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Archive for February, 2007

Zs live was a total revelation.

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

New York’s Zs played last night in a little hole in the wall near what DC comically calls a Chinatown. I know of these folks from their debut album on Troubleman Unlimited (home of such pretty, happy music as The Flying Luttenbachers) and their 2005 EP on DC’s Planaria Recordings, Karate Bump. They are an aggressively ugly, wilfully repetitive, brain-achingly mathy chamber ensemble of sorts, in this instance boasting a lineup of guitar/sax/drums and one guy who alternated between guitar, bass and keyboards. I was at this show with Steve F. and another friend and wondered out loud about their setup, in which they were arranged in a square with the musicians facing inwards, such that the audience could not see all of them at a time. It soon became evident that this setup was efficacious because it allowed all four of the musicians to see each other at all times.

To make a long story short, Zs were crazy fun to watch because they were superhumanly tight. They were playing some seriously knotty compositions, rhythms shifting so fast they were practically impossible to keep up with, but somehow the band never missed a beat (literally). The drummer was the one I had the best view of, and for me he was especially fun to watch because you could tell that he was concentrating with all his might. And despite playing sick, intricate compositions, they managed to rock out in the process as well. The first song was absolutely brilliant, and Steve turned to me and said, “that must have been what it was like to see the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1970.” There was a song with vocals that I didn’t find quite so compelling — though the vocals themselves were, of course, a unison chant in some incomprehensible shifting meter — but then the last song was tremendous, sounding kind of like “Bump” off of Karate Bump, substituting the drums with hand claps and the whispering saxes with subtle guitar picking.

I should mention that Zs‘ music is eminently hatable. That is, they make almost no concessions to melody and absolutely none to consonance. If the classic minimalist composers raise your hackles a bit, these guys will make you want to kill someone. That said, while I dig their albums, I pretty much just adored them in a live setting. Getting to see them play these absurd compositions in the flesh was a real treat.

I bought their recent live release at the show and will be reviewing it shortly, so for more words about this fucking ridiculous band, stay tuned.

I should also mention one of the openers, FFFFs. This is a solo guitar/electronics project of Sean Peoples, who is a member of bands decently known in the DC underground like Hand Fed Babies and Big Cats. I saw Big Cats last year and basically they were three guitarists making a shitload of noise, so I was pleasantly surprised when, as FFFFs, Peoples instead played some pretty nice, soothing ambient stuff. Ambient music in a live setting has never really been my thing, but this was good stuff. It was a good night all around.

DC Improvisers Collective @ Crooked Beat

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Quick pre-bedtime post: I saw the DC Improvisers Collective play an in-store show at Crooked Beat Records, a nifty little indie record store that sells a lot of used and new vinyl and has an interesting CD selection as well. Before I talk about the actual show, I should note one thing I discovered at Crooked Beat: the “33 1/3″ series of books. This is a series that highlights one significant album per book (each book is pocket-sized and runs around 100 pages, it seems). It’s a cool idea and from the ones I browsed through, it looks like they are pretty competently done. There’s no standard style, so for instance the structure of the book about The Magnetic Fields69 Love Songs is totally different from the one about Radiohead’s OK Computer. I’m going to have to pick up some of these; for more info, PopMatters did a nice feature on them last year, or here’s the full list at Amazon.

As for the show, I enjoyed it. DCIC in this instance (I guess the lineup varies, but since this was my first time seeing them, I’m not sure) was a guitar-sax-drums trio. As befits their name, they just did, as far as I could tell, pure collective improv — three pieces that stretched to maybe an hour total. As far as unstructured improv goes, they were pretty solid, and I was particularly impressed with the saxophonist, who ranged widely from quiet, lyrical melodies to seriously free intensity. They would lose steam a couple times each improv, only to figure out what to do next after a few minutes of noodling, and hit on something really great. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking but I would definitely enjoy seeing these guys again. I bought their new CD but haven’t had a chance for anything but a cursory listen so far.

Here’s a post about the show at the guitarist’s blog.

Vandermark on touring Europe vs. the US

Monday, February 19th, 2007

One last Ken Vandermark post: I was browsing through his tour notes yesterday and came across this interesting paragraph from his recap of last year’s Vandermark 5 U.S. tour:

People frequently ask if it’s better to tour in Europe and I always say no, that aside from the fact that there’s more money available through government arts support and festivals, in many ways it’s the same. Since there are hardly any festivals in the United States that focus on the kind of music I play, and which have any kind of budget (I need to go to Canada for those North American opportunities), all the music is usually performed in small venues by presenters who don’t receive any funding for the work that they do. This means that I am paid about three times more for comparable work in Europe. Otherwise, aside from festivals, the audience turnouts are almost identical in their numbers and demographics, and if you remove the subsidy money from the equation the net economic result is nearly the same. Another similarity between North America and Europe is that the best gigs are organized by presenters who really care about the music and the players. The experience for the musicians isn’t only based on the size of the city, it’s based on the motivations of the people involved with the concerts.

Mastodon @ the 9:30 Club: sucked

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Last night I saw about an hour of Mastodon live at the 9:30 Club. An hour only, because I didn’t really enjoy myself. I got there late and the show was sold out, so I was stuck in the back corner of the club, where bouncers would periodically push through to throw particularly rowdy folks out the door, and where, more importantly, the sound was atrocious. I don’t know if it was any better closer to the middle of the floor, but in the corner, the volume was nearly unbearable (and I had earplugs) and there was an omnipresent high-pitched screeching that I guess was caused by all the noise bouncing off the walls around me. So to be honest I couldn’t tell if the band put on a good show or not; the crowd certainly was eating it up. (Metal crowds are really incomparable when it comes to really, viscerally showing enthusiasm for the music.) They sounded a little sloppy to me, but, you know, not really being able to hear anything might have contributed to that impression.

An equally big problem is that for the hour that I stayed, they were pretty much just playing Blood Mountain straight through. I have come to really dislike that album, and live it didn’t come off much better; if anything, it seemed even wankier. For me, the whole concert was a battle between wanting to leave early and wanting to stay long enough to hear them do some older stuff. The former urge won out in the end.

The Vandermark 5 are better than ever

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

The Vandermark 5 put on a hell of a show last night at Jammin’ Java in Virginia. I’m glad I got to hear the recording of their show in Montreal, because I was better prepared for what was to come: something much more “out” than even their show a year ago (when Fred Lonberg-Holm and his cello madness had already been added to the lineup). It’s clear that after a year and a half or so, Lonberg-Holm has been integrated into the group’s sound seamlessly, and his influence is felt much more now than it was a year ago. The compositions are now further afield from traditional jazz, Lonberg-Holm plays a more central role in the group’s sound, and the quintet now often breaks into mini-ensembles in a really neat way. Also, sometimes Lonberg-Holm just rocks out and plays heavy power-chord riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on a metal album.

In fact, my favorite pieces are when Lonberg-Holm does just that: Vandermark and company opened their second set with “Some, Not All” from A Discontinuous Line, which includes a headbanger’s riff in the middle section over which Dave Rempis goes absolutely nuts on alto. Powerful on the studio album, this piece is not surprisingly even better live, and Rempis’ solo and Lonberg-Holm’s riffing was a thrilling highlight of the show for me. Another highlight was the final piece of the second set, a new one called “Desireless,” a tension-and-no-release affair in which, again, Lonberg-Holm holds down the rhythm with some rock-ready riffing while Vandermark and Rempis run wild over the top. This piece had me ready to leap out of my seat, but instead of ending with a bang, the group carefully winds down towards an anticlimactic finale — the end effect of which was that, for probably half an hour after the show, I was completely wired with pent-up energy. Finally, another new piece called “Compass Shatters Magnet,” which closed the first set, went through a similar high-tension section but gave the audience the luxury of release, building from almost nothing into cathartic soloing, and then finishing up with the band pummelling the club with an anthemic, percussive melody anchored by Vandermark’s unmistakable baritone.

Much of what they played last night was new; of all the band’s previously-released stuff, only “Some, Not All,” “Reciprocal,” and “Convertible” made it to the setlist. It’s interesting to see that they are no longer playing anything written in the pre-Lonberg-Holm era, and very indicative of how the cellist has really been brought into the fold as an essential part of the group’s new sound. In fact, a great new piece was “Further From the Truth,” a ballad that featured Lonberg-Holm playing much more lyrically than usual, atop a walking bassline and a steady pulse from Tim Daisy on the drums.

In every possible way this show was superior to the one I saw these guys put on last year. More out, more adventurous, tighter, with Lonberg-Holm better integrated; and Dave Rempis was just on fire all night. Sadly, the crowd was kind of lame (though decently sizable); I wonder if this group would do better to play a little closer to DC, where there’s probably a slightly larger fan base. Jammin’ Java is half an hour away from the city, and given that I spent half an hour with a friend digging my car out from all the ice that’s been covering the area for the past few days, I imagine some people just didn’t bother to make the trek.

Great live recording of the moment: The Vandermark 5 in Montreal, February 11

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

In an attempt to get myself to actually listen to the myriad live recordings I have (mostly downloaded from Dimeadozen over the past couple years), I am thinking about doing something like highlighting a “live recording of the week” in this space. Of course, I talk about doing things like this all the time and I always flake out sooner or later (generally sooner), so I’m not going to make any promises.

In any case, the live recording I’ve been listening to a lot in the past couple days is a hot-off-the-tape torrent from Dime, an audience recording (mics on stage so it sounds great) of The Vandermark 5 in Montreal last Sunday, February 11, at La Sala Rossa. I’m going to see these guys tomorrow, and this recording is making me more and more excited about that. They certainly seem a little more avant-garde than when I saw them last February; that must be Lonberg-Holm’s influence. Speaking of Lonberg-Holm, his playing on this recording is positively metallic at times, sounding a lot like the pseudo-electric-guitar “rock cello” present in bands like Alamaailman Vasarat or Far Corner. And Vandermark himself sticks mostly to baritone and spends a lot of time holding down the rhythm. So this is definitely aggressive, rhythmic stuff — I dig it. I’ll hold off on saying much more until after I get to see them for myself, but this recording is up on Dime right now and if you’re a fan, I highly recommend grabbing it. My only quibble is that the cello seems a bit under-represented in the sound, but complaining about the sound quality is hardly fair since for an audience recording this one is practically pristine.

Dominique Leone is still writing

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

If you, like me, have been wondering about Dominique Leone’s recent low profile over at Pitchfork, have no fear! He has a new monthly column, “Out Music,” the second edition of which was published yesterday. There’s good stuff in there, including reviews of reissues of News From Babel, Koenjihyakkei, and Faust, plus a gratuitous Art Bears reference thrown in for good measure. And if you missed last month’s column, check it out, too, as therein lies even more interesting weird-music coverage (and Dominique’s entertaining ramblings).

In other news, it looks like Masada is finally calling it a day, which is probably for the best as it might allow Zorn to focus on his other projects. Hopefully it will also mean his $500,000 Macarthur grant won’t go to issuing the 500th through 600th Masada live recordings. (I mean, I really like this band, but in terms of documentation, only King Crimson overdoes it more.)

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.

DC Improvisers Collective: good stuff

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

The soundtrack for much of my workday today has consisted of the free live MP3s available from the DC Improvisers Collective, who oddly enough I never knew anything about until I got an e-mail yesterday advertising their CD release show at Crooked Beat Records later this month. I’m leery of bad improv (I’ve seen a few failed*, noisy improv shows here in DC and they are not generally a pleasant experience), but this stuff was a really pleasant surprise. I will be going to this show for sure, and I’m bummed I haven’t known about these folks until now.

If you’re looking for some free-improv to (not) groove to today, check the first link above, there’s a lot of music there. I especially like the cut from The Warehouse Nextdoor on January 18, 2006.

* “Failed” improv of course is a strange term, and really only refers to improv that doesn’t trigger any positive response in my head. That is, I can’t see the connections between what the different players are doing, in addition to the fact that the sounds they are making don’t move me intellectually or emotionally. I’m pretty close to aesthetic relativism in general when it comes to music, but this is especially true when it comes to improv.