Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater, Berkeley

It’s been a wonderfully musical couple of weeks for us at CatSynth. Two days in the recording studio, our recent performance…and all of this bookended by concerts featuring our musical heroes. Today we visit the first of those concerts featuring Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.

Those who have been longtime readers of this site or familiar with some of my recent music will recognize the tremendous influence of Herbie Hancock, especially his Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands of the 1970s. For a concert in 2019, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But from the moment the maestro took the stage, I was not disappointed.

Together with his current band – Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin on horns and keyboard – he revisited many of the old classics, but with new twists. Some, like Chameleon and Cantelope Island, pretty much followed their classic forms and were a delight. Others, like Butterfly and Sunlight were quoted more subtly or obliquely, teasing us a bit through solos, chord changes, and excursions before landing on the tune’s head just long enough of us to recognize it and use it as a point of departure for the next section. This is something that we have heard Wayne Shorter do in his more recent performances as well – just enough of a hint of the original tune for us to notice before departing into new musical territory. It was pretty much everything I would hope for from this concert.

The music that I so love and admire (and try to play) but not as a museum or conservatory piece but as something dynamic and vital. He did a full rendition of Actual Proof, complete with introductory description – this piece is perhaps one of my favorites of his, in part because it is so rhythmically confounding – it is in 4/4 but the way the main riff spreads over bars, it can be hard to tell where the measures begin and end. I also enjoyed how he broke out the keytar and the vocoder from the late 1970s in several songs.

It wasn’t all updates on old favorites, as there was newer material as well. And he remains a consummate showman, giving his personal energy back to the crowd. Towards the end of the set, he led all of us in a wave while beaming from ear to ear – this then served as the introduction to a final encore jam of Chameleon where Kamasi Washington and others joined him on stage.

Kamasi Washington’s own set was also full of energy and complex music – perhaps a bit overshadowed for me by Herbie, but still a favorite of the crowd many of whom were sporting Washington’s t-shirts. He had an interesting band with two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr) and Cameron Graves on keyboard/synth. Rounding out the band was Ryan Porter on the trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, and Miles Mosley on bass. Perhaps the most touching moment was when Washington’s father, Rickey Washington, came out to join the band on soprano saxophone.

The opening set featured Robert Glasper and his band. A local favorite, his music weaved together elements of jazz with hip-hop. Centered around Glasper on keyboards, his group brought together different elements such as upright bass and turntable.

Overall, the show taken as a whole was one of the best live concerts I have seen in a while, which each group building on the foundation set by its predecessor, culminating in Herbie Hancock’s musical odyssey (there was, however, no Arp Odyssey this time). Even as an even chill settled into the Greek Theater during his set, I barely noticed. As as I practiced for my own music the coming week, I couldn’t help but notice myself doing more of those chromatically rising fast runs that are so characteristic of his solos. It’s not copying, but rather influence and tribute – a subject for another article at another time.

CatSynth Video: Cat on a Piano

Cute cat sitting behind the keys of a piano and clearly enjoying the jazz/bluey music. Via Classic FM on Facebook.

This piano is purrfect ūüėĽ

We at CatSynth agree. And for anyone who protests that a piano is not a synth: yes, this is true, but we recommend just chilling and enjoying the music like this cat.

CatSynth Pic: Jazz in the Studio

Meet Jazz the cat, who presides over a studio with Roland AIRA, Elektron, and modular synthesizers. From Border One on Instagram.

In the #studio with #jazzthecat

Rova Saxophone Quartet and Life’s Blood Trio at VAMP, Oakland

As 2018 draws to a close, we look back a recent show we saw at VAMP (vintage – art and music – for the people) in Oakland. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV.

As one can see at the start of the video, it was pouring rain that night. And it did not let up for the entire evening. But that did not stop an intrepid collection of music lovers from settling into VAMP’s small and quirky space to hear two great ensembles.

Rova Saxophone Quartet

The venerable Rova¬†Saxophone¬†Quartet have been performing together for 40 years, so it’s not surprising that they have coalesced into a sound all their own. Each of the four members, Bruce¬†Ackley, Steve¬†Adams, Larry¬†Ochs, and Jon¬†Raskin, have their own character, but as a group they function as one instrument. This is true even during fast runs, as they did in the latter half of the set, and when various members drop out or “solo” for a section.

Life's Blood Trio

Rounding out the evening was the Life’s¬†Blood¬†Trio, led by Rent¬†Romus (saxophones) and featuring Safa¬†Shokrai on upright bass and Timothy¬†Orr on drums. This is a version of the larger Life’s Blood Ensemble pared down to its essentials. But there is still a rich and full sound in the spartan setting, with the three members filling the full harmonic and textural space. Romus’ performance is always expressive and frenetic, filled with emotion. Shokrai played an amazing extended bass solo. Orr kept things grounded, including during a solo of his own.

VAMP is a bit of a performance in an of itself, with its odd collection of items for sale and a record collection that requires one to sift through and look for surprises. They’ve been holding on, even as Oakland changes in myriad ways. We look forward to seeing more music there – and perhaps playing there again – in 2019

Vacuum Tree Head and Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN

Today we look back at the show featuring Vacuum Tree Head and the Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN in Oakland. It was also the subject of our most recent episode of CatSynth TV. 

This was the most ambitious Vacuum Tree Head show to date, at least during the time I have been involved in the band.  There were ten musicians involved: Jason Berry conducting, Steve Adams (of ROVA fame) on baritone saxophone, Jason Bellenkes on various woodwinds, Amanda Chaudhary on keyboard, Richard Corny on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synth, Justin Markovits on drums, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, Amy X Neuburg on voice and blippo box, and John Shiurba on bass. 

Vacuum Tree Head.  Photo by Crystal Lee

The band delivered an impressive and truly dynamic performance, going through a diverse mix of styles from our current repertoire.  And that fact that the core of the lineup has stabilized means that the tunes are always getting tighter and more idiomatic, especially our “big” numbers Nubdug and EMS Deluxe – I always have a lot of fun in the latter with a big 1970s style electric-piano solo.  But this set was more than just music – it continued the band’s pattern of adding new spectacle at each show.  This time, we had a juggler, Colin Hogan, and my friend and frequent collaborator Serena Toxicat held up signs for audience participation.  The juggling was a unique moment, with Hogan tossing lighted beanbags and other objects as we played a new version of the tune Marlon Brando

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing, as I’m pretty sure the entire band did.  And we got a great response from the audience at The UPTOWN.  Next, it was time for the Moe Staiano Ensemble to take the stage.

Moe Staiano Ensemble

This was also an ambitious set, building on Moe’s previous ideas but with an even larger ensemble of guitars:  Jay Korber, William Bohrer, Melne Murphy, Damon Wood, Robin Walsh, Drew Wheeler, Bill Wolter, John Shiurba, Josh Pollock, David James, Marc Zollinger, and Karl Evangelista.  That, my friends, is a lot of guitars!  But they were also joined by Steve Lew on bass and Jeff Lievers on drums.

Moe’s large scale composition followed a classical form of three movements: a loud opening fanfare, a calm and moody second movement, and amore dynamic finale.  It featured many of the idiomatic elements I have come to know and appreciate in his compositions from my time playing in Surplus 1980, including the repetitions coming in and out of phase.  During the first movement, there was a driving eight-note patterns with phasing that created an intense but pointillated wall of sound.  The second movement, which contained slower notes and lots of open space, was exceptionally beautiful, and my favorite part of the performance.  You can hear some of it in our video.

It was a wonderful night of music in Oakland, and I was happy to be a part of it both as a performance and an audience member.  There was a fairly decent turnout, especially for a Tuesday.  It’s not every day you can get this cast of musicians on a stage at once, as both groups did, but I look forward to the next time they do.

David Pate & Steve Cohn / Manul Override / Ornettology at the Make-Out Room

As we busily prepare for the next Vacuum Tree Head show this coming Tuesday, I find myself looking back at my last show with a very different band, Manul Override earlier this month at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode.

The evening began with an improvised set featuring saxophonist David Pate with keyboardist Steve Cohn.

Then it was time for Manul Override’s debut show.  This was a new group I put together with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat on voice and former Surplus-1980 bandmate Melne on guitar.

We had a lot of fun on stage, and the energy spread to the audience, with dancing and meowing all around (all of our tunes had at least some connection to cats).  I was particularly happy with the opening incantation, which featured a French rendition of Serena’s ode to the goddess Bast, and our 1980s-pop-style tune “Goodnigobbles”, which also featured Serena seductively delivering lyrics and spoken words in French.  Melne had a chance to show her versatility throughout the set, including our extended funky jam in the middle of the set.  As with all new musical projects, this is a work in progress, figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t, and how to make each show better than the previous one.  But it was also fun visually, with our fashion statements, cat ears, and Melne’s lighting.

The final set featured Ornettology, a project led by guitarist and composer Myles Boisen.  As the name suggests, the group is inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and reimagines many of his compositions.   He was joined by a stellar cast of local musicians including Steve Adams and Phillip Greenlief on saxophones, John Haines on drums, Safa Shokrai on bass, and John Finkbeiner.

The band delivered a truly dynamic performance that featured some of Ornette Coleman’s more familiar tunes, including “Ramblin'” and “Mob Job” There were some great solos from each of the members of the group as well.  You can hear some of Philip Greenlief and Myles Boisen soloing in our video.

The last few shows I have played at the Make-Out room always have a great audience – full houses that seem to appreciate having live music, whether they came to hear the specific artists or just happened to drop by.  A few in the latter category seemed to quite enjoy our Manul-Override set, signing Serena’s leg cast (she had an unfortunate accident a couple of weeks before the show) and taking selfies with us.  It was a fun night of music all aroundl.

Weekend Cat Blogging with Marlon…and Sophia

Today we visit with our feline friends in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland.¬† First up is Marlon, formerly known as “Fluffy.”

Despite living outdoors, he is healthy and well-fed, and clearly has a past that includes life as a pet cat.¬† He loves people and didn’t need much convincing to spend time indoors.¬† Indeed, he is living it up with his indoor time, getting food and scritches and soft blankets to relax on.

He is a big fellow but has a tiny voice that sounds more like “merp” than “meow”.¬† I don’t yet have any video of his vocals, but you can see him thoroughly enjoying himself in this Instagram video with the music of John Schott playing in the background.

You can hear more of John Schott and his Actual Trio in this CatSynth TV video.¬† In the meantime, let’s check in with Sophia, formerly known as “Hissy.”

As one can see in this photo, she is a beautiful cat, with Siamese-like markings and a graceful bearing.  We think she might have once been a pet as well, but she is still extremely skittish around people.  I mostly just get a glimpse of her from a distance and she runs off at any attempts to get closer.  But she usually remains hidden nearby when Marlon is around.  The two of them seem to have a special bond, despite their divergent attitudes towards humans.

We hope all our human and feline friends have a lovely weekend.

Outsound New Music Summit: Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass, KREation Ensemble with Marilyn Crispell

For the final night of the Outsound New Music Summit, we invited two jazz legends to collaborate with noted local musicians. Each of them has performed and recorded with a whos-who of jazz in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Sometimes such collaborations can go awry in practice, but we at CatSynth are happy to say that both were a resounding success.

Bobby Bradford¬†has had a long career as cornet player and composer who enjoyed long collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Carter.¬† He has taught multiple generations of musicians, including¬†Bill Noertker, who invited Bradford to lead a project for this year’s summit.¬† The cornetist and bassist teamed up with cornetist¬†Theo Padouvas and bassist Scott Walton to form¬†Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass.


[Photo by Michael Zelner]

The performance focused on Bradford’s compositions, but as in any good jazz setting, each of the musicians brought their own creativity to the set.¬† The instrumentation makes for a sparse texture, with each member of the group having to perform multiple duties on melody, harmony, and rhythm.¬† But the result is an unusual sound.¬† Bradford’s cornet led the way, with Padouvas filling in some of the space with fast runs and other sounds.¬† Noertker and Walton took turns on the rhythm at times but also worked together as a unit.¬† They also doubled as additional melodic instruments in the group.¬† One memorable moment featured Noertker playing long bowed harmonics atop Walton’s back-and-forth plucked bass notes.¬† There was a ballad with Bradford and Padouvas playing nearly the same line what seemed like a different scale and harmony to the basses, resulting in a very haunting effect.¬† Another faster tune was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman in the 1960s (i.e., before the Prime Time era).

Bobby Bradford
[Photo by Michael Zelner]

As Bradford is perhaps best known as a sideman and a teacher, it was great to see him lead the band with his own music on this occasion. The group did end with a more open improvisation, which Bradford himself admitted he wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out.¬† It was short and sweet, with the musicians bouncing off one another but not overstaying their moments.¬† Overall, I thought this group had a fine debut, and it will be interesting to see if they play together again, perhaps in Bradford’s home turf of Southern California.

The second set brought together pianist¬†Marilyn Crispell with¬†Kevin Robinson’s KREation Ensemble that also included¬†Lee Hodel on bass and¬†Tony Gennaro on percussion.

KREation Ensemble

On the surface, this coming together would seem to be a more traditional jazz quartet, but Gennaro had an unusual percussion kit with a variety of hand drums, bells, and more.¬† Indeed, there were times it seemed all four musicians were playing melody lines.¬† And there was a lot of open space, with Robinson’s meditative poses acting as a fifth instrument.

Kevin Robinson

Robinson has a very sparse, detailed and contemplative style of playing, even when he was playing faster sections.¬† This contrasted with Crispell’s frenetic runs on the piano.¬† Hodel was able to match her with percussive notes on the bass.¬† I really liked the way the two of them interplayed.¬† I found myself re-focusing throughout on Crispell to see what she would do next.¬† There was something clever, even mischievous, about her playing, even when it was darker long chords.

Marilyn Crispell

The ever-changing style and energy throughout the set make sense in the context of the work being premiered.¬† As stated in the program, “Through the Twisting Prisms¬†is a collection of intervallic, rhythmic, harmonic labyrinths and mazes that explore ideas convergence, expansion, contraction, and meditation.”

Together, the two sets made a fine conclusion to this year’s Outsound Summit.¬† And we had a full house at the Community Music Center, even in the balcony.¬† We finish exhausted but satisfied at a job well done and a great week of music brought to life.

 

 

Outsound New Music Summit: CDP and Dire Wolves

While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band¬†CDP.¬† We shared the bill with¬†Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.

I often get asked what “CDP” stands for.¬† And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino.¬† That’s me on keyboard and vocoder,¬†Tom Djll¬†(synthesizers), and¬†Mark Pino¬†(drums).¬†¬†Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone.¬† As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.

CDP at the Outsound New Music Summit

We had five tunes for this concert.¬† Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including¬†White Wine,¬†North Berkeley BART, and our newest song,¬†Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia).¬†¬†Marlon Brando¬†and¬†Konflict Mensch rounded out the set.¬† Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out.¬† Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s¬†Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in.¬† The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.

Amanda Chaudhary and Joshua Marshall, CDPWe got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section.  From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser).  Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience.  Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll.  Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.

Tom Djll's synth

The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well Рin some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics Рthough there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band.   I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.

You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.

For the second set, Dire Wolves brought a completely different energy to the stage.  Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.

Dire Wolves

[Photo by Michael Zelner]

There was a sparseness to the music, with¬†Jeffrey Alexander¬†(guitar + winds),¬†Sheila Bosco¬†(drums),¬†Brian Lucas¬†(bass) and¬†Arjun Mendiratta¬†(violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape.¬† Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic.¬† Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.

Jeffrey Alexander Sheila Bosco

[Photos by Michael Zelner]

My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance.¬† Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup.¬† But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.

Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable.¬† And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set.¬† We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.

Outsound New Music Summit: Rubber City and Ralph Carney Memorial Octet

Last Thursday night at the Outsound New Music Summit, musicians and music lovers came together to celebrate the life and legacy of one of our own, Ralph Carney.  He was a fixture of the Bay Area new-music scene who could be spotted performing in many groups and venues, and he also enjoyed success and notoriety in popular music with Tom Waits, the B-52s, and others.  He is also one of the most infamously colorful characters in the scene.  He passed away suddenly at the end of 2017 in an accident, leaving many both shocked and saddened.  This tribute concert featured a performance by Rubber City, of which Ralph was a member, and a memorial ensemble featuring local musicians who performed his compositions.

In the week leading up the concert, we had the chance to speak with¬†David Slusser of Rubber City and¬†Phillip Greenlief, who arranged Carney’s music for the memorial ensemble.¬† You can hear from them in these videos.

Rubber City opened the evening with a rendition of Beautiful Ohio, sounding much like they did in the video.  It was a fitting opening as Slusser, Carney, and drummer Chris Ackerman were all Ohio expatriates.  They were joined by bassist Richard Saunders and reedist Sheldon Brown.

The second piece, a rather bluesy tune, also evoked their Ohio origins and gave Saunders and Brown a chance to shine in solos.  The next was much darker and more atonal/arhythmic in nature but still had a very playful quality to it.  Another featured Slusser and Brown both playing soprano saxophone at the same time, a rare combination!  For the last piece, they set aside the saxophones for bass clarinet and flute.

David Slusser on flute

Even during moments of seriousness, there was a lot of fun and energy in the music, which was fitting for the artists on stage as well as the one they were paying tribute to.  It was a tremendous performance overall, and one I am not likely to hear repeated soon.

Slusser, Brown, and Saunders returned in the second set for the memorial “octet” that actually had nine members.¬† They were joined by Phillip Greenlief and Rent Romus on saxophones, Suki O’kane on drums, Myles Boisen on guitar, and Karina Denike and Michael McIntosh from Carney’s “Serious Jass Project.”¬† The performance was dominated by the horns in what I dubbed the “wall of saxophone.”

Wall of saxophone

The group began on a somber note with Carney’s¬†Lament for Charleston, written shortly after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.¬† But even this dark piece had exuberance and could not fully contain the energy of the large group.¬† From there, they continued on a rollicking trip through Carney’s compositions, including his oddball marches and an old-timey song about driving down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles that was sung by Greenlief with great effect.

In keeping with Ralph Carney’s wide-ranging¬†musical interests, there were a number of vintage jazz-style and mid-century tunes complete with swaying horn-section choreography.¬† Karina Denike’s singing and vintage presentation added to the overall effect and classic style of the performance.

Many of us were simply caught up in the joy of the music and the celebration.¬† Upon reflection, one realizes how different this was from the typical Outsound set with its references to swing, bebop, and early rock-and-roll.¬† But there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I have long professed that “new” and “experimental” musicians should not feature traditional idioms and structures in their music.¬† This was an unequivocally great show, and the fact that it was on the Outsound stage was all the better.

Both bands played to a full and very appreciative house.  Throughout the evening, on stage and in the audience, people shared their memories of seeing Ralph play or performing with him, and how much he is missed.   I am confident that he would have loved our musical tribute and celebration, though he probably would have expressed his appreciation in an appropriately dry and confounding way.