Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

Weekly (p)reviews: Momentum, deconstructed

Machado Mijiga levels up and gets in the grooves; Squid builds a confusing subgenre hedge maze

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Machado Mijiga is brutally honest about his skills as a drummer. In a recent Instagram post, along with a clip of him playing a lanky breakbeat at a Clyde’s Prime Rib gig, he wrote, “My time and overall feel on drums aren’t great, but I’m always working on fluidity of ideas and playing with intent, regardless of what comes out,” before gently apologizing to his collaborators that night: bassist Damian Erskine and keyboardist Dylan Hayes.

Mijiga was equally humble when I sat down with him a few weeks before this gig. “I don’t think I’m anybody’s first call for a sideman necessarily,” he says, between sips of bubble tea at Tea Chai Té. “My technical chops are better on saxophone. So to some people, I’m still a sax player that just plays drums all the time.”

The 27-year-old musician’s comments don’t necessarily match the historical record. In three short years since Mijiga permanently relocated to Portland, he has become a fixture on the local jazz circuit. He’s most often seen in a support role, backing up both a variety of fellow young guns and veteran players like Darrell Grant. “Machado is an amazing person who I’ve had the good fortune to know and mentor,” Grant says. “You hear the lineage in him like, ‘Oh, this person knows Elvin Jones’ music and Trane’s music.’ It’s ridiculous the stuff he’s doing.” 

More and more, Mijiga has been emerging onstage as a bandleader, as he will be doing on Tuesday December 7 at Kelly’s Olympian—the second edition of his monthly jazz nights at the downtown venue. It’s the ideal situation for him to cherry-pick from among the bushels of talent here in the city and play around with whatever genre or material has his ear. 

“Lately, I’ve been doing a mix of covers and originals because there’s so much music,” Mijiga says. “I’m not even talking about covers of pop songs. I’m talking about covers of music from members of the community that I really respect. I’m often saying, ‘This is my favorite Todd Marston composition,’ or here’s an Alex Milstead composition from when he was a jazz musician that he never plays.” 

Humility and generosity are at the heart of Mijiga’s playing, whether it’s on saxophone or drums or any of the other instruments he has in his arsenal. Namesake–a recent collection he released to his Bandcamp page–features short, looping piano figures and rhythms that, like a great J Dilla beat, slide comfortably into the background even as they suffuse the air like a mist. And at a recent gig where he served as a member of trombonist Jason Powers’ ensemble JP3, he took solos tentatively, not wanting to draw too much attention away from the bandleader.

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

What also comes through Mijiga’s art and personality is a refreshing matter-of-factness. During our sit down recently, he rattled off the particulars of his life story with little affect but a lot of detail. His parents, both immigrants from Africa, kept him bouncing around the U.S., from Portland to Walla Walla to Chicago to Baltimore. Music came naturally to Mijiga, playing whatever instruments his dad had around the house and soaking up whatever was on the stereo. By 12, he had decided to make music his life’s pursuit. “There wasn’t some epiphany moment,” Mijiga remembers. “More that I just realized, ‘Oh, this is very comfortable for me.’” 

He studied music at Washington State University, using his time to develop his skills as a saxophonist and a drummer and playing in various ensembles, including a prog rock group based in Moscow, Idaho. “All the Washington kids didn’t go to Moscow that much,” he says. “So when I was at school, they didn’t know that I played drums. And everyone in Moscow knew me as a drummer and not as a saxophone player.” 

By the time he landed in Portland, the opposite happened. He was known first as a saxophone player, picking up whatever gigs he could get, which weren’t many. He lucked into a gig as a drummer for Nicole McCabe on the 4th of July because all the other percussionists in town were booked. His reputation and his bookings only grew from there. “I kind of snuck my way in that way. I started out as that last minute call, and slowly went from last resort to maybe second string because I’m usually available and I’m pretty good at learning songs.”

Nowadays, Mijiga’s availability is scarce. He’s on the calendar a lot in the coming months, including a gig at Derby in Portland on December 10, two shows backing up trumpeter Cyrus Nabipoor at The 1905 on December 19, and even a date next March at the Suttle Lodge in Sisters, OR. Also on deck is recording a new album and hopefully leveling up within the local music scene.

“Momentum is everything,” he says. “My next strategy is just trying to open up for larger acts and get more well known on a larger scale. I’ve got to keep the coals hot, otherwise things are going to fade out.” 

Machado Mijiga Trio performs at Kelly’s Olympian (426 SW Washington St., Portland OR) at 6:30 pm December 7th. Admission is free. 

Squid @ Doug Fir Lounge, November 22, 2021

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

The defining feature of so many young British artists of late is an inability to define their sound. As writer Matthew Perpetua put in recently in an NPR piece about this new wave of post-Brexit U.K. acts, “Music genre names can be silly, annoying and reductive, but you realize their stubborn value when there’s a new subgenre emerging and no one has given it a name yet.” That also puts the burden on critics like me to suss out exactly how to describe what London quintet Squid got up to when they stopped by the Doug Fir Lounge recently. 

The music made by the five men–all set in a straight line near the lip of the stage–wasn’t without precedent. Dig into the dirt around their songs and the roots are recognizable. “G.S.K.” has tendrils of dub reggae, agonized rock, and post-punk dangling from its core. Set opener “The Cleaner” grew from a seed of new wave wriggles and Krautrock steadiness into a spiny bramble. The tense guitar ropes of “Boy Racers” eventually gave way to an extended experimental electronic breakdown that saw drummer/vocalist Ollie Judge pacing behind his kit while his bandmates turned knobs and tweaked keyboards nearby.

The combination of elements, though, took on the shape of a Lewis Carroll hedge maze. The sharp musical angles and colorful switchbacks between moods felt welcoming rather than frustrating, even the lyrics of sociopolitical agony that Judge spat out like thorns. The confusion and unexpected turns were the point of the set. 

Even if you’d been studying Squid’s discography thoroughly in advance of the show, there were still surprises to be had. That coda to “Boy Racers” morphed multiple times from a thicket of guitar loops to a series of blurting exchanges between the group’s regular keyboardist Arthur Leadbetter and guitarists Laurie Nankivell and Louis Borlase manipulating a small array of modular synth gear at the back of the stage.

The music continued to deconstruct until Judge helped gather the elements and reconnect them in the shape of “Narrator,” the itchy lead single from Squid’s debut full-length Bright Green Field. It was an electrifying kind of artistic alchemy whose magic would likely only be dulled by trying to squeeze it into a genre-sized box.

Squid @ Doug Fir Lounge, November 22, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Squid @ Doug Fir Lounge, November 22, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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