeat throughout her work in various media. There are of course the cats – I particularly liked the painting featuring manuls or Pallas cats – and felines reminiscent of Egyptian iconography. But there are themes running through as well with the bright high-contrast colors and dreamlike arrangements of forms. The feline, color, whimsy and spiritual dimensions are all of a piece and come together in her life experience as well as her outward creativity.


[Photo from @serenatoxicat on Instagram]

The show itself was a fun experience. Each of us modeled two looks over the course of the evening, with more formal runway-style processions interspersed with more freeform dance sections.

A good time was had by all.

In addition to Serena and myself, the models included Ariel McEtchin, Gina Ghorbani, Charlena Verrette, Kristine Katalyst, Maya Imani, Sam Isis, and Jessa Nico.

Although the art show is now over, you can see and learn more about Serena Toxicat’s work via her Facebook page.

Pet the Tiger in Golden Gate Park

Today we look back at the recent performance by Pet the Tiger invented instrument collective in Golden Gate Park. It was part of a series hosted by Dan Gottwald featuring invented-instrument performances in the tunnel near the Conservatory of Flowers. You can see and hear excerpts from the concert this CatSynth TV video.

The centerpiece of the performance was the harmonic-series gamelan, a set of instruments that employ tuning based exclusively on the harmonic series. This leads to just-intonation relationships among pitches, but not necessarily those of conventional Western twelve-tone music. The results are haunting and exquisite. This is especially true of the 5-octave metallophone demonstrated by David Samas in the video, and played by Samas and others in the concert.

There was also a large kalimba-like instrument performed primarily by Samas and Derek Drudge, and a large instrument created and played by Bart Hopkin.

In addition to the metallophones, there were various wind instruments. Peter Whitehead played an instrument that resembled a longitudinal bass flute, and whirling tubes, all of which also conformed to the harmonic series.

There was also a stringed instrument performed by Ian Saxton.

Harmonic series relationships are well known to be very pleasant to the ear, and there was an overall pleasing tone to the music, amplified by the acoustic properties of the tunnel, the lighting and the fellowship of performers and audience. In addition to the long meditative pieces, there were sections combining music with anxious dystopian poetry, and even a rendition of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Overall, it was a lovely and poignant evening, with the light show from the Conservatory of Flowers in the distance and a warm friendly atmosphere in the tunnel that mitigated the approaching chill of the night in Golden Gate Park. The series is over for the season, but we do expect to hear more of Pet the Tiger and these inventor-musicians in the near future.