HIGH ZERO festival of experimental improvised music


Blow Out: High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music, Various venues, Sept. 24-26, 1999

Review by Lee Gardner, The Baltimore City Paper September 26th, 1999

Enough alarm bells were ringing in Highlandtown to suggest that half the rowhouses in East Baltimore were going up in flames. But the only house afire was the Fells Point Creative Alliance's Lodge, where Brooklyn-based improviser Scott Moore began the High Zero festival by setting off a sack full of wind-up bells, plus a few shrieking electronic personal alarms for good measure.

In the set that ensued, Moore pulled on a sousaphone (the marching-band version of the tuba) and joined Buffalo-based primal saxophonist Todd Whitman and Pittsburgh's Michael Johnson, who crouched among a small clutch of electronic gadgets, for an excursion into free improvisation, a bracing form of musical endeavor that presents endless challenges and rich rewards for players and open-minded listeners alike.

Though the trio's performance contained many interesting moments, it was Moore's opening alarm that resonated longest. The three-day, four-performance event (of which City Paper was a media sponsor) issued loud-and-clear notice that Baltimore's experimental-music scene has arrived at a level of quality and strength that no adventurous music lover can ignore.

When inviting musicians and designing lineups, festival organizers the Red Room Collective put a premium on creating fresh musical sparks by matching players who had never played together before (No Cover, 9/22). Thus, as Philadelphia-based drummer Toshi Makihara and Baltimore bassist Vattel Cherry took the stage together Friday night, one could lip-read Makihara's greeting: "Hi, I'm Toshi." Nonetheless, along with British saxophonist/bagpiper/fellow-stranger Paul Dunmall, they proceeded to bring the evening's events to a close with a galvanic set full of emotional outpouring from Cherry, hyperkinetic drumming and impish improv antics from Makihara, and relatively conservative but powerful saxophone from Dunmall.

Earlier, another lineup of relative strangers put on one of the finest end-result performances of the festival as drummers Sean Meehan and Will Redman stroked, tickled, blew on, and scraped their instruments while synthesizer specialist Charles Cohen (no relation to the City Paper contributing writer of the same name) and microtonal saxophonist Bhob Rainey traded Forbidden Planet squeals and hisses at the edge of audibility and conventional tonality. Talk about a quiet storm.

Of course, improvisation is all about taking risks, and to be sure, not all of the risks performers or organizers took paid off. In particular, some of the more introverted improvisers, such as the intriguing multi-instrumentalist Johnson, were overshadowed by more extroverted partners. And, of course, when you're making it up as you go along, sometimes inspiration fails or long-windedness takes over. But the Saturday afternoon session at the Charles Theatre on Sept. 25 featured some of the festival's most risky experiments and paid off with some of its most stirring improvisations.

Hulking Chicagoan Michael Zerang began by displaying endless deftness on the nondo, a one-of-a-kind instrument invented by the Red Room's own Neil Feather. As Zerang coaxed metallic rumbles and shrieks from the instrument (essentially an enormous curved sheet of steel equipped with strings and pickups), he was joined by Feather, playing an assortment of his unique homemade instruments, and Chicagoan Eric Leonardson, who wrests sound from bowed and struck springs. Together the trio used these nonstandard sound sources for an improvised symphony of industrial-waste noise—like a rail yard-cum-chemical plant with a conductor at the helm. Soon after, Baltimorean Evan Rapport emerged from the dim recesses of the theater blowing a bull's horn. Forsaking his familiar tenor sax, Rapport--working in a trio with Zen percussionist/runner-up festival MVP Meehan and conceptual improviser/accordionist Michael Benedetti--put in a brave, no-tone-unturned performance on oboe, alto, recorders, whistles, nose flute, and anything else handy through which he could blow.

Indeed, High Zero lived up to organizers' hopes and showed all comers that the Baltimore scene has nurtured a particularly creative group of improvisers. When not proving that music this out there can still swing, drummer Redman tackled his instrument with experimental zeal. During a "big band" set Saturday night at the 14-Karat Cabaret, he finally gave up playing his drums, took to suctioning the floor with a plunger, and stacked his kit into a sculpture with the plumber's helper perched on top. Meanwhile, Tom Boram was a whirlwind of unfettered activity throughout the festival: molesting his acoustic guitar, pulling on tap shoes to paradiddle across the floor, hitting a handy piano keyboard, even improvising some written "notes" and handing them out to audience members. ("You were an inspiration to me in my youth," one read.) Drummer Bob Wagner was a particular hit with the audiences (which filled all the venues except the Charles' 485-person-capacity main theater) as he improvised deadpan visual jokes almost as often as he picked up his sticks.

If there's any complaint one could lodge about the local performers, it's that the festival could have used more from reedsman John Dierker, who was wonderful if perhaps underutilized, and Red Room major domo John Berndt. Though a constant presence onstage as de facto emcee, Berndt's duo performance Saturday night with Dunmall (electronics/saxophone and saxophone/bagpipes, respectively) proved a sterling example of the kind of near-psychic musical sync of which dedicated free improvisers are capable, and it left this reviewer wanting more.

But perhaps the highest moments of High Zero came from two out-of-town performers with strong ties to the Red Room: drummer Makihara and Colorado-based saxophonist Jack Wright. Makihara's improvisational wit--which incorporated dance, visual puns, and a battered Wile E. Coyote doll--provoked delight, while his powerful, precise drumming inspired awe. Meanwhile, Wright made two of the most irrefutable musical statements of the festival with a pair of intense improvisations--in a Saturday afternoon showdown with drummers Zerang, Meehan, Wagner, and Baltimorean Catherine Pancake and in a festival-closing set with Wagner and guitarist John Shiurba. As the evening wound down Sunday, Wright embarked on a powerful soprano-sax solo that typified the best that free improvisation has to offer. Bursting with both high instrumental dexterity and gut-churning emotion, Wright's barking, stuttering, singing line carved into that moment in time and left it--and anyone listening--changed. To my mind, the first High Zero festival did the same thing for Baltimore's music scene as well.