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Pensiero-Nomade

TRACKLISTING:
1. Barcarola (4:25)
2. Cerchi d’acqua (4:26)
3. Danza notturna (5:14)
4. Calce e carbone (5:09)
5. La colomba e il pavone (4:17)
6. Tournesol (4:28)
7. Prima dell’estate (5:50)
8. Scirocco (5:03)
9. Imperfetta solitudine (6:19)
10. Sensitive (2:54)
11. Verso casa (4:07)

LINEUP
:
Salvo Lazzara – guitars
Luca Pietropaoli – trumpet, flugelhorn, contrabass, piano, electronics
Davide Guidoni – drums, percussion

With:
Clarissa Botsford – vocals (10)

Pensiero Nomade is a solo project by Sicilian-born guitarist/composer Salvo Lazzara – previously know to fans of Italian progressive rock as a member of Germinale, a band that released three albums for Mellow Records in the Nineties, and also participated in some of the tribute compilations released by that label. At the beginning of the new century Lazzara moved to Rome, where he realized that his musical interests were changing, and took up the study of jazz and improvisation. Pensiero Nomade was born from that experience: the project’s very name hints at the wide range of influences that inform Lazzara’s compositional approach, from jazz to world music to ambient/electronics. The project’s debut album, Per questi e altri naufragi, was released in 2007, and followed by Tempi migliori (2009), Materie e memorie (2011), and, finally, Imperfetta solitudine in the summer of 2013.

While Pensiero Nomade’s previous album saw Lazzara flanked by a group of four musicians, including a flutist and a keyboardist, the lineup on Imperfetta solitudine is a stripped-down trio that features Luca Pietropaoli on trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, contrabass and electronics, and Davide Guidoni (one-half of Daal, as well an excellent graphic artist) on drums and percussion. The result is an album that, while undoubtedly “progressive”, is quite far removed from “prog” in a conventional sense.

Indeed, unlike many contemporary prog albums, Imperfetta solitudine is neither brash or loud, though it would be a mistake to consider it mere background music. It certainly needs to be savoured at the right time and in the right surroundings, preferably after the sun has gone down, and when it is possible to lend it some attention – as is the case with albums in which subtlety and nuance are much more important than forced variety. Nothing is fast or hurried here, and the musical texture is loose and atmospheric, though not random. The sounds are organic, never jarring, but not artificially smooth either. The gentle movement of Lazzara’s acoustic guitar in opener “Barcarola” evokes flowing water, while the trumpet’s smoky, melancholy voice sounds almost human. The same pensive tone, almost an aid to meditation and reflection, can be found in the melodiously wistful “Calce e carbone”, the ethereal  “Tournesol” and solemn closing track “Verso casa”. The faintly disquieting “Sensitive” is the only number to feature the haunting vocals of guest artist Clarissa Botsford; while the uplifting “Cerchi d’acqua” exudes an almost vintage West Coast feel.

The 11 tracks are all relatively short, and only the title-track – a lovely, harmonious guitar bravura piece in which Lazzara uses the strings to create a percussion-like effect – exceeds 6 minutes. While the emphasis is firmly placed on the seamless, constantly riveting interplay between Lazzara’s guitar and Pietropaoli’s trumpet, Guidoni’s elegant, accomplished rhythmic touch adds dimension to otherwise low-key tracks such as “Scirocco” and La colomba e il pavone”; then it comes into its own in the lively “Prima dell’estate”, where it engages in a striking “dialogue” with the trumpet, and” and the stately “Danza notturna”, to which hand percussion adds a discreet touch of warmth.

Although Imperfetta solitudine is very likely to have flown under the radar of most “mainstream” prog fans, it can be warmly recommended to lovers of music that speaks to inner feelings and emotions as well as the ear, and evokes far subtler moods and atmospheres than those usually associated with the pomp and circumstance of classic progressive rock. Complemented by stylishly minimalist cover photography that reflects the nocturnal, meditative nature of the music, this album will appeal to devotees of the output of labels such as ECM or Moonjune Records, as well as those who are keen to explore the thriving diversity of the Italian music scene.

Links:
http://www.reverbnation.com/pensieronomade

http://www.myspace.com/pensieronomade

http://www.zonedimusica.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sorrows of the Moon (5:10)
2. Two for Joy (6:50)
3. Little Shadow (11:48)
4. If Not Inertia (6:57)
5. The Widening Gyre (8:01)
6. Gonz (6:38)
7. Let’s  (5:23)

LINEUP:
Brett Sroka – trombone, computer, whistling
Sam Harris – piano, prepared-piano, Rhodes electric piano
Shawn Baltazor – drums

With:
Mary Halvorsen – guitar, effects (1, 5, 6)
Sebastian Kruger – acoustic guitar (7)

Electroacoustic trio Ergo was formed in the early 2000s by New York-based trombonist Brett Sroka, who was inspired by the seamless blend of electronics and more traditional instrumentation featured on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. After the 2006 release of their debut, Quality Anatomechanical Music Since 2005, original drummer Damion Reid was replaced by Shawn Baltazor, while current keyboardist Sam Harris (who replaced Carl Maguire) joined in 2010. Ergo have been signed to Cuneiform Records since their second album, multitude,  solitude (2009), and have performed at a number of on avant-garde music festivals, such as Washington DC’ Sonic Circuits  – where they will be appearing again in September 2012.

The sinuous curves rendered in minimalistic black and white of the artwork (titled “Loop in Layers”) that graces the cover of If Not Inertia, Ergo’s third CD release, come across almost as a statement of intent. Indeed, the band’s sound hinges on the use of loops and a wide range of other electronic effects, controlled by Sroka’s trusted computer, which mesh with the warm, organic tones of the trombone, drums and piano. Ambient, avant-garde and free jazz mingle in seven tracks that offer dissonant patterns underpinned by insistent drones, and some unexpected snippets of skewed melody that temper the austerely rarefied quality of the music.

The seven compositions included on If Not Inertia range from the 5 minutes of opener “Sorrows of the Moon” to the almost 12 minutes of “Little Shadow”, for a total running time of around 50 minutes. Some of the tracks offer intriguing sonic renditions of celebrated literary works in a way that – while markedly different from the grandiose approach of the average progressive rock band – undeniably makes for an arresting listening experience. The three band members are supplemented by renowned avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson (guesting on three tracks) and acoustic guitarist Sebastian Kruger on one track.

If Not Inertia is an album of light and shade, made of sounds that possess a somewhat brittle quality, like glass that is about to break. The main instruments often seem to be playing different lines, which nevertheless coalesce to create a texture reminiscent of an abstract painting, at the same time ethereal and intensely expressive.  “Sorrows of the Moon” recreates the Baudelaire poem of the same name in melancholy, haunting fashion, depicting its inherent languor and ennui through the mournful voice of the trombone and a droning piano line overlaid by almost melodic guitar. “The Widening Gyre”, inspired by William Butler Yeats’ iconic poem “The Second Coming”, like the titular item starts out slowly with measured drums and gentle piano, then erupts into trombone-led chaos that conveys the poem’s stark, powerful imagery (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”). While “Two for Joy” and the title-track rely on plenty of sound effects (such as whistling) to weave an ethereal yet slightly spooky atmosphere, the buoyant trombone in closing track “Let’s” is almost catchy, bolstered by drums, piano and lilting acoustic guitar.

If Not Inertia will delight lovers of ambient and experimental jazz, as well as those with a keen interest in the use of computers for music-making. This is an album for adventurous listeners, and those with a high tolerance for dissonance and the lack of a recognizable structure – which means it may be of somewhat limited interest for the traditional prog fan. On the other hand, open-minded music buffs will find it a challenging but rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.ergoisaband.com/

http://www.myspace.com/ergo

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Cuckoo (9:23)
2. Knowledge (6:09)
3. Let Go (4:54)
4. Khajurao (5:22)
5. Hero (10:13)
6. UFO-RA (6:44)
7. Falling Up (18:03)
8. Palitana Mood (3:05)

LINEUP:
Tony Bianco – drums, loops, percussion
Michel Delville – electric guitar, bouzouki, electronics
Jordi Grognard – tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute, bansuri, electronic tempura

Machine Mass Trio was originally born as a side project of douBt, the electric jazz trio formed by Belgian guitarist Michel Delville whose acclaimed debut album, Never Pet a Burning Dog, was released in 2009 by influential New York-based label Moonjune Records. For this project, Delville and renowned NYC drummer Tony Bianco recruited a rising star of the modern jazz scene, Belgian reedist/saxophonist Jordi Grognard, who is also well-versed in non-Western woodwind instruments. Machine Mass Trio’s debut, As Real As Thinking, recorded live in the studio in October 2010, was released in November 2011 with the support of the Belgian French Community.

Like most of Moonjune Records’ output, As Real As Thinking is definitely not an immediately accessible album – sophisticated and multilayered, yet permeated with a sense of sharp urgency that surfaces when you would least expect it. In a veritable melting pot of diverse influences, the album merges the raw power of free jazz and guitar-based progressive rock à la King Crimson with the heady mysticism of Eastern music filtered through the electronic experimentalism of Krautrock. The three band members alternating in the spotlight or blending their collective strengths together to produce music that is constantly challenging but always rewarding, contribute in equal measure to the success of the final product.

At the core of Machine Mass Trio’s sound lies Tony Bianco’s astonishing drumming, a concentrate of pure energy and flawless time-keeping. He lays down an unflagging beat for the whole 10 minutes of the jammy, deceptively sedate “Hero”, providing a steady rhythmic backdrop for Delville and Grognard’s exertions. On the other hand, in the spectacular 18 minutes of “Falling Up Nº 9” – a tour de force that marries intoxicating psychedelic suggestions with chaotic free-jazz improvisation – he unleashes the pyrotechnics, the drums starting out in a subdued fashion, then gradually gaining intensity, sparring with Delville’s guitar and eerie electronic effects in an exhilarating crescendo.

Delville’s guitar runs the gamut from the blistering riffage of “Let Go”, with its almost metallic edge coupled with Grognard’s unbridled, highly emotional sax, to the intriguingly laid-back textures and staggered rhythms of “Knowledge”. The distinctive sound of the bouzouki, with its haunting, sitar-like twang, replaces the guitar in the Eastern-inspired “Khajurao” (named after the Hindu temple complex famous for its erotic sculptures) and album closer “Palitana Mood” – sinuously intertwining with Grognard’s breathy flutes, discreet percussion and buzzing electronic effects; while “UFO-RA” revolves around Delville’s slightly dissonant synth guitar, emoting over the lively pace set by drums, piano and sax.

A classy blend of stunning technical prowess, energy and creativity, As Real As Thinking is never predictable, and will not disappoint fans of independent labels such as ECM and Cuneiform, which, like Moonjune, comfortably straddle the lines between jazz, avant-garde, world music and progressive rock. In spite of the collective talent gathered here, the album celebrates the joy of unfettered playing, in a spirit that is both collaborative and mindful of each musician’s background and inclination. Though the album may be a daunting prospect for those who prize flowing melodies and carefully structured compositions, it is highly recommended to adventurous listeners and anyone who supports genuinely progressive music-making.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/machinemasstrio

http://www.moonjune.com

 

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Seattle-based band Moraine, one of the most interesting finds by MoonJune Record’s volcanic mastermind, Leonardo Pavkovic, first came to the attention of the progressive rock scene in 2009, with the release of their debut album Manifest Density. Their reputation as purveyors of complex, intelligent and energetic music with a definitely eclectic bent – chamber rock with an edge – was consolidated by their exhilarating performance at the 2010 edition of NEARfest, and, earlier this year, by a short but successful East Coast tour. With the official release of their second album, Metamorphic Rock (recorded on the occasion of the above-mentioned NEARfest appearance) less than a month away, band members – guitarist Dennis Rea, violinist Alicia DeJoie, saxophonist Jim DeJoie, bassist Kevin Millard and drummer Stephen Cavit – have kindly agreed to share some of their thoughts and experiences on behalf of my readers.

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Let us start with a rather unoriginal, though obligatory, question. How did the band come into existence, and what was the reason for its inception?

Dennis: Speaking of metamorphosis, Moraine has mutated so thoroughly since its inception that its origins as a free-improvising duo between myself and cellist Ruth Davidson are barely discernable now. The project began as a casual series of get-togethers with no specific agenda; there was certainly no expectation that it would evolve into the type of band it is today. As the musical relationship deepened, both of us brought in some compositions and it soon became apparent that the music would benefit from additional instruments. So we enlisted violinist Alicia DeJoie and drummer Jay Jaskot and named the newly formed band Moraine, a term denoting the debris carried along and deposited by a glacier, very apt for our part of the world. I had worked with Alicia in singer-songwriter Eric Apoe’s group They and knew that she would be perfect for what I had in mind. Jay had been the drummer in my late-90s band Axolotl and we had always been keen to continue our musical partnership.

After briefly trying out a couple of bassists, we found the ideal fit in Kevin Millard, who had played with Ruth back in their native Minnesota; it was an odd coincidence that I met the two of them independently. This lineup persisted for a year or so until Ruth departed for graduate school on the East Coast and Jay relocated to New York City. The drum chair was filled by Stephen Cavit, a longtime musical associate of mine who, in addition to being a phenomenal drummer, is also an Emmy Award–winning film composer and choir director. We considered replacing Ruth with another cellist but didn’t know any in Seattle who had the right temperament for this particular project, so we decided to deploy woodwinds (primarily baritone saxophone) in place of cello. James DeJoie was an easy choice for this role because he is not only one of the finest and most versatile saxophonists in the Pacific Northwest, but also is married to Alicia and thus had already grown familiar with our repertoire. This lineup has been in place for about two years now, and there’s every reason to believe that it will continue indefinitely.

Most of the interviews I have read so far seem to focus on Dennis Rea’s background. However, this time I would rather concentrate on everyone else’s experiences prior to joining the band. What prompted you to join, and how different are Moraine from your previous (or even current) musical experiences?

Alicia: When Dennis Rea approached me about Moraine, I was immediately interested. I had played with Dennis before and had greatly enjoyed it, profoundly impressed by his unique sound and compositional prowess. I had also seen him in the group Axolotl and absolutely loved that band, and was very excited to learn that Moraine would be doing some tunes in common. Moraine is unlike any band I’ve ever been in – our sound is unique, ultra-creative, yet what I like to think of as approachable. In addition to the musical camaraderie shared amongst us in the band, we all get along extraordinarily well as people, which is another aspect of the group I love and appreciate.

Jim: Prior to joining Moraine, I was doing a lot of jazz (well, still do!). I’ve always played in a few large ensembles as well as my own groups. I feel I have a little different take on “jazz” than most, by including “rock” and “pop” elements into the revered jazz world. I have been into using effects on my saxes, flutes, and clarinets for years and really love exploring the sounds created with what are essentially guitar efffects. When Ruth Davidson (Moraine’s cello player) left the band to continue her educational pursuits, Dennis asked if I would be interested in joining. The range of the bari sax and bass clarinet seemed an appropriate replacement for the cello (and they were rehearsing at my wife’s and my house!). I did have some reservations at first, only because I knew my sound would be a completely different thing for the group. I said “yes” with the condition that if it didn’t work out, Dennis could fire me – no hard feelings. Needless to say, I think it’s working out fantastically!

Stephen: When Dennis called me to potentially replace Jay (how is that possible?!?), I was fully engrossed in my composition career — during which time I’ve won an Emmy Award and been named a Sundance Composers Lab Fellow, among other great honors. I had been pretty active in the Seattle music scene before returning to live in Los Angeles for work in early 2000. When I made it back to Seattle a few short years later I found the scene had changed substantially and I didn’t recognize many of the new faces. Which is what made Dennis’ call all the more sweet: I was really jones-ing to perform again!

Kevin: My earliest musical experiences in Seattle (having moved here in ’96) were in the experimental music circles; I met Dennis back then.  He was playing in a band I adored called Axolotl, and my own band at the time (Panopticon, we called ourselves “avant-groove” or “trailer park jazz”) briefly shared a practice space with them.  I also had known Ruth back in Minneapolis; when she moved here, I introduced her to Dennis’ music.  Fast forward several years: imagine my delight to find they had formed an amazing band.  A month after seeing Moraine for the first time, their bassist left town suddenly.  I auditioned, and the fit was very natural.  I love playing music with such good friends.  The band’s music itself is very close to my heart, being a fan of Dr. Nerve, Univers Zero, and 70’s King Crimson.

What is your approach to your respective instruments, and to the compositional process? What about your main musical influences?

Dennis: In a word, I am nondoctrinaire in my approach to playing the guitar; that is, I don’t subscribe to any particular doctrine, ideology, or school of playing. I’m not a jazz guitarist, I’m not a rock guitarist or avant-garde guitarist, but simply a guitarist who is free to exercise any of my many musical interests.

Although I started out taking the standard lessons like everyone else and have periodically studied this or that aspect of music making, I’ve had relatively little formal musical training. I long ago came to the realization that my gift is my ear and that a more intuitive, listening-based approach suits me best. I can read music with a gun to my head but prefer to communicate simply through playing whenever possible. Some people have commented that my playing has a ‘searching’ quality, and that’s because I am literally searching for the right note or phrase rather than following patterns and formulae. As for composing, most of my tunes begin with a single musical motif that gets embedded in my mind; from there I begin crafting variations and complementary parts for my fellow musicians. I typically compose the other players’ parts in my pieces while making sure to leave them ample room for soloing and interpretation. Most of this polyphonic writing actually takes place in my head rather than on paper, when I’m walking down the street or doing something similarly innocuous – I seem to have the ability to hear fully formed pieces in my imagination. I then bring the parts to the other musicians at rehearsal, either in written or recorded form or transmitted using a sort of musical onomatopoeia.

As for my main influences, it’s futile to try to compress them into a baker’s dozen, but some very important influences would have to include John Abercrombie, Art Ensemble of Chicago/AACM, Derek Bailey, Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Brotherhood of Breath, John Cage, Eugene Chadbourne, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Cui Jian, Miles Davis, Stuart Dempster, Eric Dolphy, the ECM catalog in general, Bill Evans, free improvisation, Fred Frith, Stan Getz, Egberto Gismonti, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Gyorgy Ligeti, John McLaughlin, Charles Mingus, Ben Monder, the NYC No Wave movement, William Parker, Harry Partch, Annette Peacock, Jim Pepper, psychedelia, George Russell, Terje Rypdal, Elliott Sharp, Soft Machine, Sun Ra, Toru Takemitsu, Keith Tippett, Ralph Towner, Robert Wyatt, and the music of Brazil, Cambodia, China, Korea, the Naxi people of southwest China, North Africa, Vietnam, and Xinjiang

Alicia: My approach to the violin is to be as present as I can with the instrument while I’m playing, yet free enough to plunge into the unknown, stretching the gamut of sounds the instrument is capable of making. The solid, sonic landscapes laid down by Moraine compositions provide compelling foundations which inspire me to explore myriad melodic and rhythmic elements when soloing. The compositions I’ve brought to Moraine have all started at the piano and migrated to the different instruments from there. I love knowing that when I bring a new piece to rehearsal, the rest of the band will contribute much more with their unique sounds and ideas. Every piece is then honed, enhanced, and ultimately transformed into an expression of the entire band.

Jim: Well, I’ve always approached all my instruments with the mantra “sound first.”  In other words, tone and passion – the effects I use are extensions of my acoustic tone and feel. Compositionally, my ideas generally come from the sax and piano – once an idea starts, I  try to keep fleshing it out until it feels done – I have many, many unfinished pieces! My main influences are wide: John Hollenbeck, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman, and Tom Waits are some of my personal heroes. Of course there are many others: Eric Dolphy, George Crumb, Morton Feldman, Jim Black, Chris Speed, Portishead, Battles, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, David Bowie… There is so much great music to explore.

Stephen: I haven’t written anything for Moraine, probably because I am not a tune writer and feel more than a little intimidated by the prospect, but I do have a very developed process when it comes to scoring for film…..   I have pretty broad influences and, in regards to drumming, I would cite Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell, Gene Lake, and a few others of that ilk as my favs. When I first joined Moraine the music seemed to have a free-flowing jazz sensibility, more so than the driving rock sound it has today. The music spoke to me in that way and I feel, as a whole, our arrangements became tighter and more dynamic as a result of that shift.  In terms of what I listen to daily, I am mostly a classical music junky. I enjoy Eastern European post-minimalism, in particular, including most of the usual suspects like Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki and some possibly lesser known composers like Petris Vasks. It’s hard to say how that listening effects my drumming on a conscious level, but I’m certain it does. There’s a much more direct influence on my choral, concert and film work.

Kevin: I am a bit of a “red-headed stepchild” in Moraine, given that I don’t read music and am self-taught on tapping instruments and bass guitar.  (I’m not ashamed to admit that the Violent Femmes and Tones On Tail helped inspire me to take up the bass.)  But when I picked up my first Chapman Stick, it encouraged my dabblings in music theory and into “fancier” music.  My only real ‘bass idol,’ as it were, is Mick Karn (RIP) – a humble, self-taught iconoclast whose lack of formal training helped him develop his own unique tones and voice.  As for composition, I am not much of a tune-writer, having contributed only one tune to Moraine thus far (which was a tune I wrote for Panopticon).  I prefer to take more of a collaborative approach to writing music, probably because I am secretly a lazy man.

How has Moraine’s sound developed since its beginnings, and how did it change with the addition of Stephen and Jim?

Dennis: As mentioned previously, the group began as a free-improvising duo, morphed into a sort of chamber-rock quintet with a ‘string quartet plus drums’ configuration, and then arrived at its current lineup of guitar, violin, woodwinds (including flute), drums, and bass (an eight-string NS/Stick, to be precise). The net result of this transformation is that we are much more of a rock band now, albeit one that is just as likely to make excursions into jazz, world (particularly East Asian) music, and any other musical dialect that interests us.

The addition of Stephen and Jim pretty cemented our current, more forceful approach, for a number of reasons. For one thing, we had often faced challenges making the cello heard in an electric band setting due to issues with amplification, feedback, and overlapping range, whereas Jim’s baritone saxophone, fitted with a microphone, cuts through loud and clear. And unlike his more straightahead jazz gigs, Jim sees in Moraine an opportunity to explore creative sound processing, so his use of various effects such as harmonizers further beefs up the group sound, to the point where it’s almost as though we have a second heavy-duty guitarist on board. Alicia has recently begun incorporating more effects into her sound as well, which opens up a whole other set of possibilities.

Our previous drummer, Jay Jaskot, is a gifted musician whose heart really lies in jazz. With Moraine, he tended to play freely across the bar lines rather than delineate the transitions in our compositions. This approach often produced marvelous results, but as our repertoire grew increasingly intricate, the music called for a more architectural rather than free-flowing style of drumming. While Stephen is also adept at playing jazz, his parallel career as a composer brings a more structural approach to the music, thus enhancing dynamics and lending more drama to the music.

Since I was present at NEARfest 2010, where I had the pleasure to meet all of you for the first time, I am interested in your take  on the whole experience – especially as the future of the festival seems to be hanging by a thread. I also know that most of you had had no involvement with the “prog scene” prior to the release of Manifest Density. What have been your impressions so far?

Dennis: For us, NEARfest was a dream gig in every respect. We were frankly stunned to have been invited, given our exceedingly low profile among progressive rock enthusiasts at the time. Indeed, I saw quite a few “Who?” responses to the announcement in Internet forums. That makes it all the more satisfying that our set was not only well attended but very enthusiastically received.

To put things in perspective, our gigs in Seattle are typically in small dive bars and cafes for about 10-20 people. We’ve landed some decent gigs at local festivals and performance series, but nothing remotely approaching the caliber of NEARfest. It goes without saying that we had never experienced such top-flight sound, lighting, and acoustics as a band, and indeed that’s what made Metamorphic Rock possible. For starters, the warm hospitality and overall good vibe fortunately elicited one of the band’s best performances to date. The recording we obtained from NEARfest was of superb audio fidelity, and subsequent mix work with legendary Northwest producer / sonic genius Steve Fisk and mastering wizard Barry Corliss made it even richer. It’s the best-sounding specimen of my own playing ever.

I was especially blown away to find myself sharing a stage with what was essentially Gentle Giant (Three Friends), one of my towering musical icons. And the experience of connecting with so many like-minded people (yourself included) was priceless.

I was dismayed at the sudden, unexpected cancellation of this year’s NEARfest – since we played on the festival’s last day in 2010, I sometimes quip, ‘Was it something we played?’ Seriously, I really hope that the organizers regroup and come back stronger than ever next year, and some of them have indicated to me that they will. I really don’t want to get caught up in the controversy over why public support for NEARfest dropped off so abruptly this year, though I suspect that part of it is that a certain segment of the once-loyal NEARfest audience doesn’t have the patience for newer bands like ours.

Alicia: We had a fabulous time at NEARfest 2010. I was thrilled at the response we received there, as well as the wonderful contacts we made and have kept since then. Our East Coast tour in the spring of 2011 was a small reunion of sorts with many of the people we met at NEARfest, which makes the release of our upcoming album Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest that much more exciting to us.

Jim: I loved the experience. Usually, I consider myself a “journeyman” in a lot of groups – sort of show up and play and try not to make too many requests. But the NEARfest people were so accommodating and nice, it made the whole time a great experience (and for once I didn’t feel bad asking for more of me in the monitors!). The “prog scene” seemed really cool to me – full of people who truly love and are excited about music, a phenomenon not always associated with the “jazz” crowd. I’m disappointed to hear that the festival may not be happening in the future.

Stephen: If  having two drum techs is any kind of a taste of heaven, then I will be sure to be a good boy! We were so well cared for by people who clearly had a passion for this music. Fortunately, I was the only band member not to have any of the famous, high-octane espresso before the gig (I don’t drink coffee); otherwise, it’s possible Metamorphic Rock would have turned supersonic!!

Kevin: NEARfest was such a fantastic experience.  Having such an accommodating and friendly technical staff was a special pleasure (heck, having *any* technical help at all was a rare treat for us!, but seriously, the NEARfest crew was superb).  The coffee before the show was truly world-class.  And playing through not one but TWO full SVT 8×10 stacks was wish-fulfillment fantasy for me.  If NEARfest is, or was, the prog scene, then I look forward to more!  Such great audience and staff as well.

You recently completed a 4-date tour of the US East Coast. Do you consider it a success, or do you wish you could have done something otherwise?

Dennis: Though it was a modest tour by most measures, we felt that it was an almost complete success, marred only by some problems with borrowed equipment and a rather thin turnout in Philadelphia, but it was after all a Sunday night. Even so, we played very well that night and went down great with the the audience. Overall we received a tremendous response at every tour stop and offers to come back anytime (and we will). It was an almost disorienting contrast to our usual lot in Seattle (more on that below). In several cases people traveled long distances to see us, which was humbling; some had seen us the previous year at NEARfest and wanted more. Audience enthusiasm was palpable, and that fed into the music and charged up the performances. What’s more, we were astonished to actually break even on our travel costs through admissions and merchandise sales, which was wholly unexpected. We’ve also noticed that the touring experience has lifted us up to a new level of confidence and tightness – the Seattle shows we’ve done since then have been very high-energy.

Playing East Coast venues did underline our isolation in faraway Seattle. It was hard not to conclude that there is far more support for progressive rock in the U.S. Northeast than out in the Northwestern Hemisphere; folks back there might not think so, but all things are relative. Naturally, this makes us eager to return for more, but the geographical distance makes it a steep challenge to bring a five-piece band across the country without going deep in the hole. But we’ll be back, one way or another.

How did the new tracks featured  on Metamorphic Rock come about, and what makes them different from the material on Manifest Density?

Dennis: What’s different about our newer material is that it is being written expressly with our current instrumentation and musical personalities in mind, whereas many pieces on the previous two CDs were written before Moraine was formed and then adapted for our specific instrumental resources. Everyone in the band has a stake in the new material, and most of us are writing.

There are also different considerations when writing for woodwinds rather than cello. This will be apparent to those who listen to Metamorphic Rock who’ve also heard Manifest Density. We considered releasing a shorter version of the concert at first, to avoid repeating tracks that appeared on the first album, but found the total listening experience to be so cohesive that the energy would be sompromised by removing any pieces from the set list. We felt that it was excusable to reissue tracks from Manifest Density because with the new lineup, the arrangements are sometimes dramatically different from the previous versions. I’m pretty confident that people will be down with the record’s mix of new and refashioned material.

I know that you have been asked about your name more times than you care to admit, so this time I would rather inquire about the new album’s name, which sounds fantastic. Does it have anything to do with the Pacific Northwest being a heavily volcanic area?

Dennis: Not exactly, as volcanic rock is considered igneous rather than metamorphic rock. Due to the geological nature of our name, I like the idea of threading that theme through our work, not because it has any direct bearing on the music itself but because it’s a perennial area of interest for me. In fact, one of the song titles on Metamorphic Rock, “The Okanogan Lobe,” continues the theme, for the track’s namesake was a feature of the vast ice sheet that once covered parts of Washington State.

Strictly speaking, metamorphic rock isn’t related to moraines, except in an incidental way. Metamorphic Rock occurred to me in a flash of insight as the perfect way of answering that perennial question dreaded by musicians, ‘What type of music do you play?’ In our case we play a variety of rock music that continually seeks to transform itself, hence metamorphosis, hence Metamorphic Rock, which also plays on rock music and underscores that our music-making is a dynamic process.

While Seattle is commonly perceived as a sort of mecca for rock music, I know your experience is rather different, especially as regards getting opportunities for live performances. What are the main strengths (if any) and weaknesses of the Seattle scene?

Dennis: Seattle gets a lot of hype for being a happening music town, but personally I think it’s greatly overrated. As in any city its size, you can find many fabulously gifted musicians working in any genre you can name, but by far the lion’s share of opportunities and attention go to unimaginative indie rock and, lately, the fad for stovepipe-beard neo-Americana. There is no prog scene as such, and while there are a fair number of musicians whose music more or less fits that description, venues that will occasionally present that sort of thing are rare as hen’s teeth, and attention from the local music press scarcer still. Apart from the local jazz publication, where we have allies, Moraine has never received a single mention in any of the Seattle weeklies or arts/music scene rags – and yes, we do send them our CDs and press releases. But if I were to tattoo a middle finger on my forehead, guzzle a flask of Jägermeister, moon the audience, and throw up on the drummer, I can guarantee that there’d be a breathless feature profile of me in the local paper the following week 😉 While Seattle certainly has no monopoly on this sorry state of affairs, the fact remains that for a majority of listeners, physical appearance and attitude trump the music itself.

Lately I’ve seen some signs of a possible resurgence of interest in progressive rock out here, but it seems to be facing resolutely backward. For example, I came across a ‘Seattle Progressive and Art Rock Community’ Facebook group with great interest, but all I ever see discussed there are things like announcements of Kansas and Return to Forever concerts and calls for forming yet another Genesis tribute band. The few postings I’ve seen or submitted about live local progressive music events have been met with total radio silence – most of these folks would apparently rather hole up with their ‘70s records than support a living artform. In fact, I just heard about a local prog nut who passed up seeing a best friend’s first public performance in 10 years in favor of going to listen to old prog LPs at a local bar. There seems to be a persistent perception among many (particularly older) prog fans that local music is somehow always inferior, and that nothing can ever live up to the gold standards set by their ‘70s heroes.

But not to dwell on the negative… Whatever challenges Seattle progressive musicians face in terms of bookings and publicity, we’re blessed with an incredibly rich community of gifted musicians working in the areas of avant-rock, leading-edge jazz and improvised music, noise and experimental forms, world music, and more. Moraine cofounder Ruth Davidson informs me that Seattle has probably the best weird art-metal scene anywhere in the country, and extreme post-rockers like Sunn O))) are having a big impact outside of Seattle. Figures like Bill Frisell, Trey Gunn, and Stuart Dempster are recognized as master innovators around the globe. While many exceptional players end up following the well-worn path to New York or other big-league entrepots in search of more and better opprtunities, those of us who choose to remain here do so for any number of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with music – the inspiring natural surroundings, human-scale urban core, and so on.

Jim: Seattle is a great city with a lot of things happening. Generally, you have to search a bit to find those “happenings,” but there a lot of truly innovative musicians here. The Seattle music scene does tend to move in cliques, with the same group playing the same venues (especially true in the “jazz” scene). In my opinion, Moraine is one of the top jazz bands going. (I know, I know – jazz has such a bad rap these days, and unfortunately deservedly so!) Moraine sure ain’t Ellington, but I feel we exemplify what I consider the best thing about jazz: adventurous explorations into music.

Stephen: The strengths, as with any art scene, lie squarely with the array of great, creative players who make it up. Without a doubt, we have an embarrassment of riches in that regard. When things are good, that creative spirit is accompanied by a supportive, well established, infrastructure of venues and promoters/bookers who care as much for their end of the bargain as us players do for ours. There are some great people involved in booking here and a few great venues to showcase our wares, but for the most part, Seattle is not one of those high-functioning scenes. So far, as a general rule, we find our best opportunities outside of the Northwest.

Kevin:  In my experience, there are a great many Seattle “scenes,” and the town is full of good music, but it seems very clique-ish.  Each genre and sub-genre seems to keep to itself.  Fans of one band rarely seem interested in checking out other bands on the same bill. Also, there are thousands of bands (of all kinds) in the area, but we’re all scrabbling for the same short list of decent clubs.  Consequently, the venues often take the bands for granted – unpaid (or underpaid) and slighted.  But I have a hunch these are very common problems these days – I doubt this is unique to Seattle.

Do you see Moraine as a progressive (rather than “prog”) band? In case you do, how so?

Dennis: Well, I can’t rightly say, since nobody seems to be able to agree on a definition of progressive rock. If by progressive you mean a type of music that privileges instrumental and compositional skill and a spirit of inquiry over recycled forms, personality, fashion, and attitude, I’d say the label fits. But if progressive rock is taken to mean banks of florid keyboards, 20-minute multi-movement suites, and vocalists emoting dramatically about the battle at the end of the world, then no, we’re clearly not. Maybe this gets to the heart of the distinction you drew between ‘progressive’ and ‘prog.’

Based on many reviews and discussions I’ve seen, a lot of people seem to view us as a prog band. That’s valid to some extent, but I’m the only member of Moraine who has a progressive rock background, so we have to factor in the others’ widely varying musical backgrounds as well. One thing’s for sure, we did not consciously set out to become a ‘prog’ band. If anything, I’d say that Moraine has much more in common with the sort of avant-jazz-rock associated with the Downtown NYC scene; it has always puzzled me why more prog rock enthusiasts don’t embrace that music, which more faithfully carries forward the questing spirit of the progressive pioneers than most of the current crop of prog bands if you ask me.

Some reviewers have placed Moraine in the Canterbury or RIO subgenre. I don’t feel that we have much musical affinity to the so-called Canterbury scene since our music tends to be darker, is short on whimsy, and lacks vocals. Not that I’m not a huge fan of several of those groups, particularly Soft Machine. The RIO comparison is much more apt in terms of instrumentation and a somewhat similar compositional approach; I have no problem with that linkage. But in the end, we’re not consciously trying to emulate any models – our influences are going to show through sometimes, but that’s only natural.

Do you have any plans for a third album in the near future? I know you have been writing and performing new material in the past few months, and it would be great if Metamorphic Rock was followed by another studio album relatively soon.

Dennis: We’re getting close to having enough material for our third CD, which will be a studio effort and will probably see release in fall 2012 as MoonJune has many astounding projects to unleash on the world in the interim.

A little bird told me about a possible tour of South America and Europe in the fall or early next year. Any news as to now? Which countries are high on your list?

Dennis: Negotiations are underway for a possible tour of Brazil sometime in 2012, arranged through MoonJune contacts. It goes without saying that we would be absolutely thrilled to visit and play in that country, where we apparently have some fans. Several MoonJune artists were there earlier this year for a gigantic festival in Sao Paolo; they were very well received and had a fabulous time. Brazilian music – particularly bossa nova, tropicalia, and musica popular brasileira – have long been a major influence on me.

We also may have an opportunity to perform in a major jazz festival in Korea, in which case we’d try to set up additional shows in that part of Asia. The opportunity arose through our recent collaboration with Korean master musician Young Sub Lee, a national treasure in the field of Korean traditional music who was integrated into Moraine for a special performance of our East Asian repertoire, a memorable event.

As for Europe, the funding doesn’t appear to be there for that at present. We’d like nothing better than to tour Europe as we’ve gained a lot of fans over there, but realistically it will have to wait until travel funding is forthcoming. We will likely return to the East Coast and make our way farther down the West Coast over the coming year as well.

Thank you very much for your time and patience in answering all these questions! Really looking forward to listening to Metamorphic Rock, and hopefully to another East Coast tour.

 

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.moonjune.com

 

 

 

 

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 Even though California-born guitarist and composer Willie Oteri may not be a household name for most prog fans, over the almost 30 years of his career he has built quite a reputation among followers of experimental music. Currently based in Austin (TX), Oteri is one of the members of duo WD-41, together with trumpeter Dave Laczko. The duo will head to Italy in mid-July, where they are scheduled to perform at the Portello River Festival in Padova and a couple of other similar events. They are also planning to hold some concerts and jams in the houses of fellow musicians and fans of progressive music.

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Since many of the habitual visitors of prog sites are not familiar with your career, I guess we should start with a couple of rather trivial questions… Such as, how did you start playing your instruments, and what made you choose those particular instruments rather than others?

 Willie: I started out as a singer. At the age of 4 I whistled and sang everything I heard at home or on the radio. I also repaired an old record player, also when 4, on which I listened to a variety of music. At 7 I wanted to be a jazz singer like Dean Martin or Sinatra and only dabbled on instruments like violin or piano because they were in our house, my mother was a violinist who was in symphonies in her teens but gave it up for several reasons mainly to raise three children. I never really thought about much beyond singing. I had a cheap electric guitar around the age of 12, but I never really enjoyed it. I wanted a sax but my parents could not afford a good one. In my late teens I started playing bass so I could get into bands and I was the lead singer in couple of bands.  I also took up flute at that time since my sister had one she never used. Later in my twenties a friend convinced me to try pedal steel guitar so I could play in a country rock band he was starting. I played pedal steel for many years, in some situations you would never think of finding that sound and started dabbling on guitar but I was not real serious about guitar until the late ‘90s after coming back to professional playing from nearly a decade off. I was living on a sailboat at the time and guitar just made sense as a portable way to compose tunes. I’m not real sure I’m in love with guitar, I’m indifferent to it for many reasons, mostly from what I see as design flaws but I do truly love some of what can be done with a guitar. The sounds I hear in my head can often be made on a guitar. It seems to be working out for me.

Dave: In public school, we had a night where they had a bunch of instruments in the cafeteria  and my Mom let me pick an instrument to play in the band.  I immediately picked drums, but my Mom said, “I am not getting you drums!  Don’t get anything too heavy!”  I was disappointed, but I picked trumpet right away because I really liked Herb Alpert records.  He was so cool and jazzy and he had women hanging all over him.  I knew that was for me.

What can you say about your approach to your respective instruments? Do you see yourselves as musicians that transcend the usual labels of rock, jazz, avant-garde and such? And if so, how?

Willie:  A friend of mine, Italian guitarist Enrico Crivellaro, once said, “I just do what I do”. That pretty much covers it in my book also. I just do it without much thought of if it’s going to fit a genre label or two. I love improvisation and what is known to some as Total Improvisation but I don’t mind having things worked out.  My last four releases have been made by asking others if they wanted to jam and record it. That’s how I did Concepts of MateMaToot, Spiral Out and both WD-41 releases, just asking musicians if they want to jam. For Concepts of MateMaToot and Spiral Out there were some basic patterns to work from for a few tunes but for most of it and both WD-41 albums it’s just music that happens. I’m also working on arrangements for a more structured solo album down the road and perhaps a symphony based on ideas from WD-41 sounds.

Dave: To be honest, I’m only interested in transcending what I or Willie played last week. While I understand their usefulness, labels are generally for describing music, not playing it, so yes, I think our music goes  beyond a single category.  I notice that WD-41 is linked to at least 4 categories on your blog?  Not bad!  WD-41 is deliberate only in our attempt to play something totally spontaneous, inspiring and fun every time.  It’s improvised—that’s about all I can say!

As you know, the sites I write for generally deal with ‘progressive rock’ in all its various manifestations. What is your personal view of this somewhat controversial genre? Do you see WD-41 as belonging to a ‘prog’ context, or would you rather be identified as a jazz project?

 Willie: If a listener thinks we are progressive and wants to label us as such that’s fine. I like a lot of what is labeled progressive and a lot of it just does nothing for me. That’s how we all are. WD-41 got tossed into a lot of publications that deal with the progressive label because our publicist Lori Hehr deals mostly in that area. We also seem to do well inwhat is labeled the jazz arena (laughs), but I don’t really care what people call it. Just open your minds and listen.

Dave: I don’t have a problem with either genre being associated with WD-41. The fact that we are both electrified and 100% improvised with no specific rhythmic component makes me lean towards the prog side of the debate if I have to choose! I’m honored that either genre would have us, but even contextually I’d rather best be described in seven categories rather than one. I enjoy reading descriptions of WD-41 in the press, so call it what it sounds like, Raffaella! That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

Even though we have been in touch for a while, I do not know how Willie and Dave first met and decided to join forces. How did WD-41 come about, and what does the ‘41’ stand for?

Willie: I’ll let Dave have this one.

Dave: A mutual friend (N.W. Austin, the artist who painted our cover art) told me that Willie Oteri might be moving to Austin and that I should look for him.  I’d heard a tape of his and was very impressed.  He was playing with Jazz Gunn and I was in a local swing band, playing 30’s and 40’s tunes.  We hung out some.  He told me about recording the Spiral Out CD, then he was gone to Europe.  When he came back from Italy, we were catching up and I asked him what was next muscally for him and he said, “I want to do something with loops.”  I said, “Wow, that sounds fun—can I play too?”  He had never heard me play before and when we got together the next afternoon, we knew we had something!  That’s how we began –  with no preconceived ideas.  We just sat across from each other and played.  We discovered that our approaches to music are very similar.  Our ears are open for what’s possible in the moment.  Also, we like a lot of the same movies and I think this adds a subtlety and some humor to what we do.

41 is one more than 40, that’s all I can tell you.  No need to get Interpol involved right now.

Dave, as most of my readers will probably not be very familiar with you, can you tell me something about your own musical career?

Dave: I guess my career started in 1980 when I joined a big band that played around Austin and was relatively successful in the 80s and 90’s.  Most of Austin’s best jazz musicians came through that band so I got to meet everybody.  That’s where I met Mel Winters, a flugelhorn soloist who had decided to switch to piano.  In ’87, I started playing bass on keyboards with him and we formed the Fearless Jazz Trio, which later became a duo of just Mel and me.  He is a prolific composer and an intense and thoughtful player, who sees chords and how they fit together in a way that is another universe.  He is probably the biggest influence on me musically (before I met Mr. Oteri!) and really pushed me to go for it.  He liked my ear and continues to encourage me to play what I hear.  It was “keep up or be left behind,” so I developed a way to be a more rhythmically interesting bass player in a drumless duo.  We have rehearsed on and off for over 30 years with only one gig!  Seriously… it’s still fun most of the time. Haha!  I do believe playing with Mel all these years got me ready to play with Willie.  Around 1998 or 1999 I helped start a local swing band that played around Austin for a couple of years.  I’m into a lot of different styles and I think early jazz is fascinating and fun.  That’s a completely different mindset than what I’m doing now with WD-41.  Who knew?

I always have a day job. I worked for Tower Records as a buyer during their stay in Austin (1991-2004) and I had a pretty cool jazz radio show for 13 years which was actually at night.

I have been so lucky as to hear Willie’s wonderful Spiral Out album, recorded with Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. How did this collaboration come about? Would you consider working with either of those artists again in the future, perhaps involving Dave as well?

Willie: I had just finished the Jazz Gunn album Concepts of  MateMaToot, which I produced and wanted to go beyond that by using another producer. I put out feelers in a few internet forums and one of the producers that contacted me was Ronan Chris Murphy who had worked with a wide variety of names from King Crimson to Chucho Valdés. After chatting with him on the phone I decided to fly to LA to meet in person and we immediately hit it off and started working on pre-production. While we were jamming a bit on ideas I sort of jokingly said something like, “Tony Levin would sound great on this” and Ronan said, “I can get Tony”. He went out in the parking lot and called Tony and arranged for us to send some him some ideas. I don’t remember if Tony agreed to the project before or after hearing the ideas but then we were off to finding drummers, we went through a few ideas and then decided Pat Mastelotto would be the best fit. Pat and I both live in Austin so it was easy to arrange to record there. Tony flew out from NY and the three of us just jammed for two days. On the second day we called trumpet man Ephraim Owens to add to some of the raw tracks and then while mixing in LA Ronan thought some keys would be good so he called Mike Keneally who drove up from San Diego. It all just sort of fell into being. I love all those guys and have done a few gigs with Tony, Ronan and Pat since. We chat now and then about doing another recording but it’s mostly about money and time. I would love to do another and Dave would be first choice for trumpet.

Dave: Willie knows I’d love to play with any of those guys any time and we talked about it at first.  After we started playing we knew we didn’t really need them. In Italy we’ll be improvising with musicians from all over the world.  I think we’re ready. . .

Being Italian, I would like to hear more about Willie’s artistic and personal experience in the four years he spent there. Italians like to complain about everything in their country, and are big fans of the old ‘the grass is greener’ shtick. How would you rate the Italian scene as opposed to the American one?

Willie: The grass is never greener on the other side of the fence but sometimes it’s mowed differently.. The past couple of years have been difficult for many artists both here and in Italy. I’m an older artist doing music for the last several years that is pretty far out from the new manufactured pop but for what I do it’s been easier to book gigs in Europe including Italy. Part of that is because of who I’ve worked with on records which is a selling point for venues and festivals. Musicians are sadly just a commodity when it comes to business. I would say that if most Italian bands or musicians came to America they would find it very difficult to get bookings and the day jobs here will eat you alive.  Moving to America doesn’t guarantee success or happiness.

Living in Italy is nicer in my experience for art, music, people, friends, food, the list goes on. When I lived in Italy I did most of my gigs outside of Padova by train going second class which is very affordable. You just can’t do that in the states and this is a big advantage for Italians. You can trim down your gear to a bare minimum needed. Often you can borrow drums and amps in other cities from fans or share with other bands. I rarely tour with my own amps these days and you will see this is becoming more common.

If I may, some advice for Italian bands and musicians just starting out, forget about America at least until you are very popular in Europe. Get your music out in the big cities in Italy and Europe (and a bit of advice for all young players) work your ass off on promoting your music. Book your own shows when you can. If after a year or so no one is paying attention then change something, change everything and try again. Remember that while self promotion is easy today everyone is doing it so often it appears as though you are just another artist. Try to raise money to hire a publicist and perform live as often as you can. Don’t be discouraged by booking agents or clubs not paying attention, it’s a business and it’s easy today for them so sell an old name playing the old tunes even without the original members or to sell a similar sounding act, cover (tribute) band or old jazz standards. Booking hyped manufactured pop acts is another story we don’t have time for here but, it takes a lot of money to promote and tour an artist in a big flashy way and sadly from this is where most people take their calling. In the eyes of most including many magazine editors and reviewers an artist is better if they are backed by a lot of money, sometimes borrowed from labels (often a bad idea) or often from their family, but don’t let it discourage you, big promotion does not equal big talent and there are still those who make it on hard work and word of mouth. Remember times change so be ready when the time comes. Get a good lawyer before you do anything involving much money. Don’t worry if you can’t afford to attend the big name music schools, training seminars, etc. They are not a guarantee of talent or creativity.

I hope all of you find good partners, band members or a spouse to help you on your way. It’s not easy to be creative and do all the work yourself with all your own money but if you believe in the music keep at it. If you have some family money then more power to you but be careful about taking money from labels or giving money to music taxi services. Take the energy that comes from discouragement and put it into your music.

Some things I wished I had learned early in my career: If you are shy, as I was when young then work hard at overcoming it. Shyness kept me from going to a lot of good auditions. Don’t spend too much on instruments or gear, computers, phones, cars, etc. Get instruments that are adequate and will get the job done but save your money for promotion not flashy gear. Remember too that sometimes the most talented are the least recognized. Everywhere there are numerous players and composers who you have never heard of who are just as good or better than the big names. Sometimes we need to seek them out to enjoy their art and you may find a good band member this way. Sting was once a school teacher who played local club gigs on weekends.

One final thought, you must think of your music beyond just being a hobby if you really want to make great music. Dedicating your life to music is a sacrifice that will show in the quality of your performance. A good read on making a living as a musician by Danny Barnes, a bit dated but still good advice: http://www.dannybarnes.com/blog/how-make-living-playing-music

 Dave, have you had any experience of playing in other countries than the USA? If so, what was your experience of an international context as opposed to a domestic one?

Dave: This trip to Italy will be my first trip overseas and my first experience playing my music outside of Texas, so I am excited to play for European audiences.  Can you ask me this question again when I get back?

Austin is known as a laid-back, artsy town, quite out of character with the rest of the state of Texas. However, I have often see you complain about the lack of opportunities for live performances. What are the positives and negatives of the Austin scene, if compared to other parts of the US?

Willie: We may complain but we could do more about getting gigs here even though there really are no booking agents or clubs to speak of that can handle what we do. Those that do (infrequently) promote improvised music tend to focus on getting acts from out of town.  A lot of bands from here never play here.  Oddly it was different several years ago and there were more places to play outside styles. Presently the scene is mostly singer songwriter, blues, cover rock, some start up pop bands and bits of the rest. There is an old saying here, “popular in Austin, dead everywhere else”(something like that). I’m not sure that if we gigged a lot here it would be such a good idea. (laughs) I am seeing a bit more experimental and improvised music in town but for now  the place for our music is Europe.

The positives of the Austin scene? There is a old expression “Austin is an Oasis surrounded by Texas”, Crime is low and there is a lot to do besides music. It’s a nice place to live and play and much less expensive than many big cities. There are places for up and coming bands and young musicians to perform and get experience. For professional musicians there are less opportunities. I think a lot of musicians live here because they were raised here or because they find the overall laid back vibe of much of the city just fits well with a musician’s view of life. It’s a pretty fun town, check Eeyore’s birthday party sometime for example or a wild night on 6th Street.  I’m often disappointed by the food here but that’s for another interview (laughs).

Dave: I should defer to Willie on this question.  I do have a few opinions, though.  Willie has met a fair amount of opposition to starting any improv. jam sessions here.  WD-41 is certainly not for everyone and I realize we appeal to listeners who understand the risks of improvisation.  That’s a pretty small audience amid the popularity of singer-songwriters, white-guy blues, cover bands and several thousand other groups of all kinds here.  Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of great musicians in Austin. That fact is what has kept me here for so long.  You can throw a rock and I bet you’ll hit someone who at least says he’s a musician.  He has a guitar, a beard and a shirt from the 80’s.  He plays 3-5 nights a week.  Most audiences want to hear something they are familiar with.  In the “Live Music Capital of the World,” club owners, booking agents and politics play it safe and book what they know.  WD-41 is not safe.  We are different.  Our music is instrumental and improvised.  We often do not have drums.  We are full of danger, chance and mystery.  Austin may not be the open minded, smart and artsy city she thinks she is, but it’s not all her fault.  Austin is still the capital of Texas and she can’t afford to risk it.  Still, I love Austin, the people and the vibe here. It’s doubtful that I would have had the same opportunities in another city.  I am extremely fortunate to be able to play with and learn from two geniuses on a weekly basis!  Still, I can’t wait to play in Italy!

Can you tell us something more about your upcoming performances in Italy? I am particularly interested in hearing about house concerts, which are definitely one of the most effective new strategies for artists to get their music across without going through the usual (and increasingly frustrating) channels.

Willie: well we have the festival dates in Florence (live looping fest, July 16 and 17) and the Portello River Festival in Padova July 21 (three weeks of a variety of artists from around the world and films on a floating stage in a big canal) –  beautiful spot and really fun gig. We then have house concerts in various places with one that will include a live recording with three or four other musicians. We would be doing club dates but many clubs in Italy will be closed in July and while waiting for festival confirmations we lost advanced time needed to book some clubs. The festivals are more important to us. I feel that house concerts are perfect for us because we can play at a reasonable volume, although we do like to move a lot of air when we can. I think for most bands who work smaller venues house concerts are a good alternative. There are legal issues with sound and sales of tickets in many cities, so, often house concerts are booked as private parties or listed as Venue TBA.

Dave: Willie has worked very hard on securing our gigs and contacts in Italy, looking for the right musicians and the right opportunities for us.  He has played at the Portello River Festival several times and it’s exciting to be added to the line-up this year!  I think house concerts are certainly the way to go to get the audience you want to play for.  Also these tend to be very intimate settings where you can get a lot of immediate feedback and energy from an audience sitting on the couch next to you!

You used an Internet-based funding platform to raise money for your trip to Italy. This is another strategy that is rapidly taking hold in the community of independent artists, regardless of genre. Would you recommend it to any up-and-coming musicians, and why?

 Willie: Well, this is our first crowdfund but we have raised nearly all of our air fare to Italy and it looks as though it will go to more soon. It’s difficult to raise much from fans alone and several writings on the subject have mentioned that most successful crowdfunds are due to contribution from family and friends. It’s seems that a lot less people are reaching their goals lately as if the market is flooded. Fans don’t have the money to spread around to the thousands of acts asking for it. For our crowdfund we used ChipIn.com because you get whatever money people put in, you don’t have to reach your goal to get the money as with Kickstarter, also ChipIn takes much less of a percentage. It worked for us because part of our contributions were direct to us and not through the crowdfund. With Kickstarter it would have looked like we did not reach our goal, then we would have to go back to all the pledgers personally and ask for the money.

Dave: Willie set this up, and I think it has worked well.  Getting signed to a label often means working for them instead of them working for you.  In these days of labels with no budget and “pay to play” gigs,  DIY financing makes a lot of sense.

WD-41 have released two albums so far. What would you point out as the main differences between the debut and Temi Per Cinema?

Willie: Besides having others added to the mix on Temi Per Cinema we really developed our sound and now we are playing way beyond even Temi Per Cinema. It will be interesting to see what comes from more recordings with other musicians added. We have a few aces up our sleeve we are working on.

Dave: The main difference is the most obvious one, since we added  Dino and Scott on some of our tracks, which helped to expand our already expansive sound.

Temi Per Cinema was recorded with the collaboration of two other artists, Scott Amendola and Dino J. A. Deane. How did this collaboration come about, and are other collaborations in the pipeline?

Willie: as I mentioned above we have a few collaborations in mind. As for Dino and Scott I just simply asked them and then we worked out details. We thought of both of them because we have heard them on many recordings we enjoy, so it just seemed like a good fit.

Dave: I had heard some of Dino’s CDs and I was blown away by what I heard.  It was really more of a wish that we could collaborate with him.  Within 15 minutes or so of Willie contacting him he wrote back and said, “What do you guys want to do?”  I knew of Scott’s playing as well.  Willie contacted Scott through Facebook and we are very fortunate to have both of these amazing artists on Temi Per Cinema.  I still can’t believe they played on our tracks! I guess all you have to do is ask!  I am hoping that we will have some collaborations in Italy that will open up new possibilities for WD-41 and for our next recording.  We have a few Stateside ideas as well  . . .

What are your plans for the second half of the year, once you come back from your Italian tour? Can we expect to see WD-41 perform in the US Northeast, which is often celebrated as the hub for progressive music?

Willie: I’m not sure there is enough time to book far enough ahead for the last part of 2011 but we would love to play anywhere people want us. I may be touring by myself and adding musicians on the way as a live looping thing. It depends on a lot of issues. If fans want WD-41 in their town the options are to book a house concert or nag booking agents and festival promoters in your area.

Dave: I’d love to tour in the US if I can get the time off!  There is a possibility of playing with Dino in Albuquerque, NM, but that is still in the “maybe” stage.

A big thank you to Willie and Dave for their patience in answering my questions, and all my best wishes for your upcoming Italian tour!

Willie: Thank you too Raffaella!!  It’s been great knowing you though the internet and I hope we meet in person soon.

Dave: Thank you Raffaella for this opportunity to share my thoughts about music and WD-41.  It’s great fun to play with Willie, and for me that’s what it’s all about.  To think that in a month we will be playing in Italy is incredible!   Ciao!

 

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/wd41music

http://www.myspace.com/willieoteri

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Into the Subatomic (5:21)
2. Free at Last! (5:17)
3. Mud Becomes Mind (5:14)
4. I Don’t Believe (5:53)
5. Matter Is Energy (4:55)
6. Comprehensible (6:38)
7. Infinite Strength (8:05)
8. Where No One Can Win (8:05)
9. Step Out of Your Body (5:12)
10. The Cauldron (15:18)

LINEUP:
Copernicus – poetry, lead vocals, keyboards
Pierce Turner – musical director, piano, Hammond organ, percussion, backing vocals
Larry Kirwan – electric guitar, vocals
Mike Fazio – electric guitar
Bob Hoffnar – steel guitar
Raimundo Penaforte – viola, acoustic guitar, cavaquinho, percussion, vocals
Cesar Aragundi – electric and acoustic guitar
Fred Parcells – trombone
Rob Thomas – violin
Matty Fillou – tenor saxophone, percussion
Marvin Wright – bass guitar, electric guitar, percussion
George Rush – tuba, contrabass, bass guitar
Thomas Hamlin – drums, percussion
Mark Brotter – drums, percussion

The thirteenth album by New York-based performer-poet Copernicus (aka Joseph Smalkovski), and the third released by MoonJune Records (which is going to reissue the artist’s whole catalogue), Cipher and Decipher is definitely not your average ‘progressive rock’ album, ambitious but ultimately accessible. In fact, is one of those records for which the expression ‘acquired taste’ seems to be tailor-made, and which is at the same time easy and difficult to describe: easy if you want to simplify matters, and say that it is based around a somewhat loopy guy’s ranting and raving over a rather free-form musical background; difficult if you want, instead, to avoid platitudes and offer would-be listeners a more in-depth, nuanced analysis.

Needless to say, even from a quick perusing of the release notes it should be clear that Cipher and Decipher is not for the faint-hearted, or those who like carefully structured music, engaging melodies and conventional singing. This is the archetypal underground production, a marriage of music and poetry steeped in the American beat tradition, dripping with existential ennui and metaphysical musings, in which the music often feels like an afterthought, often sharply diverging from the vocal parts in a sort of schizophrenic effect. Clocking in at slightly under 70 minutes, and barely offering any respite from Copernicus’ over-the-top vocal exertions, it sounds more than a bit daunting (even for a forward-thinking label like MoonJune) and as such quite unlikely to appeal to casual or mainstream-oriented listeners.

And yet, in spite of all these drawbacks, Cipher and Decipher exerts a weird sort of attraction. After a while everything seems to click and, so to speak, begins to make sense. Even as Copernicus’ voice may rub you the wrong way, and make you wish he limited himself to publishing books of poetry like most other people would do, the music perversely sucks you in, and you may find yourself actually enjoying the experience – almost in spite of yourself. At times Copernicus’ secular-preacher recitation blends with the music, at others the two go their separate ways, in a somewhat frustrating fashion. He roars, cajoles, whines, chants, emotes like a Shakespearian actor, leaving very little breathing space to the listener, repeating the key words around which his whole work seems to revolve with a sort of incantatory effect, often augmented by the loose yet oddly mesmerizing nature of the musical accompaniment.

Regarding the concept on which Cipher and Decipher is based, my readers will be able to find all the background information they need in the links I have provided at the end of the review – as well as in the album’s very thorough liner notes. While other reviewers have dedicated at least some space to the album’s lyrical content, I would rather concentrate on the musical aspect, even if I realize it is far from easy to divorce the two. Generally, I do not particularly care for nihilism, and have to admit not being too interested in speculations about the nature of the universe, though neither aspect disturbs me as other kinds of content (i.e. overtly racist lyrics) would. My main interest here is the music, and this is why I would rather avoid launching in any detailed analysis of Copernicus’ message which is much better presented elsewhere.

When listening to Cipher and Decipher, it is important to bear in mind that the music and the vocals often seem to be at odds with each other instead of working together, as would happen in more mainstream recordings. This means that special attention to the musical part is required, and it obviously helps if you like almost completely unscripted music as opposed to the carefully constructed patterns of most conventional progressive rock. Provided by a veritable orchestra of 15 outstanding musicians (including 4 guitarists and almost a full horn section) led by long-time Copernicus associates, expatriate Irishmen Pierce Turner and Larry Kirwan (the latter, together with Thomas Hamlin and Fred Parcells, a member of Celtic-inspired band Black 47), the musical accompaniment to Copernicus’ proclamations is a wildly eclectic mix of influences ranging from experimental free-jazz to early Pink Floyd-style psychedelia.

Organ-drenched opener “Into the Subatomic” immediately sets the scene, both musically and lyrically, followed by the lovely but somber “Free at Last!”, the most genuinely Pinkfloydian number on offer, embellished by some noteworthy acoustic and electric guitar work; while “Mud Becomes Mind” sports a cheery, Afro-Brazilian vibe. The disc’s central section owes quite a lot to free-jazz, rather gloomy in “I Don’t Believe” with its lonesome-sounding trumpet, sparse yet upbeat in “Matter Is Energy”. On the other hand, “Comprehensible” superimposes an overt homage to Pink Floyd, with Larry Kirwan repeating “set the controls further out of the sun” (a paraphrase of the title of one of their most iconic early compositions) to the somewhat chaotic free-jazz template, and “Infinite Strength” (based on Van Morrison’s celebrated “Gloria”) sounds like something out of the Blues Brothers soundtrack – making you want to dance in spite of Copernicus’ weighty proclamations. More Latin influences surface in the funky “Step Out of Your Body”, and the references to Iraq and Afghanistan in “No One Can Win” are aptly punctuated by Middle Eastern echoes conjured by flute and strings. The album climaxes with the sonic and verbal apocalypse of the aptly-titled “The Cauldron”, a 15-minute, voice-driven space jam.

As the previous paragraphs clearly illustrate, Cipher and Decipher is a very peculiar effort, targeted to adventurous listeners, and likely to send the more conservative set of prog fans running for the exits. This is not background music, and is definitely not relaxing – on the contrary, it can easily become a tad wearying, especially on account of Copernicus’ very idiosyncratic vocal delivery and apocalyptic lyrics. The album’s running time can also be an issue, so those who find it hard to concentrate for long might want to avoid tackling it in one go. However, its somewhat sneaky allure may well win over those who are not afraid to get acquainted with less predictable approaches to progressive music.

Links:
http://www.copernicusonline.net

http://www.moonjune.com

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=74511 (interview)

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Loopy (5.59)
2. A Serious Man (3.49)
3. Mom’s Song (2.05)
4. Bar Stomp (3.04)
5. Outdoor Revolution (3.08)
6. Western Sky (2.12)
7. Burning Match (5.11)
8. Claire’s Indigo (2.11)
9. Snufkin (2.48)
10. Old Silhouette (4.12)
11. Winds of Grace (8.39)

LINEUP:
Dani Rabin – guitar
Danny Markovitch – saxophone
Steve Rodby – bass
Paul Wertico – drums, percussion (1, 8)

With:
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10)
Matt Davidson – vocals (3, 6)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 6)
Makaya McCraven – drums (4)
Daniel White – lyrics, vocals (11)

Marbin’s eponymous debut came to my attention towards the end of 2009, soon after its release. Even if the duo formed by two young, talented Israeli-born musicians who had recently moved to Chicago was an unknown quantity to me and most other reviewers, the album’s endearingly naïve artwork and intriguing musical offer were enough to warrant closer scrutiny. With a name cleverly fashioned out of the surnames of the two artists (Danny MARkovitch and Dani RaBIN), Marbin made their debut on the US music scene with an album full of intriguing melodies crafted with ony two instruments – Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s saxophone – characterised by an ethereal, almost brittle quality, reminiscent of the delicacy of Far Eastern art, complex yet at the same time not too taxing for the listener.

The year 2010 marked a veritable quantum leap for Marbin (very active on the live front in the Chicago area), when they came under the radar of MoonJune Records’ mainman Leonardo Pavkovic, a man with a keen eye for new acts of outstanding quality. Promptly snapped up by the New York-based label, Marbin – who in the meantime had become a real band, with the addition of  Pat Metheny alumni Steve Rodby (bass) and Paul Wertico (drums) – released their second album at the beginning of 2011.

Breaking the Cycle is indeed an impressive effort, which sees the band build upon the foundation laid by their debut, while fine-tuning their sound and adding layers of complexity, though without making things unnecessarily convoluted. Indeed, rather interestingly, a fellow reviewer used the term ‘easy listening’ in connection to the album –  a definition that may conjure images of that openly commercial subgenre known as smooth jazz. However, while Breaking the Cycle does have plenty of smoothness and melody, I would certainly never call it background music. The presence of a full-blown rhythm section has given a boost to the ambient-tinged, chamber-like atmosphere of the debut, and some of the tracks display a more than satisfying level of energy and dynamics, all the while keeping true to the deeper nature of their sound.

Clocking in at slightly over 40 minutes, Breaking the Cycle immediately appears as a supremely sophisticated effort, starting from the striking cover artwork whose mix of the industrial (the bridge on the front cover) and the natural (the elephant on the back cover) seems to reflect the nature of the music itself. While the majority of the tracks lean towards the slower, more atmospheric side of things, delivered in a rather short, somewhat compact format, the album is bookended by two numbers that differ quite sharply from the rest, as well as from each other. Opener “Loopy” is the closest Marbin get to a ‘conventional’ jazz-fusion sound, almost 6 minutes of sax and guitar emoting over an exhilarating jungle beat laid down by Wertico’s drums and percussion that gives a first taste of the seamless interplay between the instruments. On the other hand, the medieval-tinged, acoustic folk ballad “Winds of Grace”, masterfully interpreted by guest singer Daniel White (who also wrote the lyrics), though apparently out of place in the context of the album,  is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia and loss suggested by several other tracks.

Indeed, the three numbers that form the central section of the album might almost be considered as parts of a single suite, since they are characterized by a wistful, romantic (though anything but cheesy) mood. An extended sax solo is the real showstopper in “Outdoor Revolution”, while wordless vocalizing enhances the country-tinged acoustic guitar in “Western Sky”. “Burning Match” seems to reflect its title almost perfectly, its smouldering atmosphere touched with a hint of sadness, the yearning tone of the sax suggesting the end of a love affair. A strong visual element is evoked throughout the album: “Old Silhouette” creates a faintly mysterious picture, yet full of subtle warmth intensified by the slow, deep movement of the percussion; while the sweet, soothing chanting in “Mom’s Song”, combined with the gentleness of the guitar, brought to my mind images of a beach at sunset. In sharp contrast, “Bar Stomp” delivers exactly what the title promises – a bluesy, electrified romp with Rabin’s guitar taking centre stage, bolstered by an imposing percussive apparatus involving the presence of three drummers (Wertico plus guests Makaya McCraven and Jamey Haddad), and spiced up with a hint of cinematic tension.

The final remarks I made in my review of Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan may also apply to Breaking the Cycle. Oozing sheer class, with outstanding performances all round, yet plenty of warmth and accessibility (unlike a lot of hyper-technical albums), this is a release that has the potential to appeal to anyone who loves good music and does not care about sticking a label on anything they hear. Judging from the positive reactions to this album, Marbin are definitely going to be another asset for the ever-reliable MoonJune Records.

Links:
http://www.marbinmusic.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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