Review : Guitarist Ava Mendoza’s Residency At The Stone

Guitarist Ava Mendoza has been part of the Brooklyn creative music scene since relocating east from the Bay Area in 2013, and rapidly became a vital part of a sub-category of musicians blurring the lines between rigorous composition, oddball rock and free music (think: drummers Weasel Walter and Nick Podgurski, bassist Tim Dahl, etc.). The week of October 24-30 was Mendoza’s first shot at a Stone residency, and she filled twelve sets with a diverse body of work from solo and duets to expanded free-rock units. Friday, following a performance by her core group Unnatural Ways (with Dahl and drummer Sam Ospovat) augmented by tenor saxophonist John Dikeman (Cactus Truck), the latter along with Mendoza and Cactus Truck’s drummer Onno Govaert performed as a trio. The group’s regular guitarist Jasper Staadhouders was on tour with reedist Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break, so Mendoza inserted her bluesy kinetic crags into the active field created by Govaert’s continuous propulsive action and Dikeman’s brittle, walloping shouts. While Cactus Truck’s sets aren’t quite varied enough at length, the trio nevertheless put forth an inventive squall and all three musicians balanced one another in their search effectively.

For her closing night during an unseasonably warm late October, Mendoza assembled two ensembles that the wider underground music press hasn’t seen. First was a quartet with Walter, bassist Max Johnson and tenor saxophonist Matt Nelson playing three pieces — two of the guitarist’s, and the drummer’s “Simplistic Behaviors for Quartet.” Nelson amplifies his tenor, utilizing an array of pedals and a microphone dropped into the bell, which allows for metallic pad clicks and gooey ululations to be given an electrified sheen. Mendoza triangulated thin, reverberant scales and jittery twang against percussive flits and volume pedal-actuated puffs on the first piece as the group investigated itself, threading organic drone through inorganic blends of sine, sawtooth and machine rattle. Walter’s piece poised syrupy tenor gasps against strangled arpeggios, through-composed chop splaying out into steely declamation and heel-digging statements. The tension between absolutist skronk and amplified ephemerality was the quartet’s clear selling point.

Chaser has been active for nearly two years and has apparently played a handful of shows, though their presence remains fairly obscure. In this, Mendoza’s cooperative art-rock sludge outfit, she’s joined by drummer Oran Canfield (Child Abuse, Drummers’ Corpse), electric bassist Shayna Dulberger (HOT DATE), and vocalist Dominika Michalowska (Nebadon). While bluesy brutal prog isn’t new to Mendoza — Quok and Unnatural Ways both fit that bill differently — Chaser veers closer to a crusty, SST-like sensibility, with Michalowska’s normally incantatory vocals somewhat buried and indistinct in the forward-vaulted stew. No matter, though, as in this context and across eight original tunes, the latter’s pitch-shifted yelps and odd, willowy theatrics were in stark contrast to the churning, math-y ensemble. Mendoza sometimes acted as a scuzzy, lick-free J Mascis in brief soloistic impulses, often reaching ear-splitting vertical cadenzas in tandem with the ever-present sizzle of Canfield’s cymbals. The volume might’ve been a little high for jazz-tuned ears at the Stone, as the slurry of electronics, guitar squall and drumset were a direct hit on an otherwise neutral space, but sometimes a punch in the nose is a good thing.

–Clifford Allen, November 11, 2016