Posts Tagged ‘Transparent Productions’

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble 35th anniversary

Friday, February 29th, 2008

This past Monday the 25th, I saw the first of two 35th anniversary concerts by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, a trio anchored by Kahil El’Zabar on percussion, drums and thumb piano; currently the other members are Corey Wilkes on trumpet and percussion and Ernest Khabeer Dawkins on reeds and percussion. These guys have played every February in DC for something like the last 10 years at least, but I’ve never seen them, nor had I heard any of their music before this show. I was not disappointed.

El’Zabar was playing possessed all night, whether on hand drums, drum set or kalimba; throughout the set he was singing along with the tunes, usually wordlessly, sometimes singing actual lyrics (as on the highlight “Mama’s House” and especially “There Is a Place,” in which he burst out several times with a single a capella line, “can you find a place/where there’s peace and happiness” to devastating effect). As one of my concertgoing companions mentioned, in this unique lineup, El’Zabar is the entire rhythm section, so his vocals were a welcome presence, filling in where in other ensembles a bass, piano or other chordal instrument might have.

For the most part, the trio played material that was relatively tame but still high-energy when it mattered. The two above-mentioned pieces were easily the highlights for me; “Mama’s House,” which closed the second set, played host to a thrilling solo each from Wilkes and Dawkins. Other pieces showcased El’Zabar on thumb piano, which he played while hypnotically and almost maniacally shaking his head from side to side, feeling a rhythm that was mostly implied rather than explicit. At their best, the ensemble was as soulful and expressive as any other I can think of.

From what I’ve read, though, it sounds like the second night was even better than the first — complete with drum circle before the show and a much more involved audience during the show as well. (At the show I went to, the crowd was small and fairly subdued.)

End of year jazz

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

So I was on a much-needed vacation last week, but still managed to squeeze in a couple last concerts in DC: Frode Gjerstad Trio and Circus of Saints, two groups that were sort-of jazz but not really, although in completely (and I do mean completely) different ways.

The former show was a tough decision, because that same night, a very appealing group was playing at An Die Musik in Baltimore, including Marc Ducret on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums. Luckily I made the right call, as that show turned out to be cancelled due to weather. Gjerstad’s trio consisted of the titular member on saxophones and clarinet, Øyvind Storesund on bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I’ve seen the latter three times now this year, with three different bands, and I think I have something like eight CDs from this year alone on which he plays. Does the man ever rest? Who knows, but what I do know is that he’s a damned entertaining drummer, and the main reason I decided to go to this show, dragging my girlfriend along with me.

This trio played a little less than an hour of pure free improv, with few gestures towards traditional melody, harmony, or rhythm. Definitely not free jazz, just freeform improvisation. Gjerstad had a tendency to explore the upper registers of his instruments, particularly clarinet, something that I don’t particularly enjoy, but otherwise this was still a pretty fun show. Nilssen-Love is always a blast to watch, in any case. Without any real musical reference points, I’m a bit at a loss to describe this stuff except that it was very challenging.

Three days later, seeing Circus of Saints was a bit of a jarring transition. This is some kind of collective of local musicians playing what could be categorized as accessible, melodic jazz-rock, with plenty of room for soloing but also lots of catchy, composed melodies. The show was at one of my favorite venues, Jammin’ Java (though sadly they were out of their amazing spicy pork chili when we got there), and I had a good time. Although it wasn’t the kind of music I would ever listen to on record, they were fun to watch live, particularly a guy on low brass (trombones and tuba) who was a bit show-offy but had the chops to match — at one point my girlfriend thought he was reading off of the saxophonist’s music and transposing the lines on the fly in is head!

So the vacation was the reason for the lack of recent posting, but I’ll have some good stuff coming up — maybe some notes on new acquisitions, thoughts on an MP3 player I bought a friend for Christmas, recounting an eMusic customer service experience, and an end-of-year concert recap. Til then… happy holidays!

An hour with Kidd Jordan @ Twins Jazz

Monday, October 15th, 2007

A couple more concerts to report, and tomorrow I’m thinking about going to see Gongzilla despite never having heard them and not being all that much of a fan of Gong (not that I actually know whether or not the two bands’ music has much of any relationship).

Last week sometime I had the most efficient concert experience ever. Now that I go to tons of concerts, many of them by myself, I don’t really enjoy standing (or sitting) around waiting for bands to start. I try to time my arrival at the venue as close as possible to the band’s starting, and once I’ve had enough, I get the hell out of Dodge. In the past I felt some compulsion to stay for a band’s entire show even if I wasn’t enjoying myself. I have no such feelings anymore — or at least, I’m much better at ignoring them.

In any case, said efficient concert experience was Kidd Jordan at Twins Jazz. Jordan — who was the subject of a really nice interview at the Philadelphia Daily News just a couple days ago — was playing with his trio with pianist Joel Futterman and drummer Alvin Fiedler. I have a couple of this trio’s records, and really like one of them, Southern Extreme, on which Futterman reminds me a lot of Cecil Taylor.

In any case, I timed my arrival perfectly, getting to the club, ordering dinner, and then watching the trio take the stage no more than five minutes later. They played a single lengthy improv, somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour long. Futterman definitely struck me as having a style somewhat similar to Taylor, although much less percussive. The interplay between the three musicians during this completely improvised, free-blowing set was mesmerizing. Futterman and Jordan in particular had some really fist-pumping moments, and were as fun to watch as they were to listen to. This was definitely “difficult” stuff, with much in the way of conventional rhythm or melody, but in the live setting they really tore it up and the sheer energy was enough to win over most of the crowd on its own.

I had a lot of things to do that night, so I had to leave after the first set — which I managed to do and then get home in record time. All told, I was gone from the house for 90 minutes, and in that space of time saw 60 minutes of fabulous music and ate dinner. Now that’s an efficient concert experience. Ha.

And then last night I saw Nightwish, but I’ll save my writeup of that one for later.

Zanussi Five @ Twins Jazz

Friday, June 8th, 2007

You can never have too much Nordic free jazz in your life, so last night I went with a few friends to see Zanussi Five at Twins Jazz: a five-piece consisting of three saxophones, bass and drums. The biggest name of the bunch is probably Kjetil Møster, who played mostly tenor, and whom I am familiar with through his involvement with groups like Crimetime Orchestra. The only one of the five I’d seen before live was altoist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, who played with POING when that ensemble played a show with Maja Ratkje last December.

I couldn’t find much online about this group, but what I did see compared them to The Vandermark 5 and Atomic, which led me to believe that they would play an energetic, relatively accessible form of avant-jazz. The first set they played last night, though, was anything but. What they played was more comparable to a much freer, unstructured brand of jazz that was as much about exploring pure sound and texture than it was about conventional rhythm and melody. Though there were plentiful hints of said rhythms and melodies, they were often just hints, and the result was something way closer to, say, The Electrics than to any Ken Vandermark group. Having invited a couple folks who are not really into the freer stuff so much as I was, I was a little too busy feeling misled about what this group was all about to enjoy their music. Too bad, because with the right expectiations I think I would have had a good time with that first set.

Regardless, though, their second set was much more along the lines of what I originally expected: avant-jazz chock-full of accessible melodies and rhythms, always on the verge of flying off the handle but never quite going there. This set was absolutely great, and I was bummed that two of my friends that I’d come with left after the first set — they would really have enjoyed the second. The band closed their set with a Fela Kuti cover; somehow it never occurred to me that a free-jazz combo boasting three saxes would be a natural fit to cover brass-heavy Afrobeat, but of course it worked and it was awesome. They also did an encore that was some kind of klezmer-polka-something with the rhythm section going nuts on an Eastern European folk dance rhythm… also awesome.

So all in all, Zanussi Five were a fun show, and one that really illustrates the power of expectations and how those expectations can shape experience.

The Thing @ Sangha

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Last night I made my first trip up to Sangha (don’t bother with their website, it’s pretty dysfunctional) in Takoma Park, Maryland, to see The Thing. It’s kind of amazing that somehow I’ve never been to Sangha before, as they regularly host Transparent Productions and other off-the-beaten-path shows there. The Thing offered up a good first show! Consisting of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, this is an avant/free-jazz trio with a penchant for covering pop/rock songs — in the set they played, they “covered” pieces by Lightning Bolt and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; their recorded output includes covers of PJ Harvey and The Strokes songs.

In this particular show, the covers were fairly opaque to me — it seemed like they were pretty much just improvising the whole time, playing loose and free until all of a sudden they were playing some ridiculous unison lines or coming to a full stop altogether, seemingly without any visual or auditory cues that I could discern. It was pretty amazing. I saw Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten with Atomic a few months ago, and they were equally jaw-dropping this time around; Nilssen-Love was on fire the whole time, hands all over the kit (he did play some more straightforward lines once or twice, and that was fun to see), while Håker Flaten’s thinking on his feet was really fun to watch, and he was absolutely fierce, punishing his instrument as much as he played it. I’ve been scared off by Gustafsson on record a couple times, but he was reasonably accessible here, and is one of the most physical players I’ve ever seen — at times dancing with his instrument, at other times fighting it, at all times moving his entire body with the flow of his music.

But it was collectively that these three guys were most impressive; I mentioned in my comments on Atomic’s show that it was fun watching their visual cues, but as I already said, I couldn’t discern any cues whatsoever with these guys. This kind of telepathy is neat when it’s with a group playing carefully composed pieces (say, Ahleuchatistas), but it’s even more impressive when it comes in the context of wild collective improvisation. The ease with which this trio went from dissonant improv with free-flowing rhythms to garage-rock anthems with pounding 4/4 drums, and then back again, was pretty great.

While I still prefer the more structured work of avant-jazz groups like Atomic, The Vandermark 5, or various Tim Berne groups, these last two shows I’ve seen (this one and Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller last week) have definitely been helping to build my ever-growing interest in the freer stuff.

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.

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.

Shows: Claudia Quintet, Animal Collective

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

A couple recent show recaps: The Claudia Quintet and Animal Collective.

I saw the former play at Twins Jazz last week, as I mentioned in the previous entry. This is a pretty nice little jazz club, reasonably priced ($7 for the show plus a $10 food/drink minimum) and intimate. I brought three friends (how often do you get to bring friends to Cuneiform shows?) and we had some good food and enjoyed the Quintet quite a bit. As I said, I’m not entirely sold on the one album of theirs I have, I, Claudia, but as I expected, I was much more enamoured with them live. Bandleader John Hollenbeck’s busy, groove-oriented drumming comes across much more aggressively live, and vibraphonist Matt Moran is a very physical player who’s a joy to watch. I’m still not entirely sure that Ted Reichman’s accordion presence is either necessary or exploited to the fullest extent possible, though — I spent almost all of the show not noticing his contributions at all.

Chris Speed — whose work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount band in the mid-90s I really enjoy — was the wild card. His contributions on clarinet and sax gave the band their freest flourishes — while one could call The Claudia Quintet an “avant-jazz” group, they’re not anywhere close to the skronky variety. But Speed comes closest to that aesthetic, and indeed blew up in one particularly blistering tenor solo that literally left my heart pounding. On the contrary, though, my friends thought he was the weak link — too free for their tastes, perhaps.

I’m still not a huge fan of The Claudia Quintet’s recorded work, which lacks the immediacy and intensity of their live show. But I’ll gladly jump on the opportunity to see them again the next time their tour brings them to my neck of the woods.

As for the latter show, which was tonight: I’m not all that familiar with Animal Collective, and in fact the opening band, Stórsveit Nix Noltes, was a big reason I decided to go. I’d actually never heard of them before, but the description piqued my interest: an Icelandic big band playing rocked-up instrumental Eastern European folk. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed. These guys played a seriously fun brand of music that brought to mind all sorts of comparisons — the Scandinavian folk-rockers on the Northside label, say, or even the more upbeat side of Alamaailman Vasarat. The nine-piece played numerous horns, banjo, cello, acoustic bass, accordion, and so on in addition to the usual rock instrumentation, which gave them a really big sound. The diversity of instrumentation was used mostly for unison lines rather than counterpoint, but melodies were occasionally traded between instruments (most often trumpet, accordion, and banjo) to nice effect. A really engrossing, fun show, and I was telling myself that even if I didn’t like Animal Collective at all, Stórsveit Nix Noltes was worth my thirteen bucks.

Which was probably a good thing, because surprisingly, I didn’t really dig the headliners that much. Let’s get this out of the way: Animal Collective are fucking weird. Imagine pastoral folk played over thumping neo-Krautrock beats, and all of it dominated by insanely caterwauling vocals — like Demetrio Stratos at his most obtuse squealing away atop PFM’s instrumental backing, with jolts of Faust and the Boredoms inserted randomly here and there. The combination of such seemingly unrelated elements was refreshingly jarring, but the end result wasn’t anything I particularly enjoyed. It was all a bit too repetitive and monolithic — the band hammering away at a single chord or motive for minutes on end while the vocalist(s) performed wild (and, admittedly, at times wildly entertaining) gymnastics over said static background. I liked some of it, but after a while it actually got pretty boring.

Shockingly, the Animal Collective show was sold out. Which leads me to think, if a band this fucking weird can sell out a fairly large club like the Black Cat, what’s to stop different sorts of avant-rock from gaining a similar kind of indie cred? If Animal Collective, then why not, say, Thinking Plague? If anything, the latter, and similar groups like 5uu’s, are more accessible than the former in all ways except rhythm (the single grounding element of Animal Collective’s music seems to be pounding, simple, danceable rhythms). One can only hope that the state of “cool” in underground music will continue highlight bands trying truly different, and difficult, things.