Ernesto Diaz-Infante & Rotcod Zzaj - "Psychedelic Landscapes"
(Zzaj Productions 1999, ZP-28, CD)
The Imaginary Band - "As Good As Gnu's" (Zzaj Productions 1999, ZP-17, CD)
Improvijazzation Nation #37 and #38 (Zine)
From Aural Innovations #9 (January 2000)
Dick Metcalf (AKA Rotcod Zzaj) is a musician, spoken word artist, and fierce networker based in Washington state. The Zzaj man is involved in numerous musical projects, helps organize the Experimental Musical Festival in Olympia, WA (now in its 5th year), and publishes Improvijazzation Nation, a 20-page zine chock full of reviews and poetry.
Issues 37 and 38 of the zine were sent to me as samples. The mag is a simple type on white paper affair with no graphics, but in terms of CONTENT and INFORMATION it can compete with any I've seen. The reviews typically cover music on the creative and adventurous fringes of jazz (like the music reviewed below) and other styles. I'd not heard of most of the music reviewed but found my red pen marking several to put on my want list. And as spoken word is a big part of Metcalf's work it's no surprise that many of the pages include a poem or two. Issue #39 is scheduled for publication soon, but starting with #40 (February 2000) Metcalf plans to discontinue the hard copy and go full blown on the world wide web.
On to the music. The Diaz/Zzaj disc is a keyboard and spoken word project containing two tracks at 32 and 40 minutes respectively. "We Are The Real" features keyboard explorations along with spoken word rants by Zzaj as he expounds on life, reality, the inner mind, and much else. "Is there a mushroom in your future?" The keyboards are difficult to describe... it's not floating electronica, though it's definitely cosmic. Diaz likes to play in higher registers giving the music a jarring effect. Aggressive, but not dark. The music is usually played at a frantic pace with repeating percussion patterns and more symphonic backgrounds. But there are lighter, more soothing moments in which we are lulled by the sound of angelic harps. Zzaj's monolog runs continuously and is inseparable from the music. If performing alone he might sound like a throwback from the Beat Generation, but combined with the music has produced a sound that is intriguingly different.
On the title track, "Psychedelic Landscapes", the keyboards descend into darker realms. There's a lot of eeriness to the atmosphere but also a quirkiness to the music that keeps things light as opposed to gloomy. As the music itself is spotlighted here there's also quite a bit more thematic development, including LOTS of very cool percussion, some of which I believe is real in addition to the electronic percussion. Again, the music is mind expanding though not in the typical spacey sense. Still, it succeeds in conjuring up imagery as well, if not better, than the most cosmic of space music. Fans of symphonic ambient music and the early electronic spacemen who crave aggression and development along with a good dose of cosmic zzaj... er, I mean jazz... will really dig this track.
Though I liked "We Are The Real", my jury is still out on whether it justifies it 32 minute length. "Psychedelic Landscapes", on the other hand, could have gone on forever and taken me merrily along with it. Headphones HIGHLY recommended.
The Imaginary Band is a trio with Rotcod Zzaj on keyboards and spoken word, Harlan Mark Vale on synths and drums, and Peter Tomshany on guitars and moog. The music on this disc is like a wild roller coaster ride with manic start/stop rhythms and countless sounds and efx making short, abrupt appearances throughout.
Among the highlight tracks is "Bellevue-Idity". The tune begins as a crazed keyboard and drums piece along with Zzaj's spoken word. The music is like a quirky jazz symphony but there are loads of freaky spaced out synth effects. The keys are soon replaced by guitar and piano performing the same role and the bleeping space synths jam along in tune with the other instruments. "20,000 Leagues" features a wild combination of sounds... a lulling bell pattern, a brain splitting synth tone, and an industrial percussion beat that creates a factory assembly line atmosphere. The synth tone soon calms down and starts to explore rather than pierce the ears. Scattered throughout is rapid jazzy piano and guitar runs that kept me on my toes and at full attention. "Required Pattern Piece" is an interesting cool jazz jam with a great groove. On the one hand it has a standard jazz feel to it, but the various keyboard and synth sounds are what set the music apart and establish identities of their own. The song uses its 11 minutes to full effect, stretching out far and wide. If Hawkwind fans could be turned on to jazz then this is the music that could do it. Mucho cosmic!!
Easily my favorite track on the disc is "Taste Of Thunder". These guys excel at keeping the music moving, changing, and developing at a rapid fire pace. But rather than being incoherent, the development flows smoothly and I imagined this being the soundtrack to an avant-action movie. The listener is blasted with a banquet of sounds and effects and the instruments punctuate the music in spurts much like the sound efx do. There is a LOT happening all at once but trying to keep up isn't necessary for full enjoyment. Things get quite manic with drums and all kinds of synths creating a meteor shower of music and sound. Good fun and the highlight of this set.
In summary, I found these discs to really offer something different. Space fans with a taste for jazz that is truly out there, but not at the expense of the cosmic elements, will enjoy this music. In fact, I'd like to vote The Imaginary Band as the new cantina combo in the next Star Wars flick. These are only two of many interesting releases from the folks at Zzaj.
For more information on these releases and Improvijazzation Nation you can visit the Zzaj Productions web site.
Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz