Avant-rock trio Zs brings its latest incarnation to Jamaica Plain
The current lineup of Zs, an outsider rock band-slash-avant-garde ensemble that coalesced in New York in 2000, has been active for more than two years now, and made its recorded debut with a 2013 EP titled “Grain.” Still, unless you’ve caught Zs live recently, it’s entirely possible that you might have no idea what saxophonist Sam Hillmer, guitarist Patrick Higgins, and drummer Greg Fox might actually sound like, playing together.
Typical. Unpredictability and flux have been components in the Zs matrix from the start, soon after Hillmer first crossed paths with fellow saxophonist-composer Alex Mincek at the Manhattan School of Music in 1996.
“Either you were a jazz musician, or you were something else,” Mincek, who exited Zs in 2005, recalled in the liner notes for “Score,” a 2012 box set of early Zs artifacts. “You were a commercial musician or you were a classical musician. . . . Sam and I wanted to be something that was blurry.”
Blurry is a fair description of Zs’ long and writhing road, via clamorous sextet and quartet iterations, to its present trio format. Throughout, the group has plied chaotic impulses with exacting rigor: a paradox that unwittingly triggered an unexpected brush with fame, when Howard Stern memorably grappled with a knotty Zs recording on a 2007 episode of his radio show.
Hillmer, now the sole remaining founding member, introduced Higgins and Fox on “Grain.” But rather than bashing through hastily conceived tunes, the trio instead reworked unreleased recordings by previous Zs lineups into a dense pair of Musique concrète-inspired collages.
In hindsight, that oblique introduction only makes the unambiguous rhythmic uplift that saturates the new Zs album, “XE,” all the more surprising — and exhilarating. Due on Jan. 27 from the Northern Spy label, “XE” is an economical, infectious reintroduction to a mainstay of the same ’90s-aughts ferment that nurtured acts like Wolf Eyes, No-Neck Blues Band, Gang Gang Dance, and Animal Collective. On Friday, the trio will showcase material from the new disc in a concert at Jamaica Plain record store Deep Thoughts JP.
“Corps,” a track from “XE” posted on the Internet to preview the album’s arrival, provides a good idea of what to expect: a steadily circling plucked-guitar pattern, an insistent, buoyant drum beat, a simple yet subtly altered saxophone line that curls like smoke across them, and then snaps into rhythmic lockstep.
Listen closely, and you discern subtle differences between acoustic and electronic elements. The transparency and almost African rhythmic feel in “Corps,” and elsewhere on the album, is not quite like anything previously encountered in the band’s oeuvre. But the precision, a sign of compositions negotiated in countless rehearsals and shows, is pure Zs — and “XE” was in fact recorded live in the studio.
“We don’t work from full-blown scores anymore, but there were definitely sketches for different parts, different times, that the band used as rehearsal tools,” Hillmer says, speaking by telephone from Brooklyn, N.Y. The tunes — “Corps,” the similarly percolating title track, the slashing “The Future of Royalty,” droning “Weakling,” and dense, disjointed “Wolf Government” — were the product of dialogue in the rehearsal studio, and refined onstage. Documenting that process and its results truthfully was what Hillmer had in mind for “XE.”
“Our record was made, in a way, like a Deutsche Grammophon orchestra record was made in the ’70s, where you’d have mikes in a room and the performance, and that’s the record. Nothing is done in post, there’s not a million takes; each thing on that record was made in one take, and there’s no editing.”
The album, Hillmer says, illustrates the band’s process, wherein “you put a few building blocks in place, and then you go out on the road and you play those songs for people who are variously sympathetic and unsympathetic to what you’re doing. And every night after the show, and every day in the van, you talk about the music, and every night you do it a little bit differently.”
However commonsensical the approach sounds, there is an element of the metaphysical in its resolution, as Hillmer describes it. The “feedback loop” of playing, pondering, and tweaking, continues “until we feel like the music has become something that is outside of us. It’s acting on us, and it doesn’t exist because we’re doing it; it exists because it’s a concrete, crystalized thing in the world that people now expect, and that’s acting on us. And that’s when it’s OK to be recorded.”
Also evident in “XE” is the firmness with which Hillmer, Higgins, and Fox have bonded into a cohesive unit that reflects qualities of its constituent members. Higgins is a formidable concert-music composer, and developed an electroacoustic solo project, Bachanalia, that refashioned pieces by Bach in surround-sound configurations. Fox, best known for his work in the black-metal band Liturgy, studied with free-jazz percussion shaman Milford Graves, and recently played in an audacious reinterpretation of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 organized by improvising saxophonist Colin Stetson.
“Both of them have a varied background, and have a very impressive purview over a lot of things — an abnormally large amount of musical styles, and specifically disparate things,” Hillmer says of his present bandmates. “Pat is considerably heavier on the new music in the Euro-classical sense of the term, and Greg is considerably heavier on noise, post-punk, metal, that side of outsider music. But there’s enough concentric circles among us that all three of us can end up on the same page.”
Higgins, who had collaborated with Hillmer regularly before joining Zs, was attracted to the rigor with which the band produced its work. “I had been not only a friend, but a big fan of the whole history of that ensemble,” he says, speaking by phone from New York. “The quality of execution and imagination and technique that went into making all that music really was a value that I shared — that sort of commitment to making extreme music, but doing it very methodically, and with a commitment to excellence in performance.”
It’s not just Zs that has changed. Through years of working across a span of varyingly hospitable scenes beholden to this or that genre, Hillmer notes that audiences increasingly have embraced the group’s wayward journey.
Still, he bristles good-naturedly at any notion that Zs has helped to erode musical borders. He insists that common notions of hybridity — “this crossed with that, so on and so forth” — are marketing and media tools.
“I’m trying to be really proactive about ‘Dude, this is just pure, intuitive, spiritual, wholesome, good old-fashioned music,’ man,” he says, laughing. “And how the linguistic territory of journalism catches up with that — I’m really excited to see that unfold.”