Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples.  By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.

“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes.  First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects.  Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.

This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment.  Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me.  It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.

The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space.  “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie.  It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar.  Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached.  It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.

“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace.  The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies.  This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record.  It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.

Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances.  When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona.  Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.

AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album.  Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work.  Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting.  I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.

-Donovan Burtan



Sean Hamilton-LOCI: Album Review

LOCI cover art

The drum set is not often placed front and center.  Although drummers should certainly never be discredited in terms of talent, in a band situation the most important quality of a drummer is often that they go unnoticeable, simply laying the foundation for the rest of the moving parts to operate properly.  Again, not an unimportant task, but certainly not an outwardly remarkable one. In a solo situation, drummers can only do so much to make their kit speak without sounding over-the-top or showy.  The solution for Sean Hamilton is contrasting his jazz-rooted solo drum chops with electronic drones, allowing for his new album LOCI to play around both in near silence as well as rhythmic chaos, never dwelling on one sound for too long.

Broken into eight tracks, but operating as a single opus, LOCI first introduces each side of the instrumental pallet with a two minute electronic build-up leading into a roughly two minute drum solo.  On track three, we find a middle ground with both sources of sound operating together.  Puffs of air come in varying intervals alternating between each side of the speaker before drums enter the picture to interact with them.  Hamilton spends more time building on this track than the initial two tracks, his timid snare drum work leading to larger rhythm motives, electronic white noise gaining traction to add to the chaos.  The middle of the project is almost devoid of all action; tracks four and five are kept at a volume level barely above silence.  Perhaps the project over-indulges in drone here, track five could easily be removed without ruining the whole experience and these 12-15 minutes make it a bit hard for the listener to maintain focus.  Luckily, the pace picks up a bit more on track six, where the drums make their re-appearance.  The album finishes off on a high note as texture is pushed to its very limit both on the drums and through the electronics.

One of the major accomplishments of the album is Hamilton’s ability to both blend his percussion and electronics together as well as place them in near juxtaposition.  On track seven, the lines between bubbling electronic sound effects and melodically driven drum phrasing are blurred seamlessly, making the soundscape very cohesive.  Other areas of the album emphasize contrast more, with huge swaths of space left entirely to a single sound device and other combinations of electronic and acoustic being a bit more divisive.  The possibilities are quite wide with this type of music as both sonic fields can yield a great deal of results.  For the most part, Hamilton successfully capitalizes on these abilities, sustaining unpredictability for the entire album.

On occasion, the project can lose its cohesion a bit, which may be a product of the lack of melody.  With all the aesthetic change that takes place, it would be a bit easier to make sense of it all through the use of motivic development and repetition.  Hamilton could probably increase this by adding a melodic voice to the playing situation or focusing more energy on how his drum phrasing develops.  Rather than constantly using all parts of the kit, it would be intriguing to here obsessive stints with one sound or one particular drum.  This does come in places, snare drum is the primary focus of the beginning of track three, but it could be emphasized a bit more.

LOCI comes together quite nicely.  As far as experimental, improvised music goes, Hamilton is clearly a master with the ability to truly express individuality.  By both showcasing his ability to fit within the modern drum idiom and the drone genre, Hamilton has put together a unique piece of music with a high level of development and contrast.  His next project may benefit from more motivic development and possibly the addition of a melodic voice, but the project works generally well from front to back.

-Donovan Burtan

Perhaps a bit too long at points but well-constructed and executed overall. 7/10