There’s an old adage that says, “if something is worth doing (or saying) once, it’s worth doing (or saying) a number of times.” It was brought to bear for me in a 2009 interview with composer-reedman Anthony Braxton, whose reasoning for multiple-disc sets was characterized as, basically, trying to ensure that his point (musical system) came across clearly. While in crucial ways a far cry from Braxton’s improvisation/instant composition-centric work, the values of continual restatement and clarification are borne out in the New York-based chamber ensemble ZS. Formed in 2001 by tenor saxophonists Sam Hillmer and Alex Mincek, and currently consisting of Hillmer, drummer Greg Fox, and Patrick Higgins on guitar and electronics, the group has undergone numerous lineup shifts over the last decade-plus. But these shifts are in the course of exploring an extraordinarily intense brand of reactive, process-oriented chamber music.
ZS Score (Northern-Spy) is a four-disc retrospective of the group’s sextet phase (2002-2007), leading up to and concluding shortly after Mincek’s departure. In addition to the saxophonists, ZS then consisted of guitarists Matthew Hough and Charlie Looker and drummers Ian Antonio, Brad Wentworth, and Alex Hoskins. The four discs collect the proper LPs ZS, Buck, and Arm as well as ZS Remixed, untitled (a single-sided ten-incher), Magnet, and Karate Bump, in addition to singles, outtakes and compilation tracks. This music was spread across a number of labels including Troubleman Unlimited, Planaria, and Ricecontrol before being unified in one place. Other than a piece by SEM Ensemble founder and director Petr Kotik (“For Zs”) and Earle Brown’s “Four Systems,” all of the compositions represented here are by members of the group.
Taking a couple of slices from the second disc, Hillmer’s “In My Dream I Shot a Monk” is a fine example of the group’s merger of a confrontational and punkish aesthetic, as shouted vocals and didactically-paced guitar, percussion, and saxophone owe a debt to no wave confrontation a la Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, albeit hotter and given to studied/pissed deliberation. “Four Systems” is given two incarnations, a three-minute edit (from the Tzadik CD Folio and Four Systems) and a more customary twelve-minute version. A graphically scored piece originally intended for pianist David Tudor, it has been interpreted by a number of chamber ensembles as an exploration of narrow dynamic range and clustered, oblique sonic movement. Tenor harmonics, muted percussion and flinty string jabs make for a wiry version, though it’s important to recognize that Brown’s piece doesn’t necessarily ask for improvisation, and ZS follow the composition’s bunched filaments with dirty and measured logic. The studio recordings are extremely well-recorded, and at no point does their aesthetic become obscured by faulty renderings.
The live material is particularly fine, all of which was on the Buck cassette (Folding/Gilgongo), and it presents the group’s primary working method intact, which was (and is) to flesh out the repertoire in front of an audience at house shows, bars, and punk clubs (not exactly the logical place for “chamber music,” but people like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca turned that concept on its head over thirty years ago). Depending on the place and piece, the live takes can be thin and spry or pummeling anthems, but they remain aggressively tight as the group moves through tone rows, intervallic relationships and stuttering inflections, offset by explosive choogle and hollering witnesses. The idea of brutal-prog/emphatic minimalism in the form of a touring tenor/guitar/drums double trio is sort of hard to imagine – especially as given to the PBR-swilling masses – but ZS clearly develop their work through a curiously tense rapport both internal and external. And as rigorous as this music is, when a vaguely Caribbean rhythm creeps into “Bump,” and despite a couple of (admittedly hilarious) drunken hecklers, there is something fascinatingly inviting about ZS’ process. There is a hell of a lot to take in on ZS Score, but it’s well worth the time and investment in this excellently-presented set.