Sound Advice: Honoring a Troubled Genius and Listening in the Dark

Gil Scott-Heron, the subject of a tribute by former collaborator Brian Jackson and a band led by Eric Harland at SFJAZZ this week. (Courtesy SFJAZZ)

The pianist Paul Bley died this week, which of course led me to pull out his records -- Closer, Barrage, and Mr. Joy in particular -- and revisit his playing (and/or his mind; the two were virtually one and the same). The striking thing about Bley, I realized while listening, is that he was a sly interloper in the free jazz world. He obviously had respect for what his colleagues were doing, but smuggled a certain restraint into the scene.

That understated nature would eventually become Bley's calling card, after he started recording for ECM and, in turn, birthing an entire new sound, but it's so thrilling to hear him sneak it into his otherwise wild early recordings. The rebel to the rebels, I guess you could say.

I also revisited a discussion between the New York Times' Ben Ratliff and the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. They talk not of Bley at large but of a single one of Bley's early solos, on "All the Things You Are," from the Coleman Hawkins / Sonny Rollins album Sonny Meets Hawk! "All the Things You Are" is the very definition of a hoary chestnut, right up there with "Body & Soul" or "How High the Moon," but what Bley does with it is astounding. Sheet music exists. Metheny says to the Times that the solo has an "inevitability":

"His relationship to time," Mr. Metheny said, "is the best sort of pushing and pulling; wrestling with it and at the same time, phrase by phrase, making these interesting connections between bass and drums, making it seem like it's a little bit on top, and then now it's a little bit behind... But there's also this X factor," he continued. "It's the sense of each thing leading very naturally to the next thing. He's letting each idea go to its own natural conclusion... It just feels like, 'Why didn't anybody else do that before?'"

Eric Harland.
Eric Harland. (Courtesy the artist)

I was thinking of these ideas when reminded of Eric Harland's upcoming residency at SFJAZZ, and how the ideas of elasticity and inevitability couldn't be more apt in describing the master drummer. Harland plays in and around the beat, like a gynmast on a tightrope, and always lands back on his feet. I have waxed both rhapsodic and ridiculous about Harland before, but suffice it to say: the man is the most thrilling drummer in jazz right now.

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This week, Harland leads a four-day residency that shows his versatility: a night with soul belter and Sharon Jones colleague Lee Fields, a night with members of Afrobeat group Antibalas, a night with Bay Area poet Ishmael Reed. And while Harland's set with Fields is the obvious date-night crowd-pleaser, it's Saturday night's collaboration with Brian Jackson that should prove the most illuminating.

Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron enjoyed a fruitful run of recording and performing together in the 1970s, and backed by Harland's band (including the great young players Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage), the keyboardist this Saturday pays tribute to the late genius. Jackson didn't have the smoothest relationship with the troubled, crack-addicted Scott-Heron of later years, but his reverence for their collaborative music endures. A discussion between Harland, Jackson and local jazz luminary Marcus Shelby precedes the concert, at 6:30pm. Details here.

More worthy shows this week:

Psycotic Pineapple, "I Wanna Get Rid of You."
Psycotic Pineapple, "I Wanna Get Rid of You."

Friday, Jan. 8: Psycotic Pineapple at 924 Gilman. 1970s punk was filled with "I Wanna" songs: "I Wanna Be Your Dog," by the Stooges; "I Wanna Destroy You," by the Soft Boys; virtually every third Ramones song. In Richmond, Calif., in 1979, the Bay Area chimed in on the craze with "I Wanna Get Rid of You," by a demented foursome called Psycotic Pineapple. Driven by a Monkees-style organ riff, the track is a snapshot of the era when punk and new wave collided, and went on to anchor the band's only full-length album. Disparate traces of both the Dave Clark Five and the 13th Floor Elevators can be found in the band, which has reunited for intermittent shows in recent years; at this week's all-ages show at 924 Gilman, longtime fans can even bring their kids. The Phantom Surfers and Love Songs add to the lineup's draw. Details here.

Neil Hamburger delivers standup with the music of Secret Chiefs 3 this week.
Neil Hamburger delivers standup with the music of Secret Chiefs 3 this week.

Friday–Saturday, Jan. 8–9: Neil Hamburger with Secret Chiefs 3 at the Roxie Theater. Our love for the surrealist comedy of Neil Hamburger here at KQED Arts is no secret -- read Kevin Jones' interview with Hamburger here -- and now, the tuxedoed pillar of pomade himself stars in a new film, Entertainment, which premiered at Sundance last year. Over two nights, the Roxie screens the strange film -- a look into the personal life of a struggling comic -- followed by a standup set from Hamburger and music by Secret Chiefs 3 each night. You'll never think of movies, music or comedy (or, ahem, Alpo dog food) in the same way again. Details here.

Louis & Bebe Barron.
Louis & Bebe Barron.

Thursday–Sunday, January 8–10: The San Francisco Tape Music Festival. In 2016, more options than ever exist for listening on the go. Multi-tasking with the Sonos system on, driving with the Bluetooth connected to our phone, jogging with earbuds in -- heck, even shower radios are making a comeback. But what about closing one's eyes, practicing concentration, and allowing total immersion in music? The team behind the San Francisco Tape Music Festival has kept the art of deep listening alive, in different incarnations, for 17 years now, presenting audiences with experimental sound pastiches and other audio collages played in complete darkness. Last year's festival at the Victoria Theatre was covered by Sam Harnett for KQED; this year's fest moves to Gray Area Space, a former movie theater-turned-tech incubator and performance space. Pieces by Bebe & Louis Barron (pictured), Iannis Xenakis and Morton Feldman share space on the lineup with local composers and new works; vintage wax cylinder recordings kick off each night's music. Details here.

Barry Johnson.
Barry Johnson.

Wednesday, Jan. 13: Barry Johnson (Joyce Manor) and Frances Quinlan (Hop Along) at the Chapel. As the frontman for Joyce Manor, Barry Johnson is a Blake Schwarzenbach for a new generation: his heart's on his sleeve, his beer's in his hand, and his songs are on the lips of teenagers and twentysomethings worldwide. (When Joyce Manor played a free show at Amoeba last year, the sound of hundreds of fans singing "Constant Headache" overpowered Johnson's own vocals; this is a common experience.) Johnson writes solid songs that translate well to other treatments -- witness Shamir's version of "Christmas Card" -- and in a solo setting at the Chapel, hopefully fans will hear some of the stories behind his obsessed-over lyrics. Details here.

 

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