Absolute Zero, 23 October 1999
The Boathouse, San Francisco, USA
By Gary Hodges
Thanks to Aymeric for the continued efforts in keeping followers of this music informed. Through this list, and this list only, I found out about the concert last Saturday by Pip Pyle, Aislinn Quinn and Enrique Jardines, a.k.a. Absolute Zero.
I was skeptical, I admit, that the concert would take place - there was no publicity that I could discern - though I did send a copy of WR#140 to a radio programmer at KPFA, pushing to get the word out on a calendar of events on Sunday nights of new music. It wasn't mentioned there, but may have been some other time on the beleaguered station's air during the week.
Nevertheless, I called several times Saturday to the Boathouse, on Lake Merced in SF, only to have several staff members not know who was playing, or whether there was music happening in the evening at this "sports-bar". One worker was nice enough to give me good directions on how to get there so I risked the long drive, really expecting it not to happen. To my amazement, not only did the performance take place, but the opening act was TRAP, a splinter group from the progressive/classical US group Cartoon. Gary Parra on drums, with a keyboardist Warren Gale or Dale(?) who doubled on saxophone/clarinet/bass clarinet, and guitarist/mandolinist Chris Miller or Smith (sorry I'm butchering names here).
They played a great set, including new originals, a medley of Cartoon compositions, an amazing klezmer hora(?) that started with acoustic instruments (Chris on mandolin, Parra on accordian, Warren on clarinet) and evolved into an electric klezmer piece (with the musicians switching to elec. guitar, drums and keyboards)- truly frenzied. They ended their set with a nice rendition of Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia". Only about 20 people at most were there at that point, including members of the band's family -understandable with the lack of promotion.
TRAP and Absolute Zero had spent several days together in California, with Pip, Aislinn and Enrique taking a side trip into Mexico - for some sort of Tijuana tequila adventure where Aislinn had broken her foot (I believe I heard something about a donkey ride, but I could've been dreaming). She soldiered thru their set of music, playing keyboards, flute, samples with her crutches alongside her. Their set was a blistering barrage of sound; Pip Pyle's drumming was infinitely more muscular and driving than I ever would've imagined. I sort of pictured him as a vertical drummer approaching the kit from above with precise patterns, but it was rather more grounded from below (and maybe within) with a style that seemed to integrate him with the kit - more organic perhaps. Very impressive playing, with an amazing energy level - he basically never stopped.
Enrique Jardine's playing matched Pip's in that same grounded feel on "Basse au Contraire"- an electric bass style with electronics that could switch from a lead electric guitar sound in the middle range, to a traditional bass sound- working on solos, then switching to riffs in mind-boggling odd tempos on tunes he had written and co-written. All musicians shifted gears in an intuitive way, in the manner I've seen great jazz musicians perform. Aislinn ran her voice through a harmonizer - which reminded me at times of Laurie Anderson, other times of Dagmar Krause, but mostly her own Irish streetwise character dominated. Sort of cabaret-style, politically-slanted words- at one point singing about "10 centavos", "a lousy dime" and how she was tired and hungry. Most of the other words were lost in the soundmix, not because the sound was muffled, but that the energy level of the three almost never let up.Some of the music was tonal, in traditional tempo- even with a tango at one point. A lot of it was atonal or maybe polytonal, but largely grounded in the percussion end in a force of nature.
Toward the end, it was great to see the members of TRAP, dancing in their seats, clapping in pure joy at some of the time signatures Absolute Zero were shifting through, that they fully appreciated. There was enough repetition to make things infectious, but enough complicated patterns to make it mandatory to listen.
For an encore, they invited the members of TRAP up for a jam, in which Pip and Enrique laid the foundation, Parra added emphasis from an abridged drum set on the side, Warren and Aislinn had a percussion clapping duel when they weren't laying top tracks with woodwinds and keyboards. A driving mix of sound.
All in all, great music from a concert hall I never knew existed. The owner of the sports-bar where TV's are always blasting the current US games amidst pool players (who you could hear loudly in between the songs), from the posted article at the entrance, is a jazz (early big band) musician, a friend of Woody Herman's, who apparently built this concert hall for his own band. In the article he blasted the Beatles, saying he didn't understand or like their music, but I noticed at one point the employees were playing a Beatle song - I guess the boss wasn't home.
I also noticed they turned up the canned music when the concert started, ostensibly to try and drown out the cerebral music. In a sense, this venue itself, though it was adequate, didn't really give the music the respect it deserved. It kind of reminded me of how Ian Chippett had described the In Cahoots concert at Argenteuil - a bar with a small cavern concert hall - not much more than a glorified dive.
I was going to follow Pip Pyle to the bar afterwards, but I was a bit leery of asking possibly annoying questions after the massive workout. I remember in the 70's after seeing Caravan at the old tiny Keystone club in Berkeley, talking to Pye Hastings and Geoff Richardson (both very friendly) and joking about how so many people asked them about when Hatfield and the North were coming to tour, but how Richard Coughlan was a bit taken aback by the intrusion of these kids asking for autographs. He needed some silence. I decided to leave Pip alone.
The concert was a modest $12.50 for the 2 bands and they had some recordings for sale, including Pip's 7-Year Itch, I believe, but I had just placed an order, including that one, with Wayside (what a great catalog), so I didn't buy anything. Besides I was low on cash, and I'm a notorious cheapskate. I do however, try to support true art and artists who take risks. I still find it hard to believe that the musicians of Absolute Zero could financially manage this tour, even though it wasn't a big one. I find it inspiring that they can and did do it. I look forward to their future recordings.