Steve Harris & ZAUM

Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open
SLAM Productions

Stan Adler/Paul Chauncy/Jon Lloyd/Rob Palmer/Phil Wachsmann
Apparitions
Leo Records

By Ken Waxman

January 31, 2005

Saxophones, strings and samples unite these two British sessions that advance different strategies to adapt these juxtaposed textures to improvised music. The quintet featured on Apparitions does achieves its objectives, but very much on its own limited terms. With ancillary musicians on tap, the five players that make up ZAUM don’t do as well however, except for a final, spectacular, 20-minute track, which, depending on your predilections may or may not redeem the CD.

Named like a legal firm, the quintet on the first CD combines veteran and younger players. Yet throughout the disc’s 10 tracks, the five are united in a desire to produce textures or moods rather than compositional statements.

Best known of the group is British-Ugandan Philipp Wachsmann, violinist and electronics manipulator, who is part of Evan Parker’s electro-acoustic projects among many other groups. British soprano saxophonist Jon Lloyd is a Wachsmann associate who has frequently worked with pianist John Law. A specialist in guitar treatments and real-time loop effects, Bournemouth, England-based Rob Palmer has already recorded with both the violinist and saxophonist; while Paul Chauncy, who manipulates electronics here, is a sound designer. Someone who has also recorded with Lloyd as well as in Mike Westbrook’s small band, versatile cellist Stan Adler is also a member of two improvising string groups, the Eclectic String Quartet and the Chrome Strings. Serendipitously enough, the later group, with Adler, is on hand to add extra arco color behind the soloists on Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open.

With Wachsmann, Adler, Palmer and, of course, Chauncy utilizing electronics, Apparitions’ game plan is to mulch the characteristics of kilowatts and horsehair into atmospheric oscillations. Odd man out, Lloyd at points displays a nearly vibrato-less tone that sounds as if he’s blowing through a cavernous plastic tube. Elsewhere he moulds flutter-tongued squeaks and penny whistle peeps into elongated, circular-breathed textures that swayingly follow the shape of the three string players’ extended techniques.

Sometimes, as on “Private Language”, his smooth reed chirps and trills move from legato to an arching, synthesized sound, as if he’s playing a melodica. His sliding tones supersede the broken counterpoint of col legno string smacks and guitar flat picking as the bowed strings expansively modulate into chamber music-like cadenzas.

Ur-romanticism isn’t heard very often however. In order to demarcate their timbres among the electronic impulses, the cello and violin are frequently sul ponticello and sul tasto. Rather then quiver sweetly in the air, the combined string set is more likely to expel alarm-clock-like ringing textures, or, when lengthened by electronics, create reedy accordion-like lines or perhaps watery burps. A favored Wachsmann stratagem is a jetté across all four strings; Adler prefers double stops and bow sweeps.

All this comes to the fore on the tongue-in-cheek titled “Unravelling” plus “Dive”, the two longest tracks at about 10 minutes each. On the former, sonic ring modulator passages alternate with guitar strums and the reverberations that result from the loosening of tuning pegs. Mechanical reverb soon frames careful saxophone tonguing, as a cello cadence operates in counterpoint. Electronics multiply and mirror ancillary shuffle bowing string tones as Lloyd turns from circular breathing to squeaking. Appropriately enough, the piece winds down as the electronics faintly echo each of his notes.

Vague, cybernetic whooshes hover in the background of “Dive” as Lloyd expels simple chromatic riffs and Palmer fills the space with slurred fingering. The saxman’s reed patterns joust with video-game-like shuffles and sharp revolver-like retorts from the electronics. Distending, gentle, unison violin and cello lines complete the piece.

If these 20-odd minutes confirm the Apparitions quintet’s musical persona, then ZAUM’s final track of about the same length, “White Pass Ink Black Moon” does the same for Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open. Nevertheless, the meandering and watery textures that precede it seem merely tentative rather than cumulative.

Although this, the band’s second CD, was improvised in live performance, all the pieces don’t quite appear to fit together. Perhaps it’s because the expanded quintet hadn’t yet jelled in its augmentation.

New to the band are guitarist and graphic designer Matthew Olczak; veteran sound artist Adrian Newton, who uses live and found samples; and the Chrome Strings — Aidan Fisher on viola, and three cellists: Chas Dickie, Rose Perry and Adler — who are asked to play as an improvising unit.

ZAUM’s original membership, which has equally compelling — and varied — back-stories, should commingle as more than a sum of its parts, however. Leader and drummer Steve Harris, a member of Pinski Zoo since the late 1980s, also plays with Zoo saxophonist Jan Kopinski and Warsaw pianist Wojciech Konikiewick in Zone K and with Wojciech and German bassist Vitold Rek in the European Jazz Trio

Often a duo partner with Harris, tenor and soprano saxophonist Geoff Hearn is involved with mainstream jazz, improv and R&B plus Japanese and Yoruba-influenced music. Karen Wimhurst, who plays clarinet and bass clarinet here has written works for regional chamber orchestras and brass bands and leads the Cauld Blast Orchestra that mixes Scottish traditional, classical and jazz musicians. Cathy Stevens, who improvises on six-string violectra and viola, has been involved in improv for more than 20 years as well as playing with chamber and symphony orchestras. A colleague of Stevens in the Europa String Choir, as well as in an experimental music collective with her and Harris, German-born guitarist Udo Dzierzanowski is an avant-rocker who has worked with Robert Fripp.

All of which makes the CD’s first eight tracks, which run from less than 80 seconds to almost 9½ minutes, disappointing. With these massed talents, the demarcation among the assorted styles shouldn’t be so pronounced. Perhaps benefiting his leader status, Harris also appears to be too far forward in the mix. His percussion work is subtle enough not to drown anyone out, but its prominence unbalances the equation.

At times, when coupled with one of the plectrumists using his low strings to approximate a bass guitar, Harris’ busy cross sticking, ratamacues and rumbles are so basic and repetitive that he could be playing all-out jazz-rock — with the other person approximating a thick, thumb popping Jaco Pastorius role. At another point, the drummer’s clave and cowbell attack makes it appear as if Ray Barretto or Candido is in the studio.

One or both of the guitarists can also mirror banjo-like chromatic runs or plunking sitar tones, but when coupled with an exercised, metallic wah-wah pedal, the effect is Prog Rock, not improv. Newton, who has produced records for the Sonic Arts Network, sticks to rudimentary synthesized strings, buzzing samples, doubled beats, pan-like flute tone and other expected tones. The horns snort, slur and occasionally squeal to contrast with guitar reverb, yet this riffing more often than not brings rock horn sections to mind, not big band section work. Meanwhile, the Chrome Strings are reduced to impressionistic space fillers or decorative arco cushions.

Miraculously and unexpectedly, however, the nearly 20-minute final track convincingly tabulates all that the improvisers were aiming for earlier on the CD.

Following an initial theme statement from coloratura clarinet, the drummer gently juggles the rhythm until the strings enter, with this exposition doubled by soprano saxophone and electronic samples. As the bowed strings reshape the melody, the others to add their variations to the theme.

Hearn produces smears, glottal punctuation and a pitch vibrato, the faux bass guitarist and Harris combine for a power surge, and another guitarist lets loose with finger taps that peep in-and-out of the string quartet crescendos. With quadruple counterpoint allowing everyone to move in a distinct, but similar direction, the theme is developed by consolidated string sweeps, probably helped by Newton’s samples. Pulses, press rolls and precise cymbal shots presage and introduce the theme recapitulation which tutto, dissipates slowly and vanishes.

“White Pass Ink Black Moon” provides hope that that ZAUM can be capable of so much more next time out. But here, Apparitions beats it for listenability.