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Up, Down, and Sideways

John Berndt, Audrey Chen, and Michael Zerang, Red Room at Normals Books and Records, March 11

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/16/2005

Improvisation usually doesn’t make sense while it’s happening. Your own thoughts and ideas respond to the conjured sounds, but they come together as a singular event after the fact, after all the sounds have come and gone. Not this eve. Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang somehow set the tone for an entire night with his lead-off solo set, approaching the drum kit not so much as something to strike but a surface to explore. Most drummers hit, their primary motion the up-and-down movement of hands and feet from snare to tom to cymbal to bass. Zerang preferred the horizontal planes, moving items over the drum skins and shaking things, small motions making softer sounds with less thrust behind them but with much more color in the tone. The approach turned the kit into a friction prism of buzzes, hums, wails, and hoots, Zerang’s perpetual motion cascading a flurry of overlapping humming tones, resembling in percolating fancy Evan Parker’s Conic Sections soprano sax peals.

When they joined Zerang, locals John Berndt (saxophones, stuff) and Audrey Chen (cello, voice) didn’t follow his lead in practice, but in spirit. Neither player is bound by any sort of tradition, but in place of their usual, wholly out-of-pocket ideas were these sideways deviations from the norm. Chen plucked her cello like a double bassist but traced percussive shadows rather than timekeeping lines. She bowed lightning-quick fingerings that led down to the bridge and stopped, less melodic idea than a dynamite stick of notes that runs out of fuse. And when she opted for voice, Chen started with gorgeously sustained single tones that her mouth eventually chewed, swallowed, or choked into vocalized shards: lip-buzzing Jetsons flying-saucer sounds, soft-shrieking fractured pulses of tones, and even shoving a finger into her mouth as both mute and distorter, changing the shape of mouth and lips and making her notes sound like underwater transmissions.

Berndt started the set on mixed noisemakers and electronics but mined better ideas from his alto and soprano saxophones, peeling off notes that started as cosmic runs and drifted toward different nether regions—squawks at the ceiling, valve belches, and wheezing aspirations. Zerang acted as the buffer between the two, joining their dueling meanderings with playful abrasions or forcing them to deal with each other with a rattling momentum. Even when Zerang opted for sticks, his patterns were shaped less by heavy arm motion than flashes of hand and wrist, like he was shooing butterflies off his kit with a fly swatter and trying not to hurt them. The trio maintained a responsive relationship, deftly reacting to each other’s next odd move. That concentration imparted a mood of close-listening intimacy, and the night’s two sets were shaped by a compressed intensity that you felt up against your chest but rarely felt abrading the ears.

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