May 9 at Bluesix: Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky and Sqwonk

Last Saturday, I went with friends to the Bluesix Acoustic Room. As the name suggests, this small venue in the Mission District of San Francisco presents acoustic acts. I have seen several interesting shows here, including some experimental ensembles, dance and avant-garde jazz. This show tended towards the latter, with Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky ensemble and special guests Sqwonk.

Sqwonk are a bass clarinet duo consisting of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle. By their own admittance, there is not much of a repertoire for two bass clarinets. But they were able to put together a full set of composed pieces, including one by Novik. Much of their performance was quite harmonic and consonant, including power chords (check out the selection on their MySpace for an example). But there were also interesting microtones and multiphonics that one can do on a clarinet. They also played with the effects of playing unison or near unison or similar lines out of phase. Towards the end, things got quite loud (especially for such a small space as Bluesix), demonstrating the power of these instruments. I am quite partial to the clarinet family, having played the instrument in my youth and composed for Bb and bass clarinet quartet.

Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky began their set with bass and light percussion – drummer Jamie Moore definitely has a very light touch that several of us noticed and remarked upon. The bass and percussion were matched by Novik’s bass clarinet key clicks, and eventually by the strings. The odd-time rhythms and phrases of the first two pieces had a strong roll and undulation that was easy to get lost in. There were other moments throughout the set that caught my attention, such as the unisons between different the bass clarinet, violin and accordion, and a bass solo with ethereal accordion tones. A rhythmic moment where the ensemble switched from their syncopated rhythms into a straight swing. There were sections that evoked classical and dramatic music of the 19th century, and some softer “show-tune-like” harmonies. The set ended with what Novik described as their “metal project” – it actually sounded quite familiar, and made me recall that I had seen them at Bluesix before.