What happens when you put a group of musicians together in a studio with no preconceived guidelines, let alone rehearsals, and simply roll tape? It’s a recipe for disaster rife with inevitable ego-clashing, chops-grandstanding and hopeless meandering, interspersed with moments of wretched excess. In a word — chaos.
That is, unless the musicians in question happen to be open-minded and open-eared enough, creatively fearless and on the same wavelength. Then, magic can happen. That’s when the muse arrives and the telepathy kicks in; a collective process that King Crimson founder and guitarist Robert Fripp once likened to “getting a visit from the good fairy.”
The good fairy descended swiftly on this Project Z session, and the results are scintillating. An organic flow of spontaneous music-making, Lincoln Memorial is a prime example of collective improvisation without a roadmap, executed by a group of kindred spirits and like-minded daredevils who thrive on the extreme edge. With a core group consisting of Atlanta renegades and Aquarium Rescue Unit alumni Jimmy Herring on guitar, Ricky Keller on bass and Jeff Sipe (aka Apt. Q-258) on drums, this volatile edition of Project Z is augmented by Robert Randolph keyboardist Jason Crosby along with alto saxophonist and M-Base co-founder Greg Osby, a leading light on the modern jazz scene as well as a longtime recording artist, bandleader, producer and talent scout for Blue Note Records. Together they play it strictly-in-the-moment with a no-holds-barred approach that shifts from boppish swing to slash ‘n’ burn, from dense noise-thrash freakouts to fragile, zen-like moments of silence.
Orgasmic crescendos give way to furiously slamming funk grooves on this adventurous outing. Dissonant call-and-response exchanges erupt into peaks of wild abandon by Herring and his daring cohorts. And yet, in spite of the prevailing air of freedom, catharsis and searching, there is an organic cohesion to the proceedings that defies the usual jam aesthetic, just as the resulting music defies categorization. It’s a ‘no tunes’ approach to spontaneous composition that is not unlike what Miles Davis accomplished with his marauding band of electric renegades on such landmark fusion recordings as Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, Live at the Fillmore and a host of other subversive, cutting edge sessions from the early ’70s.
“The way that Miles did things was definitely an influence on us,” says Project Z ringleader Herring, who also currently plays with Phil Lesh & Friends and has toured with the Dead. “The first four or five songs are actually one continuous piece that goes on for 23 minutes or so,” says Herring. “We ended up having about three and a half hours of music that we eventually cut down to 70 minutes.”
“It’s an extension of the last album,” says Sipe, referring to Project Z’s self-titled debut from 2000. “We actually tried to pull off tunes on the first one but this time we just decided to be children having fun in the studio. It’s really a tribute to Ricky and a celebration of his life through music. He’s the catalyst for a lot of the silliness that goes on through the record. Some of it can be pretty profound, some of it can be just incredibly silly. Ultimately, it’s about just having fun.
“It’s like my three-year-old son,” he continues. “Lately I’m noticing that he takes sheer delight in knocking over his blocks. There’s a certain energy in piling up the blocks but there’s so much release and joy in knocking them over. And that’s what Ricky was like. He’d spend a lot of time putting something up, making it perfect and beautiful, and then knock it over. He’d compose it and then decompose it so that the destruction was just as important as the development of the idea. And maybe toward the end, the decomposing, the deconstruction was even a little bit more satisfying to him.”
Rather than dealing with isolation booths in the studio to get clean separation between all the instruments, all the participants in this freewheeling Project Z session set up in the same room and played together spontaneously. “I’ve never liked that isolation thing in the studio,” says Herring. “But since we were doing this ‘no tunes’ kind of thing — just going into the studio to play and see where it took us — we decided to set up all in one room because we knew that we weren’t going to be overdubbing or fixing things or anything like that. And I like the way it marinated in the end.”
Some of the themes that emerge in this spontaneous jam setting take a few moments to congeal, but as Herring notes, “It’s worth wading through to get to those special moments.”
They explode out of the gate with adrenalized momentum on the swinging “Departure,” which has Keller’s solidly walking basslines functioning as the eye of the hurricane around which Herring’s stinging guitar licks, Osby’s tart sax lines, Sipe’s aggressive skins-bashing and insistent ride cymbal pulse and Crosby’s spikey keyboard work swirl in a burst of free-form, polytonal, avant-bop mayhem. That heightened jam peaks at four minutes before settling into the more relaxed groove heard on “Miso Soup,” in which Osby’s darting, double-timed alto lines come to the fore. As the piece builds in intensity, around the minute-and-a-half mark, Herring unleashes with the kind of ferocious fretboard facility that should rank him alongside such other bona fide modern day guitar heroes as Scott Henderson and Steve Morse. The middle section to this jam features a frantic breakdown between Sipe’s whirlwind drumming and Herring’s dazzling single-note onslaught, and it concludes with some free-form fireworks highlighted by Osby’s pungent alto cutting through the fray with muscular authority.
“Stale Salt Lugs”is a lively dialogue anchored by Sipe’s slamming backbeats (the kind he regularly delivered in the service of bassist Jonas Hellborg’s trio with the late, great guitarist Shawn Lane). Nearly two minutes into the opening freewheeling fusillade, Keller brings order to the chaos with his minimalist low-end groove. His decision to gradually accelerate the pulse at the four minute mark shifts this jam into hyperdrive, resulting in some ecstatic peaks of wreckless abandon and mind-melded contrapuntal playing between Osby, Crosby and Herring, whose liquid phrasing, fretboard sizzle and use of controlled feedback are a highlight here.
“Freener Frolic” is a twisted funk blues workout — the kind that bassist Bootsy Collins and his guitar playing brother Phelps might have played behind James Brown on one of those nights when they ingested too much LSD on the gig. Sipe’s syncopated, J.B.-inspired backbeat and hip time displacements fuel this urgent throwdown, pushing the proceedings to some dizzying heights. Crosby helps shape and color this cathartic jam with dissonant voicings and irregular comping on both piano and organ. Along the way, Herring creates another fretboard fracas with wild intervallic leaps and legato fury reminiscent of the great Allan Holdsworth, while Osby, one of the most accomplished and open-minded alto sax players on the jazz scene today, explodes with Bird-like facility on his horn above the intense fray.
“What Greg played on the session was mindblowing,” says Herring. “He can play traditional jazz as well as anybody but he’s so open minded that he’ll just go anywhere musically, and you just don’t find that too often.” Adds Sipe, “Greg was the perfect choice for this Project Z recording. He really understands the intention fully and sounds like he’s got a lot of that childlike quality as well. It seems to me that Greg is expanding his horizons even more, as if he wants to taste a bit of every meal out there.”
“You Do” initially offers some calm after the storm of “Freener Frolic.” Opening on a mellower note, underscored by Crosby’s gentle acoustic and electric piano tinkling and paced by Keller’s slippery bass groove along with Sipe’s more relaxed approach to the kit, it proceeds gradually like a through-composed piece with Herring carrying the angular melody and Osby interacting conversationally on alto sax. By the two-minute mark, Crosby switches to organ and things begin to heat up. Herring launches into another awesome display of creative six-string abandon and controlled feedback, which is matched by Osby’s stutter-stepping and high register squeals. The piece builds to a teeth-chattering crescendo at the six minute mark before segueing to an open-ended rubato section with Osby’s horn fluttering freely over the sparse backdrop.
“Sister Barbie” opens as a more subdued rubato jam with all the participants interacting conversationally before Sipe shifts gears, steering the course with his thunderous approach to the kit. Osby, Herring, Crosby and Keller jump on board, offering frenzied, freewheeling call-and-response along with some telepathic unison lines that magically emerge out of nowhere.
Osby’s pungent alto cries over the top of the kinetic pulse at the introduction to “Slaif” recall Ornette Coleman’s soaring alto approach with his electrified Prime Time band. An intense crescendo ultimately gives way to an odd reggae-fied funk groove at the three-minute mark, with Osby’s twisting alto lines interacting humorously with Herring’s staccato picking and moving chordal voicings along with Crosby’s giddy organ work.
“Sad Sack” continues that animated conversation before Sipe changes up the pulse once again by supplying some muscular backbeats. This piece demonstrates some of the most dynamic shifts on the recording and is also marked by some very acute listening from all of the participants. It is particularly interesting to hear what gets filled into the holes when Sipe decides to spontaneously lay out here and there. But everyone boldly rises to the occasion as the improvisational spirit prevails from moment to moment.
With its distinct unison lines happening between Herring and Osby, “Ol’ Bugaboo” sounds like a fairly composed piece. But as is the case with everything else on this adventurous outing, things constantly shift and new avenues are explored with spur-of-the-moment abandon. Once again, Osby, Crosby and Herring engage in the kind of close call-and-response impulses here that inform the entire session.
Sipe introduces a swinging ride cymbal motif on “Zamb Fear,” but that bebop allusion quickly dissolves into another free-for-all fueled by staccato bursts of brilliance by all Osby, Herring and Crosby. By the two-minute mark, Sipe returns to the uptempo swing groove, Keller hops on board with urgently walking bass lines and we’re off to the races with Herring and Osby running neck and neck down to the finish line in a heated battle. Sipe, whose drums are recorded particularly well throughout this session, offers a whirlwind solo at the tag.
“Microburst” opens on a noirish note with Herring’s dark chordal voicings and arpeggios underscoring Osby’s emotive alto excursions. Keller helps shape the piece with his slow-grooving basslines before the kinetic impulses kick in and the crew launches into the stratosphere once again. The interaction between Osby’s alto, Herring’s guitar and Crosby’s piano here hits ferocious peaks before settling back into a steady pulse anchored by Keller’s low-end groove. Herring unleashes here with another mind-bending solo of Holdsworthian proportions while Osby counterpunches with his own formidable sax onslaught (and catch the laughter in the studio as this powerhouse thrash jam neatly ends on a perfect downbeat).
“Lincoln Memorial,” named for the late Project Z bassist Ricky Keller, opens on a poignant note with Crosby’s gentle touch and introspective musings on piano. Herring adds to the haunting quality of this misterioso rubato ballad with volume swell textures and sparsely phrased single note lines while Osby’s keening alto lends emotional weight to the proceedings. Keller, whose interactive instincts throughout the sessions are a key to the success of these collective improvisations, plays with zen-like restraint here, further enhancing the drama of the most subdued offering in an otherwise volatile session. “I think what Ricky played on this album was his greatest work,” says Herring. (Sadly, Keller died of a heart attack in June of 2003. The album title — a reference to Col. Bruce Hampton’s moniker for the bass player, Lincoln Metcalf — is a tribute to Project Z’s fallen comrade.)
Adds Sipe, “Ricky helped teach us how to celebrate life through music and see through a child’s eyes. He had the willingness to abandon all preconceived notions of forms and structures, keys, even time signatures. Playing with Ricky was an incredible challenge for me. Often times he would play directly against us on purpose. For example, if I wanted to lock in a groove and stay there, he’d be there for a few minutes and then..BAM…out to Mars, you know? But it was just a blast to play with him and have him show us kind of a childlike approach to playing; not childish, childlike. There’s a big difference there. And he helped us realize how much fun it could be just abandoning tradition and try to go for something that’s never been done before or maybe shouldn’t have been done…but we did it anyway.”
The collection closes on an off-kilter note with “Arrival,” which is less densely textured than some of the other ferocious jams featured on Lincoln Memorial though no less audacious. Partly harmolodic and partly just plain wacky, it seems jointly inspired by Ornette Coleman and Col. Bruce Hampton, the enigmatic frontman and mastermind behind the late, lamented Aquarium Rescue Unit. As Herring notes of Project Z’s musical guru, “He is the reason this whole thing came into being. We’re just trying to speak his language.”
There’s humor and humanity in this music, coupled with dazzling virtuosity and a willingness on the part of all the participants to leap off the cliff collectively. As for what to call it? Don’t ask. That would require a many-hyphenated term that touches on all the bases they cover here; something like avant-Dixieland-neo-M-Base-harmolodic-post-bop-funk-thrash-noise-fusion. Or better yet, just refer to it by a single letter — Z music.
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times, Jazziz, Bass Player, Modern Drummer and Absolute Sound magazines. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” (Backbeat Books).