Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rrake, In Time for Autumn

I've had the great fortune to work with Chris Jonas on a few different vibrant and challenging projects. I first met him shortly after he and his wife, the composer, vocalist, musician, community arts director and conduction expert Molly Sturges, moved to Santa Fe from New York, about 7 years ago.

The first couple of opportunities involved Jonas and Sturges' collaborative band, Bing. Learning their book and then working on music for silent films (the epic The Man Who Laughs and pratfall-laden Buster Keaton classic, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and accompaniment for Wise Fool New Mexico's Circus Luminous all happened in about 6 months and was like going to graduate school for percussion for a couple semesters.

Then came Jonas' project, Rrake. This called on completely different musical resources for me, pulling together some echoes of Captain Beefheart, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, some of James Blood Ulmer's and Ronald Shannon Jackson's stuff from the '80s and '90s, etc.

The charts involved sections where Paul Brown and I worked out asymmetrical figures while Milton Villarrubia III and Jeremy Bleich, the other drummer and bassist, played cycles of different, but eventually overlapping, asymmetrical figures. Some of the cue phrases are deceptively simple and oddly catchy, despite also being alternately eerie and arcane. In spite of very limited rehearsal time, with Josh Smith coming in from San Francisco the day before the gig, I think, the ensemble turned in some solid versions of Jonas' demanding charts at the 2006 High Mayhem Emerging Arts Festival. Since then, Rrake has performed a couple other times, including a highly enjoyable show with Joe Fiedler on trombone.

Here's one piece that came out well, in my opinion, in 2006, a piece called Vig.

The other four pieces from the 2006 High Mayhem Festival performance are also on YouTube, thanks to High Mayhem's meticulous documentation and my new YouTube account.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Poltergeist Percussion

The Frank Rosaly performance at Modified Arts with openers Static Announcements kicked off a bizarre weekend which found me piling into my car Sunday and driving in a big loop through Quartzsite, Parker, Twentynine Palms, Searchlight and back home. I was looking for Echinocactus polycephalus (pictured above)...a decidedly fierce beast found in the driest, rockiest, hottest deserts of the southwest. The plant has a certain ragged and fierce charm, symmetrical yet shaggy looking, tough as nails yet very challenging to keep going in cultivation, oddly fragile and given to either languishing for years or up and rotting.

A great metaphor for creative improvised music, in some ways. Rosaly was hosted by The Phoenix Creative Music Movement,, which, as Executive Director and Co-Founder Jen Rogers said at the show, has turned into more of "an occasional series of concerts." Perhaps the new direction at Modified Arts toward being a home for more cutting edge music will resuscitate Rogers' idea, which seems to have had a lot of energy behind it back when PCMM hit the scene, in 2005. It is no mean feat to host and produce performances of creative improvised or composed music in any area of these United States these days. In Phoenix? Home of the utterly derivative "wine bar" "jazz" experience? Very challenging indeed. The Phoenix area sometimes seems like a replica of a simulacrum of a city, and this even extends to the "arts scene," which as far as I can tell, centers around about 6 square blocks near Roosevelt and Central, mighty slim pickings for a metro area boasting more than 4 million people. In a few years of living here with my ear fairly close to the ground, this Frank Rosaly/Static Announcements show has been the only one of its kind that I have known of. The low attendance, despite a great write up in Phoenix's miserable rag of an "alternative weekly," spoke volumes about just how retarded Pheonicians can be.

Side note: I realize it has become a great American pastime, bitching about the cities in which we live. But Phoenix really does utterly suck. Everything is smash and grab fake, quick buck ugly. The people are not friendly or welcoming in the least. The air of "wannabe" Los Angeles is pervasive. Phoenix is as thoroughly tawdry as Las Vegas and as materialistic and shallow as LA, only minus both the history and charm. The arts scene around Roosevelt features some lovely stuff but is basically only truly alive a couple of Fridays a month. The music scene is almost entirely focused on really bad jazz (the worst of all music) and equally bad "indie rock" (oh man) or "death metal." The idiots who have watered the desert and stacked condo on top of hideous condo on top of puke colored strip mall after strip mall after completely disposable rectilinear street corner after street corner graced by everything that is hideous about Amerika have, at the same time, predictably ignored the cultural landscape of the city. In Tempe, the great "hip" strip is supposed to be Mill Avenue. "It's so funky and unique!" people said to us when we first moved here. Tell that to the minimum wage slaves working at Fatburger, American Apparel, PF Chang's, etc. along this outdoor shopping mall of a cultural shithole. So bereft of anything even resembling cultural curiosity that even the frikkin' BORDERS BOOKS AND MUSIC mega outlet right next to the UNIVERSITY couldn't manage to stay in business. But I digress.

I had been tipped off to Rosaly by my Santa Fe friends at High Mayhem, (ha, nice Wiki page folks!). The show there had involved a multi-percussionist piece featuring some of my favorite Santa Fe musicians. Rosaly came highly recommended. I have attended a very few solo percussionist performances. In fact, I think the only other one might be the absolutely transformational and gorgeous performance at High Mayhem a couple years ago by Tatsuya Nakatani.

Rosaly's performance was equally gorgeous. He uses a sort of hybrid, electro-acoustic drumset, featuring old Rogers drums and some pickups/transducer mics placed around the kit. I didn't get to talk with Rosaly either before or after the show, so I don't really know the technical details. I do know that Rosaly opened by creating some echoing, clanking and clattering textures using electrified mbiras on his floor tom. These forays into industrial machine percussion alternated with shitstomping, furiously fractured avant metal beats. Rosaly also did an extended meditation on some polyrhythms loosely associated around a 6/8 figure. His wonderfully honed technique and four way (actually, more like 6 or 7 way) independence and counterpoint were never flashy but always served some overarching musical idea. During the course of his energy-charged excursions, Rosaly made use of a wide variety of beaters, including hitting the drums with cymbals, a vibrator, a kitchen utensil that looked like a pasta server, etc. A wonderful boinging, chattering effect was created by a flexible glockenspiel mallet held across the head and rim of the snare drum and pulled up and released. Shproing wobblewobbleblblblblblb.

The timbral feast was rich and spicy, like a Thai hot curry. Overall, I was reminded of some of my all time favorite re-conceptualists of the drums, including Milford Graves, Han Bennink, Ronald Shannon Jackson, etc. Rosaly's gestural shenanigans were fun to watch as well, as if he felt a force field around the drums and was cagily and at times warily entering into a temenos, or sacred, magical space. Rosaly also sang a strange little tune at the end of his second piece, with inscrutable lyrics. This is risky stuff. But it totally worked. One of the delightful ironies of his performance was a final, direct and explicit reference to "jazz drumming" at the very end, where he settled into some Jack DeJohnette style time keeping and fills. It was as if it took him the entire hour of conjuring poltergeists, ghosts, demons, manic angels and fiery, alien landscapes to purge himself of the burdensome history of drumming and stereotyped vocabulary of the drumset in order to be comfortable enough to play some jazzy figures.

If you get a chance to see Rosaly in action, jump. I enjoyed Static Announcements too and hope to see them again here in Phoenix. I hope, too, that the Phoenix Creative Music Movement can continue in any form, even on life support. It is a sorely needed possible source for sonic adventures in this otherwise barren desert.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


Music critic Chris May takes a bizarre tack in reviewing the latest CD from Vijay Iyer's trio, Historicity.

Writes May: "There is much that is immensely exciting about pianist Vijay Iyer and something else that is intensely irritating. The excitement lies in the music and the irritation in the miasma of cerebralization that surrounds it."

Can anyone guess to whom Iyer is inevitably, ineluctably compared a mere 1 paragraph later? Anyone? Starts with B. And it ain't Buxtehude. Anyone, anyone? Bueller?

I am as leery of miasmas of cerebralization as the next guy. My enjoyment of art is often utterly destroyed by gasbags who insist on articulating their insights, methods, musings and reflections, especially in big fancy words of more than say, 3 syllables. Think of how the accessible folk songs of Harry Partch were completely destroyed by his ridiculous "theory." Imagine how much more enjoyable Schoenberg or Webern would be without all that annoying "Serialist" pretense.

I prefer immediacy. I like my artists utterly aphasic, in fact. Too much thinking and self-reflection, especially when it reaches MIASMIC levels of CEREBRALIZATION, and I'm outta there. I don't know much about music, but I know what I like, and it isn't musicians who are more intelligent and articulate than I. Young, dumb and full of JASS, good time music, no philosophy.

Lo and behold, in a startling new trend that I wrote about last year sometime, Mr. Iyer himself weighs in on the comment thread to May's review. I suppose this isn't strictly new. I vaguely remember musicians writing letters to the editor at Downbeat, responding to 2 star record reviews or whatever. Generally, however, for centuries, critics have written about artists at a certain insulated distance.

Anyway, in the comment thread, Iyer posts the actual miasmically cerebralized liner notes to Historicity, to wit:


"The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory."

- Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

There are two main meanings for "historicity":

1) the quality of being historically accurate, as opposed to ficticious or legendary
2) a condition of being placed in the stream of history; also: a result of such placement

The second sense matters here: without a doubt, it's the past that's setting us in motion. With eons of recorded music ringing in our ears, and several years of intensive collaboration behind us, we take on pre-existing works by Andrew Hill, Julius Hemphill, Ronnie Foster, Stevie Wonder, Bernstein & Sondheim, and M.I.A..

Most of these works have a disruptive quality that we aim to reproduce with the trio. (The exception is "Somewhere," which simply gets retold on our terms.) You could see our covers as tributes, but we've also tried to augment each song with a fragment of ourselves. Each cover becomes a conversation between the original work and something else entirely; the best word for it is versioning.

I also borrow from my own past: earlier prototypes of "Trident" and "Sentiment" appeared on my first few albums, over a decade ago. And all of our music draws influence from the musical traditions of South Asia, Africa, and their diasporas (the Brown and Black Atlantic); perceptual illusions, mathematical equalities, and physical resonances; and everyday life in transcultural New York City.

The coda sections of "Historicity" and "Helix" both consider our experience of time as a continuous dimension instead of a series of events. For psychologist J.J. Gibson, events are perceivable, but time is not; he contends that time's continuum is something we imagine, as our way of connecting the dots.

Music, it seems, also connects -- carrying us smoothly across the tumult of experience, like water over rocks. That would make historicity the swirl of undercurrents, the reason we brace ourselves as we step into the river.

Thanks for listening.

vijay iyer"


Not really, of course. Iyer's notes are interesting. I've been thinking a lot about the history of the music, how it relates to the repertory approach of Jazz at Lincoln Center, what the value of a retrospective "versioning" is, why people still get together all over the world and try to play Real Book tunes, how all of this history can be an inspiring force rather than a stultifying and intimidating Mt. Everest of genius, etc. One of my favorite blogs, It Is Not Mean If It Is True, was for a long time doing an "improvised music" reading of Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence. (also some fascinating reflections on Adorno's Verse une musique informelle, but I digress....)

A closer examination of May's objection suggests he may have missed some of what Iyer is communicating. According to May, Iyer's musings boil down to nine words: "we are all part of the tide of history." I think not. Perhaps if one exposed a sullen yet mysteriously literate fencepost to Iyer's liner notes, said summary would result. Those of us with the patience for MIASMIC CEREBRALIZATION garner somewhat more. Each creative act is a gesture of incorporation of all the influences, in the mysterious aggregate, that come before. Each "new" statement is an homage as well as a rejection. Each moment of an artist's life is a "version" of the past yet entirely present. Influence can be literal, entombing the past in amber, fossilizing what was once vital, or it can be metaphorical, liberating and transcendent. I have long admired artists who baldly and reverently embrace influence (The Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example) but eschew imitation.

May continues: "As Iyer and his publicists frequently remind us, before becoming a full-time musician Iyer studied mathematics and physics at Yale and UC Berkeley. The guy has smarts; can we please move on now? For if he isn't careful, Iyer is going to match reed player Anthony Braxton's bone-dry academic posturing and in doing so set himself apart from the sizable audience his music could reach."

IRRITATING. Really a sort of trifecta of gasbaggery. 1). implying that Iyer and publicists (I imagine a vast team of marketing MBA's sitting around a shiny stainless steel conference table generated high-falutin' smartypants copy, a team of buzz-building former math majors, unheard of in JASS music until now....) somehow try to sell Iyer's music by making him look "smart," 2). implying that Iyer will somehow lose listeners as a result, 3). completely mischaracterizing the philosophical background and entire career of Anthony Braxton. ding ding ding! Insufferable gasbaggery for the win!

The irritating parts of May's review read like a Daily Mail article. May's appreciation for the music doesn't actually offer much insight into the methodolgy or aesthetics of the trio and there's a kind of inarticulate critical vocabulary at work. It's more plot summary than critical assessment. The sort of "review" that's fairly easy to pound out in 20 minutes, hungover, after giving the CD one listen. Maybe this is why a greater word count is actually dedicated to lamenting Iyer's intellectualism than to the music?

Anyway, file under "anti-intellectualism in jazz criticism," along with decades of other dismissive and condescending perspectives.

Ironic that the CD is available where smart people live (Europe) but won't be released here until October 13. In the meantime, in case you were wondering, here's a photo of the irritating and dangerously inscrutable CEREBRALLY MIASMIC Iyer. Be on the lookout.