“The thing about Balkan instruments is that they’re all kind of funny-looking,” explains Ryan Francesconi, perched on a tatami mat at Berkeley’s Far Leaves teahouse. “We showed up once at a crowded party, and someone moaned, ‘Oh, here comes that band with all the odd-shaped cases.'”
“Those perfect moments of epiphany — best when it just happens like that,” Patrick Cress adds, breaking the tranquillity of the teahouse with a laugh.
Based on that offhanded moan, the record label, promotion, and distribution outfit Cress and Francesconi have run since 2001 was christened Odd Shaped Case. And as a result of their devotion to cultivating an organized scene for Balkan, improvised, and electronic music, OSC now boasts some of the region’s best musicians, who lurk locally in relative obscurity, but regularly garner national and international acclaim from the likes of Tom Waits, John Zorn, and DJ Recloose.
The fifteen official bands and countless related offshoots currently gathered under OSC’s umbrella are all related by musical integrity and personal friendship: The members of groups like Transmission, the Toids, Gojogo, Trio Mopmu, pickPocket Ensemble, Kipple, Telepathy, and Rosin Coven guest-star on each other’s albums, fill in at shows, and, most importantly, have one hell of a good time doing it. That intimacy is what makes it all so cozy: For the seemingly unmanageable breadth of musical focus the group supports, the OSC philosophy surrounds these musicians like water, and that water sustains growth. Gojogo violinist Sara Jo Zaharako credits this environment for her departure from being a strictly classical musician: “I couldn’t have made the jump, and I couldn’t continue, if it wasn’t for the support of this community,” she says.
With a bag of tricks encompassing any and all variations of improvised music, OSC hopes to help all its musicians evolve from a loose cadre to an organized collective. Cress and Francesconi both know the Bay Area is home to plenty of experimental music fans — now it’s simply a question of providing access. They use contacts with local bookers to put together and promote gigs that range from a night of wine, cheese, and free jazz at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery to weekly spots at places like the Jazz House. As a label, Odd Shaped Case is responsible for thirteen releases to date. Ultimately, the two envision OSC as a catch-all clearinghouse for all this spectacular music, ranging from electronic noise laced with cello and dobro, to ambient waves constant as a temple’s trail of incense, emboldened by brass lines, fanned by accordion flutters, and fueled on fits of electric guitar and tablas.
Some of OSC’s most prominent offshoots include:
Fluctuating from a trio to a quintet, the guitar-and-horn outfit anchors itself to the rhythm section of bassist Eric Perney and drummer Tim Strand, bouncing in and out of moods and modes that span emotional and musical spectrums. From a dark introspective lament to a jaunty groove set at machine-gun speed, Transmission’s range results in one of the bay’s best musical secrets, because no matter the configuration, the notes always fall into place with ease and clarity.
This quartet’s musical ideas are bred from the juxtaposition of eras, pairing violin and acoustic bass with Ben Mawhorter’s tablas and tarang and Elias Reitz electronic samples. Over frenetically hypnotic over- dubs and beats, Sara Jo Zaharako’s violin zips and bows both jazz and classical lines, helping to merge forms of music thousands of years old with today’s technology.
As Francesconi’s brainchild, RF arranges electronic music acoustically, taking ambient soundscapes and punctuating them with warbling saw bends, lilting voices, brassy horn calls, and finger-squeak guitar lines. The resulting distinct vision carries listeners away in the same way a good book snares readers.
A fixture of the Bay Area’s eclectic music scene since 1998, pickPocket Ensemble echoes Parisian cafe music, Gypsy jigs, and ragtime shuffles with an infectious musical intimacy that turns living rooms and clubs alike into a grotto or oasis. Rick Corrigan’s accordion, Marguerite Ostrovski’s swooning violin, Tim Fox’ guitar, Will High’s bass, and Aharon Bolsta’s tabla-steeped percussion infuse the present with sounds of the past, providing an incredibly universal and immediate musical appeal.
Without a doubt, the DIY attitude so pervasive here makes an outfit like OSC seem inevitable. Most of these performers have always been self-sufficient and self-promoting, but as fellow practicing musicians, Cress and Francesconi acknowledge it’s hard enough to get a band together, rehearse, gig, and get into a studio to lay something down that sounds good; aspects of the business such as promotion and audience-building are low on that list of priorities. Thus, OSC wants to create consistent musical events that further the musicians’ individual notoriety, but promote a central community as well. Berkeley’s Jazz House and Epic Arts Space have hosted such team-building events; across the bay, Amnesia in the Mission saves every other Sunday night for Balkan music, counting on OSC to provide local acts to buttress a mixture of national touring acts.
All this fusion and cross-pollination creates musical hybrids and friendships. Dervish-like Kipple drummer Ches Smith, proud member of the Bay Area’s improvising elite, recounts meeting bassist Devin Hoff, his partner in the ultimate power duo Good for Cows, at a gig in the North Bay: “He started talking my ear off about Black Flag and the Minutemen and all this shit. This kind of conversation just did not happen six years ago in the jazz scene.”
Smith and Hoff found in one another a shared desire to avoid musical norms — just the sort of hybrid OSC desires. Cress and Francesconi know there’s plenty of work ahead to get their organization to the point where it can compete with more established promoters, but for the time being, they’re proud to help one showcase and one album at a time.