ONE FINAL NOTE
Hailing from Rome, the free jazz power trio Zu has been making considerable waves in the indie underground. With a resume boasting numerous tours and collaborative recording sessions with Eugene Chadbourne, Dälek, The Ex, Nomeansno, and Ken Vandermark, Zu has proven itself capable of holding its own against the underground’s heaviest contenders, regardless of genre. Zu’s most recent endeavors, How to Raise an Ox and Way of the Animal Powers, both feature guest improvisers: saxophonist Mats Gustafsson on the former, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm on the latter. Similarities abound on the two sessions, but there are marked differences as well.Heavily amplified and deriving inspiration from post-punk and indie rock, as well as such renowned electric free jazz ensembles as Last Exit and Painkiller, Zu is a powerhouse. Veering from grinding Sabbath and glacially paced Melvins-like tempos to fitful barrages of punk-inflected frenzy, their brand of post-rock friendly free jazz has won them a legion of international fans.
Zu also relishes open spaces; the contrasting silence around ringing, sustained tones is often as important as the decibel-shattering outbursts that drop in between. They also favor metallic, grinding, angular funk rhythms, but never at the expense of that sound. The intricate, call-and-response rhythmic structures of the assembled songs leave little room for melody, let alone harmony. Zu are drawn to grating textures, and no other ensemble sounds quite as brusque with Massimo Pupillo’s bright, overdriven electric bass, Jacopo Battaglia’s pulverizing drums, and Luca Mai’s dark, tortured saxophone (alto and baritone, respectively). Last years Radiale, with Ken Vandermark’s Spaceways Incorporated trio was Zu’s most recent high profile collaboration. That varied session benefited from alternating originals with classic covers. The first half of Radiale focused on Zu’s riff-heavy writing, while the second half was dominated by Vandermark’s eclectic, but invigorating choice of standards culled from the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Funkadelic, and Sun Ra. On these two new albums the tunes are all penned by the Italian trio. Zu’s tunes are melodically limited—built around basic linear heads with meticulous rhythmic modulation, one tune easily bleeds into another. While this makes for a more cohesive album, it also engenders a sense of homogeneity to the proceedings as well.
Way of the Animal Powers and How to Raise an Ox both feature excellent and sympathetic collaborators. Mats Gustafsson’s frenzied, spastic baritone has been well documented, both on his own albums and numerous high profile gigs with Ken Vandermark. His recent punkish, garage-rock inspired project The Thing has brought him greater notoriety as of late and this collaboration has numerous similarities to that group. Fred Lonberg-Holm has revealed his distorted, electrified cello on a number of occasions and here uses it to advantageous effect. But the most immediate difference between these sets is running time: How to Raise an Ox is 15 minutes longer than Way of the Animal Powers; at 25 minutes, Way of the Animal Powers feels more like an EP than a full-length.
Way of the Animal Powers focuses on the spacious, pointillistic aspect of the band. The bulk of the tunes feature methodical call-and-response interplay among the quartet with a cautious ear towards measured density. With the average running time of each track under three minutes, the pieces feel like sketches. One drawback is the inclusion of two vocal cuts, one sung, albeit not offensive, the other a sample of a psychiatrist discussing the psychic pitfalls of listening to such a “dangerous album”. Trite and out of place, this cut does nothing to bolster an already short set. The pieces that feature Lonberg-Holm’s glorious amplified cello are uniformly excellent, such as “Shape Shifting” and “Farewell to the Species”, but unfortunately come across as a classic case of too little, too late.
How to Raise an Ox is easily the stronger record. With an extended running time and longer tunes, the assembled quartet is given more room to explore a greater variety of settings. With Gustafsson and Mai both sticking to their baritone saxophones for the whole of the record, and the rhythm section more boisterous than on the other album, this set sounds fuller and more realized. The short, Sabbath-esque loping grind of “Bring the War Back Home” contrasts nicely with the railing opening barrage of “Over a Furnace”. The title track is a brilliant meditation on using space, timing, and increasing dynamics to build tension, while the closer, “The Tiger Teaches the Lamb” invokes Albert Ayler’s ecstatic exhortations. Gustafsson and Mai even get in some a capella sparring time on the opening of “The King Devours His Sons”. Relief comes in pieces like “Eating the Landscape”, “Palace of Reptiles”, and “Beasts Only Die to Be Born”, which are sparse and almost pointillistic, lending a much needed sense of reprieve to an already heavy set. A bone crushing affair, the record is not for the faint of heart, but those accustomed to such sounds will find this to be an especially pleasing program.
Way of the Animal Powers could be considered the more rock-oriented release, with its shorter tunes, vocals, and extra electronic sheen, while How to Raise an Ox is the more improvisational, exploratory, extended set. Both are fine examples of a trio whose ability to adapt to its guests is admirably chameleonic—the Atavistic disc has more to offer, but diehard fans will definitely want to hear both.
How To Raise An Ox - Downtown Music Gallery -Michael Anton Parker
It's surprising that it took this long for Zu to release an album with Mats Gustafsson! It's such an obvious and failsafe combination. And since this is (by my count) the 8th Zu album, coming on the heels of three releases featuring Gustafsson associates Ken Vandermark and/or Fred Lonberg-Holm, it's as though they've been beating around the bush! This group has a lot in common with Gustafsson's current flagship unit The Thing; he mostly sticks to baritone sax power blasting and doesn't delve into overtly sentimental or quiet territory (for that be sure to get his monumental solo album Catapult from earlier this year, but also check out the mysterious and slow irregularities of "Beasts Only Die to be Born" on this program).
At the same time, Zu have a knack for creating brooding tension with soft and sparse passages, and this disc is not just a constant assault, besides the basic fact that Gustafsson's power blasting typically has a sense of space and rhythmic clarity even at its most aggressive. With Gustafsson's baritone in harsh blowing tandem with Luca Mai's baritone, Zu's dirgy side
emerges more than their funky side, but what really makes Zu so special is the way they deconstruct power funk grooves into slow, bleeding studies in the timbral underbelly of electric bass guitar, drumkit, and saxophone. They are the Melvins of funk. Massimo Pupillo has no peers when it comes to making an electric bass guitar sound like a wild hairy beast from the
Paleolithic era; his genius is frightening. Pupillo is in astonishing form as usual here, and on "Palace of Reptiles" the group even achieves something close to the sublime rhythmic tension and nuance of his mind-blowing trio disc with Lukas Ligeti and Gianni Gebbia released earlier this year. Despite its surface of aggression and Last Exit styled bravado, this music is not about simple visceral thrills, not even the ones Zu have often provided in the past; Zu and Gustafsson have discovered a profound realm of phrasal abstraction and timbral nuance by slowing the music down to an abject crawl where the ugliest sound can become an oasis of motion. Listen to this like a Scelsi album and not a free jazz album and you'll be deeply rewarded.