Point of Departure: Square Lake Festival redux at the Cedar

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It's often said that nature abhors a vacuum, but it seems like it abhors an outdoor movie and music event when it comes to the annual Square Lake Music and Film Festival. Rain and thunderstorms seem to bedevil organizer Paul Creager's efforts almost every year, and this past summer, they had to shut down the whole thing early when an electrical storm threatened everyone's safety. But weather won't be stopping International Novelty Gamelan from performing their score for the 1926 animated feature "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" this Thursday at the Cedar Cultural Center. Creager has put together this Square Lake Festival redux to make sure their hard work didn't go to waste, and the night will kick off at 7 pm with a banjo performance by Paul Metzger, followed by thirty minutes of local film, then the performance by International Novelty Gamelan, and then close out with more local film.

And just what the heck is a gamelan? It's a traditional Javanese (and Balinese) instrument composed of many different percussion and resonating (i.e. gongs, xylophones) pieces that make a kind of ensemble when played together. Elaine Evans was kind enough to sit down with me and answer some questions about International Novelty Gamelan and their process for composing music for the oldest surviving feature-length animated film.

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Point of Departure: Experimenting with music

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The whole notion of experimental music is a little wonky, much like the notion of politicians "experimenting" with drugs. As one comedian noted, "What are they, setting up test tubes and beakers before they smoke a little weed?" And a lot of music, to one extent or another, is built around chance and the notion that you can never enter the same stream twice; improvised solos live and die in an instant on the stage and technical difficulties have led to plenty of unamplified audience sing-alongs more inspiring than a performance that went according to the letter would have been.

But composers like John Cage actively used chance operations based on the throw of the dice, the I Ching, or other sources of indeterminate outcomes in composing their scores. The performances based on these scores are often as random in outcome as the scores themselves. Cage's (and experimental music's) most famous piece, 4'33", is often misunderstood as being four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, but in fact, it's more a frame through which to hear the world. By indicating the beginning of a performance and its conclusion four and a half minutes later, Cage made the environment the piece is performed in the music. More »

Point of Departure: Kind of Bloop

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Originally, Pong didn't have sound. When Allan Alcorn first designed it as an exercise for Atari founder Nolan Bushnell told him he wanted it to have realistic sound effects, including a roaring crowd and booing when a player lost a point. But Alcorn was running out of room on the circuit board and furthermore, didn't know how to even begin to generate those kind of sounds. So instead we got the now-iconic minimalist ping and pong sounds. And so does restriction lead to inspiration; the net, after all, makes the game possible.

When Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue in 1959, by way of contrast, he was looking for a way out of the straitjacket harmonies of bebop. He'd begun this work with modal compositions on Milestones and 1958 Miles (or '58 Miles as listeners in the CD age came to know it from the new cover art), but for Kind of Blue he came into the studio with nothing but sketches--scales or melody lines for the improvisers to use. The results were, of course, legendary.

And now here is Kind of Bloop, an album that re-imagines Davis' album as the soundtrack for a vintage Nintendo or Sega videogame. If that simple description doesn't already give you a clear picture, you should probably just head over to kindofbloop.com, where you can listen to samples and also buy the album.


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Point of Departure: Begin with the drums

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There are almost as many points of entry for getting into jazz as there are jazz albums--who knows what's going to resonate with you, make you go deeper into the music? From time to time I'll be posting columns that make a couple informal recommendations for jazz albums that might connect with people who have already have a certain bent when it comes to music. This week, if you're a fan of John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, and all things heavy and percussion-laden, I've got some things you might want to check out.

Seeing Dave King last week with Buffalo Collision reminded me of how I really got into jazz in the first place. The first two jazz albums I bought were a Charlie Parker Verve best-of collection and a bootleg of a John Coltrane concert from the mid-sixties when he was somewhere between the more traditional material on his Atlantic albums and the out-there, energy music explorations of his Impulse years. It was the summer before I headed off to college, and jazz seemed like a good thing to start getting into when one went off to college. And I liked what I heard well enough, but I didn't really get into it, didn't feel it (as Radiohead said) in my bones, until I heard two things: Art Blakey's drumming on A Night in Tunisia (which I've already covered extensively here) and the drumming of one of my classmates, Guillermo Brown.

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Point of Departure: Buffalo Collision at the Dakota

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Mike Massey, working the door at the Dakota and looking pretty natty for a guy who prowls the stage as the howling frontman for Twin Cities gutter-blues band City on the Make, tells me that during last night's Buffalo Collision set an angry woman came up to him and demanded her cover charge back because, she said, "This isn't jazz."

Which makes me think: Can you imagine a similar scene over any other genre of music? That would be like going to the Turf for, well, just about anybody from Tapes n' Tapes to Dosh to the STNNNG to the Replacements and demanding your cover charge back because it's not the Dave Clark Five.

I mean, what is happening when a brilliant, forward-thinking, adventurous, tender, primal, beautiful band like Buffalo Collision is judged as being out of place because of an idea some patrons have about what the club they're playing should mean?


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Point of Departure: The biggest envelope

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Back when I was in college, my Beginning Tonal Harmony and Counterpoint professor dropped a bomb by declaring that Charlie Parker wasn't actually improvising. And let me tell you, you've never seen hackles raised if you haven't seen a room of mostly jazz students being told Bird couldn't improvise. Shouting ensued. Even the sleepy stoner kid who fell asleep within the first five minutes of most classes was practically up and out of his chair, spittle flying.More »

Point of Departure: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White at the Dakota

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"... this man's a genius! playing Ellington like a bartender
plays a Singapore Sling, all that maraschino cherry
sweetness, a little clink of ice, and his voice
doing a kind of mumble moan ..."
--Matthew Dickman, "Chick Corea is Alive and Well!"

One of the oldest clichés in the jazz description biz is the idea that a jazz combo in concert is having a conversation, their notes and phrases bouncing back and forth in sympathy and call and response. It's an attractive idea, and one that's hard to push away as you watch three accomplished masters like pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White command the stage at the Dakota with no seemingly no more effort than it takes you to shoot the breeze with a couple friends at the bar. But see, this is where it gets complicated.

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Point of Departure: Agartha at the Dakota

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 "I love it when a plan comes together." --John "Hannibal" Smith, The A-Team

Agartha--a project dedicated to the music of Miles Davis' electric period and the brainchild of guitarist Luke Polipnick--has been a long time coming. But then again, music as game-changing, challenging, and flat-out weird as what Davis and his revolving cast of musicians made from 1969 to 1975 is not something to be taken lightly. It begins with In a Silent Way and proceeds through a trio of live albums (including the one Agartha takes their name from) that are restless and forward-thinking. We're talking about the earliest, fiercest work of John McLaughlin, the most propulsive, funkiest playing of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and even some of the most beautiful and haunting solos by Davis and players like Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. In short, musicians at the top of their game. And at the time, a lot of jazz fans disowned it as a desecration of their sacred tradition.

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Point of Departure: Tuesday Night Improvised Music Series at Art of This gallery

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Nondescript seems like too baroque a word for the Art of This gallery on 35th and Nicollet. Especially on this, a Tuesday night between art shows when the bare white walls reflect back the spare track lighting, like they're waiting for shadow puppets. Maybe they are. The Tuesday Night Improvised Music Series, as the name suggests, focuses on the ephemeral--music created in the moment and then gone. When Davu Seru started it just over a decade ago, the music series was held at Gus Lucky's Art Cafe. It moved to the Acadia Café where it was curated by Nathan Phillips and Bryce Beverlin II. Casey Deming, who's taken over curatorial duties, explains that Art of This has been focusing on one-night art shows. In a lot of ways, tonight's concert isn't all that different from such a show: it occurs, then disappears.

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Point of Departure: James Buckley Trio at the Red Stag

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As I'm writing this, I am, no joke, drinking an Old Fashioned, listening to jazz, and reading poetry. The James Buckley Trio (James Buckley [bass], Bryan Nichols [keys], and J.T. Bates [drums]) aren't currently working in their accustomed vein of loose-limbed, sonically adventurous, melodically solid music.


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