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Kronos, Kotche, Kitundu at SF Jazz Festival

Last night in San Francisco at the Herbst Theater, Kronos Quartet performed two sets of pieces arranged or composed for them, including several with electronic, prerecorded backing tracks. The concert, the second of two nights, was part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival’s 25th anniversary.

The evening opened with “Bloodstone” by the great drum’n’bass/breakbeat figure Amon Tobin, whose imagination seems to expand with each passing year. The original version appears on his 2007 album, The Foley Room; Tobin built “Bloodstone” from field recordings made in Kronos’s nearby Sunset District studio. Kronos leader David Harrington explained that for the live performance, arrangers (Stephen Prutsman and Michael Winger) had transcribed the string playing as heard on Foley’s “Bloodstone”; that was then set against electronic elements also heard on the album — bits of percussive grace notes and focused noise. The string playing had a “falling apart and then falling together” structure that didn’t necessarily distinguish it as a formal composition, but complemented the nature of the background cacophony.

Doubters of Kronos’s place in a jazz festival should be reminded that the group’s first album, before they ever signed with the Nonesuch label, was a collection of transcriptions of Thelonious Monk, which was later followed by an album of Bill Evans transcriptions. Last night they played a rendition of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” that veered much further from the original than did the one heard on their debut recording. This version, arranged by Randall Woolf, splayed the oft-recorded song’s familiar melodic elements above a backing track of minimalist techno, with slow-paced beeps and, at one point, a smidgen of turntablism that brought to mind Guru’s Jazzmatazz jazz/hip-hop fusions.

There was no electronic backing, per se, in “Raga Mishra Bhairavi,” arranged by Kronos themselves (transcribed by Ljova) and composed by Ram Narayan, but it was founded on a rich, three-man drone that served as a bed for an extended solo by Kronos violinist John Sherba.

Walter Kitundu was one of the evening’s three guest composer-performers. Kronos revisited his Charles Mingus tribute, “Cerulean Sweet,” part of which they’d performed last year at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (I wrote about it here). Kitundu is a highly inventive instrument maker, and Kronos played machines he’d built that included strings and working turntables. It was more self-evident in this performance than during last year’s that Kitundu was using his laptop to double some of his playing. Also more than last year, the piece truly achieved a Mingus-like level of heightened, bluesy groove forged from conflicting sonic elements; holding down the groove was cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, Kronos’s newest member.

The concert was co-billed for Kronos and another composer-performer, the percussionist Glenn Kotche, who plays with the rock band Wilco and whose “Anomaly,” written for Kronos, had its world premiere this week at these San Francisco performances. Like the Kitundu, the Kotche was an extended multi-movement piece that required numerous instrument changes — the band switched from their standard tools to bells and other noisemaking machines. For all its expansive machinery, though, the piece often emphasized near-silence, including moments when the members of Kronos were called upon to exhale loudly. The work had strong ensemble moments, some excellent mixings of strings and drums, but it also felt tedious at times, like it hadn’t really justified its length. Perhaps it suffered from appearing on a program consisting otherwise almost entirely of single-serving compositions.

The Kitundu and Kotche were the evening’s longest pieces, and the shortest by far were the six entries from John Zorn‘s “The Dead Man,” the first of which ended so quickly that members of the audience laughed out loud. Perhaps they were also reacting to the playfulness of Zorn’s compositions, each of which barely filled a single individual page of music paper, and focused on specific elements of string technique. Zorn has an interest in expanded techniques, as when the members swung their bows in the air like whips. I think Zorn’s were the strongest pieces of the evening, something I imagine had to with a mix of their taut brevity, the fact that they were composed for string quartet (rather than transcribed from a pre-existing arrangement for different instrumentation) and the absence of a backing pre-recorded track.

The Zorn was knowingly followed by “Twilight in Turkey” by Raymond Scott, another master of short-attention-span composition. Scott’s work is best known for having accompanied countless mid-century American cartoons. The arrangement was by Randall Woolf, and it showed greater interest in fidelity to the original than did his Monk piece. (As I type up this entry, a disparity in the evening’s program notes has suddenly occurred to me. The program provides a lot of detail about the composers, arrangers, performers and individual compositions, but for arrangements of pre-existing works, such as the Woolf’s Scott and Monk pieces, no date for the version Kronos played is listed.)

Also heard was composer-performer Dohee Lee, who danced, sang and played a shrill horn instrument. Harrington explained the piece, “Sinawi,” was the realization of a long-held desire to bring traditional Korean music into Kronos’s work.

There was also a cover of Television‘s great punk-era rock song “Marquee Moon,” composed by Television’s Tom Verlaine and arranged by Steven Mackey. Though a classical quartet covering a rock song remains somewhat newsworthy for pushing boundaries, it’s worth noting that the original song was recorded five years before the founding of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. More info on Kronos at kronosquartet.org.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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