Archive for the ‘Avant-Garde’ Category

Two shows in one night, my brain hurts

Monday, February 12th, 2007

Had a first last night, a concert doubleheader in which I saw the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble (a seven-piece group led by Ken Fields of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic) at the Kennedy Center at 6pm, and then went over to Twins Jazz for a show by Rova Saxophone Quartet at 8pm. Talk about a study in contrasts! The former group plays accessible New Orleans-style jazz, danceable in a highly rhythmic kind of way, with four horns, two drummers and a bassist; the latter plays very intricate and demanding not-really-jazz-at-all sans any rhythm section whatsoever.

Ken Fields’ group was a lot of fun, and one of the best-attended Millennium Stage shows I’ve seen (that wasn’t held in a larger space, like the Jaivas or Tord Gustavsen shows were). Decked out in absurd costume, they played an intriguing mix of original compositions and covers of New Orleans standards and pieces by free-jazz icons like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. These latter pieces were reshaped through a New Orleans lens to such an extent that I wouldn’t have guessed their origins at all had Fields not introduced them. Everything was very accessible, with only a few slightly strident solos here and there to break up the onslaught of danceable rhythm. Fun, if not especially challenging — my biggest problem was that Fields’ sax seemed very much under-mixed, giving his solos a bit of a wheezy feel. You should be able to view a video of the full performance at the Millennium Stage archive.

Rova’s sets, on the other hand, were nothing if not challenging. Their show was the polar opposite of the accessible Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, not to mention the visceral fist-pumping free jazz of the last show I saw at Twins Jazz, Atomic. For me this was a purely intellectual exercise, and one for which my mind was sadly overmatched. I just couldn’t make sense of most of the compositions that were played — although I didn’t feel so bad about this after Steve Adams held up the score for one of the pieces and helpfully explained (and I paraphrase liberally), “these black and white parts are where we pretty much play what we think the markings mean; these color sections are where we do whatever the hell we want.” After this he replied to an audience inquiry and referred to “the beauty of randomness.” Maybe no one, not even the musicians, could really follow the structure of these pieces. Anyway, despite the over-my-head factor of the show, I quite enjoyed it. The first set in particular had a lot that caught my ear, and the interplay between these four is unbelievable, though hardly surprising since they’ve existed in their current form for nearly twenty years. There were a lot of places where a lone lyrical melody would rise out of the chaos, or where Jon Raskin would suddenly break out into a funky baritone line underpinning a raucous improv. I was most impressed, though, by Larry Ochs on tenor; his free blowing was often breathtaking.

The audience was appreciative and medium-sized, and both the band and Larry Appelbaum, who booked them, seemed fairly pleased with the turnout. It wasn’t the packed house of 80 for Atomic, but I’d guess some 40-50 paying customers showed up throughout the night. Their case may have been helped by this article (PDF, and sorry for the large file size) in Friday’s Washington Post. Not bad at all for a group whose music frequently flirts with the outer limits of the avant-garde.

Atomic @ Twins Jazz - what a great surprise!

Friday, February 9th, 2007

Atomic’s smart blend of avant jazz and edgy groove is the bomb,” said the sweet preview (PDF) in the Washington Post Express of Transparent Productions‘ first show of 2007. And while the Express is an odd publication with a Paris Hilton fetish and unpredictable musical tastes (though they did also write a great preview of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum show a couple years ago), well, they were spot-on here. Atomic are a Swedish/Norweigian quintet that play an energetic kind of avant-jazz that is somewhat free but is still grounded just enough in traditional jazz to be quite accessible. They played last night at Twins Jazz and, in short, put on one of the best shows I’ve seen in the past year (which is saying something).

The energy level was through the roof, and the fact that the small club was lively and pretty much completely full (about 80 people) had a lot to do with that. At the end of the show, saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist said the DC audience was the best audience of the tour so far, and I believe it — folks were really getting into it. In any case, the band certainly gave us a lot to be excited about: Ljungkvist in particular was absolutely on fire everytime he picked up his sax, bringing the roof down with several exhilirating solos. (He also played clarinet, but his work on that instrument was generally more subdued.) Also, I’ve heard drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on several recordings, but seeing him live was eye-opening: the guy was a total beast, filling up all kinds of space and consistently driving the band to higher and higher levels. Nilssen-Love may as well have been the namesake of this band: he was the nuclear power plant energizing the entire group.

The most astounding piece was something called “ABC 101 B,” an appropriate title for a stuttering monster of a composition that featured blindingly fast unison playing in confusingly dynamic time signatures. Those off-kilter unison lines are contrasted madly with slower, more lyrical sections, and then integrated smoothly into free improvisation — the horns interjecting quick lines into the rest of the band’s improvising, creating a fascinating kind of off-balance dialogue. In the fantasy genre of “RIO-jazz,” this song would be a prime representative.

Finally, one of the neat things about seeing this band was their visual element. A lot of their improvising was coordinated through visual cues, some obvious and some more subtle, which were fun to track. But more than that was just the obvious fact that they were really enjoying themselves, grinning at each other when things were clicking particularly well, even openly gaping at each others’ talents during especially strident solos. Nilssen-Love was the most expressive, often watching his bandmates carefully as they soloed; judging by his expressions, he was not just waiting for cues, but also at times figuring out exactly what the hell they were doing — looks of surprise, admiration, even mild confusion all rotated on his face.

In some ways Atomic reminded me of The Vandermark 5 in that both these bands find a great balance between traditional and free jazz. I’m getting to see the latter next Friday, and if they put on a show anywhere near as good as last night’s, I’ll be very happy indeed.

Henry Cow & Nelly Furtado (a natural combo)

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

For some reason I’ve been listening pretty nonstop to Henry Cow’s Concerts the past couple days (which means there will probably be a review coming soon — that it hasn’t yet been reviewed on this site is somewhat baffling). A favorite moment that just passed me by: some 11 minutes into the fabulous take of “Ruins,” Fred Frith’s ebullient guitar solo slowly stutters into the background, as if pushed backstage by Dagmar Krause as she begins singing wordlessly, imploringly. This stuff is sublime.

And now, since I know readers of this website are probably big fans of modern pop music:

Incongruously, the album that kept me awake on a recent long drive was something rather different — Nelly Furtado’s new one, Loose. I suppose this isn’t all that new anymore. In any case, it’s quite fascinating: the first few songs are pure club fodder, absolutely stinking of Timbaland (that sounds rather negative but isn’t meant to be), with all the lyrical nuance you would expect from songs called “Maneater” and “Promiscuous.” (Though the Steve Nash namedropping is kind of cute, or something. Hey, look! A fellow famous Canadian!) But then we get into some totally different stuff, like “No Hay Igual,” which combines your typical queasy Timbaland synth line with Latin percussion and insistently chanted vocals in Spanish. It’s actually pretty edgy stuff. This is followed by a song “featuring Juanes” that sounds more like a Juanes song than it does a Nelly Furtado song. And then, a little later, we get something that would totally be at home on a Kylie Minogue album: “Do It” is pure Euro dance-pop. Then there’s “In God’s Hands” which sounds more like Mandy Moore than anything else. Finally, there’s the triumphant closing song, an absolutely gorgeous slice of melancholy that is maybe the best pop ballad I have ever heard.

What is one to make of this? Furtado kind of carved out an identity for herself over her first two albums, but now she seems either totally directionless, or brilliantly unhinged, or maybe just a bit plagiaristic (even aside from the whole “Do It” controversy with Timbaland). Not only does Loose not sound anything like Whoa, Nelly! or Folklore, it also sounds nothing like itself, having absolutely no consistent sound. This isn’t necessarily so weird for some artists, but for a pure pop artist, it’s rather more surprising. I still haven’t decided if it’s a good thing or not. Or, for that matter, whether this album is any good or not.

ReR Megacorp in the spotlight at eMusic

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

Nice! On the front page of eMusic, today’s featured “eMusic dozen” (in which eMusic staff pick a theme and choose a dozen albums under that theme that are available for download, complete with descriptions of each) spotlights ReR Megacorp. Amidst the expected stuff like Henry Cow and Faust, there is plenty of stuff that I’m not really familiar with but may now end up checking out.

Maja Ratkje @ National Museum of Women in the Arts

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Today I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which I never knew existed until now, for a performance by Norweigian vocalist/composer/improvisor Maja Ratkje, alongside the accordion/sax/bass trio POING. I went with a friend who I found out has been involved in some “new music” ensembles and is probably the only person I know that I can invite to stuff like this.

Ratkje is probably most known for her electronic noise-improv with groups like Fe-mail, but here we were treated to her more “classical” ouevre — although none of what was played had much to do at all with canonical Western classicism. I went in to this not knowing at all what to expect, other than that Jeff Bagato had called it “an essential event” on various DC announcement lists. Also, a recent show in New York got a rave review on the avant-progressive list.

What we got at this show were five pieces of wide diversity. POING kicked things off with a Ratkje piece inspired by the fifth movement of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” This was followed by “Passing Images,” an extremely minimalistic piece originally composed for solo accordion, and a re-envisioning of an already re-envisioned Norgweigian folk tune. Silence was a fifth instrument in this piece, and the ensemble manipulated it masterfully to create a work that, even though it was slower than the slowest slowcore band, filled the venue with a palpable tension that had me riveted. It didn’t have the same effect on everyone though, as someone in the audience could be heard softly snoring as the piece came to a close. The above-linked review from avant-progressive describes this piece better than I could, so here’s the relevant excerpt:

Passing Images was written as a solo for accordionist Frode Haltli freely from Maja’s memory of his re-arrangement of a Norwegian folk tune, “as a remote echo of something that has already been treated and changed”. Here it is yet re-arranged for the entire trio plus the composer’s voice. Once again we have the sound of air in the bellows or through the brass tube of the sax, devoid of pitch, barely audible bass harmonics, long silences, dramatic interjections from the accordion, then Maja entering with a babble of sound poetry followed by long pure tones alternating with small mouth sounds made audible by amplification; a totally gripping piece of music. It put me in mind of some of the artists pursuing so called lowercase improvisation, using their instruments in ways which strip them of all their traditional expressive qualities. That this was a scored work rather than improvisation may or may not account for its greater emotional power. A version of Passing Images will appear on Frode’s CD slated for release on ECM in 2007.

The only piece these musicians performed that was not composed by Ratkje was a composition apparently written by Terry Riley for Sonny Rollins (???), but maybe I heard that wrong. This one was the most accessible, with a relatively approachable if constantly shifting rhythm. Closing out the set was a nearly 20-minute “overture” for an opera that Ratkje wrote, which involved some pretty nifty pre-recorded bits played back on three separate cassette players and featured Ratkje’s voice more prominently than the other compositions.

Worthy of mention are all of the individual players, who played with all sorts of unconventional techniques, many of them percussive (I’m surprised, in retrospect, that I had never seen anyone play a bass with a mallet before today). Ratkje’s vocals were like Iva Bittová on a bad acip trip: squeaking, muttering, yammering away in a style that reminded me very strongly of the kind of vocal improvisation that Emily Hay does on her album Like Minds, or for that matter the stuff that Dagmar Krause does to open the first News From Babel album.

After this concert Steve Feigenbaum told me that it was perhaps the show he hated most this year, and that’s saying something given that he’s been to somewhere near 60 concerts in 2006. I had a different take, though; I quite enjoyed everything they played, although I refrained from purchasing any of the many CDs that were on sale because I’m not sure I could take this stuff on record. As it was, seeing it live transfixed me, but it was also a pretty exhausting experience.

Recent shows - Gjallarhorn, Cline/Kotche, Carl Grubbs

Monday, September 25th, 2006

Time for some live show recaps — saw three last week and will be seeing two more (Yo La Tengo and Massive Attack) this week. The first one is the one I mentioned in the previous entry: Gjallarhorn at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. This is a Finnish folk group, although they apparently hail from a small isolated region of Finland where Swedish is actually the primary language. Their music is pretty firmly in the style typified by the Northside label’s group of artists — traditional Nordic folk music (in this case, Finnish, Swedish and Norweigian) arranged for different instruments with a rock influence creeping in at times. Without a doubt the centerpiece of this band is vocalist Jenny Wilhelms, who has a remarkable set of pipes and put them to good use, particularly on the rather adventurous final epic song (sadly I’ve forgotten the title). Otherwise, most notable was the band’s use of a rather absurd-looking large, blocky instrument that I thought was a mutant didgeridoo but turned out to be a sub-contrabass recorder (!!!). The mere fact that such an instrument exists is amusing.

Overall, Gjallarhorn seemed like mostly straight-up rockified folk music with a few interesting twists thrown in. They are listed at ProgArchives (a website in which debate about a band’s “progginess” gets seriously intense) for some reason, but there are definitely more interesting Nordic folk bands out there. Jenny Wilhelms’ vocal performance was worth the trip to the Kennedy Center, though.

The next day was a solo/duo show from Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, both current members of the almost unbelievably popular indie-rock band Wilco. I had no idea what to expect from this one, but came away pretty delighted. Cline was up to his noise-freakout tricks, playing a dense, intense, and pretty shockingly inaccessible set full of electronic manipulation and looping. I’ve never heard him any noisier than this; maybe a good point of comparison would be the ear-shattering chaos of Immolation/Immersion, the trio album with Cline, Wally Shoup and Chris Corsano. If there were Wilco fans in the audience hoping for a solo guitar rendition of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” well, they probably headed for the doors after about thirty seconds.

I found Kotche’s solo percussion set to be more interesting, actually, and I’m inspired to go check out his solo records. He played a pretty wide variety of things, including a Steve Reich piece and a really awesome composition called “Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit,” which ostensibly was a setting of a Hindu epic story with each character represented by a different instrument. Kotche was endlessly creative with timbres, eking all kinds of sounds out of his kit, even revealing for “Monkey Chant” a table covered in small boxes containing… chirping crickets! One of the guys standing near me said, “I’ve officially seen it all now.”

Cline came back onto stage to play a couple final pieces with Kotche as a duo, and these were also pretty great — Cline was no less aggressively avant-garde, but tempered his volume and overall intensity a bit to allow the nuances of Kotche’s playing to shine through. Overall this was one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, up there with the Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura show in terms of both how demanding it was and how enjoyable it ended up being. Too bad I won’t get to see these guys again when Wilco comes into town next month.

Finally, last Saturday I made the trek up to An Die Musik in Baltimore with my girlfriend to see Carl Grubbs do his John Coltrane birthday tribute concert. This was a fun one as well; Grubbs stuck exclusively to Coltrane’s more accessible repertoire, which was too bad, but the playing was tight and energetic and the setting was, as always, fantastic; An Die Musik has become one of my absolute favorite venues. I only recognized “Naima” and “Giant Steps” — ironically the only two pieces that were actually announced — but one of the pieces I thought might have been inspired by “My Favorite Things,” although maybe that was just because Grubbs played soprano on that one (which also happened to be my favorite of the set). They only played for an hour and I felt like they never really stretched out to their limits, especially the drummer, but I had a good time.

I also meant to go see the Ed Palermo Big Band in Baltimore last Thursday, but three nights in a row just got to be too much, and work was interfering anyway. And Forever Einstein played in DC on Saturday, but I decided to go to An Die Musik because I thought my girlfriend would enjoy that more. Oh well, too much live music of interest is a good problem to have, anyway.

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic live video

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

Fans of this Cuneiform band might want to check out free streaming video of a full Birdsongs of the Mesozoic performance from back in 2003. This was at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage — a sweet venue with a free concert at 6pm literally every day. Last year I saw Los Jaivas there, and they regularly get interesting world, folk, Americana, etc sorts of bands there. Virtually all the old shows are archived in the video database, too — although I can’t get the Los Jaivas video to work and have e-mailed them about it.

Incidentally, I went to a show there on Tuesday (Gjallarhorn), but more on that later.

Zorn gets $500,000… what now?

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

The big news today is that John Zorn has won the so-called Macarthur “Genius” grant, the same one that Ken Vandermark won a few years ago, that pays out half a million dollars over five years. Folks in the avant-garde community are having predictably mixed reactions over this one. On the one hand, Zorn isn’t particularly cutting-edge these days and hasn’t been for several years. More, the dude already seems to have a hell of a lot more resources than plenty of other equally deserving semi-underground artists out there. Giving him $500,000 for even more Masada live releases seems almost perverse.

On the other hand… he’s still John Zorn, still one of the more fiercely independent musical minds out there, and it’s cool that he’s getting recognition from the establishment (the Macarthur Foundation is large enough to be considered part of the proverbial “establishment,” I think — even though they have given this grant to folks like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman etc). So, congrats to him, although I hope that instead of expanding the Tzadik release schedule to 5,000 releases per year instead of just 4,000, he uses the funding to take a radical left turn, maybe starting a brand new label for underground artists with a completely different bent. Or at the very least maybe he can now tour outside of New York City and Europe.

Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura: best show I’ve seen for a while

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

Saw a couple Transparent Productions shows the past two nights. On Monday, Rashanim, a rock trio who have played interpretations of John Zorn’s Masada songbook, played as part of the Washington Jewish Music Festival. I went with a couple friends (who happened to be Jewish) who absolutely loved them. They played Masada songs that didn’t sound very much like Masada, or very Jewish either for that matter. It was, as Steve Feigenbaum said, all quite jam-bandish. I liked them well enough — it was a fun show, very accessible, and the band went through their set playing a pretty wide variety of styles, from rock and jazz to surf to funk. They were really fun to watch as well. I wish they’d stretched out a bit more and gotten more “out,” but on the other hand my favorites of what they played were the slower, more nuanced and melodic material.

Tuesday night was Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura. Fujii is one of my absolute favorite jazz musicians active today. In the interest of brevity, I often call her an “avant-jazz pianist,” but in the wake of last night’s show this is clearly a totally inadequate description. While she’s known for jazz, she’s classically trained, and this came through in a big way last night. A lot of what she played had as much to do with Western classical music as it did with anything that swung or was jazzy in any sense. She has an amazing knack for going off on intense, Cecil Taylorish tangents and then returning, suddenly and delightfully, to slow, contemplative, beautiful melodies. Tamura was also a revelation on trumpet, playing with feeling and a wide variety of tones and styles. I generally prefer Fujii’s compositions to her husband’s, but his trumpet playing is definitely nothing to sneeze at.

The show was quite demanding, attention-wise, as the two played for over an hour straight, with no breaks in between pieces; I recognized a bunch of the themes but it was often difficult to tell when they had moved from one “song” to another. The music was generally unpredictable, but in a tantalizing way: Fujii in particular would hover over almost-melodies, but instead of playing them out, she would veer off onto different melodies that, often as not, were even more delightful than what came before.

A “difficult” show, and one that generally focused on a more abstract side of Fujii’s than what I’ve heard from either her Orchestra or Quartet lineups, but a fantastic one. I’m thankful that they came to DC to play for an tiny audience of about 15 dedicated folks.

Very exciting news from ReR

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

I usually try to avoid posting straight-up news items on my blog, leaving that task to sites like Avant Music News (or for the more neo/symph prog-inclined, the excellent DPRP news pages). But Chris Cutler’s recent post to the ReRmegacorp Yahoo group has me too excited to not mention it. Cutler outlines ReR’s plans for 2006, which include some things that had me practically jumping out of my seat this morning:

  • The This Heat box set announced last year should be ready May 10th.
  • Remastered, repackaged versions of both News From Babel albums.
  • New CDs from Chris Cutler/Fred Frith (duo), Biota, and The Necks.
  • Possibly some unreleased Henry Cow material… maybe a set of two or three cds.”

Unreleased Henry Cow material? What’s this? Live stuff, or actual unreleased compositions? Either way, if this came to fruition I’d be one hell of a happy camper. Keeping my fingers crossed!

You can read Cutler’s full post here.