Trio Ochs, Masaoka, Lee / Spiller Alley

Peggy Lee, Cello / Miya Masaoka, Koto / Larry Ochs, Tenor and Sopranino Saxophones


Track Listing: Nobody Knows; NeoNawi; Micro-mirror; Spiller Alley; Last Light

Recorded while on tour in Europe in April 2006. Mixed by Monte Vallier and Larry Ochs at Function 8, San Francisco. Mastered by Myles Boisen at Headless Buddha Studios, Oakland, CA. Engineers: Alberto Spezzamonte (Venice: Teatro Fondamente Nuove); Wolfgang Obrecht (Munich: Offene Ohren e.V.); Charly Wienand (St. Johann: Alte Gerberei).

CD LINER NOTES by Alvin Curran

So I just came back from the beach in southern Turkey, just endless sea, lapping waves, and dial up muezzins, and this is the first music I listen to like riding in a vintage Studebaker on the way to the mass-spectrometer induction center. Better still it’s like those old recordings we used to make in the living room where you really hear a room and the bounce – here from the wooden floor, there with the lopped off highs as they hit the cushions on the Good-Will sofa and around the L-corner some home-baked pre-echoes This is as good as it gets, a real recording with “space” where you can almost see the musicians and their geographic loci, a chill-jamboree of ultra noble axes from three major music traditions world-wide. Like Brahms could meet Zen Zenzero at the Five Spot in the middle of a sopranino-sax convention…Just think of it.

This music of exquisite sensibilities, profound listening and genuinely laid-back cloth at first throws you; nobody is trying to do anything, just play as together as possible. (What, are they trying to revive that ancient art?) Nobody gets in anybody’s face, including the listener. Nobody solos more than the depth they listen at; nobody never wanted not to be there. So you feel all the more like you’re right in the family “living room” where and when this is being made – made for you personally. Whether it’s noodles with tail-fins and smoked tofu, or Orhan Pamuk’s Bosphorus melancholy, or Blue DT’s on Jurassic C-Melody-like Sax, or some Bruckner D minor thingamabob. Anyway if this ingenious blend of scents from Masaoka’s ancient koto, Lee’s middle-European cello and Ochs’ out of hock saxes is any indication, “musica da camera” - that old elite art of chamber music - is going to be around for some time yet.

There’s even a logic to the sequence of tracks, probably extracted from longer sessions, but so what – it moves from those tentative getting-to-know-you stages right into a solid family of generations who can argue, stomp, walk-out, lyricize, heave, hug, plotz, pizz, laugh, bloop, scratch and gliss like spectral kittens in Scelsi’s bedroom, knowing full well that tonality (in G something and D something) are some of the most comfortable and delectable places music ever inhabited, oddly the few “plink-plunk” nods at the Atonal Café sounded Baroque. But so what, that too was the language of the forefathers, so why not speak it? Since here in this anarchy of equilibrium, nobody is in charge, there is a feel that the music is consciously seeking that magic vista, where, just beyond those cows, and rustling leaves, and hilly contours, improvising artists and composers and their whole funny instrumentarium quietly disappear. Now we can hear the paint.

Sure, we all know what they are doing, but in the immaculate doing of it, they take you off Debussy’s couch and drop you into a sea of angel-harps and throw a surprising Lacy-like “head” in - seven seconds of minced jazz garlic - and with a cozy Eight Iron, blast you out of the improvisationitis sand pit, right onto the green. A terrific birdie on the 18 th hole.

This is the kind of music a critic could wring the neck of, give it a big prize or murder it in cold blood – not just because of its utter simplicity and sincerity, but because improvising collectively and beautifully is simply not enough anymore. That’s the catch, and they caught it. This chamber trio actually makes you listen to every damned note gesture and texture as if your life depended on it. Not everything is or could be a grand-slam in such a stunningly transparent endeavor, but you try to seriously integrate the sonic worlds of these iconic instruments with the humility wackiness and engaging hip narrative that these three do. Just try!


The music is very much a kind of sonic painting

Saxophonist Larry Ochs, koto player Miya Masaoka, and cellist Peggy Lee treat improvisation as a land of fresh starts, where they can escape the strictest confines of heritage, reinvent themselves as creators of pure sound, and discover afresh the nature and capabilities of their instruments. Ochs is under no obligation to play jazz, neither does Lee play “classical,” nor Masaoka in any way play Japanese classical music. Instead, they make music that’s about timbre, texture, and inflection; rigorous use of technique; balance and contrast; and the coordination of spontaneous gestures. It’s similar to, but separate from the music of Maybe Monday, the improvising trio to which Ochs and Masaoka belong.

Ochs’s tenor and sopranino phrases are exact, sharply delineated, dry, controlled, and shaded in autumnal colors. Masaoka’s koto, with its abrupt attack and lack of sustain is likewise sharp and dry, little popcorn-kernel explosions of sound, with various textures evocative of the many ways she touches the strings. Lee provides a fruitier, fuller tone, but like her band mates she’s conscious of her every move, and never intrudes on silence without good reason. The music is very much a kind of sonic painting. On “micro-mirror,” they overlap their sounds, using short-lived or sustained tones that are dense and bright in the middle, but attenuated at the edges so that the notes and colors contributed by other players bleed through. “neoNawi” is a still canvas, with the emphasis on decay and inflection of notes, the timbre of the koto sounding against the graceful line of the cello and the pop and coiled-spring tension of the sopranino sax. The title track is a more crowded and larger space. It’s a busy opening, full of trills and squawks and clicks like a tree full of starlings, opens out to more expansive gestures, scribbled lines from the cello juxtaposed against scattered notes from the koto and a wash of color from the tenor sax.  Seemingly unrelated gestures converge, unite, branch off in opposite directions, peacefully coexist, fall away into silence in a vast but never rambling or uncertain performance. They listen to one another intently, and their music asks the same concentration from their listeners.

Unobtrusive and full of wonder

Regular readers may know that I am quite a fan of saxophonist Larry Ochs, not only because of his mastership on the instrument, but also because of his creativity in coming up with new musical forms, while still keeping his wonderful emotional delivery. An earlier incarnation of this trio released "Fly, Fly, Fly", with Joan Jeanrenaud on cello, now replaced by Peggy Lee, and with Miya Masaoka on the Japanese koto. The music has again this unique quality of being at the same time vulnerable, fragile almost and very solid in its emotional depth and daring in its adventurousness. This is music that you haven't heard before and it is basically beyond comparison. It is light, intricate like the best of lace, subtle, precise, genre-blending yet also genre-defying. It is light, sparkling and tasteful like the best of champagnes. Don't expect melody or fixed forms, the basis is almost zen-like, like bubbles of sound welling up out of nothing, unobtrusive and full of wonder. The three instruments play with the softest of touches to create a whole out of these tiny bits of sound, and these sounds themselves are often extricated from instruments in a way that's rarely been done before. At first hearing it may be a little tough to get into it, yet the more you listen to it, the more access you get to this strange musical universe, the more compelling it becomes. Highly recommended!