The latest releases by The Bakersfield New Music Collective and San Fransisco-based, but Bakersfield-bred Conrad The Band couldn’t be more different stylistically, but their roots and spirits — and sometimes instrumentation — are deeply entrenched in Bakersfield’s fertile creative soil. Each release has a cohesive spirit and an almost uncompromising sense of identity.
The Bakersfield New Music Collective is a group of Bakersfield’s first-call A-listers, including pianists Tony Rinaldi, Jay Smith and Doug Davis (also doing double-duty as conductor); drummers Kyle Burnham, Zanne Zarow and Canaan McDuffie; bassist Glen Fong; guitarist Paul Cierley; vibraphonist Rebecca Spickler; flautist Audrey Boyle; trumpeters Mike Raney and Jorge Santos; trombonist Tom Keel, and woodwind players Chuck Degan and Ray Zepeda, who also serves as the Collective’s artistic director.
Their release, titled “Re-Imagining Milton Babbitt: A Centennial Celebration for an Exceptional American,” is a tribute to the serial music pioneer who died at age 94 in 2011. You might not be familiar with Babbitt or serial music in general, but if you’ve seen a suspense film in the last 40 years, you’ve heard it. It’s the jittery music jumping from one note to another creating an almost chaotic sense of tension.
For some, it’s a cacophony; to others, it’s a revelation.
“Milton Babbitt’s music is often described as very austere, but I think it’s really music meant to be listened to; not just looked at on the score,” Zepeda said. “There are a lot of different levels to appreciate, (like) the structural micro-levels; looking at the serialization of all the musical elements of the music — the pitch classes and the rhythms. (It has) a crystalline quality to it … like a fine-cut diamond … shimmering.”
The album’s opening track combines Babbitt’s composition “Philomel” performed as an improvised remix of a previous recording by DJ Raully D (who also performs throughout the release) that seamlessly transitions into the ensemble playing Zepeda’s own “Shattered Glass on the Beach.”
Including a DJ on the album is inspired and entirely in line in the spirit of Babbitt as a pioneer in early experimental electronic music, sometimes as a means to get the kinds of sounds he thought were too difficult for human musicians to capture.
Some of the album’s standouts are Zepeda’s arrangement of Babbitt’s “None But the Lonely Flute,” a song both dense and lovely, especially Doug Davis’ delicate, shimmering piano playing which is reminiscent of Bill Evans.
Another highlight is Davis' composition “Stones,” which sounds like it came straight off of a soundtrack to a heist film. It also reminds me that for some people, soundtracks are the gateway drug to classical music.
The biggest takeaway from the recording isn’t just the compositions but the inspired playing of the musicians, both ensemble-wise and as soloists. The album was recorded live at the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop last January, and in our current auto-tune world, to hear such a high-level of execution in the performances is breathtaking.
“This album is a labor of love and giving back to the Bakersfield community that took me in when I moved up there in 2010, and also to celebrate one of our greatest American composers,” Zepeda said. “I hope to build some national awareness of what Bakersfield actually is and what is possible.”
Conrad The Band — aka 37-year-old Bakersfield natives Matthew Shaw and Nick Andre — is steeped in the same bleep-blop-bloops that Babbitt helped pioneer, albeit set in a different musical idiom.
The band's “Valley Fever” is a stunning little six-song debut that uses astute storytelling to carry the weight of their observations without having to spell them out cynically for you.
“There’s a little bit of mystery when you’re writing stuff, like, ‘Where did that come from?’” Shaw said. “You’re kind of connecting into your subconscious; (maybe) the ghost of rock ’n’ roll or something, you know? You don’t exactly know how it all works out, it just kinda falls into place. But that’s kind of like the best songs, though, the ones that write themselves and you’re kind of like a vessel for them. It’s tricky. Even when I listen to (the album), it still feels strange that this is what it is.”
Even though it would be easy to compare any indie-rock lo-fi band with a bit of a ’70s feel to Beck and other like-minded hipster artists from the SoCal Silverlake scene, to me, Conrad The Band is more reminiscent of Steely Dan. Both bands share a darker lyrical sensibility of life’s sometimes inherent — and inevitable— absurdities; observations that come through solitude, even when surrounded on all sides by people.
Whether it’s singing about their own Deacon Blues, the doomed, sad-sack titular character of the song “Teddy” or an uncle’s friend’s overdose on “Poor Davy,” their wry stories aren’t told with the emotionally opaque detachment of some bands. There’s an undercurrent of fire throughout “Valley Fever,” and even the hyena on the album cover serves as its unofficial mascot; its frozen grin both mocking and vicious.
“That hyena is actually in my living room,” Andre said. “That was just another kind of luck thing that fell into this process. We had the record done and we were trying to come up with artwork ideas and I had this hyena sitting here and I was like, ‘Man, this thing is so rad it would be real cool to take it to a studio and have somebody shoot (photos of) it to see what it looks like.’ So we did that and it totally just fit the vibe and just worked.”
They also share Steely Dan’s penchant for mad scientist studio alchemy: concentrating on the songcraft and the sound of the album where the mix almost becomes its own instrument. Also, writing songs in the studio makes certain creative decisions possible that one wouldn’t always get when honing a song through live performance. It gives the band the luxury for sonic exploration and makes songs like “One More Smoke” possible.
About the end of a long night, the song ends with a building cascade of sounds, making the song into a minor tone poem, and, like the songs lead character, it straddles the line between discovery and exhaustion. Exactly how nights like these end: dazed, confused and numbly tripping into the ether.
“They don’t all necessarily relate to one another,” Andre said. “The stories are all different people and different things, but it definitely has a common thread in humans and different points of reality that they go through.”
The two are still figuring out the logistics of translating the album into a live setting. No small feat with the depth of sounds on the album. Their next show will be the band’s first show — not counting the one-off they did awhile back at Temblor Brewing as Conrad.
“I, personally, would love to have a full band for this,” Andre said, “but we’re still trying to work out and see how far we can get as a two-piece and then see where we’re at. We would definitely would love to play (Bakersfield) and as I’m sure that as soon as we get the live set together that’s going to be one of our first stops.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what it sound like when we do,” said Shaw.
Both the Bakersfield New Music Collective and Conrad The Band releases can be found and purchased online. In the case of the former, I suggest getting a physical copy at CDbaby.com. There is a quite a bit of information to digest in its liner notes.
Both releases are exceptional and unique representations of Bakersfield and I highly recommend giving them a test-drive. A caveat, though: The Babbitt tribute might not be for everybody; for some listeners, the dissonance of some of the compositions might be a bit too much. “Valley Fever” is more accessible and has its own depths that merits repeat listens.
Tom Petty remembrance
With the almost numbing catastrophes and tragic events happening around the world, the sudden passing of Tom Petty Monday at age 66 from cardiac arrest feels like a cruel cosmic joke. “You thought 2016 was bad? Hold my beer.”
His talent was singular and his uncanny ability to write songs that became classics as soon as they were released verged on the spooky.
Petty also had some ties to Bakersfield as well. Local recording engineer Max Reese co-engineered Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first two albums: their 1976 self-titled debut and 1978 follow-up “You’re Gonna Get It!” For years, the framed RIAA Gold records for the two releases hung on the walls at Fat Tracks Recording Studio in Oildale.
Reese’s deliberate — and narcotically unorthodox — creative process was humorously chronicled in Peter Bogdanovich’s fantastic 2007 documentary, “Runnin’ Down a Dream," that's currently available for streaming on Netflix. It covers pretty much every aspect of Petty’s life and career — as well as giving the Heartbreakers their proper due. It runs just shy of four hours, but it flies by, like — well, a dream. His was a talent rarely seen in a lifetime. This one stings. A lot.