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.

Outsound New Music Summit: The Breath Courses Through Us

This past Monday, the Outsound New Music Summit featured a screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary by Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet.  From the Outsound Summit website:

The Breath Courses Through Us” (2013) is a documentary film about the early 1960s avant-garde jazz group, the New York Art Quartet. The film focuses on the group’s 35-year reunion, while reaching back through their recollections of their foundations and innovative musical ideas. The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of this group, and a revolutionary period in jazz music, which declared its existence in the October Revolution in Jazz, in October 1964. “The Breath Courses Through Us” mirrors the newly open improvisationary style of “free jazz” that subverted the traditional structure of jazz. Unfolding in free time and enveloped in their music, the film helps the viewer better understand the human element of the creative process, by focusing on their interactions in the present.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

Musically, it connects the current scene of free and avant-garde jazz to the creative foment of 1960s New York.  We hear from the founding members: John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and Milford Graves, along with one of the original bassists Reggie Workman and poet Amiri Baraka.  The five reunited for the early 2000s concerts as well as the documentary.  We get to hear their distinct personalities.  Tchicai brings a serious and brooding discipline, Rudd an exuberance and enthusiasm for playing, and Graves his quirky and humorous character. Workman was one of three bassists that performed with the group during its brief existence in 1964 and 1965; Baraka often read poems to the quartet’s improvisations, including his famous “Black Dada Nihilismus”, parts of which are included in the documentary.  It seemed like an improbable coming together that depended on a series of coincidences and connections, but together they informed a style and practice of music that was “revolutionary” in its time, and still in many ways sounds fresh.

Although the documentary has been out for a few years now, this was its first public screening on the west coast.  Hopefully, this will lead to future screenings.  Even immersed as I have been in the music influenced by the New York Art Quartet, I was not as familiar with them as I should be.  I think it will be a valuable experience for those who perform and listen to free jazz, as well as though who are new to it.

More information on the film, including screenings, can be found at the official website.

Outsound Benefit Dinner with the Actual Trio

We are just a few weeks away from the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit!  And as always, we kick off the countdown with the annual benefit dinner featuring live creative music by local artists.  This year we were pleased to have Actual Trio perform.

Actual Trio is led by composer and virtuoso guitarist John Schott and features John Hanes on drums and Dan Seamans on upright bass.  To simply label them as a “contemporary jazz trio” would be a disservice to all three musicians, who bring a wide range of compositional and performance experiences to this group.  Their music ranges from laid-back grooves to fast frenetic runs to sparse percussive punctuated passages.  Overall, they delivered a highly dynamic performance that was well received by all in attendance.  You can hear a bit of it in our recent CatSynth TV video.

As Schott states in the video, there is something special about the trio format.  Trios are three-legged stools which depend on the contributions of each member and their ability to listen and perform together.  But it is still relatively sparse and spare compared to larger ensembles.  Actual Trio has a very small toolset of drums, bass and guitar (although Schott brought quite a few bits of vintage and modern electronics along as well).  But they get a lot out of what they have.  Schott and Hanes function together as a rhythmic and melodic unit, and they seemed to be able to finish each others lines, whether fast runs or vamps.  Seamans brought a melodic sensibility to his bass performance even while providing a solid foundation for the music.  And they were just fun to watch and listen to.


[Vintage amp and spring reverb units used by John Schott]

The Outsound Benefit Dinner is a “thank you” of sorts to our core supporters in the community – an instance of the time-honored tradition of plying supporters and donors with food, drink and entertainment.   All in attendance enjoyed the performance by Actual Trio and the food provided by Slippery Fish Catering.  But this year, Outsound owes an even greater debt of gratitude to its individual donors and supporters as grants for small arts and music groups becomes even harder to come by than it has in the past.  But we are looking forward to another excellent summit this year.  Please visit the website for tickets and to find out more about the shows, which take place at the Community Music Center in San Francisco from July 22 through July 28, 2018.

RIP Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018)

We learned yesterday of the passing of another of our musical heroes, Cecil Taylor.

This segment of solo piano demonstrates how his playing is incredibly complex but remains thoroughly musical.   The fast runs contain a unique contrapuntal language.  And more importantly, there is phrasing, contour, and emotion that unifies the performance.  Taylor had an uncanny ability to combine European classical tradition, jazz, and other African American influences into a unique musical language that he dubbed “black methodology”.  This quote from poet and critic A. B. Spellman, included in the official New York Times obituary, sums it up well.

“There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”

 

It is hard for me not to compare Taylor with another contemporary of his, Ornette Coleman, who passed away in 2015.  Coleman is one of my favorites – Taylor takes the level of complexity to another level.  Both remain huge influences.  We leave you with this recording of “Calling It the 9th”.

 

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.

Ornette Coleman Birthday Tribute

Today is the birthday of the great Ornette Coleman.  In tribute, we are reposting this comic by J.B.

 

 

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.

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.

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.