Bagpipes and electronics. A Slinky and a Wile E. Coyote doll. Accordions and big hunks of metal. And saxophones, guitars, and drum kits played as their inventors never intended or would understand. Over the course of three nights last September, the High Zero Festival (of which City Paper was a media sponsor) announced the coming of age of the city's improvised/experimental music scene as more than 40 musicians from Baltimore, the rest of the United States, and Europe converged to question established musical idioms and create wondrous new music in the process.
The Red Room Collective, which organized High Zero, put a premium on putting the musicians--many of whom had never met, much less played together--into new and unpredictable situations to see what sparks would fly. Highlights included an eerie set of hushed, oscillating improv from analog synth player Charles Cohen (no relation to the CP writer of the same name), microtonal soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey, and others; an emotional blowout featuring British saxophonist Paul Dunmall and a roiling rhythm section of local bassist Vattel Cherry and Philadelphia-based drummer Toshi Makihara; Baltimorean Neil Feather and Chicagoans Michael Zerang and Eric Leonardson performing on unique instruments of Feather's and Leonardson's design; and utterly unpredictable work throughout from Pittsburgh's Michael Johnson, Baltimoreans Tom Boram and Bob Wagner, and Colorado improv legend Jack Wright.
The music was so intriguing, the musicians were so rapturous, and the response was so positive (full houses for most performances; favorable press, including a write-up in Cadence magazine) that the planning for High Zero 2000 was underway before the 1999 edition ended. This year's model has expanded to four days (Sept. 21-24), five performances at various venues, and a bigger cast, stocked with local HZ virgins (pianist Lafayette Gilchrist [see "Best Jazz Musician"]), free- music legends (saxophonist Joe McPhee), and a larger international contingent, including players from Canada, the Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. (Call  889-5854 or check out www.redroom. org/highzero/ for more information.) The local improv/experimental scene may be small, but it's making a bigger and better noise. If only every local subscene celebrated itself so well.