A slight retrospective.
I’m kind of overdue for a check-in here. Even if nobody reads this, I need it to reflect and remember an especially momentous year in my musical sojourn; this last month — and a year ago in November and December — being some high points. It seems one reaches a point in life where the self-reflection often echoes in one’s head, “I’m lucky to have made it this far.” Years like this last one make that sentiment extra sweet.
First, I want to mention a gig that falls outside this time frame, one so special and mind-shaking, it must be mentioned for sake of completion. And, bragging. What was in all likelihood the only time I will ever play at the SF Jazz Center: January 29, 2017, ROVA Saxophone Quartet gathered a large group of players to perform their sprawling tribute to John Coltrane’s Ascension, which they call Electric Ascension. Complete personnel included Steve Adams, Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Donald Robinson, Trey Spruance, Zeena Parkins, Fred Frith, Ava Mendoza, Darren Johnston, Gino Robair, and Djll. Gino and I got to do a 5-minute duo that reached farther outward than even the heavenly interstellar space where Coltrane himself resides. I like to position myself as against professionalism, but at times like that, with so many potentially flailing egos and malfunctioning equipment and other kinds of things that need serious wrangling, having a band and crew of professionals handling it all makes a huge difference. A big thanks to Rova for including me and for being such stalwart supporters of the local scene for over 40 years!
A little over a year ago I was interviewed by Aaron Oppenheim for the Other Minds netlabel (aka “Modern Hits”) album of Tom Djll: Serge Works, which was released this past July of 2018. I’m proud to have been picked by Other Minds to be part of their artists roster, and proud of the noises I was making back during the Reagan era — my non-commercial counterpoint of protest to the prevailing culture back then. Includes a live track from the 1988 Seattle Festival of Improvised Music, the third of that hoary old series. Some of it’s as noisy as anything I’ve ever done, and it’s available wherever fine noises are sold! (OM website, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Amazon Music…) The interview was published in the book with the release, along with my notes to the pieces. Download yours today!
The same week as that interview, Carl Ludwig Hübsch was in town, taking statements from Bay Area improvisers about this evanescent art we practice. The results (playing and speaking) are collected here. Carl took one of my off-the-wall comments for the title. CL’s project was sponsored by SF MOMA and the Headlands Center for the Arts.
In October 2017 trio Euphotic (with Cheryl Leonard and Bryan Day) played at the Canessa Gallery on a bill with Elliott Sharp and Morgan Evans-Weiler. A fine night of subtle sounds, encapsulated on CatSynth TV.
November and December 2017 saw my return to Europe — after only 30 years — as the third leg of Tender Buttons (with Tania Chen and Gino Robair). We started in London, playing first at IKLECTIK, as friends and fellow-oddsound-worshippers Steve Beresford, David Toop, Steph Horak, Phil Durrant, Burkhard Beins, Bertrand Denzler, Bill Thompson and quite a lot of other players and audients gathered to shake ‘n’ bake the ears, or simply be treated to an evening of freely improvised electro-acoustic music. My favorite kind of evening.
A day or two later, the TB trio were joined by master saxist John Butcher for a nice long set at Ray’s Jazz, on the fifth floor of Foyle’s Bookstore on Charing Cross Road. A lovely venue, a lovely audience, and great books and records downstairs. (The current listing shows Ray’s Jazz on floor 2, so I guess they have since moved it from 5).
We moved on to Oxford, and a cozy, intimate, well-fed house concert put together by Martin Hackett, a very fine gentleman, musician and artist. There we played, ate and drank and caroused and met the great improvising violinist Phil Wachsmann.
Hopping a train, the Buttoneers arrived in Glasgow the next evening for a 3-day residency with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra GIOfest X. What a superb group of people and players, so nice, and such party-heartiers: Gerry Rossi, Raymond MacDonald, Lori Freedman, Corey Mwamba — I wish I could remember them all — with guests Maggi Nichols, Guro Gravem Johansen, and Rhodri Davies. TB played individually in workshop pieces with the orchestra, and a trio set on Friday 12/3 (both the performance and the run-through were of a quality for a release… someday.). The weather was pretty good and Glasgow nightlife showed itself proud and vibrant (and drunk). I wanna go back!
From there, Gino and I traveled direct to Berlin for some concerts and private sessions and recordings (the two of us had also joined Phil Durrant for a recording together at the legendary Dave Hunt Sound Studio, in London, back in November). We had a hilarious time at Schneidersladen — the synth shop in Berlin — talking with Herr Andreas Schneider himself, all of which was captured on video for the SL channel. I was feeling a little tired and ill and saw a pair of silly sunglasses on a mannequin there, so swiped them for the interview. (Since I knew I wouldn’t be talking for long stretches, I tried to sit stone-faced behind the shades, a la Andy Warhol.) We also visited with the folks at KOMA Elektronik in Neuköln and got the full tour. With a beer cooler in the front of the shop (called Common Ground), it proved how civilized a city can be, if given the right atmosphere. A couple of days later we scheduled a bleepy-bloopy session with Richard Scott, a master of electronics and improvisation, who’s been in Berlin for some years now. He runs a label called Sound Anatomy which you should def check out. On the last evening, Gino and I joined Prof. Guilherme Rodrigues for an outstanding trio set at Spektrum.
Whew. Back in the states, and, more specifically, Oakland, Euphotic played an insect-inspired trio set on opening night of the 20th Annual Thingamajigs Festival at the Oakland Museum, December 15. Sometime after that, 2018 came lumbering through the door.
January of the new year was notable for two sessions with KOKUO, an all-acoustic group dedicated to delicate soundwork, with Kyle Bruckmann, Kanoko Nishi-Smith, John McCowen, and Jacob Felix Heule. Also me. I hope some of that music makes it onto more plasticky media some day so that all of you may enjoy it. We have some studio recordings that are nearing a finalized edited state (but without John). Another studio recording session by Tender Buttons happened that month at the (now nothing but a legend) Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. February saw radio KZSU’s Day of Noise occupy its 24 non-stop broadcast hours, with the Djll participating in sets by Runcible Spoon Fight, Tender Buttons, Rent Romus‘ Ruminations, and Karl Evangelista‘s REVENANT. You can look around in this video and others on YouTube for those sets. Rent and Karl = two of the hardest-working men in Bay Area show business!
Later in February, I re-freshed my musical partnership with Jack Wright, with whom I have been making music here and there since 1987 or maybe ’88. Jack’s book also came out last year and you should buy it. (Like, here.) His trio ROUGHHOUSING is an absolute BLAST and I was so happy to be able to enjoy multiple driving, kaleidoscrappic sets by them (Jack + Evan Lipson and Zach Darrup).
In May I spent a couple of weekends in Seattle and Portland, visiting and playing with friends old and new: avant-trumpet master Greg Kelley, who I first met in 1997 during nmperign‘s first (there’s that word again, legendary) tour of the US. Greg and I played our first duo — unfortunately, that’s one that got away from the recording machinery. In Corvallis I was the guest of Jim Whittemore (aka Luthor Maggot) and played a solo set at his series Interzone.
The summer was busy with new and existing projects, then in September something pretty unusual came my way, accompanying a book reading. The book was Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology; the author: Lisa Margonelli. The project brought about an unexpected cinematic flavor to the results, and I am planning for more collaborations with Lisa and other authors.
Later in September, some of my favorite people visited the Bay Area — Per Anders Nilsson, Palle Dahlstedt, and, coincidentally, David Toop. Per Anders and Palle have been working with Tim Perkis and Gino Robair on a long-term international project concerning interactive scores for improvisers. That concert, at CNMAT, is immortalized here. Mr Toop was a robust participant in that event, which included an afternoon of playing, experimenting, discussion, and dinner, then performance — was without doubt one of the best hang-outs I’ve ever been a part of. These Systemic Improvisation cats are doing important work, and, happily, two of them live in a country whose government and civic institutions support the arts. What a crazy concept!
The very next evening, also in Berkeley, Toop, Robair, Djll and the estimable Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly) came together to freely improvise electronically and acoustically (David played leaves and cones of paper, a small box, skittery toy bugs that got stuck in a paper cone and buzzed for longer than David wanted, transducers, tapes, radio, lap steel guitar and bass recorder (and probably some other stuff)). A pinnacle moment to play in such company (and another one that didn’t get recorded). Toop has been a hero of mine since 1980 when I first heard Alterations. As a teacher and contributor to music publications since the 1980s, Toop’s writing is world-class: his book Into the Maelstrom is one every improviser ought to read if they intend to understand this vast and improbable, sometimes unaccountably gorgeous métier.
Speaking of things unaccountable: Yesterday I played an uncompromising, very loud, very gnarly trumpet-feedback set at Robotspeak in San Francisco. Afterwards I felt almost mobbed by the crowd, and sold out my schwag table. That’s never happened before. And this morning, Serge Tcherepnine, inventor of the Serge Modular Music System that I (and so many others) love and work with, shared one of my bloopy synth videos on Facebook to the Facebook Serge Modular Synthesizers page. Another first.
I want to squeal like a little kid. And then sample and mangle it…