Lisa Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage

Posted on September 29, 2015

Lisa Mezzacappa describes herself as “the hub of a wheel, with spokes going off in all directions.” This is in reference to her researching subject matter, collaborating with video artists, writing lyrics and music and rehearsing a 15 piece ensemble for her latest interdisciplinary project: Glorious Ravage. She could just as easily be describing her place in the Bay Area’s creative jazz scene, connecting musicians to each other and to audiences through her work as a bandleader and concert presenter. In addition to leading and co-leading several groups combining the best local and international musicians, she founded the “Monday Makeout,” a monthly series presenting progressive jazz and improvised music at the Make Out Room in the Mission, and Best Coast Jazz Composers Series at the Center for New Music, meant to spotlight the Bay Area’s most creative and prolific jazz artists.

Glorious Ravage is a song cycle with moving images drawing from the writings of women explorers from the Victorian era, and is in many ways a culmination of all the work Mezzacappa has done until now. It premiered at the Angel City Jazz Festival in LA on September 26th, with Fay Victor singing and the incredible cast of musicians, all accompanying fourteen videos by four moving image artists could represent a pinnacle that Mezzacappa has been wanting to reach.

Fay Victor is a powerhouse with a clear, precise and cutting voice, and the dynamic and textural range of any master instrumentalist. Mezzacappa describes an instant chemistry with Victor, who can easily match Mezzacappa’s wide-ranging, groovy, and sometimes frenetic, turn-on-a-dime aesthetic.

The desire to write music for Victor planted a seed that began as a trio premiered in 2012, and grew into Glorious Ravage. Inspired by Victor’s journey westward from New York to play with her in San Francisco, Mezzacappa began researching women pioneers and explorers, eventually using their accounts as source material for lyrics. The rest of the ensemble includes Myra Melford (piano), Mark Dresser (contrabass), Nicole Mitchell (flute), Vinny Golia (winds), Michael Dessen (trombone), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Cory Wright (reeds), Dina Maccabee (viola), Kjell Nordeson (percussion), Jordan Glenn (drums), John Finkbeiner (electric guitar), Tim Perkis (electronics), and Lisa Mezzacappa (contrabass); represent a heavy-hitting cross section of Mezzacappa’s past musical collaborations.

Mezzacappa’s ensemble writing relies heavily on the unique voices of the musicians, providing space and freedom for each to express themselves, all the while providing enough structure to maintain a narrative in the music, or keep synced with a projected video. The compositional techniques she has developed over the years will be thoroughly tested with this group, which is the largest she has yet written for.

Over the course of the last year, Mezzacappa has “co-evolved,” as she put it, the videos that will accompany her songs with four moving picture artists. Though the artists were given open-ended assignments and artistic freedom, Mezzacappa, ever the hub, has kept them and her music connected by exchanging excerpts recorded from rehearsal and song lyrics for video clips and still images as the material developed. All together, the music and the videos will delightfully portray Mezzacappa’s survey of Victorian era women explorers, who were both literal and figurative pioneers: a fitting subject matter for an artist creating incredible work so far off the beaten path.

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage will appear at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco, on Thursday October 1, and Friday October 2 at 8pm. Tickets are available at brava.org or in person beginning one hour before showtime at the Brava box office.

This article will appear in the October edition of SFSounds, edited by Chris Weir.

Offside Jazz Festival – Preview

Posted on May 19, 2012

I’ve been graciously asked to do a few write-ups about the upcoming Offside Music Festival, which is being put on by local guitarist Alex Pinto. I couldn’t be more thrilled, because the lineup is amazing. Every single group contains musicians who have floored me in live performance, or whom I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time. Just to whet your appetite, here are some of the groups I am most excited to see next weekend.

Thursday, May 24

Rempis/Ochs/Johnston Trio – I’ve seen Larry Ochs with his group Kihnoua. The music that night was an exquisite blending of tones and timbres – group playing so cohesive, that it was often difficult to tell who was playing what notes/noises. I have seen Darren Johnston in enough settings to know that he is a formidable player in almost any situation. Whether he is playing gnarly changes and time signatures, straight-ahead, balkan music, or avant-garde free improvised music, he fits right in tastefully. These two alone would make a powerful pairing, and I am curious to see what Rempis will bring to the table in this trio of horns.

Friday, May 25

Alex Pinto Trio – I saw Alex Pinto open up for Kneebody at Viracoccha last year. He is a great example of why studying jazz is still relevant, because of it informs his music without making it a lesson on musical history and tradition. Pinto’s music is, instead, an innovative amalgam of Hindustani, rock, and jazz influences, truly unique in its approach.

Saturday, May 26

The Supplicants – I first saw David Boyce because of an undercover show of Nick Drake covers, which happened to be curated by Darren Johnston (playing with Larry Ochs on the first night of Offside). He played solo, masterfully layering recorded loops of his rich tenor tone, and manipulating the sound with an overflowing pedalboard. I can’t wait to hear him in a group setting. Drummer Hamir Atwal, one of my favorite local drummers, appears to be subbing in on this gig. This is just as well, because every time I walk into a club and see his vintage drum kit set up, complete with kitchen towels draped over the bass drum, I know I am at a good gig.

That being said, I could probably write equally gushing previews of every group that is going to play; and I will – once I’ve gone and seen them all next week.

El Valenciano, 1153 Valencia Street, San Francisco

50 Mason Social House, 50 Mason Street, San Francisco

Location TBA, San Francisco


Seven Concerts

Posted on April 13, 2012

In the past two weekends I saw no less than seven concerts, including four of what I consider the world’s greatest pianists still alive. Everything I saw (heard) was incredible, which is bad, considering I am really trying to save money at the moment, but I count it as a blessing that I am able to experience music by the best musicians and performers around pretty much all of the time.

I am probably going to talk about the concerts out of order, so I am listing them here:

March 31 My friend’s handbell concert
March 31 SFJAZZ collective plays the music of Stevie Wonder
April 1 Keith Jarrett

April 5 Tin Hat
April 6 Hiromi Trio
April 7 Vijay Iyer
April 8 McCoy Tyner and Gary Bartz

One thing I have noticed is that I am getting much more out of each performance than I used to. Despite being overloaded/overstimulated by the sheer number of concerts I attend, each one captivates me to the point in which I cannot sit still in my seat. Artists that I have seen more than once seem to now have an order of magnitude more of power over my mind and body. While I am sure some of this is circumstantial (groups getting tighter, players getting better, witnessing of off nights in that past), I think mainly I am getting better at listening, and am more receptive as a whole to everything musical, emotional, technical, and spiritual that is happening onstage.

Seeing Hiromi’s trio demonstrates this point the best for me. This was the fifth time I’ve seen her and I was beginning to suspect that she was doing a lot of the same thing. She has such incredible technique, and puts such exuberance into her playing that it is almost impossible to imagine how she could be any better. Somehow she was better than I remember. This time I could hear the quirks in her rhythms, the masterful use of sparseness and density in her chords, and where her melodic wanderings slipped in and out of diatonicism. All of her solos are incredibly inventive, yet they come from the heart. you can see it in the way she plays the piano, with her entire body, and her facial expressions that give away the pure joy, plaintiveness, and seriousness of what she puts into the music.

Keith Jarrett is the same way – perhaps the epitome of this kind of playing. His solo concert at Zellerbach was beyond words for me. I always make fun of Jarret’s wild gesticulations and nasal whining that goes with his music, but I truly believe that he could not play the way he does without some sort similar by product overflowing from his person.

His improvisations ranged from blocky atonal, to funky, to incredibly poignant without a single poorly placed note or silence (except maybe the first piece, which seemed not to have an end (Keith immediately spoke up after he ended saying sometimes he plays himself into a corner and can’t get out, and isn’t it great that he can just stop and start over since this is an improvised concert anyway?)).

For Keith Jarret, there is spontaneous composition of the truest sense. No tonality, chord, polyrhythm, melody, groove, or combination thereof is out of his reach when he plays. He simply a storyteller with unlimited vocabulary. Combine this with a rigor/conscientiousness/consciousness of the architecture and arch of what he is playing, and there is not choice but to call what he does an act of genius.

I came to this concert a casual Keith Jarret fan. I was excited nonetheless because I kept hearing how great his solo concerts were. My buddy Nicki came with me and asserted that Jarret could possibly be the best jazz pianist alive at the moment. I had my doubts, but was converted by the end. Not only was I impressed by his command of his instrument, but I was moved by how much he put into the music that emanated from the stage that night.

Tin hat moved me in a similar way. Their arrangements of ee cummings’s poems were haunting. Something about Carla Khilstedt’s vocals, the mixing of violin and clarinet in the upper registers, and the foundation of guitar and accordian works perfectly with this set of musicians. Their collective playing is incredibly facile. Carla Kihlstedt and Ben Goldberg seem to effortlessly trade phrases, while Mark Orton and Rob Reich build up the bottom layers of something in perfect cooperation. It is worth mentioning that all of the arrangements and compositions are beautifully done.

The SFJazz Collective, too, seemed to be a triumph of arranging and collective musicianship. The eight piece configuration allowed for some great flexibility in the arrangements and showed off how well a group of acclaimed musicians can sing together in perfect harmony, rhythm, and feel. And it was nice to hear this caliber of musician play pretty much only soulful funky tunes by Stevie Wonder. This was another concert that I could not stay in my seat. After I shook hands with, and generally made a fool of myself in front of Mark Turner, Avishai Cohen (He is the man. If I could possibly even dream of playing in the SFJazz collective, it would have to wait till Avishai was done. He plays trumpet, but his feel and tone going through a wah, distortion, and a phaser is more soulful guitarism than I’ve ever touched), and Stefon Harris (I’ve never seen a vibes player play like that. I didn’t know you could play vibes that fast. Then, of course, Nicki duly pointed out that if anyone played like that on any instrument you should be equally impressed), someone came up to me and said that I was more fun to watch than the band (I was sitting in front, and I guess I was visibly enjoying myself).

About a week later, I got pretty much the same seat to see McCoy Tyner.

I saw McCoy Tyner once before and was underwhelmed. I was thoroughly disappointed at the time, because I had built up a lot of excitement over seeing, not only living a historical figure, but a man known for powerful technique and sound at the piano. I blame the band that night, which was mediocre (the drummer approached his solos with the idea that you should always be hitting every drum) and the weird appearance of Marc Ribot, whom I felt did not fit well within the context. Ribot was a little over-comfortable with Tyner, and at one point, while playing a minor blues refused to play the turnaround that Tyner was using, so obviously clashing, that Tyner actually stopped comping for a couple choruses before continuing with Ribot’s changes. Perhaps this is simply a sign of how good a relationship the two have as musicians, but at the time I was not digging what was happening.

This time however, whether it be because the band was better (Gary Bartz on Saxophone, in a addition to a tasteful drummer, and a bass player who could play Tyner’s complicated basslines and match his aggressive feel, in addition to swing), or because I’ve grown a lot as a musician and listener in the past three years, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I could finally hear McCoy’s technique, savor his choice of extensions and chord substitutions, and scrutinize his methods for building solos and creating excitement. The band this time was great, but my favorite part of the night was a solo piano rendition of “I Should Care.”

Vijay Iyer was incredible. Just trying to figure out what Marcus Gilmore was doing on the drums was too hard. This was the only concert where I had the feeling that things were too difficult for me to begin to comprehend, but it was still good in the best way. There is a category of things (new music, abstract art, dance, James Joyce) that go over my head, yet I get this feeling that they are important, serve a higher purpose, or are otherwise artistically meaningful, and I wish I could understand them. Half of what I heard at Herbst with Iyer was that, except that it was incredible and I loved it. Seeing the whole band change tempos and time signatures on a dime in perfect unison was, to borrow a cliche, mind blowing. Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore must have the internal clocks of the best contemporary classical players, on top of the mass of chops, and incredible creativity in their imrovisations, and their ability to listen and play together and create something transcendent over the raw material that is often what you get on a jazz chart. The other half of the concert that I did understand simply rocked. Hopefully one day I can sit through an Iyer concert, or one of Rudresh Mahanthappa or Steve Coleman and grasp what they are doing with time and rhythm, but that moment is not today.

Just my experiences as a listener shows me how far I have come as a “guy that likes music.”

Trio M at Yoshi’s

Posted on February 15, 2012

I was lucky to catch the last 20 minutes of the trio m show at Yoshi’s last Monday.

As soon as I entered the club I nonetheless felt immediately absorbed into the music. Mark, Matt, and Myra have this aura of connectivity that lets you tune in very quickly. They seemed so connected to each other, that their seemingly atonal, and sometimes nontonal wanderings gelled together with incredible coherency.

Myra surprised me by saying that they couldnt really hear each other – that the sound on stage was not so good, and that they were really just trying to play to the vibe. I could not tell at all, though I only came in at the end, it seemed to me like they were in a very natural musical environment, which is to say – on par with every Trio M experience I’ve ever hard.

I came in in the middle of some sort of free improvisation which Mark then launched in the spritely four chord ekonemi – a grooving simple tune that is at the core of what makes me love Trio M. They are capable of the utmost finesse and musicality when it comes to free and “out” playing, but at heart they are drawn together by traditional harmony and have deeep pockets when it comes to a groove.

I am glad I saw what little I did; I came to Yoshi’s with the thought of just saying hi to Myra because I was sure I was going to miss the whole concert. I could just as easily have missed the whole thing.

This weekend I saw two concert put on by SFJazz, both at Herbst Theater.

Redman and Mehldau

On Saturday I caught the late set with the Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau duo. It was everything you could expect from the pairing.

Their originals were haunting and complex with Mehldau usually holding down the rhythm in his distinctively pianistic fashion. During the first tune (I forget the names), he kept a very muted five going the entire time, richly accentuated with deep base notes and flowing inner lines. His playing had the deliberateness of a late Romantic piano sonata, but kept the flexibility to keep up with Redman’s improvisational nimbleness, and to adjust to a broad variety of textures during his own solos.

When the duo played standards, however, their combined creativity and synergy truly shone. This is not a criticism on playing originals, but playing a tune you have heard thousands of times, and played thousands of times, and the audience has heard thousands of times probably lends itself to much more interplay and freedom. This was especially apparent in their rendition of Anthropology. At one point of his solo, Mehldau managed to stretch the first five note phrase over the entire 8 bar A section. I do not know if he was keeping the form the entire time, but something tells me that he was, and that he managed to stretch the laws of space and time to play his solo. Redman managed to fit that same five 8th note phrase into every nook and cranny of every change in the course of on chorus. Seeing the duo’s utter comfort over familiar repertoire, such as rhythm changes, or Monk’s Dream, gave me a good understanding exactly what we were dealing with as an audience, and how they could breathe such beauty into the less familiar original compositions.

Jim Hall

On Sunday I saw Jim Hall.

Most of what I know about Jim Hall are from two classic albums he contributed to: The Bridge, and Undercurrent, so I expected some virtuostic straight ahead guitar playing from an old master.

I was surprised to find instead, that Hall was playing spaced out versions of standards. I guess by the time you are 80 (it was his 80th birthday) and you have been playing jazz professionally all of your life, and you have repertoire you have played hundreds of thousands of times you don’t need as many notes, do not need to stay strict to the melody (or even the harmony) to play a tune.

I was also surprised and delighted when he played a couple “free” pieces with his quartet. I saw some people leave at the points of the set he did this, but for the most part, I think the audience enjoyed it. His quartet exhibited great sensitivity at these moments, which they also needed during the rest of the two sets.

Hall opened up pretty much every piece with a little solo cadenza, with the band joining in at an appropriate moment. I got the sense that he was deciding things as he went along, doing whatever he could to make things fun and interesting, including doing All the Things You Are in 3. I feel like, he was just having fun with the tunes, much in the same vain as Redman/Mehldau had fun stretching/obliterating the standards they mixed in with their original compositions.

I almost passed up Jim Hall, wondering if two concerts in a weekend was going to be too much money and time. I am glad that I ended up going. The whole weekend got to be a great SFJazz presented lesson on musical mastery, and the great flexibility that seems so achievable in jazz when played by the greats.