AvantNOIR (Clean Feed)
Released January 17, 2017
DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review
Several years ago, I was re-reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, a deeply absorbing collection of three noir stories set in New York City, and I wondered what a musical companion to these literary works might sound like. Auster’s noir, written in the 1980s, is a postmodern, abstract noir, where little actually happens in terms of plot, and we live as readers in the interior lives of extremely isolated characters. I marveled at how brilliantly he made an iconic genre his own with these stories…and then went back to the source, and read, and re-read, Dashiell Hammett’s genre-defining crime stories and novels from the 1920s, especially the gritty early works featuring the Continental Op, all of which are set in San Francisco. Hammett, by contrast, tells us nothing of his characters’ inner lives—we never have any idea what Sam Spade is thinking, only what he says and does.
avantNOIR was born from an interest in living inside these works, mining them for clues on how they might be scored, following leads in the language, the descriptions of people and places, the contents of a wallet, the route a getaway car takes through a city, to create musical structures for a group of improvisers to navigate. It was especially fun to see New York City, where I grew up, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’ve lived for more than 15 years, through the eyes of these characters.
The series of pieces named after San Francisco streets (Fillmore, Green, Army, Montgomery) are musical companions to sites of bank heists, double-crossings and criminal hideouts in Hammett’s The Big Knockover. Things happen fast, nothing is as it seems, and dubious characters disperse throughout the city wreaking havoc. Larrouy’s Bar is a North Beach dive where dozens of out-of-town thugs convene to plot a spectacular double bank robbery. Each of their names—Spider Girrucci, Angel Grace Cardigan, Happy Jim Hacker, The Shivering Kid, Sheeny Holmes, Itchy Maker—inspired short musical themes, which the musicians navigate independently, deciding to start a “conversation” with one or another of these characters, creating an Ives-ian collage of overlapping interactions.
Here’s our first description of the mastermind villain Big Flora:
“She stood at least five feet ten in her high-heeled slippers. They were small slippers,and I noticed that her ringless hands were small. The rest of her wasn’t. She was broad-shouldered, deep-bosomed, thick-armed, with a pink throat which for all its smoothness was muscled like a wrestler’s. She was about my age—close to forty—with very curly and very yellow bobbed hair, very pink skin, and a handsome, brutal face. Her deep set eyes were gray, her thick lips were well shaped, her nose was just broad enough and curved enough to give her a look of strength, and she had chin enough to support it. This Big Flora was no toy. She had the look and the poise of a woman who could have managed the looting and the double-crossing afterward.”
Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, featuring detective Sam Spade, his slippery damsel in distress Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and connivers Joel Cairo and Caspar Gutman, proved irresistible. The musical themes are built on a melody created from mapping the letters S-P-A-D-E onto pitches overlaid onto 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 Kearny 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 on the street below for help, or get the heck out of there.
Auster’s story Ghosts is a masterful work of meta-noir: a crime story with no crime, a thriller without real drama, a private eye who is himself being watched, characters (all named after colors) whose lives stay still as the world around them crumbles. Our detective, Blue, accepts a workaday case that gradually takes its toll, and the music follows his psychological journey from dull daily routine to frustration, anguish and violence. Melodies and rhythms here are derived from mapping the wavelengths of light of different colors, onto the frequencies of musical pitches and note values of different durations.
Quinn’s Serenade explores the three alter egos of our tragic hero Daniel Quinn, from Auster’s wrenching City of Glass. Quinn, a writer of detective stories featuring slick protagonist Max Work, answers a wrong number phone call to his apartment, and decides to play along, assuming the identity of a real-life detective named Paul Auster. Quinn’s life spirals out of control as he obsesses on the case and its characters, losing track of himself as he becomes isolated, penniless and homeless. The number three figures prominently in the structure and rhythmic character of the piece.
In City of Glass, Quinn has been hired to tail a crazy, once-dangerous old man, Peter Stillman, who maniacally walks the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side for hours on end, collecting all kinds of discarded debris, withthe idea of giving these objects new names. The composition Babel is a series of musical “found objects” that the ensemble pieces together into a whole, metaphorically walking the city streets, trying to make sense out of seemingly-unrelated clues and fragments of information.
1. Fillmore Street (Lisa Mezzacappa) 03:12
2. The Ballad of Big Flora (Lisa Mezzacappa) 07:05
3. Army Street (Lisa Mezzacappa) 03:48
4. Medley on the Big Knockover: Green St./At Larrouy’s Bar/Montgomery St. (Lisa Mezzacappa) 09:53
5. A Bird in the Hand (Lisa Mezzacappa) 07:24
6. Quinn’s Serenade (Lisa Mezzacappa) 06:33
7. Ghosts (Black and White, Then Blue) (Lisa Mezzacappa) 08:19
8. Babel (Lisa Mezzacappa) 07:57
Lisa Mezzacappa: acoustic bass, samples
Aaron Bennett: tenor saxophone
John Finkbeiner: electric guitar
William Winant: vibraphone, percussion, Foley sound effects
Tim Perkis: electronics
Jordan Glenn: drums
Recorded November 28 – 29, 2015, at New, Improved Recording, Oakland CA, by James Frazier
Additional engineering by John Finkbeiner
Mixed by Myles Boisen at Guerrilla Recording, Oakland CA
Mastered by Myles Boisen at Headless Buddha Mastering Lab, Oakland CA
Band photo by Myles Boisen.
Design by Travassos
Produced by Lisa Mezzacappa
Executive production by Pedro Costa for Trem Azul
For her latest disc, bassist-composer Lisa Mezzacappa creates a “musical companion” to noir and mystery fiction—specifically Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and the works of Dashiell Hammett. For those unfamiliar, Hammett essentially pioneered the hard-boiled noir genre in the 1920s, and Auster created his own sub-genre in the ’80s by incorporating elements of postmodernism and meta-fiction. With these starting points, Mezzacappa is off, composing the first four tracks around Hammett’s The Big Knockover, the fifth around The Maltese Falcon and the final three on Auster’s Trilogy. The results are dense, programmatic pieces that bustle and sprawl forward, reflecting the sinister and unsettling happenings of the original stories, albeit a bit more abstracted than their source texts. Due to the compositions, no instrument is in the forefront for too long, and the conglomeration of such different timbres creates an alluring, spiraling mass. With AvantNOIR, Mezzacappa has artfully blended new and old, programmatic and transcendent, amounting to a listen that’s as captivating as it is challenging.
Izzy Yellen (DownBeat)