Cyclub: “Gypsy Punk Opera” (written for CA426, “Thought And Image”, at San Francisco State University, April 2012.)
On February 17, 2012, in a venue called the Lost Door, we attended the CD release party for Shining In The Sun, the long-awaited album by the San Francisco-based band Cyclub. The Lost Door is a newly opened performance space located in the group of converted warehouses on Illinois St. near the outlet where Islais Creek flows into San Francisco Bay. This same complex is known to locals as the home of the long-running Cyclone warehouse, and is one of the few surviving remnants of the once-vibrant live-work art space community that had thrived in San Francisco in the 1980s-90s before the dot-com boom caused many of them to be demolished to make room for more prosperous tenants.
Cyclub is the ongoing project of trumpeter/guitarist/composer Junko Suzuki Parsons, who has guided several extremely different versions of her band in Japan, Massachusetts, London, and California. Her music ranges from jazz to folk to hip hop, united by her urge to synthesize a wide range of influences in service to her own urgent, yet often whimsically-delivered message. “When I was a little girl in Japan,” she once told me with typical intensity, “Miles was my only friend.”
While living in Japan, Junko developed a chronic illness. Traveling to Massachusetts and London, she found her condition greatly improved, only for her sickness to resurface when she returned home. Her own research led her to the conclusion that the environment in Japan had become highly toxic due to radiation from the 55 nuclear power plants throughout the country, and began using her own music as a tool for anti-nuclear activism and taking part in protests against the Rokkasho Processing Plant and the US occupation (and alleged deployment of nuclear weapons) in Okinawa.
After touring, recording, and demonstrating in Japan, Junko relocated to San Francisco and met and married her husband and collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Mark Parsons. The two formed a new lineup of Cyclub with a jazz emphasis, gathering a group of horn players and other musicians that Mark knew, and set about building up a new repertoire that Junko called the “Gypsy Punk Opera”, playing parties, warehouse shows and benefits for the victims of the Fukushima disaster. This was the set, refined over many years of hard work, that we had come for.
(This picture does an excellent job of conveying what Cyclub sounds like.)
The band consisted of Junko on trumpet, lead vocals and guitar, Mark Parsons on alto saxophone, Tim White on bass clarinet, Jeff Fitzsimmons on tenor saxophone, Andy DiGiovanni on second trumpet and trombone, Jesse Jackson on guitar, Andrew Kushin on electric upright bass, and Steve Wertheim on drums. The compositions mostly followed a jazz structure, with an introduction, a theme, improvised solos by individual members, and a conclusion that restates the theme. The rhythms, harmonies and vocal chants all had a loose, freewheeling style that brought to mind the sounds of 60s-era avant garde jazz artists like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and especially Sun Ra, who, like Cyclub, often used massed choral chanting in his music and also shared a fanciful interest in space travel and a fantasy that benevolent, wise aliens were coming to Earth to help the human population sort out their problems. (One of the pieces in the “Gypsy Punk Opera” is an anthem where the band proclaim themselves to be “Space Pirates”, inviting the audience along on an interstellar journey.)
As a singer, Junko defies the stereotype of chirpy-voiced Japanese women, intoning her lyrics in a deep, guttural contralto voice that is not “pretty” by normal standards, but is highly effective, distinctive and even charismatic. In contrast, her trumpet style alternates between high, clear, cutting notes and the sort of cracked, vulnerable tones that Miles Davis would sometimes use while improvising on a ballad.
The other horn players injected their own personalities into their solos whenever the opportunity came up, especially Tim White, whose command of a rarely-played instrument, the bass clarinet, was phenomenal. Tim seemed to tap into an endless stream of melodic ideas, combined with an exciting “overblowing” technique that brought forth gruff growls and high harmonics that went straight up my spine.
An added element in this performance was a small group of Butoh dancers, one male, two female, and one of indeterminate gender wearing a grotesque papier mache mask with long black hair and a long white shroud, who moved through the audience, crawling, writhing, and straining their bodies as the music flowed and lurched from the stage area. The male dancer was adorned with a bird’s beak, twine, and a headdress that suggested the ragged remains of what once was a crown of feathers. The two female dancers were a bit more whimsical and less pained than what you usually see in a Butoh performance, smiling at their own antics and rolling about in a style reminiscent of contact improv. Together, the combination of diverse and seemingly opposing styles of the dancers conveyed a feeling of playfulness in the midst of the psychic and physical horrors that Butoh has always dramatized so well. And it all meshed with Cyclub’s paradoxical method of folding seemingly random individual contributions into a tightly defined structure.
The one piece of the “Gypsy Punk Opera” that always stands out for me is “Okinawa”, a composition with very few lyrics (all in Japanese, and I have yet to see a translation) that nonetheless conveys Junko’s emotional response to an environment plagued by militarism and nuclear poison. Starting with a group chant of the title, the song builds on a drone with a trumpet-led fanfare that rises tentatively and falls again, segueing into a more energetic, syncopated tango where saxes and trumpets chase each other in call-and-response mode as the tempo increases. All of this sets the stage for several fiery instrumental solos. I’ve seen many performances of this piece, and every one of them has been completely different. This, to me, is the essence of what jazz often purports to offer, but does not always deliver in practice.
Since this performance, and the release of the CD, the ever-restless Junko Suzuki Parsons has embarked on a new project called “Cyclub Kidzclub”, bringing together a new group of Japanese musicians and performing shows geared to young children. If the Gypsy Punk Opera free-jazz incarnation of Cyclub does not play another show, it will be unfortunate, but anything the Suzuki-Parsons partnership set their sights on is bound to be fascinating and important.