When you strip away the blues, swing, and polyrhythms, what's left of jazz? Improvisation, for one, but probably not resulting in what one would call "jazz." Some call it "free improvisation," others "non-idiomatic." In any case, it's sound that seeks new sound.
For the past 11 years, the High Zero Festival in Baltimore, Md., has done just that ... with a twist. The festival's curators mix and match the improvisers into four groups each night, with very few of them ever having played together before. So a Norwegian drummer will set up his kit next to a Baltimore-based turntablist without so much as a hello before going at it. It makes for creative tension, and starting this Thursday night at the Theatre Project, 28 musicians will come together for four nights of improvisation.
To give you somewhat of idea of what this is like, I've lined up a swarm of YouTube videos of some of the performers slated for High Zero. Hit play on any three at random and let the currents cross to form your own improv groups. (Or be boring and just play one at a time).
(Note: I'll be at the ESP Disk' table on Saturday and Sunday night, so say hello if you'll be there. I'll be tweeting from the event and give my own festival review of both nights right here on ABS.)
Miya Masaoka (koto, electronics): The Japanese koto already coaxes a sublime presence from its long strings, but what of the laser koto? I'm extremely curious to see how Masaoka wields this electronic innovation, and you can see a rather surreal video of it below.
Killick (h'arpeggione): Being a graduate of the University of Georgia myself and a strong supporter of the Athens music scene during my five-year bout, I always knew that Killick had it hard. You'd think the home the experimental indie-pop collective Elephant 6 would foster a strong improv community, but, really, Killick is about it. He's tireless in his efforts to explore "new music" and does so by collaborating with luthiers to create new instruments. Simply put, the h'arpeggione is a cello with frets and sympathetic strings, and in this duo with percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, he shows the reason why it's nicknamed the "devil cello."
Christofer Varner (trombone): The Munich-based trombone player got his start in jazz- and salsa-based bands, but after a chance-project with trombone innovator Vinko Globokar, he switched gears towards improvised music. Vinko, I thank you for it.
Ava Mendoza (guitar): The first time I saw Ava Mendoza was as Carla Bozulich's shredding guitarist in her band Evangelista. She was a wizard on a semi-circle of effects pedals, but having kept tabs on her since, I've found she's equally adept with FX-less technique. Imagine Dick Dale shredding with Derek Bailey, then forget everything you know about either -- that's Ava Mendoza. Here she is with her primordial free-rock band Mute Socialite.
Tom Boram (electronics): You know, not all experimental improv is serious. Boram knows that. His Baltimore-based Snacks is all matter of silly bloops and beeps, but never feels like some high school dweeb-oid fiddling around aimlessly on knobs. Below is footage from last year's High Zero Festival, featuring Liz Allbee (trumpet), Magali Babin (amplified metal), M.V. Carbon (electronics, cello) and Audrey Chen (voice, cello, electronics). Boram is on the far right.
Rose Burt (saxophones): After moving to Baltimore in 2000 to attend the Peabody Conservatory, Burt immersed herself in the experimental improv scene. She books concerts at the Red Room, plays in the Baltimore Afrobeat Society and helps run High Zero every year. Here she gives a meditation with John Berndt, emitting somber tones at the Red Room.
Twig Harper (electronics): Both Twig and his wife Carly are kind of the unofficial mascots of the "Keep Baltimore Weird" campaign, albeit in underground enclaves. The duo pushes broken electronics to extremes, but Twig has been known to explore the subtle side of the circuits on his own. I'm curious to see what happens with him this weekend.