Lisa Mezzacappa Credit: Heike Liss

I’ve been a fan of Bay Area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa for years now, especially her work in several strong collectives—including Cylinder with reedist Aram Shelton (a former Chicagoan) and a nameless quartet with trumpeter Darren Johnston, saxophonist Aaron Bennett, and drummer Frank Rosaly (another former Chicagoan). But she came up big in 2017 with two impressive and very different albums, each of which reveals talents as a bandleader and conceptual composer that I hadn’t known she had.

AvantNoir (Clean Feed) is a gripping sextet album inspired by the writing of two noir novelists who’ve taken very different approaches to the dark crime story: Dashiell Hammett, who helped define the genre in the early 1930s with San Francisco-based tales featuring detective Sam Spade, and Paul Auster, who modernized it in the mid-80s (though he’s since moved on to other styles) with the existentialist, postmodern New York Trilogy. For both authors, location and atmosphere play key roles, and Mezzacappa’s writing and arranging share that focus—AvantNoir might be the first jazz album in history where one of the musicians, in this case percussionist William Winant, is credited with Foley, aka the postproduction practice of adding on-screen sounds to a film.

The five works on the album include four-movement opener “The Continental Op in San Francisco, c. 1927,” named after another of Hammett’s characters, but Mezzacappa reaches beyond evocations of specific scenes—her creations are similar to game pieces, asking the players to imagine that they inhabit the worlds created by Hammett or Auster. Their musical choices correspond with decisions they make in the game, as she explains in the liner notes: “Musical themes are built on a melody created from mapping the letters S-P-A-D-E onto pitches overlaid on the letters of the alphabet, and then transformed as Spade interacts with different personalities. The musicians find themselves in a room at the Alexandria Hotel on Kearney Street, where they are encouraged to sit and have a drink with the wily Caspar Gutman, explore various objects and personages in the room, ride the elevator, make a phone call, holler to someone in the street below for help, or get the heck out of there.”

Luckily, you don’t need to know this was happening behind the scenes in order to enjoy the music—the album sucked me in before I even glanced at the liner notes. The band includes Bennett, Winant (who plays vibraphone and percussion in addition to Foley), electric guitarist John Finkbeiner, drummer Jordan Glenn, and analog electronicist Tim Perkis (a member of legendary computer-network band the League of Automatic Composers and its successor the Hub). The pieces have a noir-ish tinge, mostly from Finkbeiner’s post-Peter Gunn playing, but they aren’t genre exercises—the ensemble’s high-level improvisation includes freewheeling shifts in tone, density, and style, sometimes in rapid jump cuts that remind me of vintage John Zorn. Of course, Zorn’s virtuosic Naked City quintet, which zipped from genre to genre at breakneck speed, famously drew inspiration from noir—its 1990 debut album used a grisly black-and-white crime-scene photo from 1940 as its cover. Below you can hear one of the pieces inspired by Auster’s writing, “Quinn’s Serenade.”
More ambitious is Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage (New World), which she calls a “panoramic song cycle”—it’s built around writings by American female travelers and explorers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, made with a 15-member band featuring some of the greatest players from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The texts are sung with great soul and distinction by New York singer Fay Victor, whose voice suggests predecessors such as Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Jeanne Lee. Victor can swing with the best of them, but she often transforms her texts into abstract vocal sounds, with little audible connection to the words as written—on “Taxonomical,” which literally lists scientific plant names taken from field notes made by Louise Arner Boyd in Greenland in 1928, she twists and contorts the syllables in, say, “saxifraga oppositifolia” (aka purple mountain saxifrage) for everything they’re worth.

As strong as Mezzacappa’s composing is on AvantNoir, she really opens up her range here, referencing Charles Mingus, Sun Ra (especially in the group chants on “Make No Plans”), Harry Partch, and the large-group projects of Max Roach and Ornette Coleman. Like the sextet album, it moves nimbly among styles, embroidering its muscular charts with buoyant multilinear improvisation. The huge lineup consists of excellent improvisers: flutist Nicole Mitchell, reedists Vinny Golia and Cory Wright, oboist Kyle Bruckmann, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, trombonist Michael Dessen, violinist and violist Dina Maccabee, and vibist Kjell Nordeson, as well as Glenn, Perkis, Finkbeiner, and Johnston from the bandleader’s other projects.

Mezzacappa draws inspiration from the writings of woman adventurers such as Isabella Bird, Fanny Bullock Workman, Annie Smith Peck, Flora Tristan, Ida Pfeiffer, Marianne North, and Sarah Winnemucca. The concert version of Glorious Ravage includes film, video, and animation created with four Bay Area artists, but the music doesn’t need the visuals any more than AvantNoir needs its backstory. This is one of the most idea-packed and sonically dense albums I heard in 2017; in fact, I’m still digesting it. Below you can listen to “Great Green Gloom,” which contains a wonderfully thunderous solo from Melford.

Today’s playlist:

Lusine Grigoryan, Komitas: Seven Songs (ECM)
Ty Segall, Fried Shallots (Drag City)
MUTA, Yesterday Night You Were Sleeping at My Place (Sofa)
Kelly Moran, Bloodroot (Telegraph Harp)
Meredith Monk, Key (Tompkins Square/Lovely Music)