It is hard to classify a performer like the English guitarist Fred Frith. He has been playing guitar since the age of 13 and he is now 62. Over those almost 50 years he has ventured into just about every nook and cranny of the guitar repertoire, performing with so many groups in so many different styles that his Wikipedia entry runs the risk of looking like a laundry list. His primary interest, however, has always been in improvisation. With influences like John Cage and Frank Zappa, to whom he was exposed while a student at Christ’s College in Cambridge University, he has always been open to taking improvisation in just about any direction and in practicing it with just about anyone who would care to play with him.
Frith is now Professor of Composition in the Music Department at Mills College in Oakland, and Oakland is the home of his latest improvisatorial project. That project is Cosa Brava, which began as an improvisation quintet in March of 2008. Frith partnered with Zeena Parkins on keyboards and accordion, Carla Kihlstedt on violin, Matthias Bossi on drums, and The Norman Conquest on sound manipulation. Their first album, Ragged Atlas, was released in 2010. Reviewing it for the All About Jazz Web site, Mark Corroto ran up against the usual problems of classifying anything Frith does. Like the Wikipedia authors, he eventually fell back on building a laundry list:
The music lies somewhere between folk, Celtic, modern chamber, Latin, funk, Eastern, and prog-rock.
One way to interpret this may be though the rather vague term “free improvisation,” which reflects the “free jazz” spirit pioneered by Lennie Tristano, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane, playing spontaneously without drawing upon a familiar tune (or anything else, for that matter) for a frame of reference. For my part I am willing to acknowledge Frith as one of those practitioners of “chamber music by other means” and leave things at that.
Since its formation Cosa Brava has “graduated” from a quintet to a sextet with the addition of Shahzad Ismaily on bass and percussion. In this expanded form they will be making their only United States appearance in 2011 here in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall on Sunday, August 14. It is hard to know just what to expect, but when so many attempts at classification are thwarted, it is best to check your expectations at the door and just let the improvisations take you where they will.
Cosa Brava will appear with two other groups, Jack ‘O the Clock and Grex. The former has established themselves in the progressive rock category, but with an almost sentimental nod to songs in the American folk tradition. Grex, on the other hand, is another product of activities at Mills consisting of Karl A. D. Evangelista (guitar and voice) and Margaret Rei Scampavia (keyboards, winds, and voice). In the interests of defying classification, Evangelista has a background in free jazz, while Scampavia is a biologist.
The Great American Music Hall is located at 859 O’Farrell Street, between Polk Street and Larkin Street. The management has provided a Web page with a map and information about both parking and public transportation options. The performance by Cosa Brava, along with Jack ‘O the Clock and Grex, will take place on Sunday, August 14, at 8 PM, with doors opening at 7 PM. Admission is $20, but one can also pay $44.95 for dinner along with admission. There is an event page from which tickets may be ordered; or they may be purchased at the Box Office, which is open Monday through Friday from 10:30 AM through 6 PM and will be open prior to the performance. They can also be ordered over the phone at 888-233-0449, with a service fee that may vary between $5 and $7 per ticket.