Saxophonist Allison Au said her 2016 album, Forest Grove, was inspired by the Toronto neighborhood where she grew up. But it's not city life she's referring to; it's a place where trees and nature provided the vista, not concrete.
The pastoral spirit of the Forest Grove neighborhood runs deep through Au's alto on all three of her records. She tends to play relaxed, melodic phrases that reinforce an ensemble sound rather than firing up solos that race over the harmonic foundation of her compositions. Keyboardist Todd Pentney, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer Fabio Ragnelli have plenty of freedom to explore Au's tunes and they feel essential to her vision, not just a backing band.
Forest Grove won a Juno award -- the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy -- for best jazz album and her latest, 2019's Wander Wonder, was nominated as was her debut, The Sky Was Pale Blue. Au self-released all of the albums, so to garner this type of recognition for independent releases is a testament to her talent.
You can see the Allison Au Quartet at Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, October 23. Below are some videos of the band in action and you can listen to her three albums.
The 2019 Edgefest (Oct. 16-19) has been on my calendar for months and I've been meaning to write a preview of this Ann Arbor experimental-music institution for weeks.
This year's theme, "OUT West," focuses on "the rich historical contributions of West Coast artists in the development of avant jazz improvisation and new music." That quote is from the website of Kerrytown Concert House, which is Edgefest's hub, even if all the October 17 concerts are at the sparkling Blue LLama Jazz Club and the large-ensemble finale on October 19 is at Bethlehem United Church of Christ. You can't have Edgefest without the Concert House.
But this and that happened, time got away from me, and I never got around to writing the preview.
Thankfully, longtime music writer and Edgefest musician Piotr Michalowski wrote the festival's program, which is an excellent primer on the dozens of musicians and various ensembles performing at this year's edition. You'll find Michalowski's write-up below, but first, I want to share a story about one specific event at Edgefest -- and why I think it defines the festival as a whole.
Moon Hooch's music has all the manic energy of a city. The Brooklyn group's drums-sax-sax lineup rumbles like the New York City subway system, where the trio spent many hours busking when it formed in 2010. The way the band combines dance beats and avant-garde jazz is akin to a metropolis' relentless forward rhythm that's being intersected by speeding cabs running red lights.
But the nervous energy Moon Hooch exudes in its simultaneously catchy and edgy music is in direct opposition to the way drummer James Muschler and saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen live their lives off the stage.
Or even in their touring van.
Moon Hooch's members are avid meditators and they use this practice to stay mentally and physically fit during arduous tours across the U.S.
"Yeah, it’s not easy," McGowen said of touring. "Meditation, Qigong, and breathing exercises are what keeps me going. I try to transmute stress through present moment awareness. I don’t succeed always, but when I am enough present I can stay calm even if the situation is challenging. We usually get together every morning, sit in a circle, breath together and share how we feel. We aren’t doing that every day, but whenever we do it, it really uplifts the group dynamic."
You can debate who the best guitarist is all day and still not carve out a consensus. Braaap all you want about who's the finest trumpeter and the winner's horn will never sound. Argue about pianists and you'll be talking in circles about tickling the ivories even though a title-holder will never be crowned.
Might as well cue Jadakiss' "The Champ Is Here."
It's Ciani by knockout.
The 73-year-old champ is bringing her Buchla to Ann Arbor for a master class (2 pm) and a performance (8 pm) on Saturday, October 5 as part of the Resonance festival, an annual one-day event that celebrates women and non-binary artists in music technology, sponsored by the Performing Arts Technology department at the University of Michigan. Ciani will work in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall -- limited seating, get there early because both events are free -- and perform her Buchla compositions in quadrophonic sound with accompanying visuals.
If you're unfamiliar with Ciani, here's a crash course in her music and the synthesizer she mastered.
Hydropark's second album, Circuit 2, works like one of those vintage British or Italian library-music albums that feature short songs written to set moods in films and TV shows -- tunes with titles like "Creepy Street," "Misty Canyon," and "Blue Veils and Golden Sands."
Those compositions weren't concerned with key-changing bridges or clean denouements. They parachuted people into the middle of a groove and then extracted them before the mood was exhausted.
"The majority of both our [self-titled] first album and Circuit 2 is loosely structured jams, first takes, experiments, or songs we liked but weren't stylistically consistent with each other," said Hydropark guitarist Fred Thomas, who is joined in the band by drummer Chad Pratt, keyboardist Chuck Sipperley, and bassist Jason Lymangrover. "We looked to J Dilla's beat tapes as inspiration for this record. Collections of fragments and the best parts taken from longer recordings that switch to the next song at the first signs of boredom or disinterest."
When Bob Dylan plays Hill Auditorium on November 6, it'll be the 12th time he's played Ann Arbor (and the 13th time in Washtenaw County when counting his 2007 concert with Elvis Costello at EMU Convocation Center).
But unlike what is sometimes stated, his first solo show was not September 9, 1964, at Ann Arbor High School (now Pioneer); it was on April 22, 1962, at the Union Ballroom as part of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. That show is sometimes forgotten about by writers because they have to expand their concert-database searches to find it: Dylan, who had released his self-titled debut LP the month before, was so little known that he was mistakenly advertised as "Bob Dillon," as shown in this ad in The Michigan Daily.
Another Daily ad, reprinted in Neil Cossar’s 2018 book Bob Dylan: The Day I Was There, showed Dylan's name spelled correctly and also quotes Jay Margulies about the 1962 concert and its afterparty:
Sonny Sharrock played guitar like a boxer throws punches: with fluidity and violence. Sweet-science superfan Miles Davis must have recognized this when he had Sharrock join John McLaughlin in the ax section for the trumpeter's stellar 1971 jazz-rock soundtrack for a documentary on the boxer Jack Johnson.
In the mid-'60s, Sharrock began about a decade-long run playing with his singer wife, Linda, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, flutist Herbie Mann, and others, but he went into semi-retirement from music after divorcing. As with many singular stylists, Sharrock's skills weren't fully appreciated when he first came onto the scene, but his reputation rose up in the 1980s when bassist and producer Bill Laswell recruited him to play in his avant-funk jazz band Material and the punk-jazz supergroup Last Exit. During this time, Sharrock resumed his career as a leader and also played free jazz with Machine Gun, with everything culminating in the 1991 avant-jazz-rock masterpiece Ask the Ages, a Laswell-produced album featuring Sanders on sax, Elvin Jones on drums, and Charnett Moffett on bass. (Sharrock also did soundtrack work for the Cartoon Network classic Space Ghost Coast to Coast.)
But on the eve of signing to a major label, Sharrock died in 1994 at the age of 53. While he died too young, the guitarist's reputation as a major force was sealed forever.
On September 11 at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti, four Ann Arbor jazz musicians will fete Sharrock's Ask the Ages by playing the album in its entirety. Guitarist Max Bowen transcribed the music on Ask the Ages, which he'll interpret with saxophonist Andrew Bishop, bassist Aidan Cafferty, and drummer Bob Sweet.
I interviewed Sweet and Bowen about Sharrock, Ask the Ages, and how this project came together.
The Michigan Electronic Music Collective (MEMCO) is made up of U-M student DJs, producers, and party planners. But these sonic scholars didn't take the past summer off -- at least not from music-making and mixing. MEMCO members past and present were hitting the decks throughout the summertime, recording remixes, generating jams, and creating more mixes than the Jiffy plant.
MEMCO is recruiting members for this school year -- visit the collective's FB page for details -- and soon enough it will start throwing parties around town at familiar venues like Necto, Club Above, Lo-Fi, Alley Bar, Ann Arbor Art Center, and more (Edit: Put on your dancing shoes because the first fall 2019 MEMCO event is happening September 20 at Club Above.)
But until then, below are eight MEMCO mixes that run the gamut -- from trippy techno to funky footwork -- created during the hazy days of summer 2019. And if that's not enough music to keep you moving, MEMCO members sometimes host the long-running electronic music show Crush Collision on WCBN 88.3-FM every Thursday at 10 pm.
Two Ann Arbor visits by the Art Ensemble of Chicago were documented on recordings made 46 years apart
The 2018 Edgefest at Kerrytown Concert House was the launchpad for a year-long celebration of the legendary avant-garde jazz collective Art Ensemble of Chicago. The group not only performed at the long-running, annual Ann Arbor festival, it recorded a studio album during its stay here.
“This is the first performance of this 50th-anniversary project," Deanna Relyea, Edgfest’s artistic director, told me last year for a Pulp post. Ensemble co-founder "Roscoe [Mitchell] has written music for this group based on music written for the Art Ensemble years ago by Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, and Lester Bowie. (Bowie and Favors are deceased; Jarman is retired.)
The recorded fruits of the Art Ensemble's Ann Arbor labor, We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, was released in April on CD/digital via Pi Recordings and on vinyl in July via Erased Tapes. One part of the We Are on the Edge is live from the Kerrytown Concert House and the other section is music recorded at Big Sky, with University of Michigan professor Stephen Rush -- a longtime Mitchell collaborator -- conducting the large ensemble.
“I have been asked to conduct two pieces by Roscoe Mitchell and one by Don Moye," Rush told me last year. “I’m also providing instruments from my own collection for [percussionist] Don Moye. No question I would get involved a little bit in editing the scores, too. These things are extremely fluid and not at all like recording some of my other works like symphonies and chamber stuff. And the musicians are all amazing readers and amazing improvisers, which makes it really exciting.”
We Are on the Edge isn't the first Art Ensemble record made in Ann Arbor. Recorded on September 9, 1972, at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, Bap-Tizum is a free-wheeling, politically charged performance. (The first track on the LP is a band introduction by John Sinclair.)
Check out music from both albums below as you buy tickets to the 2019 Edgefest, which happens October 16-19:
In Elizabeth Smith's Pulp review of Nora Venturelli's Vice Versa exhibition at WSG Gallery in 2017, she noted that it consisted of "large-scale mixed-media paintings of the human figure in motion, with gestural lines and overlapping forms suggesting the trajectory of the body through space."
That description is true for Venturelli's new WSG exhibition, Body of Work -- except for the "large-scale" part. In an interview published on wsg-art.com, Venturelli says she hasn't "had the time to work on bigger pieces these past two years. Therefore, I decided to show what I had been doing since my last solo at the gallery. Most of the work in this show is the result of short poses during weekly 3-hour sessions."