The Crushing Spiral Ensemble
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The Crushing Spiral Ensemble

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"Matt Small plays big blend of jazz, classics"

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Matt Small plays big blend of jazz, classics
Jesse Hamlin, Special to The Chronicle
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In Matt Small's expansive music, modern classical horn parts sing over funky electric bass figures and roiling drums. Jazz solos play off a background of composed melodies. Written counterpoint gives way to free group improvisation. "I like to mix all these different things in my own way," says Small, a gifted San Francisco bassist and composer whose alluringly original music draws on a rich range of classical, jazz and indigenous music. He's equally versed in Stravinsky and Weather Report, Art Blakey and Bartók, the plucked sounds of the Mongolian morin khuur and the lutelike Chinese pipa.

On Wednesday, Small brings his revamped Crushing Spiral Ensemble to Yoshi's San Francisco to play a batch of new pieces that rock, float and change shape and color as they go, merging composition and improvisation in unexpected ways. "Classical" passages are played with jazz phrasing. The band features four more creative Bay Area musicians: saxophonists Steve Adams and Sheldon Brown (both part of the original Crushing Spiral group), trumpeter Chris Grady and drummer Jeff Marrs.

A graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Small moved to the Bay Area in 1997 "because there was such of variety of music happening here," he says. The genial musician, a boyish 35, is sitting in the book-lined living room of the Haight-Ashbury flat he shares with his wife, Stefanie, a singer, publicist and voice-over artist.

Small, a jazz-mad kid who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, found the scene here conducive to exploring the kind of organic jazz-classical blend he envisioned. A self-taught composer, he developed his own voice composing for Crushing Spiral and two other bands: the Matt Small Chamber Ensemble, whose music is about 80 percent composed and 20 percent improvised, and the Bedlam Royals, a theatrical group that performs Small's quirky vocal music.

Whatever style he approaches, "I look at what's not being covered, and I try to cover it in an extensive way," he says. He wanted to bring more improvisation, "or a certain relaxed phrasing," to classical music. With jazz, he took the opposite tack.

"With the Crushing Spiral Ensemble, I'm looking at the jazz world and saying, 'What are the areas that aren't being covered that I'd liked to be covered?' That has to do with composition. I want to see a certain amount of variety in composition and I want to see a variety in form. So it's not always head (theme), solo, solo."

With this music, he adds, "you won't hear any walking bass lines. I love doing that traditional kind of stuff, but this is a totally different approach to the bass. Everything is sort of built off that."

Always looking to extend his instrumental techniques and musical reach, Small had a high, fifth string added to his upright bass so he could move up into cello range. He worked with luthier Mark Garza to design a six-string electric bass - with two higher strings - to give him more melodic and chordal possibilities. The instrument enabled him to develop techniques he calls "a kind of classical guitar-electric bass hybrid. I was trying to have more a pianistic feeling."

He plays it sitting down, the instrument resting on a foam block in his lap that bears the weight and frees him up. He puts his left foot on a classical guitar foot rest. Small's innovative pressing and plucking techniques owe something to the methods he picked up from the Asian string players he played with in workshops and performances at Tanglewood Music Center and Carnegie Hall in 2004 as part of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. Ma calls him "a raving lunatic, in the best way!"

At Yoshi's, you probably won't hear the kind fractured waltzes and Shostakovich-like martial rhythms that cropped up on the Crushing Spiral Ensemble's fine 2000 CD, "The Count of San Francisco." The new tunes build mostly on funk grooves and the rocking interplay between bass and drums, interspersed with lyrical, floating ballads.

"The waltzes were getting to be a bad habit for me. I can't do that anymore," Small says with a laugh. He likes turning things on their heads and surprising people, he says, but he strives to make music people can grasp. "I like to present adventurous and challenging music, but in a viscerally attractive way. I care about connecting with an audience. Even if it it's the craziest thing they ever heard, I want them to dig it. If you have some melody and good, solid rhythm, you can get away with a lot."

The Crushing Spiral Ensemble performs 8 p.m. Wednesday, Yoshi's, 1330 Fillmore St., San Francisco. $10-$14. (415) 655-5600.

E-mail Jesse Hamlin at

This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle
- San Francisco Chronicle

"Bass is loaded Matt Small mashes jazz, classical in his chamber ensemble"

The Bay Area-based bassist, Matt Small, now heads his own quintet -- cleverly named Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble -- and is already a veteran of Carnegie Hall and counts musical giant Yo-Yo Ma among his fans.

On a rainy Monday morning, the bespectacled Small -- still boyish at 31 -- is at the Jazzschool in Berkeley awaiting the members of his group for a rehearsal.

Bass players don't exactly burn through the musical heavens with their superstar status, but there are enough of them -- Edgar Meyer, Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke -- to indicate that Small could be on the right path.

His work with cellist Ma's Silk Road Project led to a Carnegie Hall concert, as did his work with jazz musician Dave Douglas. In both instances, Small was able to expand his already broad musical horizons.

With the complexity of modern classical music mixed with the improvised vitality of jazz, the music Small writes is distinctly original. Ma describes Small as "talented and innovative... a raving lunatic in the best way."

"I love classical music in all its forms," Small says. "I want to write complex, difficult music that still leaves room for improvisation. You could call my music fusion, but people hear that word and either love it or immediately think it's cheesy."

One of the things Small is after in his writing is the elusive groove.

"When the music finds a groove that's really exciting for me," he says. "There's not a lot of writing out there in the classical world that goes after a groove. Rhythmic drive interests me but without drums. Like what Astor Piazzolla did -- amazing rhythm, no drums."

"Complex" and "challenging" are words Small uses often when describing his music, but he's quick to add that he wants his compositions to be accessible for a variety of audiences.

Small could talk about music for hours, but now it's time to rehearse for Saturday's Jazzschool concert.

His players have arrived and set up in a crowded rehearsal room.

Kymry Esainko settles in at the piano while Small sets up his upright bass and his six-string electric bass (and no, he doesn't play them at the same time -- not yet, anyway).

Sarah Jo Zaharako has her violin at the ready, and saxophonist Mitch Marcus and clarinetist Rachel Condry are ready to go.

In a few short minutes, the chatter of the band mates and friends has covered weekend cross-country skiing trips, disappointing gigs that turned out to be lonely solo ventures and memories of holding a first lesson in a broom closet.

These are all classically trained musicians (the flexible quintet also includes absent pianist Paula Dreyer and saxophonist Steve Adams) who share Small's desire to do something challenging and different and fun.

The first number the ensemble rehearses demonstrates Small's penchant for having fun with titles: "the donkeys of late spring and the bludgeoning of invisible men."

There's melody in the wild mix of sounds coming from the group, and Small's beloved groove is a huge part of the next tune, "the dark prince of nothing."

Clarinetist Condry, who has known Small since they were teenagers in the Philadelphia area, says she was enamored of Small early on as both a player and a composer as he set out on what she calls his "solo bass odyssey."

Now, she says, she's "grateful to be able to play his stuff. He really has is own voice, and I love that he writes for my bass clarinet."

"The piano parts are really hard," Esainko says with a big smile from the piano bench.

Sax man Marcus credits Small with helping him stop hating the soprano saxophone. He adds that Small's scores can be daunting -- "13 pages, man!" -- but he says he loves the challenge and the opportunity to improvise with such capable players.

Small says he brings his scores into rehearsal without completely finishing them. "I know I can trust these guys to shape it and make it sound good. The fact that these guys are such good musicians and that they can handle this is such a luxury for me," he says.

Marcus points to a piece of sheet music that indicates Small being funny and allowing his musicians to figure it out for themselves. Instead of notes or traditional notation, Small has written: "Changes too fast to be worth discussing."

The same is not true for Small and his ensemble. Changes are coming fast, but they're definitely worth discussing.

You can e-mail Chad Jones at
- Oakland Tribune PREVIEW Cover Story

"press quotes from a variety of articles"

Please visit Matt Small's website to view the original press pieces that these quotes were taken from at:


“As for his wide range of stylistic explorations, Small exercises a strong aesthetic sensibility rather than glomming together a mix of musics.” ~ Down Beat Magazine

“Small’s magnificent and imaginative bass playing creates a kaleidoscope of impressive sounds…the music (The Crushing Spiral Ensemble) plays has an integrity and excitement about it that many of the veteran jazz giants seem to have lost over the years.”
~ The San Francisco Examiner

“Accomplished improvisers, and conservatory trained, the musicians (of Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble) are all capable of exploring Small’s vision of music with one foot in the modern classical world and one foot in modern jazz. Rhythmically assertive and harmonically dense, his compositions often require the Ensemble to play with a rock band’s dynamics.” ~ Contra Costa Times

“Navigating his harmonically dense horn orchestrations, Small churns out quirky, imaginative lines that reveal experimental rock and collective free-jazz influences.”
~ Bass Player Magazine

“With the complexity of modern classical music mixed with the improvised vitality of jazz, the music Small writes is distinctly original.”
~ The Oakland Tribune

“His forte is as a composer of experimental soundscapes that test the boundaries of jazz lyricism while remaining melodically and rhythmically accessible to any listener.”
~ The Guardian

“Small’s music continually exploits (an) instrumentation’s myriad textural possibilities…while Small’s bass work provides the rock-ribbed structure on which his audacious tunes hang.” ~ The East Bay Express

“His fascinating original compositions explore the painterly textures, colors, and sinewy rhythms of melodically intriguing pieces.”
~ The Guardian


“Beautifully surreal and hauntingly languid…demonstrating Small’s affinity for wry humor and quiet grandiosity.” ~ The Guardian

“Seductive and mysterious…shifting effortlessly among klezmer, pop, rock, and improv jazz…Small infuses his quirky compositions with both breadth and intimacy.” ~ San Francisco Weekly
- various publications

"CD Review"

The Crushing Spiral Ensemble
The Count of San Francisco (Self-released)

By David Cook
Published on September 27, 2000

Levi's Plaza, Battery between Union and Filbert
Wednesday, Sept. 27, at noon. A San Francisco Jazz Festival-sponsored event. The concert is free; call 398-5655.

The Crushing Spiral Ensemble
The first minute of the Crushing Spiral Ensemble's second album comes out and grabs you by the wrist, dancing you around the room on a funky breakneck beat before you've caught your breath. The next two minutes are seductive -- as romantic and mysterious as a stranger with a rose between his teeth. Then bandleader Matt Small's bass starts bobbing again, and the drums and horns kick in with an insistent, madcap forward thrust. But the different moods don't end there, as each of the 12 songs on this self-released album has more layers than most novels, shifting effortlessly among klezmer, pop, rock, and improv jazz, all the while thriving on the constant thrum of Small's often electric, sometimes acoustic bass.

Of course, it helps that the horn parts that drift over Small's and Charming Hostess drummer Wes Anderson's odd-tempoed rhythms come from such strong players as Steve Adams (tenor and soprano sax), Phillip Greenlief (alto and soprano sax), and Tom Yoder (trombone). By filling the delicate space between the horns and the rhythm section, Yoder's sensitive, inventive play is especially effective. Songs like "Fall of You," a serene tour de force that sounds alternately melancholy and jubilant, trudge forward with a sadness so vast that it brings the feeling of the open sea right into the room with you.

Not many young people are daring to write so melodically -- Austin's Graham Reynolds of the Golden Arm Trio comes to mind -- yet Small really seems to have done his homework; his songs are supple and flexible enough to work with almost any instrumentation. Playing with a shifting cast of the Bay Area's finest improv musicians, Small infuses his quirky compositions with both breadth and intimacy.
- SF Weekly

"Hear This"

Hear This
Matt Small's Crushing Spiral Ensemble

By Sam Prestianni
Published on September 29, 1999
Photo by Stuart Brinin

Matt Small's Crushing Spiral Ensemble
Pop and rock groups tend to live the tenet immortalized by Led Zeppelin: "The Song Remains the Same." But jazz cats typically turn this concept on its ear. Take, for example, Mat Maneri's recent upending of Miles Davis standards on So What?or Guillermo Gregorio's deeply personal, nearly unrecognizable readings of Red Norvo classics on Red Cube(d). Transforming a known entity (the tune) into something unknown (the interpretation) is precisely what gives the bravest jazz its night-after-night appeal.

As bassist/composer Matt Small will tell you, this process of tuneful transformation is also an inadvertent, if elemental, fact of the music business. Say another obligation compels the original players in Small's Crushing Spiral Ensemble to bow out of a particular gig. Then it's up to the bandleader to find substitute personnel, who will invariably be less familiar with his original material. Factor in sundry levels of interpretive skills and imagination, and, for better or worse, Small will bear witness on the bandstand to an unpredictable makeover of his music.

Which is exactly what lies ahead at the Freight & Salvage. The outstanding band featured on Small's gorgeous CD debut Pictures at an Inhibition has been entirely recast into what could possibly turn out to be an even headier Crushing Spiral Ensemble. Ben Goldberg (clarinets), Phillip Greenlief (saxophones), Scott Amendola (drums), and Jeff Cressman (trombone) are all top-tier improvisers who will certainly push Small's vision into other worlds. Klezmer-savvy Goldberg will likely play up the composer's Gypsy-like lyricism, while Amendola may anchor his circus grooves -- à la Henry Threadgill or Club Foot Orchestra -- with a boot-thumping funk. Of course, the songs will remain the same. But the performance of said songs by a whole new group ensures a listening experience unlike any other.

Matt Small's Crushing Spiral Ensemble performs Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. at Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50; call (510) 548-1761.
- SF Weekly


1) Popular Music Night at the Glee Club - The Bedlam Royals (2009)

2) On the Verge of Sentiment - Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble (2007)

3) The Royal Collection of Exotic Beasts - Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble (2005)

4) The Count of San Francisco - The Crushing Spiral Ensemble (2000)

5) Pictures of an Inhibition - The Crushing Spiral Ensemble (1999)



More info at

Videos of The Crushing Spiral Ensemble, can be seen at:

Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a gifted San Francisco bassist and composer whose alluringly original music draws on a rich range of classical, jazz and indigenous music,” Matt Small has been developing his own cutting-edge, multi-genre work in the Bay Area since 1997. Small currently produces, performs in, and composes for three distinct groups: The Crushing Spiral Ensemble, Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble (a modern classical group), and The Bedlam Royals (a modern cabaret group).

The Crushing Spiral Ensemble, founded in 1998, is Small’s original vehicle for showcasing his compositional work. The band features a rotating cast of the Bay Area’s best and most adventurous jazz musicians. This group has performed all over Northern California in its ten-year history, including engagements at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, and Yoshi’s. Small released two albums with the original group, Pictures of an Inhibition (1999), and The Count of San Francisco (2000). “Beautifully surreal and hauntingly languid…demonstrating Small’s affinity for wry humor and quiet grandiosity” said the San Francisco Bay Guardian of the first release. The San Francisco Weekly described the second album as “seductive and mysterious…shifting effortlessly among klezmer, pop, rock, and improv jazz…Small infuses his quirky compositions with both breadth and intimacy.” In a live concert review, the late, revered Phil Elwood of the San Francisco Examiner raved “Small’s magnificent and imaginative bass playing creates a kaleidoscope of impressive sounds…the music (the Crushing Spiral Ensemble) plays has an integrity and excitement about it that many of the veteran jazz giants seem to have lost over the years.” The Ensemble’s most recent formation features a new repertoire of music written by Small in recent years and a fresh cast, including some of the Bay Area’s most well respected players: Sheldon Brown (sax), Steve Adams (sax), Chris Grady (trumpet) and Jeff Marrs (drums). A new CD with this band and music will be coming out in 2010. Video’s of the band debuting this new repertoire at Yoshi’s in San Francisco can be seen here:

As a performer and composer, Small has been presented at Carnegie Hall, The San Francisco Jazz Festival, The Monterey Jazz Festival, Banff’s International Music Festival, The Tanglewood Music Center, along with other major venues throughout the Bay Area and on the East Coast. As a freelance bassist, he has performed with numerous Northern California orchestras, including the Berkeley and California Symphony Orchestras. Small has also worked as a sideman in a wide variety of jazz, experimental, modern classical, and mixed genre projects on both the East and West Coasts. Small has been featured on National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered," on the Japan Broadcasting Corporation’s TV documentary on The Silk Road (NHK), and on numerous Bay Area radio stations such as KALW, KPFA, and KQED. Compositional honors for Small include two Subito Awards and a 2006 Northern California Composers Commissioning Program Award (both administered by the American Composers Forum). In 2009 Small was awarded two major commissions by San Francisco’s de Young Museum, one based on an artwork in the de Young’s permanent collection and the other inspired by the internationally celebrated King Tut exhibit currently installed at the de Young.

As a composer, Small made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2005, when Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble participated in a workshop led by renowned trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas. The workshop culminated in a concert in which Small premiered three, eight-minute works at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Following that workshop and concert, Douglas stated “…(Matt Small is) one of the brightest young composer/performers out there…quite a unique writer and a skillful and imaginative player, he’s a musician with a rare combination of talents.” In September 2004, Small’s multi-faceted musical personality was honored when he made his Carnegie debut as a bassist with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, performing in four evening concerts and multiple daytime demonstrations with Mr. Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. After the collaboration, Mr. Ma had this to say about Small: “…(he’s) so talented and innovative…a raving lunatic in the best way!”

Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble has been heard in performance since 2002, including its 2005 Carnegie Hall debut. Born of the composer's desire to write complex material with a strong improvisatory concept, the sextet (bass, piano, saxophone, clarinet, violin, drums) blends elements of a modern classical ensemble with those of a flexible jazz/improvisatory group. Small’s newest project, The Bedlam Royals, is an exciting amalgam of cabaret-style theatrics, pop music, and art song aesthetics. T