Show Preview: Moongriffin at Altabira City Tavern in Portland on 2/25
The 2016 edition of the Portland Jazz Festival is under way this week here in Stumptown, and we wanted to highlight tonight’s (2/25) show with experimental “Future Jazz” act Moongriffin. The Moongriffin project is helmed by Portland multi-instrumentalist/producer/composer Elliot Ross, and has been squarely on my radar since Glimpse of Future, Moongriffin’s debut, dropped last year on Portland label Cartilage Osseux. Ross has assembled an absolutely top-notch band of players for the show, one we’ve had circled for months.
Glimpse of Future is an ominously engrossing affair recorded with many of Ross’ Chicago counterparts from The Windy City’s lush jazz scene. Future is the kind of record that rewards multiple listens, with twists and turns throughout that manage to sound both sensual and sinister, like a beautiful woman you know can’t be trusted but can’t stop seeing anyway. Live, the songs on Future become malleable works that bend and change depending on where the Ross-led improvs take the band, adding an excitement at the edge of the already dark and enthralling work.
Improvisation is at the core of what Ross does and who he is – right down to the origins of this studio/rehearsal space/music school where he works. The Rhapsody Music School, where Ross records and teaches, came about when Ross, a client at the Warrior Room kettlebell gym, inquired about the empty space next door. Within months, Ross had a one-of-a-kind studio and teaching space set up, and even found a way to involve the gym in his creative process.
After inquiring with Ross about filming a possible live session at his studio, he suggested we film him making a beat from the sounds of people working out at the gym next door, with Portland rapper Yafe Aros freestyling over the improvised Moongriffin beat. It was pretty amazing to watch in real time and speaks to Ross’ natural inclination for improvisation – check out a short preview video of the proceedings below, as well as an interview with Ross:
Director of Photography: Guy Brooksbank Cameras: Caitlin Webb & Donovan Farley
Ahead of tonight’s show, I spoke with Ross via email about Portland’s jazz and experimental scenes, his rather mysterious strongsender project and what the rest of 2016 holds.
Tell me about the band you’ve assembled for this show.
I’ve been rehearsing with Noah Bernstein (alto), Mike Gamble (guitar), Andrew Jones (bass) and Christopher Johnedis (drums) the last couple months and we have an unspoken trust to improvise freely and effortlessly without crowding each other. We’re bringing a very dark sound with a universal spiritual foundation.
What are your thoughts on PDX Jazz Fest overall? Is there enough experimental music in your opinion, or could they branch out a bit?
The programming could be a lot more diverse and I feel that there are so many venues involved as well as the festival lasting over a week that it gets stretched thin. There are multiple gigs happening simultaneously every night at multiple locations there’s too much overlap in scheduling. How is Brian Blade supposed to come to my gig if he’s booked the same night? It would be great to try it out in a more central location with artists scheduled all day/evening over a weekend. Many of the headlining acts are also so expensive that the younger musicians who would love to attend cannot afford a ticket. I love how much interest there is in jazz here but I wish more people were more open to original modern music. in general, My favorite aspect of the Portland music scene is the wide variety of musicians you’ll find if you dig deep. There are so many people doing their own thing and there is constantly a plethora of fantastic artists traveling through Portland on tour. I have heard people describe Portland as a “jazz city” but in my experience there is even more electronic, hip hop and avant gard music which deserves more attention. There aren’t enough live venues giving it a chance so most people don’t know about it. I hope more people will step out of their comfort zones and try to experience something new by exploring more of the unknown.
What did you think about Jimmy Mak’s closing? I know we’ve spoken previously about your frustration with how… vanilla JM’s was.
I never spent enough time there to comment as deeply as those who worked or frequented the club but I’ll honestly say I never had the desire to go back after I stopped in right around when I moved back from Chicago June 2013. It’s not my scene and I don’t like the vibe. Although I heard they are not actually closing and simply moving into an old furniture store nearby so I might start going.
What are your thoughts about PDX’s jazz and experimental scenes — both currently and what the future holds?
I’ve definitely lost my patience with venues in Portland telling me they won’t book me because my music is too sophisticated, experimental or that I need a vocalist singing standards. I want to create sounds that evoke emotions I feel from the real world and not some fantasy or legend of what instrumental music is supposed to be. I have always gravitated toward doing something different or without category rather than repeating the past. I think a lot of the music in Portland will be getting mixed up in all sorts of directions as more and more people move here from out of state. The city is changing and it’s inevitable that art will evolve as a result.
Wow… that’s quite disappointing to hear and kind of blows the mind. What does 2016 hold for both the Moongriffin and Strongsender camps?
Moongriffin is comprised of various projects I have in the works as a producer or composer so I always have a few different things going on. Lately I’ve been in the studio a lot at Rhapsody Music, which I opened in SE Portland this past October. When I’m not teaching I’m always there composing and recording. I’ve been working with vocalist Yafe Aros and bassist Christopher Merrill on a bunch of new tracks for a concept album I’ve had on my mind for a while. I can’t say much now about strongsender other than we have a brand new album scheduled for release sometime this April and we are really excited to share what we’ve been working on. We’re constantly working on new things and our sound is always evolving. Currently the only people who have a copy of the album other than the band are Autechre and Kanye West.
How did that come about!? And since we’re on the topic, I suppose I should ask your opinion on all the Kanye hoopla… a lot of people are missing out on a lot of great music in my mind.
Just before opening Rhapsody Music School strongsender christened the space by recording a large amount of brand new material for a future release. We spent about 4 days tracking and in between sessions we managed to see Autechre two nights in a row here in Portland. Just as their tour bus was about to leave for Seattle I cornered the opening act and gave him a flash drive to pass on to Autechre and he later confirmed delivery.
That weekend I went to LA with my dad to visit my younger brother. While I was there I visited Adrian Younge’s record store, Art Forms, and I had a stack of records with me when I arrived at LAX to head home. I was sitting in the Alaska lounge when my father casually said, “That looks like Kanye West over there.” Indeed it was him and he was ordering himself a cranberry juice at the bar while his assistant and body guard waited across the room. I glanced over at him while he was on a phone call and eventually approached him just as he was about to leave. I introduced myself and we talked not only about my school and my Moongriffin record but I showed him the vinyl I picked up and he shared stories about meeting Ramsey Lewis in the studio when he was 15. We talked about how we were both heavily influenced by Hendrix and Miles and after describing my music to him he insisted that I take down their contact info so I could send my album for them to check out. As we parted ways I complimented the rare looking Ramones tour t-shirt he was wearing and Kanye said, “wait, check this out.” He unexpectedly turned around and pulled off his acid washed denim jacket to reveal on the back that House of Pain was opening for The Ramones that tour. I boarded the plane with my mind blown and proceeded to send Kanye West both the Moongriffin and the new unreleased strongsender albums.
I received a warm polite response after landing in Portland. We haven’t had any further contact but he was really cool to me and we conversed like fellow musicians. I think all of this BS you see in the media is simply more intentional publicity. Kanye knows what he’s doing and I really doubt he cares if the general public thinks he’s losing his mind or is millions in debt. Kanye will always be Kanye.
Holy shit that’s wild! And I couldn’t agree more.
Moongriffin plays Altabira at The Eastlund in Portland on 2/25. The show is both free and highly recommended.
A modern quintet led by Cartilage Osseux Records recording artist Elliot Ross. The Oregon native brings together a dark and urban sound after living in Chicago and NYC for over a decade. Deeply rooted in the underground improvised and electronic music communities, Moongriffin’s writing is inspired by the wildly creative musicians he works with, city landscapes, nature and human destruction.
Elliot Ross / guitar, compositions
Michael Harrison Gamble / guitar
Noah Bernstein / saxophone
Andrew Jones / bass
Christopher Johnedis / drums
“Elliot Ross’s space-jazz ensemble Moongriffin immediately caught our attention upon first listen. Here is an excellently crafted album that rewards the listener who goes the whole way through.” -Matt Fleeger, KMHD Radio
Darkness will wash over the dudes…darker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night.