Ben Zucker - vibraphone/compositions
Mabel Kwan - piano
Andrew Scott Young - double bass
Adam Shead - drums
Ben Zucker has been called a “master of improvisation” (IMPOSE Magazine), “more than a little bit remarkable” (Free Jazz Blog), and “one of those annoying people who can do lots of things really well” (We Need No Swords). He thrives in creative multiplicity as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and cultural worker—on any given day, they are working on commissions for ensembles such as the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet and Chicago Composer’s Orchestra; producing albums released on labels including Whitelabelrecs, Fallen Moon Recordings, and Amalgam; creating scores for productions shown at the New York Fringe Festival, Links Hall, DOCNYC, and BlowUp Arthouse Filmfest; teaching and facilitating new music productions with Northwestern University, New Music Chicago, and the Indeterminacy Festival; or onstage with musicians ranging from Anthony Braxton to The Crossing to Efterklang.
Fifth Season is one of Zucker’s own ensembles, and the chief showcase for his skills as a vibraphonist and composition-improvisation hybridizer. For years, they have been refining work with prose-based scores, indicating broad gestural material and transformations instead of any specific harmonic or rhythmic material. The results are pieces with clear compelling structure while allowing a great degree of creative flexibility in real-time. There is influence in these pieces from past and present avant-gardes, such as Wandelweiser and the AACM, and even musical invocations of conceptual problems posed by language philosophers such as Wittgenstein. But these pieces, in the end, are grounded in the lived experience of Zucker’s breadth of musical work, frequently returning to the contemplation and power of improvisation.
One of the first such works was the eponymous composition, a four-movement ‘symphony’ of spontaneity that has been performed by various musicians across the US. After arriving in Chicago in late 2017 and working across its music scenes, he gathered some trusted collaborators to bring these pieces, and several new ones, to life.
The resulting recording, also titled Fifth Season, was released in the summer of 2020, not knowing just how long of a shadow the COVID-19 pandemic would cast over live and improvised music. But Zucker and members of the group persisted as creative musicians. In early 2022, proceeding extremely cautiously in the face of another surge, the group performed at Chicago’s renowned jazz venue Constellation—the first performance of the music from Fifth Season in two years. But maybe because of all that time, spent reflecting and practicing and becoming ever more resilient, the pieces flowed more than ever. Movements and even sections of movements were switched around, integrated with free improvisations difficult to separate from their written counterparts, forming a single extended set of experimental music documented and presented here.
Exploration and energy define this record, Semiterritory–even in moments of space and quiet, there is an omnipresent sense of flow and momentum, across compositional sections previously more didactically separated. If one listened to the albums Fifth Season and Semiterritory side by side, the source material would be apparent, yet all the more remarkable for how much further the band takes it in a live setting. The insistent, Rite-Of-Spring-esque pulsing chords which open Fifth Season’s first movement appears with an elongated, intense lurch out of an opening free flurry in “Question To Repair”, setting the stage for the whole set of one of dynamic contrasts. Kwan’s inside-piano playing, briefly glimpsed on album, becomes an oasis of focused, minimal groove halfway through “Orbiting Betweens” with Shead, who uses the space of the compositions to provide skittering universes of percussive sound a step beyond simply ‘drumming’ for the pieces. Where melodies are first indicated, Zucker turns them into virtuosically interleaved structures collapsing foreground and background. All this and more is possible due to the instruction-based openness of the scores in conjunction with an experienced, intuitively bonded group of musicians.
What is notation if not just a less roundabout way of asking someone to do something? Thanks to language’s directness and interpretive possibility, the performers were able to insert and interrogate their musical influences directly. And thanks to Chicago’s multifaceted, lively artistic life, these performers had a lot of different activity to bring to the table: Pianist Mabel Kwan is a core member of new music powerhouse Ensemble Dal Niente as well as an improviser across all kinds of keyboards; drummer Adam Shead has held forth with titans of free improvisation on both sides of the Atlantic, and leads his own powerful conduction group, the Adiaphora Orchestra; bassist Andrew Scott Young brings extensive experience informed by not only jazz but frequent touring with indie provocateurs such as Circuit Des Yeux and Ryley Walker (Young played this show in place of Eli Namay, who moved to Pittsburgh shortly after Fifth Season’s release).
Semiterritory is a glimpse forward to new possibilities for this collective of forward-thinking musicians, responding to the shock of total disruption with ever more thoughtfulness and energy.
released September 30, 2022
Recorded by Nolan Chin at Constellation in Chicago IL, USA
Mixed and mastered by Nick Broste in Chicago, IL, USA
Album concept/design by Ben Zucker
Original art by Alissa Voth