Offside 2×5: Klaxon Mutant Allstars & These Are Our Hours

Earlier this year I embarked on a major adventure with Alex Pinto—SF Offside—a three-night festival showcasing some of the best from the local jazz/creative music scene. While we are already working hard toward next year’s festival, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this year’s incredible experience. In particular, I wanted to bring together the two quintets that debuted at the festival into one night of awesomeness called Offside 2×5.

These Are Our Hours is one of many projects led by composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Aram Shelton, and includes members of the Oakland Active Orchestra. Alex and I had originally invited OAO to close out the first night of the festival, but given the significant size of that collective, the logistics didn’t work out. We kept talking with Aram about possibilities, however, which ultimately resulted in him putting together this quintet to perform all new compositions, specially written for the festival. And thus was born These Are Our Hours.

TAOH making their debut at SF Offside 2012
Photo by Roger Kim

In addition to Shelton on alto sax, TAOH features one of my current favorites, the very talented Mark Clifford on vibes, highlighted to great effect in Shelton’s arrangements, as well as Theo Padouvas on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Sam Ospovat or Shaun Lowecki on drums—a crew of young and talented players. Since their debut at Offside in May, they’ve been building a strong body of work playing a monthly at Bar 355 in Oakland. One Tuesday recently, I got to see them play the Uptown in Oakland with Alex Pinto’s trio opening, part of the ongoing Active Music Series. That was a great evening of music with a surprisingly full house for a Tuesday night, so I’m excited to hear TAOH play again, particularly at Viracocha, where the sound is so good. They will be playing the first set of the evening.

Meanwhile, check out this nice article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Shelton, whose Chicago quartet recently performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Klaxon Mutant Allstars is an intergalactic confederacy of Bay Area players—trumpeter Henry Hung, saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, keyboard player Colin Hogan, bassist George-Ban Weiss, and drummer Eric Garland—that emerged from the Amnesia Wednesday night jazz jam. While all five write for the ensemble, Hung and Garland do the bulk of the composing. The story of how KMA came to play the third night of Offside is not a whole lot different from the TAOH story. I was talking with George Ban-Weiss about Atomic Roger, his trio with Eric Garland and guitarist extraordinaire Mike Abraham (these three also play together in violinist Mads Tolling’s Grammy Award-winning quartet). Abraham, who took over the Wednesday night jam when Mitch Marcus moved to NY, has since moved to LA, so logistically it didn’t work out for them to play the festival.

KMA playing at Viracocha on the last night of Offside
Photo by Hernando Buitrago

George told me about a new group he, Garland (who now leads the Wednesday jam), and some others had formed, but at that point they did not yet have a name. I knew all the players involved and was already really impressed with Garland as a composer, not to mention bad-ass drummer. So, we invited the group to play at SF Offside, they promptly came up with a name for themselves, then performed an appropriately stellar (or interstellar?) set on the last night of the festival.

We were very lucky to have Bay Taper in attendance that night, so the entire evening was documented. Craig from Wedge Radio also covered the show on his blog.

For a little taste of what’s to come in November, listen to this Bay Taper recording of Klaxon playing a delightful Hung composition called “Jamie Moyer” (Wedge Radio explains the joke for those of us that don’t get sports references). The group also recently spent some time in the studio, so their debut recording will be released some time in the new year.

I’m very excited to be presenting these two quintets in one show. While different stylistically, both have mastered that fine balancing act between structure, melody, and rhythm on the one hand, and openness, improvisation, and inventiveness on the other. The music is accessible while also full of surprises. So, please, save the date!

Offside 2×5: KLAXON MUTANT ALLSTARS & THESE ARE OUR HOURS          Friday November 9th at Viracocha. Doors at 8pm, show at 8:30pm.

It’s going to be a night of ridiculously good, fresh new music.

Tales from the Other Side (of the Bay)

Friends will tell you, it takes a lot to tempt me out of the Mission. And for good reason! Why go anywhere when there are a bunch of great venues all within a few blocks of my house?

Occasionally, though, I will venture out into the nether regions of San Francisco and even (gasp!) over/under the bay to Oakland or Berkeley. This week was an unusual one for me in that I crossed the bay not once but twice to attend concerts in Berkeley.

Wednesday night I went to see Herbie Hancock at Zellerbach on the UC Berkeley campus. If you’ve never been, it’s a huge auditorium with three distinct levels. Our seats were way up there in the nosebleeds. We had purchased the second to cheapest price available, which, with two different kinds of fees smacked on top, came out to almost $50 a head.

Now, I don’t normally go to see big names from out of town, partly because of the exorbitant prices for tickets, partly for political reasons (I believe in supporting local artists), and partly because inevitably I end up being disappointed by the big names. Sadly, this too ended up being the case for Herbie.

I’m not exactly sure why I decided to spend the big bucks to go see him in the first place. It’s not like I’m an especially huge fan or anything. Recently I’ve been a little addicted to one particular track of his, “And What If I Don’t” from the 1963 album My Point of View and also from a later compilation, Cantaloupe Island. I think I just really wanted to hear him perform it live and, because of that, I somehow got in into my head—despite the threat implicit in the track’s title—that he would.

So what was disappointing (other than that fact that he, um, didn’t)?

For a start, his drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, was out of control, and I do not mean that in a good way. Someone should have put that man on a leash! Seriously. He took every opportunity he could to go ape-shit on the drums, when really there are times in which one should just chill out, sit back, and . . . I don’t know . . . keep the goddamn rhythm or something? But no, dude was like a crazed animal most of the time. I found it distracting and annoying. It was like he was in permanent solo-mode. I wanted to tell him, “Dude, you ain’t the star of this show!”

After that, there was nothing in particular to point to that didn’t live up to expectations. A huge venue like Zellerbach is obviously not very intimate and this kind of music played by just four musicians seems a little out of place in a venue like that. It gets swallowed up by the vastness of the space, especially by the time it reaches the nosebleeds.

Also, I couldn’t help but think some of the synth-heavy music sounded a little cheesy and dated. So 80’s . . .

And then there’s the economic assessment of the experience. They were good, but were they $50 good? At that price, I’m expecting to be blown away and when that doesn’t happen, disappointment inevitably sets in. Yeah, big name—what do you expect?

Friday night, on the other hand, I paid a mere $10 admission into downtown Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse to see Wiener Kids, the brain child of local drummer and boy wonder Jordan Glenn.

I don’t know exactly how many different ensembles Glenn plays in, but I think I like them all, and it’s rare a week goes by that I do not see him perform with some group or other. I had seen the particular configuration that is Wiener Kids once before at the Switchboard Music Festival in April, but I think by the time they played my brain was so fried from listening to hours of experimental music that I did not fully take in the Wiener genius. That, and/or they have just become out of control in the intervening months. And this time, I mean that in the best possible way.

Wiener Kids is Glenn on drums, Aram Shelton on alto sax, and Cory Wright on bari sax. Shelton and Wright also sometimes play bass clarinet and clarinet, respectively.

According to Glenn, “Wiener Kids sounds like a ninety pound weakling throwing a spastic tantrum regarding something not really important.” I love how composers describe their own music! And it’s true. The music is in that territory between experimental jazz and progressive rock, with lots of abrupt changes in rhythm and direction, brief moments of abstract insanity, a lot of whimsy and humor that will make you laugh out loud, and also enough structure and melody to keep it accessible for music plebs such as myself who are not steeped in theory. There are also some unexpectedly beautiful harmonies between the two reed players that might catch you off-guard amid all the silliness.

Glenn’s playing—in complete and utter contrast to what I saw of Colaiuta’s on Wednesday night—is subtle, playful, and so delightfully creative. Thank goodness for “ninety pound weaklings” who don’t need to pound on as many surfaces as possible to prove their technical chops! It is obvious why Glenn (who I’m sure weighs at least a hundred and twenty pounds) is such an in-demand drummer in the local creative music scene. It is also obvious that he, Shelton, and Wright play together a lot, such is their onstage chemistry.

In fact, just a week before they all played together at Viracocha in one of Shelton’s ensembles, Marches. That group also included keyboard player Michael Coleman and drummer Sam Ospovat, both of whom made a guest appearance on Friday night, along with eight other musicians, for the first and last pieces in the Wiener set.

I really liked how the music shifted compositionally when the ensemble changed from big band to trio, and then back again. For example, the last song of the set, “For My Mother,” which is also the last song on the new album, What A Mess, sounded like a slightly off-kilter New Orleans funeral march, quite a contrast from the spastic, proggy episodes we had heard before. I call them “episodes” because many of them come in under a minute long and seem to end mid phrase, which is part of what makes the music so much fun. There are always quirky little surprises to keep you on your toes.

As if that weren’t enough bang for your buck, the opening act Kapowski, an Oakland based pop quartet that also includes Coleman on keyboards and Ospovat on drums, gave a fantastic performance, which ended with a screening of their adorably cute new video. Lead singer Jesse Rimler’s plaintive, languid vocals, somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke or Rufus Wainwright (though stylistically very different from the latter) are very easy to listen to. The instrumentation, consisting of two sets of keyboards, bass, and drums, is an unusual mix that works really well with Rimler’s whimsical song-writing.

And just when you thought the evening could not be better value for money, add on two Wiener Kids CDs for only $15 and you’ve got yourself a real bargain! I took home the aforementioned new album and also Wiener’s first, Why Don’t You Make Me? 

To which the only appropriate response is: And what if I don’t?