In the Mood for Shakuhachi, Man?

Last night I had the pleasure of attending another in the great occasional series of house concerts produced by vegan chef extraordinaire, Philip Gelb. Phil wears many hats. He is a fine shakuhachi player and, by his own students’ testimony, a great teacher as well. He is without doubt a wonderfully creative chef catering vegan cuisine to the bay area and beyond. And over the last six years he has hosted an occasional series of concerts at his loft in West Oakland modeled in part on the Creative Music Studio that flourished in Woodstock, New York in the seventies and early eighties. In fact some of the musicians Phil has hosted are alumni of that fine collective. His business is called, ‘In the Mood for Food’.

The dinner which is frequently tailored to the artist’s preference was a Thai/Japanese fusion of some five delicious courses. And customarily the performance occurs followed by the dessert course.

The musician was a shakuhachi player and instrument maker named John Kaizan Neptune, an American expatriate living in Japan since the seventies. Neptune is a surfer and surf board maker who has turned his carpentry skills and musical talent on the creation and/or modification of musical instruments after his interest in eastern philosophy drew him to Japan where he continues to live and perform.

Having heard traditional shakuhachi I was somewhat unprepared for the kaleidoscope of sounds and styles of music which followed our entree. Neptune, dressed in a head scarf and and Japanese style short vest jacket and blue jeans, looked the role of the American surfer/musician he describes himself to be. He had three shakuhachi of different lengths and he described some basic facts about the instruments in a most pleasant manner demonstrating his love and depth of knowledge of his medium.

He varied his program with a mix of traditional pieces and a sampling of some jazz/improvisational work which opened our ears to some amazing possibilities for this ancient instrument. He spoke casually of scales and playing techniques demonstrating by playing. At one point he displayed his skill by playing the opening of the Mozart G minor symphony quite in tune on an instrument designed to play a five tone scale. And if any of this sounds at all pedantic it is the fault of my writing, not the artist’s presentation. He was engaging in the manner of a skillful teacher able to meet his students’ needs at their level, neither condescending, nor opaque.

Neptune’s knowledge and respect for traditional Japanese music was evident but his own creative, dare I say American sensibility, has not been lost or subsumed. He performed music that paid homage to the traditions of its origin and kicked out some soulful jazz and blues jams that would do any ensemble proud. The effect was mind expanding and joyful evidenced by a very appreciative audience.

In addition to shakuhachi we were treated to an instrument of Neptune’s own creation, a two headed drum made entirely of bamboo. As in his shakuhachi playing there was a synthesis reflecting and integrating various cultural/musical influences into a new and worthy product embodying the influences of its ancestors as a child embodies the genetic heritage of its parents.

This drum produces four distinct sounds and was played strapped to the performer’s waist. And it could conceivably have great utility in a variety of musical settings. Mr. Neptune again demonstrated his swinging musical sensibilities in playing his new creation. It’s sounds evoked a variety of ethnomusical sounds ranging from South Asian and African to Latin and American. and he will soon be selling this instrument along with traditional and custom shakuhachi.

Following this good humored and spirited performance followed a great dessert and the almost obligatory selling of CDs which the audience, this writer included, consumed nearly as voraciously as the dessert. Many in the audience were Phil’s shakuhachi students and were freely invited to try Mr. Neptune’s instruments which they did with little hesitation.

House concerts generally convey a far greater sense of intimacy and connection than larger more traditional concert settings. And this was even more evident here due the persona of the performer and the receptivity of the audience many of whom were regular attendees at these events.

I happened to have brought a couple of guests to this event and the energy seemed to grab them as much as it did those more familiar with this series. It was a great evening in a great ongoing series at “In the Mood for Food’, a very special place on the east bay.


Avant Cake

Avant Cake is an occasional series of house concerts hosted and frequently featuring Amy X Neuberg, musician, singer, poet. She is a well recognized figure in the bay area music scene.

Today’s concert featured Ms. Neuberg, Guillermo Galindo and Paul Dresher.

The performance was preceded and followed by a casual reception featuring various snacks, drinks and, of course, cake.

Following the initial reception the attendees went down to Neuberg’s basement studio. The room, filled with electronic instruments, mixing boards and computers as well as posters of previous performances was set up with chairs for the audience, a quadrophonic sound system and video projection equipment.

First up Ms. Neuberg did an improvisation utilizing some new software. Her work is a unique combination of a beautiful well trained voice, extended vocal techniques, poetry (driven in part by her study of linguistics) and electronic looping which allows her to create soundscapes and accompaniments to her lyrics and well honed theatrics which connected well with her clearly appreciative and knowledgeable audience.

This performance was a sort of introduction to a developing larger collaborative project between some nine composers including today’s performers, Lisa Bielawa, bay area favorites Pamela Z and Carla Kihlstedt as well as Conrad Cummings, one of Neuberg’s teachers. The project is to involve both music and images. And this afternoon’s event is a kickoff to the fundraising bolstered by a matching grant from the bay area arts council.

Following the improvisation was another of Neuberg’s songs and the she introduced Guillermo Galindo, a composer, sound artist and visual artist who teaches at the California College of the Arts. Neuberg sang the lead character of Simone Weil in the 2001 production of Galindo’s opera “Re-creation”.

After some pesky technical difficulties with the quadraphonic sound system we were treated to live visual scenes created by Galindo using what looked like a lighted microphone but was in fact a microscope whose images were projected on a screen and which interacted with an electronic score. The piece, lasting perhaps 20 minutes, involved Galindo projecting a variety of magnified images of his own body (mouth, skin, hair, clothing) and an assortment of other objects which appeared to be insect parts, carpet fibers, a dollar bill, etc. The non-linear, non-narrative flow sometimes juxtaposed images and appeared to work well with the similarly post-Cagean sound score.
The performance had the feel of somewhat improvisatory performance art and was ostensibly an idea of how he planned to work on the developing collaborative work. The audience was appreciative in receiving this interesting little preview.

After a small pause to set up Paul Dresher’s computer into the projection system Mr. Dresher presented two photographs. One was of a movie screen in a drive-in theater in the desert near Las Vegas and another of an indoor theater in which the only light was from an illuminated blank screen. Both were the work of prominent photographers. But the point of showing these images was to show the audience what was given as a “homework” assignment by a woman who is a volunteer teacher at the prison in San Quentin and the response to that assignment by an incarcerated man 29 years old called Michael who, serving a life sentence for an unspecified crime, has been in jail since the age of 15. In addition to that sad story was added the fact that he wrote his assignment by hand with a small pen (too small to allow it to be used as a weapon) while he served time in solitary confinement for another unspecified offense.

Dresher passed out copies of the photos for the audience to see which provided a better resolution than that on screen and a copy of the actual assignment in Michael’s own hand. The assignment was to write an analysis of and reaction to the two photographs. Dresher played a recording of the young man reading his assignment.

The depth and perceptiveness of Michael’s essay beautifully read by its author were simply astounding. It was a personal and intelligent analysis of the images that put this writer in the mind of the likes of the accomplished art critic Robert Hughes. The essay illuminated very insightfully the two images and was clearly the product of a sensitive, intelligent human being.

The essay and the images are a starting point for Dresher’s portion of said project and, if this little segment is any indication, suggest that the finished project (planned for a possible premiere in 2014), may be formidable and beautiful.

Amy Neuberg again took the stage leading a singalong of her “Avant Cake Theme Song” and a delightful rendition of one of her earlier compositions. Following that the clearly pleased and impressed audience were invited back upstairs for more snacks and socializing.

All in all a truly delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon and an auspicious beginning to a very promising project. Support for the project will shortly be accepting donations on Kickstarter ( And this is a project very deserving of support.