A Letter Home

Last July, on a sunny summer Sunday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, composer and trumpeter Darren Johnston premiered his Songs of Seven Miles, a song cycle for three vocalists plus ensemble, based on interviews Johnston conducted with various Bay Area-based immigrants. As an immigrant himself (originally from Canada), living in a city where it’s rare to meet natives, the immigrant experience—people’s reasons for leaving, the stories of their journeys here, and the new lives they create for themselves in our wonderful city—is a topic he wanted to explore.

Following that project, Yerba Buena invited Johnston to do a second piece along the same lines, which will premiere this June, again as part of the Gardens Festival. For this project, Letters to Home, Johnston commissioned letters from eight local immigrants, and wrote the libretto using excerpts culled from these letters. I was absolutely thrilled to be included in this distinguished group of letter-writers. As you can see (if you click on the “Darren Johnston” tag associated with this post), I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s music for some time, so it truly is an honor to participate in this new project of his.

Johnston asked his letter-writers to write “either to a beloved of their choosing back in their country of origin, or to themselves at the time they first arrived in the US, sharing advice they wish they’d received at that time.” Although it did not quite fit the description, I decided to adapt a piece I wrote here, last time I was in Dublin. It was written one month after my father passed, and a few days before my mother passed. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house for the last time, and contemplating leaving Dublin forever.

Dublin is not a city I feel especially connected to. It has never felt like home to me in the way San Francisco does, for example. But at the time I wrote what is essentially a goodbye letter to Dublin itself, very literally a letter to home, an old and thoroughly sentimental song called “The Dublin Saunter” kept going through my head. Just thinking about that song now brings tears to my eyes.

Though I have yet to hear Darren’s composition, I keep hearing about “my song” all over the ‘hood from friends who’ve heard it performed by Broken Shadows Family Band, Johnston’s group dedicated to his newfound interest in writing music with lyrics, and from various friends involved in the Letters to Home project, some of whom didn’t realize right away that this particular song they were working on—”Laura from Dublin”—was inspired by the letter I wrote.

Letters to Home is a more ambitious piece than Johnston’s previous Songs of Seven Miles. For the premiere this summer, Johnston is assembling a massive, multi-generational group he’s calling the Trans-Global People’s Chorus, featuring vocalists of a variety of backgrounds and training, and also some dancers and theatrical performers. There’s going to be all sorts of clapping, stomping, and body percussion happening. I can’t wait to see it!

Broken Shadows recently began a new residency at my favorite Mission hangout, the Revolution Cafe, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. I missed the first night of the residency, and thus the first opportunity to hear “my” song, as I ended up staying home that night to watch the opening concert of the new SFJAZZ Center. Two weeks later, when they played again, I was sick, so I missed another opportunity. But I will be there this coming Wednesday, February 27, come hell or high water.

I was excited to learn that violinist Matthew Szemela, possibly the most in-demand musician on the local music scene, has joined Broken Shadows. Having spent many years in New York, Szemela came to the Bay Area fairly recently when he got hired in the Berkeley Symphony, led by the adventurous Joana Carneiro. Pretty quickly, he was playing everywhere with everyone—Musical Art Quintet and Classical Revolution, Todd Sickafoose, Family Folk Explosion, Quartet San Francisco, Rupa and the April Fishes, and now Broken Shadows, to name a few. That list, which cuts across many genres, surely indicates what a versatile musician he is. I’m hoping Szemela will also be performing with the Trans-Global People’s Chorus at the Yerba Buena premiere.

Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows are at The Revolution Cafe, 3248 22nd Street, SF, every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Letters to Home premieres Saturday, June 22, 2013, at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

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The Many Fables of Faubus

Every social movement should have its own music.

That, at least, is the view of local bassist, composer, arranger, and educator Marcus Shelby. His latest project, Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Porto Franco, 2011), a result of many years of exhaustive research, travel, and creative work, forms a kind of musical catalogue of the American Civil Rights Movement.

With beautifully written liner notes including lots of amazing B&W photos from the 50’s and 60’s—a portrait of the smiling Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, strikers in Memphis holding signs that simply say “I am a man,” walking single file between a line of pointed bayonets and a row of tanks, black protesters in Washington demanding “integrated schools” and “decent housing,” contrasted with photos of white protesters from Arkansas demanding an end to integration—it is easy to get a sense of that troubled period in American history.

But there’s a deeper connection to be found in this album and that, of course, is through the music. An orchestral suite containing a mixture of traditional spirituals and freedom songs, re-arrangements of some jazz hits associated with the movement, and many swinging compositions from Shelby himself, the music conveys a real sense both of the monumental struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and of its unassailable spirit

Shelby began his work on Soul of the Movement with a Charles Mingus track, “Fables of Faubus,” the piece from the civil rights era that first revealed to him “how music can open up consciousness.”

Fables has an interesting history.

Mingus originally released the track on his 1959 album (clear your throat as you say this) Mingus Ah Um. The song was inspired by events in 1957, when the Arkansas National Guard prevented a group of nine black teenagers from entering the previously whites only Little Rock Central High School, in which they were newly registered students. It was three years after Brown v. Board of Education, which had ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But changes were slow coming and, in some cases, especially in the South, vehemently resisted.

Leading the segregationist effort in Little Rock was Orval Faubus, then governor of Arkansas. Faubus ordered the National Guard to block the nine black teens from entering the high school and, many contend, engineered the entire crisis by stirring up racial fear and hatred amongst the white population of Arkansas. Thanks to Faubus and his machinations, not only were the Little Rock Nine prevented from entering the school, but they also had to deal with crowds of angry white segregationists who verbally abused, spat on, and threatened them.

Several weeks after what should have been their first day, the students were finally admitted to Central High School under escort of the US Army, a directive from President Eisenhower. For the next year, the nine students faced daily hostility, harassment, and violence at the school.

Like many others at the time, Mingus was outraged by this incident, and wrote what is considered to be his most overtly political song. Ironically, Columbia Records refused to allow Mingus to record Fables with the original lyrics he had written for it, so it was first recorded (and became a hit) as an instrumental.

By current standards, the lyrics could hardly be considered offensive, opening with the rather reasonable request, “Oh Lord, don’t let them shoot us.”

As Shelby says, “In retrospect, they’re not that explicit, not that charged. But in 1957/58, I imagine that they would be to the Southern ear. But they’re basically saying, ‘Oh Lord, don’t let them kill us. Oh Lord, don’t let them lynch us. Oh Lord, no more KKK.’ So…” Shelby pauses in reflection, “that’s how ridiculous things were back then.” Indeed, the greatest insult Mingus irreverently hurls in the direction of Faubus is that he is “sick and ridiculous” for teaching hate—pretty mild language given the latter’s egregious offences.

According to Shelby, that kind of reaction to political music was typical at the time. “A lot of the artists’ original works that spoke out against racism and segregation were banned by the big labels,” he says. Shelby also notes how two decades earlier, Columbia had similarly refused to release Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the powerful song about lynching in the South. In the end, Holiday had to record the song with Commodore, a smaller, alternative jazz label.

 

When I first discovered and became a fan of “Fables of Faubus,” I had no idea of this rich history. I just really liked this swinging, irreverent tune with its unforgettable opening theme. The track has multiple themes and tempo changes, so there’s lots of variation with room for some great solos to keep things interesting, and it’s always so satisfying to return to that cheeky opening theme.

Shelby describes Fables as “quite a modern composition for its time” because of its long form. With angular, multi-layered melodies, which, he says, are typical of Mingus, and a beautiful harmonic construction containing a diversity of colors, textures, and voices, the piece offers many different expressive possibilities for a jazz orchestra.

Not surprisingly, Fables is a favorite of many jazz musicians.

When the New York saxophonist and bandleader Mitch Marcus was still based in San Francisco, it was one of those tracks his quintet regularly performed at the Wednesday night jazz jam at Amnesia (which continues now with guitarist Mike Abraham). For Marcus, the political aspect of Fables is important, but it’s not the main attraction. “I’m such a huge fan of Charles Mingus’s music,” he says. “I can’t think any of his tunes that I don’t like, and that one is just . . . it definitely speaks to me, very deeply.”

Marcus recorded his own version of Fables a few years back, not for release on any album, but just to have a recording of this favorite from the Amnesia sessions. As he describes it himself, it’s “real loose—just a jam session, but in the studio.” Although there are some differences in instrumentation, e.g. guitar instead of piano, Marcus doesn’t mess too much with the piece. “I’ve always found Mingus’s music to be so perfectly, so thoughtfully arranged,” he says, “that I’ve never felt much need to do too much, other than put your own voice on it.”

Contrast Marcus’s version with The Nice Guy Trio’s recording of the tune on their debut album  Here Comes The Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco, 2009), which features their usual mix of trumpet, accordion, and bass, as well as special guest Dave Phillips on pedal-steel guitar.

“I love it!” Marcus says of this unusual arrangement by Nice Guy trumpeter Darren Johnston, who, coincidentally, also plays trumpet on both Shelby’s and Marcus’s recordings of Fables. “The pedal steel is from bluegrass and country music,” Marcus explains, “and I don’t think I’ve ever really heard a pedal-steel player play jazz, let alone play Mingus. That just kind of knocked me out.”

Although the particular instrumentation may be unexpected, in terms of rhythm and melody, Johnston’s arrangement also stays true to the original. “All we do is shake it up instrumentally,” he says. With its many counter-melodies, arranging Fables for the trio felt very natural for Johnston, and its obvious humor made it a good fit for the Nice Guys, who “are basically a bunch of goofballs.” The newly-formed trio had just started to incorporate the tune into their repertoire, when they began a collaborative project with Phillips. For Johnston, having Phillips play on Fables was “a perfect match” and he especially liked how the pedal-steel sounded on that whimsical intro.

But, of course, the whimsy inherent in Mingus’s composition belies the fact that it was written in response to a very serious matter. So, what of the political nature of this song? Was knowing the historical context in which this tune was composed part of Johnston’s motivation for recording a version of Fables?

“If anything it would almost make me hesitate,” he says. “I’m always drawn to protest songs and I’ve written quite a few. I tend to be thinking about human rights and civil rights all the time, trying to do what I can, seeing art and music as a form of activism. But The Nice Guy Trio is three white guys. We’re not an integrated band. And it’s a song about the American Civil Rights struggle. So, you just have to make sure your own intentions are in check, I guess.” Smiling, he adds, “I hope that Mr. Mingus would not disapprove of our arrangement.”

In many ways, the fact that a bunch of white guys are celebrating the music of Mingus, mixing it up in new and exciting ways, is an indication of how much progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement. “Back in the 60’s this wouldn’t have happened,” Johnston says. “We were more polarized then.”

These days, you’ll find many non-black musicians honoring Mingus with interpretations of Fables.

New York’s contemporary chamber ensemble Project Trio, consisting of bass, cello, and flute, can be seen here rocking out in a short-form version of Fables.

Amongst others, I also discovered a fantastic blues/reggae version by UK artist Tony Menzies AKA “Tony Mingus” (who sings the original Mingus lyrics with great style and sincerity); a dub version with flute by a Peruvian artist; a glitchy electro-house interpretation by a French DJ/producer; and a strange, slightly creepy, and so not swinging Logic demo of an arrangement of Fables for string quartet.

Oklahoma’s top-notch Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey does a wonderful piano-heavy version on their album The Sameness of Difference (Hyena Records, 2005). Interestingly, their most recent album, The Race Riot Suite (The Royal Potato Family, 2011), tells the mostly forgotten/suppressed story of Tulsa’s 1921 race riots, in which the city’s affluent African-American Greenwood District was intentionally burned to the ground, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries amongst the black population there.

It seems a safe bet to say that Mingus’s work, particularly Fables, has inspired generations of jazz musicians, black and white alike, to create music that challenges and subverts the status quo of inequality, prejudice, and denial. As a result, consumers of that music start to ask questions. “That’s the very least that music can do,” Shelby says. And “Fables of Faubus” is one of those songs, he says, that makes people ask questions. Its cryptic title alone provokes curiosity. “Every composer wants to know what that means,” he says. “And every musician who plays that song.”

So, what does it mean?

An obvious interpretation is that the song simply tells the story of Faubus, a tale that we can perhaps learn something from. Fables are, after all, supposed to have a moral to them. Shelby, however, points out another possible interpretation, one that makes sense of the plural “fables” in the title. Governor Faubus, he believes, was actually more alarmed about the situation than the white community in Arkansas initially was. His reaction to the possibility of Central High becoming an integrated school was so severe that it directly influenced the community’s response. “And part of that was him telling all these stories, these ‘fables’,” Shelby says. “He was making up stories about what would happen if these kids entered this high school to try to scare these white parents.” So, the “fables” of Faubus are these stories Faubus made up in an attempt to incite racial fear and hatred.

On his travels through the South, Shelby met and ended up becoming good friends with historian Dr. Adam Green, son of one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green (the first black student, and only one of the nine, to graduate from Central High). Adam Green is responsible for writing the wonderful liner notes on Shelby’s album.

Shelby and his family also visited Central High and took a tour together. It was important for him to share the experience with his two young daughters. “Kennedy, my oldest one, was very much inspired by this whole thing,” he says. “As I was.” When he started the project, he felt like he already knew a lot about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. But through his extensive research and travels—immersing himself in the music of the period, meeting the families of key figures in the movement, visiting historical sites in the South with his own family, and uncovering new connections to the movement—Shelby began to develop a greater and deeply personal insight into the immense power music has as a form of communication that can inspire and instigate important social change.

It should not be surprising to learn, then, that Shelby’s current project, Green and Blues, is a suite inspired by the sustainability movement. It will premiere in September this year.

The Live ‘n’ Local Completely Non-Arbitrary, Totally Objective, and Fully Informed 2011 Music Awards

Um, yeah. Personal interests, subjective biases, and half-baked ideas play absolutely no role in what is about to follow. These are the highlights of my year in music. Awards style.

(Drum roll, please.)

MOST ADDICTIVE INDIE POP ALBUM OF 2011 DESPITE THE FACT IT WAS ACTUALLY RELEASED IN 2010 AWARD

With her smoky “whisky and honey” voice, jangly guitars, upbeat rhythms alternating with slow, moody melodies, and catchy songs that you simply must sing along to while dancing in your kitchen/living room/bedroom, Ash Reiter’s Paper Diamonds (self-released, 2010) easily wins this one. As I didn’t discover and become addicted to it till this year, it seemed appropriate to include it in the 2011 awards. Favorite songs include the high-energy title track (I double dare you not to sing along with the chorus: “Give me love, oh give me looooooooove…”), the soft, atmospheric “Albatross,” and the moody, plaintive “La Bahia.” I guarantee your husband/wife/roommate/neighbor/dog will love it too, which is a good thing when you play it ten times a day.

MOST DELICIOUSLY SHIVER-INDUCING INTERPRETATION OF A CLASSIC AWARD

This one goes to bassist/composer Seth Ford-Young for his spellbinding version of Erik Satie’s already gorgeous “Gnossienne No. 1” from his eponymously titled debut album (Porto Franco Records, 2011). Ford-Young’s achingly beautiful Gnossienne features the always amazing Rob Reich on accordion and Evan Price on violin, and between them they will break your heart into a million pieces. Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two listening to this, or if you’re suddenly inspired to grab a dark stranger for a slow, intimate dance.

If you’re a big Satie fan like me, you might also be interested in another incredible interpretation of this particular Gnossienne by Spanish guitarist/singer Javier Ruibal, which Dore Stein of Tangents Radio first turned me on to. Ruibal’s “La Flor de Estambul” is Satie’s music set to lyrics in Spanish. Yum!

MOST INTERESTING AND INDESCRIBABLE PERFORMANCE ON AN ELECTRIC GUITAR AWARD

The absolute highlight of the Outsound New Music Summit this year was Italian avant rock guitarist IOIOI’s improvised response to local composer Kanoko Nishi’s graphic score, a mysterious series of drawings of which the audience only ever saw the effects. IOIOI (Cristiana Fraticelli) used a loop station and a bunch of effects pedals to build sounds and textures on the guitar, which mostly lay flat on the ground before her. Sitting atop the strings she had placed a prayer bowl that she tapped and in which she rattled various objects, creating vibrations along the guitar strings. She also used chopsticks on the guitar in the most remarkable ways that I can’t even begin to describe. At times she played the guitar like it was a violin, at times like it was a percussive instrument, and all of these sounds were layered upon one another for a mesmerizing effect.

But if I could sum up what made it all so utterly captivating, it was the purity of IOIOI’s childlike curiosity in exploring all the sonic possibilities of her instrument. I was very lucky to spend some time with her after this performance and record a great interview with her and Nishi about their creative process. Hopefully some day I will write more about that.

BEST REBUTTAL BY A FAMOUS CELLIST TO A FAMOUS HECKLING VIOLIST AWARD

Amongst the many contenders for this award, in the end I had to give it to cellist Joan Jeanrenaud for her response to the eighty-five year old violist Bernie Zaslav’s horrendous heckling at a small avant-chamber concert dedicated to the viola.

The incident—which involved the heckled musician throwing his viola to the ground mid-performance (which, of course, broke it) and storming off stage, once he had untangled himself from the curtains—became know locally as The Viola Riot AKA Viola Gate. When one particularly irate member of the audience repeatedly accused Zaslav of being nothing more than “an asshole,” Zaslav indignantly countered, “I am a violist,” to which the quick-thinking Ms. Jeanrenaud rejoined from her seat in the audience, “Violists can be assholes too!” Priceless. To get the full story in more detail than you probably care for, see my The Riot of Spring, 2011.

MOST ELECTRIFYING PERFORMANCE AT THE REVOLUTION CAFE AWARD

And yes, the Rev does warrant its own category. Every night of the week you can catch live music there and it’s always free. Of course, it’s a well known fact that the musicians get paid shit, so keep that in mind when the tip jar is being passed around. Despite this, it is still a place to hear great music on a fairly consistent basis. Over the years, I have been introduced to some fantastic acts there, thanks to drummer Aaron Kierbel and bassist Joe Lewis, who have been booking the music there. In August this year, guitarist Vic Wong, who regularly plays there with his gypsy jazz group, Panique, introduced one of France’s leading gypsy jazz guitarists, Sebastien Giniaux and his quartet.

Suffice it to say, this man was insanely good. Sometimes he played so fast, I couldn’t actually see where his hand was. At one point I thought I saw smoke rising from his guitar strings (seriously!). Giniaux played a mixture of original and classic gypsy jazz tunes, with charming references to pop culture nonchalantly thrown in, like when he started one song with a gypsy jazz version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” then seamlessly shifted into a Django Reinhardt tune as though it was always meant to be played this way. If Giniaux’s electrifying playing weren’t enough, there were also a group of swing dancers performing some outrageous moves in the tiny, cramped space that is the Rev. The crowd went absolutely wild. This one will definitely go down as one of the best nights ever at the Rev.

MOST MEMORABLE LINE OUT OF A MUSICIAN’S MOUTH DURING AN INTERVIEW AWARD

By this I mean an interview that I personally conducted, of which there were many this year, more than I was able to write about in the end. Most of my interviews are done one-on-one, but occasionally I interview people together, which can be a lot of fun too. This was the case back in May after the Cardiacs tribute show at Café du Nord when I interviewed four members of ReCardiacs Fly (normally members of Reconnaissance Fly). Guitarist Marc Laspina arrives late to the conversation; unlike the others, still sporting the Cardiacs’ signature white cake makeup with smeared red lipstick. Expounding the genius that is Cardiacs, he blithely lets slip the line “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook.” I just really liked that line.

ReCardiacs Fly

To learn all about that evening and why so many people become obsessive Cardiacs fans, once they finally discover this British band’s crazy prog/punk music, read my Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes). Also, check out some posts on the topic of Cardiacs and their local tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly on the Memory Select blog.

MOST MAGICAL, UNBELIEVABLYFUCKINGGOOD TRIBUTE SHOW EVER AWARD

Apart from the just mentioned Cardiacs tribute show and, of course, the show that ultimately wins this award, I can’t say I’ve been to too many tribute shows this year, not to mention in my whole life. However, I can assure you that the truth of the following falls into the category philosopher Immanuel Kant called “synthetic a priori,” which basically means I don’t need to have gone to any tribute shows to know that this one was the best EVER.

Of course, I’m talking about the Amy Winehouse Tribute show with San Francisco’s soul/funk/blues powerhouse Con Brio at Viracocha in August, the show that left me rather gobsmacked, as you can see from the post I wrote about it the next day. I’m not sure I’m any more articulate on the topic four months later. What blew me away was the incredible talent of all the artists involved—Con Brio and their dazzlingly good lead singer, Xandra Corpora, and all the amazing guest vocalists, Rose Logue, Amber Gougis, Wolf Larsen, Atiim Chenzira, P. Wolf & Avi (now Goodnight, Texas), Ali Niedbalski, Latriece Love, and Quinn DeVeaux—and how they managed to pull together such a magical show in so short a space of time. Each one made the Amy Winehouse songs they sung their own while also honoring the memory of this bright, shining star that burned out way too soon.

While we’re on the topic of Con Brio, I have to mention their impressive debut, From the Hip (self-released, 2010), which would have won an award except that it was released last year and I already pulled a fast one above with another 2010 album. Con Brio are about to release their second album, The Bay is Burning (a live recording), on February 11th at The Independent. It should be a fantastic show with the lively Latin-fusion band LoCura opening.

THREE BEST ALBUM RELEASES OF THE YEAR BECAUSE IT WAS TOO HARD TO CHOOSE JUST ONE AWARD

Narrowing it down to three was already difficult enough, but I managed to pick three very different albums for this award, though interestingly, all feature strings.

First on the list is The Nice Guy Trio‘s stunning second album, Sideways and Alleys/Walking Music (Porto Franco Records, 2011), so-named for the two suites—composed by accordionist Rob Reich and trumpeter Darren Johnston, respectively—for the trio plus string quartet. I was lucky to attend the premiere of these two works at the Yerba Buena Gardens last year, though the beginning of Johnston’s Walking Music was rudely drowned out for several minutes by the clanging bells of St. Patrick’s across the street, a fact that made me cringe with embarrassment because the church had been built by my great-great-uncle, a Catholic Monsignor, after the original St. Patrick’s had been reduced to a pile of rubble in the 1906 earthquake. Amazing how family can still embarrass over 75 years after they’re gone!

Thankfully, these awful bells do not make it onto this album that represents a real development for both composers, neither of whom had written music for a string quartet before. Reich is known for his epic, cinematic scores, and Sidewalks and Alleys is no different in that respect, whereas Johnston’s Waking Music has much more of a jazz swing to it, though there are also strong elements of classical and folk in his compositions, with hints here and there of the East. The album is full of haunting melodies brought to life beautifully by the strings. But there is also a real depth to the music beyond the prettiness. The robust sense of journey in both suites is heightened by the composers’ adventurousness, by their willingness to turn dark corners and wander down half-illuminated pathways, traversing many moods and emotional landscapes.

The second album to win this award is the delightful debut offering by Musical Art QuintetNuevo Chamber (Classical Revolution, 2011). While I am as guilty as the next person of using such terms as “genre-defying” to describe music that draws on multiple styles for inspiration, it is safe to say that this album lies firmly in the chamber category, which is not to say that it does not bend or stretch that category in any way. On the contrary, the quintet’s composer, bassist Sascha Jacobsen (who is also a member of tango ensemble Trio Garufa) deftly incorporates many styles of music, most prominently Argentine tango. The album’s title—which, I suppose I should confess, I inadvertently furnished during an innocent conversation with Jacobsen about the quintet’s style—is an allusion to Nuevo Tango, the style of music pioneered by Astor Piazzolla that draws on traditional tango while also incorporating elements of jazz and classical. The newer electro-tango wave, which includes such bands as Gotan Project and Bajofondo, could be considered an extension of this musical development. Indeed, Jacobsen also throws a few electro-tangos in the mix on Nuevo Chamber.

As much as I love the album, it is no substitute for a live performance by the quintet. When they opened for Quijerema at Yoshi’s in October, they completely stole the show and had the audience eating out of their hands within seconds of their first piece, the lively “Milonga de San Francisco,” which also opens Nuevo Chamber. They’ve also brought down the house a number of times at the Revolution Café’s Monday night chamber jam. Jacobsen’s high-energy, rhythmic compositions have a lightness and airiness to them that makes their sweetness all the more digestible. In live performances, he gives each of his musicians plenty of space to improvise and show off their stuff. Lately, the insanely talented violin player Matthew Szemela, who until very recently was based in NY, has also been jamming with the quintet, driving the crowds wild. This man could seriously out-fiddle the devil himself! Live ‘n’ Local and Classical Revolution will be teaming up on January 13th to present the first in a series we’re calling “Electric Chamber,” which features both MAQ and Szemela’s duo, Vytal Theory.

The last winner of this award is Foxtails Brigade for their utterly charming “sort-of-Christmas album,” Time Is Passed (self-released, 2011). Foxtails Brigade is Laura Weinbach on vocals, guitar, and compositions and Anton Patzner on violin and arrangements, with cellist Lewis Patzner, percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Josh Pollack, and bassist Joe Lewis helping out. Both Weinbach and Patzner are classically trained musicians from musical families, so it is no surprise to find sophisticated, intricate instrumentation on this chamber pop album that is simply gorgeous. Foxtails’ music also has elements of jazz and blues, particularly in Weinbach’s vocal stylings. That she was made as a child to memorize and perform jazz standards from the likes of Blossom Dearie (an unusual form of punishment for bad behavior!) comes through in her lush, almost angelic singing, especially in songs like “Lost in an Endless Dream” or “I’m Not Really In the Christmas Mood This Year.”

But make no mistake, the pretty-as-a-picture Weinbach—who looks a little like a Victorian urchin who has stepped out of Edward Gorey illustration—is no angel. Her lyrics are full of doom and gloom, like in the whimsical “Unfairness Awareness,” where she sings about all the other ungrateful children getting ridiculous Christmas presents they don’t deserve: “Diamonds for Daniel / though he’s a boy / three puppies for Amanda / she thinks they’re toys / And when everybody else receives their fun-filled treat / there’s only dust for me.” No wonder she’s not in the mood for Christmas! All this slightly misanthropic sentiment around the holidays is, of course, what ultimately adds to the bittersweet charm of Time Is Passed.

GREATEST CONTRIBUTION TO THE LOCAL MUSIC SCENE AWARD

Speaking of bittersweet, it is with some sadness that I announce that the winner of this award is Peter Varshavsky and Porto Franco Records for their tireless work supporting and promoting local music in the Bay Area. Peter and his father, Sergei, started the label almost three years ago and within that short space of time have managed to release an incredible selection of music from local artists. We’ve already mentioned Seth Ford-Young’s eponymous debut and The Nice Guy Trio’s Sideways and Alleys/Walking Music. Also released this year was Marcus Shelby Orchestra’s Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (more coming on that soon!), Gojogo’s 28,000 Days, the Mitch Marcus Quintet’s Countdown 2 Meltdown, to name just a few. In their three years, Porto Franco have released music from a wide variety of artists across many genres, such as Ethiopian-born singer/songerwriter Meklit Hadero, Balkan brass powerhouse Brass Menazeri, blues singer/guitarist Seth Augustus, gypsy jazz ensemble Gaucho, and indie pop duo Ramon and Jessica.

But, as it turns out, not having a particular niche is not a viable business model and so going into 2012, Porto Franco will be phasing out the record label aspect of their activity, focusing instead of the less-costly Porto Franco Files, a successful video series that Peter started this year. Although Peter will be returning to graduate school to complete his studies in mathematics, I’m sure Porto Franco will continue to do great work, actively supporting the local creative music scene and promoting San Francisco as a music destination to rival the likes of New Orleans or Nashville.

HANDS DOWN THE BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR AWARD

I didn’t even have to think about this one. Without a doubt, this goes to Steven Schick and the Paul Dresher Ensemble for Schick Machine, which played at Z Space in April this year. Schick Machine is a collaboration between Paul Dresher, local composer and inventor of some of the wildest instruments you’ve ever seen, Daniel Schmidt, another inventor of crazy musical instruments, Matt Heckert, builder of kinetic sculptures, and renowned writer/director Rinde Eckert. The one-man show is performed by Steven Schick, a master percussionist with an astounding ability to extract every texture of sound from objects, be they simple household objects, wildly inventive creations that are both visually stunning and rich with sound possibilities, or sparser inventions born of an idiosyncratic mind.

Schick Machine‘s lone character, Lazlo Klangfarben, moves around from station to station in his subterranean (as I imagine it) sound laboratory that looks like the whirring, spinning, grinding internal workings of a giant piano organ. At times he conducts a kind of locomotive symphony between the different parts of the huge machine, at other times he plays a single instrument tenderly and slow, and the playing becomes a kind of meditative dance. Eckert’s philosophical ponderings through the character of Klangfarben punctuate Schick’s virtuosic playing, and add the kind of intellectual depth these wild inventions demand. His words capture beautifully the emotional resonance Schick extracts from each instrument, and the narrative frame provides a solid context for Schick’s sonic explorations.

I do hope the Paul Dresher Ensemble considers a re-run of this incredible show in 2012.

Well that’s it, folks, for this year. Congratulations and many thanks to all our winners, and here’s to another great year in music!

Excursions to the Edge

When do the sounds emanating from a musical instrument cross the boundary of what we call “music” and venture into an unknown territory of mere clatters, dins, and squeaks? Indeed, does such a boundary exist at all? If it does, it is certainly elusive and constantly shifting.

Some of the most interesting music around these days plays in this penumbral region, making excursions into strange and foreign lands, then returning again to the known, the familiar. Some music, on the other hand, blasts off into the superlunary realms and keeps going, never looking back toward home. It is then we might begin to wonder if it still counts as “music” at all, or what it even means to make this judgment.

Questions of this sort were on my mind Thursday night after seeing the ROVA Saxophone Quartet play at El Valenciano. ROVA (an acronym formed from the last initials of founding members, Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt* and Bruce Ackley) has been pushing the definition of music since the late 70’s. Leaders in the world of free jazz/new music, ROVA eschews conventions of rhythm and melody to create a rich landscape of timbres and sounds. The music is complex and interesting and the four saxophones, ranging from soprano to baritone, seem to speak to each other, albeit in a language whose meaning, if it has any, is beyond my ken.

This was my first time seeing ROVA live.

After their set, Sergei Varshavsky, co-founder with his son Peter of the local record label Porto Franco Records, leaned over and asked what I thought. “I really appreciate the incredible skill required to play such difficult and complex music,” I told him, “but I think it pushes against my edge with avant-garde music.” He laughed in agreement. ROVA was probably not anything we would listen to while relaxing at home, though it is certainly fascinating to see them perform live, to witness artists invent new territories, even when these territories lie outside those that we are naturally inclined to frequent.

Following ROVA, the Darren Johnston Quintet, which on Thursday night was Johnston on trumpet, quintet regulars Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Sheldon Brown on saxophone and bass clarinet, and new additions, Hamir Atwal on drums (wow!), and David Ewell on upright bass, played a mixture of brand new compositions and tracks from Johnson’s first quintet album, Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed Records).

While Johnston’s music certainly ventures out there into avant-garde territory, its sojourns never feel too long and the melodies that frame the improvisations echo throughout the unfamiliar terrain enough for me not to feel lost on the journey. The tracks have a kind of structure that, though playful and unpredictable, guide the music in a way that feels “organic and logical,” to use Johnston’s own words. Older tracks, such “Broken” and “Edge of the Forest,” sounded fresh and new, quite different from their previously recorded incarnations.

In conversation afterwards, Johnston admitted the tension he feels between the desire to create avant-garde/experimental music and the desire to create music that is more accessible, music that inspires people to dance or sing along. Playing trumpet with Brass Menazeri, a band whose infectious Balkan rhythms defy anyone in the crowd to stand still, clearly satisfies the latter desire. I can imagine how gratifying it must be for musicians to see fans dancing wildly to their music. But what about the experience of playing this kind of jazz to a small group of people sitting in chairs?

“Concert music,” Johnston said, a category in which he includes both contemporary jazz, chamber and orchestral music, “has been in trouble in this country for a while.” Whereas it is still popular for large foundations and rich patrons to sponsor symphonies, thus ensuring their survival in times of economic downturn, jazz is not so fortunate. In Europe—where, Johnston says, consumers of culture don’t require everything to be “pre-processed and pre-chewed” as they seem to do in the US—the survival of jazz seems more assured.

The number of people in attendance at Thursday night’s Mish-Mash appears to confirm Johnston’s suspicion. While there is so much going on musically in San Francisco (in terms of eclecticism, virtuosity, innovation, and sheer artistry, at least!) there is not always a significant audience to appreciate experimental jazz and new music. This may say more about the marketing and promoting of this kind of music than it does about its accessibility to a broader audience.

Certainly, the Thursday night Mish-Mash at El Valenciano is not on a lot of people’s radar. But I suspect that there’s more to the story than this. While ROVA might be about as far out as I’m willing to go when it comes to avant-garde music, for a lot of people, even straight ahead jazz is too far gone. At the end of the day, all that’s left to offer is some worn-out platitude about how there’s no accounting for taste.

Maybe that’s true, but here’s another platitude: there’s no harm in trying.

The Darren Johnston Chicago Quintet will be releasing a new album, The Big Lift, on Porto Franco Records later this year. You can hear the title track on Porto Franco’s 2011 Sampler, along with some other great local jazz artists including Marcus Shelby and his orchestra, Aaron Novik, Seth Ford-Young (with a gorgeous, shiver-inducing interpretation of Satie’s first Gnossienne), and The Nice Guy Trio, with compositions by Johnston and accordionist Rob Reich.