Sunday, October 29, 2006

Catching Zs

NYC has no shortage of amazing bands, but Zs is something more than just that. if you've ever hung around with these guys, you've no doubt heard them talk of "vibes." though it sounds really dude-like, i think this is a serious concept for Zs--basically what they seem to be after is creating an ever-evolving forum for their music. last night's Zs show at BAM showed how far this concept has come. basically, Zs is like a snowball of mind-bending avant-garde music. for the past few years, it's been rolling and picking up amazing satellite player after amazing satellite player. now it's more than a band; it's an aesthetic.

last night was basically a showcase for Zs' extended relations--Zs headlined and before came four other projects, all featuring Zs members. as my friend Joe said, every group had a revelation. none of the Zs people seems to ever do anything casually. they start new projects like every week, but when you see them, they're always dead serious and unbelievably developed. in short the walked is walked.

first was Moth, which is Zs saxist Sam Hillmer and trombonist Ben Gerstein. they play minimal improvisations that truly deserve to be called spontaneous compositions. Hillmer is one of the most thoughtful and economical improvisers i can think of. he's never just playing or just throwing ideas out there; you can always hear him constructing something. he tends to work a lot with repetition, but really it's more like refinement. he'll pick a weird sound and then just work at it, whittling away all the imperfection and varying only gradually. his playing is refreshingly free from "free-jazz catharsis"--he's always working with some weird extended technique that i've never considered before. last night there was some amazing overtone stuff. often in Moth, Sam will be like the control and Gerstein will sort of dart around him. the duo is all about listening; the two select a direction immediately and just burrow into it and basically try to be one entity.

then Little Women, a great sort of punk-jazz quartet. that idea (punk jazz, or what have you) is not a new thing and can be really tedious (i'm not a fan of Naked City or any of these projects where jazz players go around congratulating themselves for listening to heavy or abrasive music). but Little Women has a very genuine raucousness. also though there's a gorgeous sense of structure. the band--2 saxes, guitar and drums--works a lot with these sort of fanfare type themes, often with jagged, proggy rhythms. for the improvisations, the band atomizes, constantly splitting up into different mini groups. the guitarist Ben Greenberg--who, it must be said (must it? i don't know, really), is a very close friend of mine--plays with a crazy snarling tone and extreme volume, giving the music a real attack feel, and the saxists just completely go for it as well. tenor player Travis Laplante has an absolutely huge sound, with an apocalyptic-free-jazz meets R&B kind of vibe. the set ended with this amazing coda: the two saxists--the other being the excellent Darius Jones--took off their mouthpieces and just started basically ranting/moaning/emoting into their horns, using the keys to fuck with the sound. it was unsettling and beautiful.

then was Extra Life, which is Zs guitarist/keyboardist Charlie Looker playing solo. Charlie is a completely badass composer who has, in my opinion, some of the most advanced musical ideas in New York. his pieces for Zs and Seductive Sprigs are these insanely complex amalgams of noise-rock, modern classical, medieval music and what have you. just unbelievably extreme but in ways you've never thought of. anyway, the solo music was also extreme, but subtler and more methodical. basically, he played this probably 10- or 15-minute piece that had one main theme: a beautiful rubato thing that almost sounded like a futuristic John Fahey or a cleaner more direct take on the Neil Young soundtrack for "Dead Man" (a very cool document if you haven't heard it). the tone and sound were just massive--gleaming, metallic--and the precision and force were scary. there was a long instrumental part that sort of orbited this theme, and then Charlie began singing along to these tiny pointillist guitar lines in a weird almost falsetto voice, with cadences that reminded me a little of hip-hop. as usual from Charlie, focus and concepts were scary and flawlessly executed. can't wait to hear more of this shit.

then Period, a highly conceptual improv project that started as the duo of Looker and drummer Mike Pride but which has been expanding its live incarnations to include horns and the like. last night it was Pride, Looker, Hillmer and Jones. the set was kind of like a simultaneous construction and deconstruction of a pummeling, staccato noise-rock groove, with the horns developing their own maniacally repetitive and focused themes. Pride and Looker were constantly hinting at a kick in, but constantly fucking around with the beat and the groove. as with Moth, there was a sense of burrowing into something, or whittling away the fat on one basic concept. i really like the idea of such purposeful improvising (though there could have been some predetermined material), and these guys play with a ton of power and also brainpower.

then Zs. they're currently playing a 20-minute or so piece for a new quartet lineup, which is Looker (on keyboard instead of guitar), Hillmer, Greenberg and Ian Antonio. at the most basic level, the piece is an episodic collection of repetitive rhythmic cells which have all these minute variations. as Sam told me once, Zs thrives on the concept of the hit, the attack, the stab. Antonio's playing encapsulates this--you will find very few players of any instrument who combine force with precision the way he does; he really does seem awesomely robotic when he plays but with a sick sense of groove simmering under the surface. the first part of the piece was based around these off-kilter rhythmic stabs that had this weird slightly irregular cyclical momentum. each time a new theme was introduced, it would be catchier and more exciting than the last. the end of the piece was the coolest part. leading up the finale, Antonio started in on this amazing extended vamp on the snare (always played w/ the snares off), toms and hi-hat. it reminded me of one of those skittery, slippery Destiny's Child 32nd-note things (i invoke those types of beats often, so i should probably come up with a term for them; but i hate terms)--just amazingly intricate and grooving. then came this gorgeous kind of simmering prog groove that reminded me of that really clean, austere Genesis or Crimson sound. or maybe even something like Tortoise in a weird way. it's just really propulsive yet classy and clean and precise, with fascinating touches from the piano. here as elsewhere, the band played with a remarkable unity--you just hear the total effect, not any one player. this piece has to be seen up close, but a clip of it (including the awesome ending) from a show this summer can be seen here.

so all in all a fascinating show and more evidence for why Zs and their extended family must be watched closely. [note, whole Zs crew is accessible through the Zs website and the myspace page of Fucking A Show Releases, which is their label.] definitely vanguard shit afoot in this collective. one interesting thing that i wanted to point out is that i think there's a real connection between the kind of thing the aforementioned crew has been into and the work of Mick Barr, who was in attendance at last night's show and is a close friend and collaborator of the Zs players. to me it's all a part of this monumentally obsessive wing of the American underground, almost like a return to high modernism, where you just go and go and go into a concept. for a lot of these guys, marathon repetition and the kind of burrowing into one infinite riff seems to be a theme. this Zs piece, the way Hillmer improvises, the way Antonio hits the drums, the way Period strips away all fat from a rock riff, the way Laplante screams into his horn to the point of exhaustion--it's all got this amazing focus and purposefulness and what have you. Orthrelm's "OV" is kind of the benchmark of this thing that's been happening and it's just interesting to see the cross-pollination that happens since all these guys know and work with each other.

anyway, speaking of Mick Barr, tonight is live debut of Ocrilim in NYC. Ocrilim is next step, Ocrilim is future. you can't not go.

No comments: