Written In the Stars

Phillip Greenlief on Lisa Mezzacappa's Cosmicomics

The Lisa Mezzacappa Six, The Jazz Conservatory, November 2, 2018. Video still: Kirk Schroeder.

SINCE THE EARLY 2000s, Lisa Mezzacappa has worked in the San Francisco Bay Area as a composer and in-demand jazz bassist who plays with a roster of free improvisers and maverick composers including Fred Frith, Myra Melford, and Rhys Chatham. She has a knack for conceptualizing and articulating fresh ideas in collaborations across multiple disciplines: Touch Bass is a recent project with choreographer Risa Jaroslow for three basses and three dancers. As well, she founded the live cinema series Mission Eye and Ear at Artists Television Access (ATA), and is co-organizer of the Do-Over Music Series at Temescal Arts Center in Oakland with cohort Jordan Glenn. Beginning in 2014, she turned her attention to literature as the source material to build an original voice and an impressive catalogue of recordings.

Starting with Avant Noir (composed in 2014 and released in 2017 on Clean Feed), a series of pieces that takes structural cues from the paths that characters in novels by Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster traverse across the Bay Area and New York City, Mezzacappa earned a reputation for composing strong sound narratives. The work also reflects her love of film noir: A number like “Army Street” could be heard as part of a soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist, but that she has illuminated in the listener’s imagination.

Her Glorious Ravage (2015) is a song-cycle drafted from notebooks by Victorian-era women who abandoned social norms to travel the globe, and is scored for a large ensemble featuring Fay Victor (voice), Mark Dresser (bass), Nicole Mitchell (flute), and other West Coast luminaries. Mezzacappa commissioned moving image artists Janis Crystal Lipzin, Kathleen Quillian, Alfonso Alvarez and Konrad Steiner to create visuals to accompany the live performances. On a track like “Make No Plans,” the music offers hilarious impressions of the perils of traveling on foot as the intro sounds the comic clumping of weary feet.

For her latest, Cosmicomics (2018), Mezzacappa took inspiration from Italo Calvino's eponymous 1965 collection of short stories, drawing particularly on the author’s use of science as a metaphor for the way characters interact—and the comic chaos that ensues. These compositions are in conversation with the likes of Beethoven, Debussy, and Ellington, who drafted impressionistic approaches to Shakespeare, the sea, and paintings by Degas, respectively. The listener is invited to drink of the intoxication that the artist experiences; we are an audience for the act of being seduced by an experience and the responding offering ensues in the hope that a similar spell will be cast on someone else. Like her predecessors, she reorganizes the basic elements of music: Rhythm, the current that allows musicians to sculpt sound in time, is rendered unpredictable. Odd meter grooves are not uncommon in jazz, but Mezzacappa’s time signatures appear in states of flux, consistently producing elements of surprise. Perched on top of these pulses, melodies are forced to dance a raggedy step in order to flow with an ever-shifting beat. In Cosmicomics, the effect is humorous, and distinctly Italian in its tone and characterization of Calvino’s comedia. Collaborations with Gianni Mimmo (based in Pavia) and Pierro Bittolo Bon (in Ferrara) have lately allowed Mezzacappa the chance to spend more time in Italy. She seems to have absorbed something essential of her ancestor’s culture: imagine Nono writing arrangements for Nico Fidenco.

Her band dives headfirst into her demanding labyrinthine compositions with remarkable facility and exuberance. In pieces like “The Soft Moon,” the story of a love-triangle affected by the ever-changing distance between the earth and the moon, instrumentation enhances the sense of characterization; orchestration is an act of casting. The bravado of Aaron Bennett’s tenor saxophone captures the grounded and robust spirit of our planet, while Mark Clifford’s vibraphone portrays la luna with cool reserve. Tim Perkis’s live electronics sputter with a littering of interstellar squiggles; John Finkbeiner’s guitar paints diaphanous melodies and drives the band with punchy riffs. Mezzacappa and Glenn are the push and pull that moves the menage à trois in chaotic constellations.

One impressive aspect of Mezzacappa’s approach is the way in which she restructures the ensemble; her sextet is never a fixed entity. Rather it morphs into duos, trios, and quartets, allowing space for each of the players to make significant contributions—as in “The Form of Space,” in which Jordan Glenn ravages a thorny dialogue between Finkbeiner and Clifford like a twister crossing Kansas. Mezzacappa, meanwhile, can be found driving the rhythm section through impossible meter shifts, swinging in 4/4, or introducing new regions with solo passages. Themes range from medium/up-tempo scherzos to slinky dirges. Angular fragments launch improvisations, while atmospheric textures with limited pitch selections allow for glimpses of serenity.

A little more column space is required to do justice to Perkis—a pioneer of electronic music and founding member of The Hub—who provides more than texture; he posts clusters of tone and melodic cells that resist repetitive sequences. A lot of young laptop folks rely on patterns that fail to develop past their initial impulses. Perkis, who builds his own analog electronic instruments rather than relying on software programs, never settles for prepackaged sounds.

Composers have long chosen well-known novels (or other preexisting literary works) for their notoriety, modeling their project on something that has already captured the public’s attention in hope of accessing an existing audience. Mezzacappa’s works feel more like a labor of love and intellect. The processes of research and composing are ways to dig into sources that are irresistible to her. Beneath the translation of literature into music, there is an ecstatic dedication (throughout the ensemble) that infuses her music with immediacy. Earlier this month, Mezzacappa played two packed-house performances of Cosmicomics at SFJAZZ, which doesn’t tend to present local artists performing original compositions. This implies the organization holds her work in the same high esteem as the internationally touring artists that regularly perform there. It’s about time.

Lisa Mezzacappa performed Cosmicomics at SFJAZZ on March 2.