JOSEPHSON/WASCHSMANN/LINDSAY/SMITH/BLUME

zero plus
Balance Point bpa 007

Brimming with a sensibility that comes from both so-called serious experimental music and free improv, ZERO PLUS adds a vocal component to the work of Bay-area bassist Damon Smith, who has taking a Cook’s tour of Euro-centred improv over the past half-decade.

Adding American know-how — and local associates — to recorded meetings with such accomplished EuroImprov practitioners as German multi-reedman Wolfgang Fuchs and Swedish-based saxist Biggi Vinkeloe, the bassist now tours with Fuchs. Not content reaching one plateau, Smith is part of many other bands, including the triple d trio, expanded by the clarinets of young Jacob Lindsay, a member of Marco Eneidi’s American Jungle Orchestra and the wordless vocalizing of Aurora Josephson. Besides working in free improv contexts, Josephson has performed with some of the more open-minded contemporary composers such as Alvin Curran and Christian Wolff

This CD mixes the Bay area trio, with two longtime EuroImprov collaborators: British violinist Philipp Wachsmann — who often works with reedist Evan Parker— and German drummer Martin Blume. The drummer’s interactions have included work with multi-directional British players as reedist John Butcher.

Overall, strategy seems to be to meld Josephson’s tones with one or another front-line instrument, while the other players fill in the gaps. One exception to this rule is “Two men in Straw Hats/Big Fleas have Little Fleas” where the linked titles may be the clue that the tune’s first couple or so minutes are a duet between the bassist and vocalist.

Lindsay then enters with harsh tongue slaps that angle up to intermittent squeaks and flutter tonguing, a style that owes as much to Vinny Golia as Eric Dolphy. With a powerful bass interpolation, drum rumbles and cymbal smacks, the space is cleared for Wachsmann to extend his fiddle plucks with electronic loops. At the same time, the vocalist tries on many sound guises from dog barking to strangled yelling. As the piece accelerates to multi-counterpoint at cross-purposes, it takes circular string sections, segmented drums rebounds and a woody split tone from the clarinet to ease it to a finale.

“Scissors Cut Paper”, the inaugural — and at more than 13 minutes — longest track sets up the situation from the beginning. Working off descending violin spiccato, rattling bass drum bops and bass clarinet buzzes, the tune evolves into a examination of broken harmonies that ricochet between aviary crackles from the reedist and panting breathes from the vocalist. Soon the violinist’s and bassist’s legato lines coalesce then soften into deconstructed squeaks, clicks and cries. Switching partners — and with Smith sounding a sul tasto line — Josephson first warbles, then yawns, then growls. Lindsay and Wachsmann together are soon on the case, the reedman with echoing vibrations and the fiddler with squeaking ponticello. As Blume rolls over the skins, Wachsmann produces frailing banjo-like pizzicato, climaxing in arco unison with Josephson’s voice.

Banjo-like, mandolin-like and other pizzicato approximations aren’t the veteran violinist’s only ruses. On “Long Tail on a Ghost”, his double and triple stopping sound as if they’re coming from a Chinese guzheng. At best they perfectly match Blume’s rattling nerve beats and snare raps that could come from a Chinese dulcimer hammered with bamboo sticks.

Elsewhere, Wachsmann’s electronic ponticello loops are most useful on “Table Z”, as backdrop for Lindsay’s most extensive reed showcase. Twittering-bird like tones, body tube resonation and fluttering vibrations are expelled, at points meeting up with Josephson’s verbal peeps.

As for the vocalist, sometimes she warbles like a lyric soprano with feathery whippoorwill cries. Or in contrast she keens like a grieving widow, constructing a portion of her solo out of panting obbligato. She giggles, sniffs and expels semi-orgasmic cries other places. But — and hopefully this isn’t misplaced gallantry — it’s one of the males who supplies the evil growls, cartoon pirate cackles and Bronx cheers. Overall, her timbres fit tongue-and-groove with shuffle bowing and sul tasto string parts, emphasized chalumeau reed portions and speedy fragmented drum patterns.

ZERO PLUS is an interesting change of pace for Smith and the others, but at nearly 69½ minutes, the feeling remains that some judicious cutting would have resulted in a far more satisfying CD. The youthful Californians have proven that they can work in the company of the veterans. What else they do will be worth hearing.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Zero: The Hairy Heel of Achilles 1. Scissors Cut Paper 2. Tiger, Tiger! 3. Long Tail on a Ghost 4. The Deadly Tube La Tricoteuse: 5. Two men in Straw Hats/Big Fleas have Little Fleas 6. A Bird with a Wing Down Zerotables: 7. Facts or Figures 8. Table Z 9. Zero Minus 10. Zero 11. Zero Plus

Personnel: Zero: Jacob Lindsay (Ab, Bb and bass clarinets); Philipp Wachsmann (violin, electronics); Damon Smith (bass); Martin Blume (percussion); Aurora Josephson (voice)