Monday, September 26, 2011


How is one supposed to write "reviews" of music that does not conform to any of the normal aural signposts of melody, structure, even harmony? It is music like this -- it's footprints splattered all over the first few shows of this year's world jazz-themed Angel City Jazz Festival -- that reveals to a music writer how ultimately pointless what we do is. The words will never be able to catch up to the music because the vocabulary of music moves ahead so fast into uncharted waters that it exists beyond them. So we close the notebook, cap the pen, and order some appetizers while simply becoming a listener again. Ah, there you are.

Not that these realizations stopped us from pulling every 10-cent adjectives out of liquid-nitrogen storage when we attended a few choice shows for the ACJF's fourth year:

(The Blue Whale, 9/22/11)
[Photo courtesy of Myles Regan]

For some reason, we expected a group with a name like "The Necks" to be one of those punky, post-modern bands like Kneebody or Gutpuppet who skronk with a harDCcore heart. Head-slamming improvisors, right? El Wrongo. Granted, we knew next to nothing about this Australian trio, and we didn't want to know; we wanted to walk in to this -- the opening night performance of the ACJF -- like we've been walking into movies lately: no advance hype, no trailer/scene-hunting on YouTube, no spoilers. And the Necks completely befuddled us from the first note: an unsettling subterranean drone that breathed, then weakened, then breathed again. Bassist Lloyd Swanson barely touched his strings, preferring to itch or tickle them at the neck (ahh, now we get the name). They sustained this eerie single note for the entire 45-minute set like this was a Terrence Malick film, creating -- depending on what head space you were in -- either an unbearable tension without any release or a release unburdened by any tension whatsoever. There was eve a stretch where the band created a vibratiing sensation that sounded like when you leave one window in your car open and its creates that thumping suction sound that nearly causes you to drive off the road. Not entirely pleasant, not entirely not. The most startling effect of the set was Chris Abrahams' piano, whose hammers sounded like they had been altered with carpet tacks, giving off a jangling, metallic sound as if a saloon pianist was attempting this very dense and sophisticated music.

(LACMA, 9/23/11)
Read Tom Meek's L.A. Weekly review of the show here.
[Photo courtesy of Myles Regan]

(The Echoplex, 9/24/11)
Greg Burk reviews the show here. Read Andrea Raymond's interview with ACJF organizer Jeff Gauthier about the Burkina/Spooky show here.

[Photo courtesy of Myles Regan]

(REDCAT, 9/25/11)
[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

You have to respect the stones of anyone who walks unannounced onstage at a tres-hip jazz festival without any instruments and immediately launches a cappella into song called "Duet For One." Then, when they do pull out instruments to play, they turn into Carrot Top: a tiny bear doll with a screen for a face and a creepy recorded voice ("Let's plaaaaaay!"), a neon-pink plastic toy horn or the rubber-nippled end of a toilet plunger. All assisted by a couple of effects pedals and a voice sampler, the German-born Theo Bleckmann [pictured above] took the bemused audience on a surreal blimp-ride through the human voice and all the different ways it van be perverted, mangled and morphed through technology, whimsy and sheer force of will. He covered Meredith Monk's "Wa-Lie-Oh" and the old cabaret standard "Lillie Marleen" (using afrementioned toy horn) and turned the jazz standard "I Remember You" into a fever dream from David Lynch's nursery. He made unutterable noise -- a pepper grinder filled with gravel? bullfrog love-calls in pea soup? a sped-up recording of two Korean men arguing sports? -- and then made music out of that. Funny thing: This sometimes veered into self-conscious cleverness, but rarely into self-indulgence.

[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

Bassist Todd Sickafoose and his nonet were already standing onstage after the intermission, patiently waiting for the audience to file back in so they could proceed to lively it up with an eight-song set brimming with groove-based post-fusion. There was a constant albeit good-natured tension between the Alpha players of the ensemble (electric guitar, bass, trumpet, drums) and the Omegas (strings, piano). Of the Alphas, the standouts included the startlingly inventive trumpet of Ara Anderson, who yawped like Louis Armstrong at his sassiest on the N'awlins-flavored slo-drag "Paper Trombones" and then ached and breathed like Mark Isham on the lyrical "Whistle." Steve Cardenas' gorgeously evocative guitar playing sampled the crystal-clear treble of Bill Frisell on the opener "Future Flora," then did a 180 and mimicked Joe Zawinul's electric piano on "Bye Bye Bees." Hyper drummer Ted Poor kept up an aggressive, meth-addict skiffle that caught most of the "Who's that guy?" attention. Sickafoose himself exhibited his ability to helm a large band without letting on he's doing so -- he's more of an instigator than a leader. He repeatedly let his presence known with his rubberband pizzicato, smacking and popping his strings, treating the instrument like it was one of Tex Avery's cartoons.

[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

As for the Omegas, they swam and spun around the Alphas, finding their pockets in little gestures and deft seasonings. Sickafoose paid tribute to violinist Jeff Gauthier [pictured below, at left] -- not only one of the co-organizers of the festival but also the label owner who released Tiny Resistors' 2008 self-titled debut -- by showcasing Gauthier's deft intergration of classical, jazz and Appalachian styles on three seperate instrumentals. Pianist Adam Benjamin seemed marooned at stage left behind the strings, but he chose to keep his low profile by crumpling pieces of paper into his miked piano bed and prodding its strings with drumsticks and rings of keys. At one point, not satisfied with the sounds he was getting by hitting a percussion bell, he simply switched to his metal music-sheet stand and found the tone he was looking for. Creativity -- in the moment and hot out of the oven!

[Photo courtesy of Steve Gunther]

Meanwhile, outside on 3rd Street, the filming of The Dark Knight Rises rolled relentlessly on...

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