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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Minus Zero: Putting the Music to Work

Something that has always fascinated me is the many ways instrumental music - without the help of lyrics - can be used to carry a message, to protest, or  to advance a cause. A group of musicians out of the Bay Area in California have found their way by creating a record label which donates all proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Founders Vijay Anderson, Dina Maccabee, and Ben Goldberg launched Minus Zero on Bandcamp this spring and agreed to a Q&A about their effort.

Following the Q&A are reviews of a small sample of the now 19 available albums.

Free Jazz Blog: Just for some background, could you tell us a little bit about how the three of you met?

Dina Maccabee: I first met Ben when I was in high school, lurking around Bay Area live music I was introduced to by my older brother's friends who were into local creative and improvised music. One time they snuck me into a dive bar in Oakland to see a jazz show, which is hilarious because when I was 16 I looked like I was 12, but somehow I remember that happening. When I was around 18 guitarist/composer John Schott asked me to play in a large ensemble playing his arrangement's of Ben's music, along side a lot of well known players, which was a big deal for me at the time!

Vijay Anderson: We met nearly 20 years ago while each of us were performing in Bay Area bands. The three of us first played together a handful of years ago in Graham Connah's various large ensembles.

Ben Goldberg: You meet a lot of people playing music. How I met these two lovely musicians is probably not unusual -- there was a rehearsal, or a concert, and "hey, nice to meet you."

FJB: Your new label “Minus Zero” is dedicated to raising money for Planned Parenthood. Can you tell us when and how the idea came about and why Planned Parenthood?

DM: This was an idea Vijay presented to me, but I had definitely already been thinking about ways to contribute to worthy causes, as a way of responding positively to a fear that a lot of important services and institutions could be compromised after the election. I remember that Bandcamp had a day of donating their profits to the ACLU, which was a great idea, and I also contributed personally to a few organizations whose work I support.

VA: Like the majority of Americans, I was devastated with the recent presidential election results. The new administration has so many destructive policy ideas, including defunding Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is an organization that really helps people around the world, primarily woman, by providing basic health care, reproductive health care and general sex education. More information on that could be found here

I think many of us are frustrated about our contentious politics and wish we could do something to improve things. I was performing a benefit/protest concert with Ben Goldberg and Marshall Tramell the night of the inauguration. The huge women's march was going to take place the following day. I asked Ben what he thought of the idea of starting a label which gave all the money to Planned Parenthood. He was very supportive of the idea and suggested we get as many people involved as we can.

BG: Vijay had the idea about Planned Parenthood specifically. It was shortly after the election and a lot of people were wondering how to shape the resistance. Planned Parenthood was under attack. The idea made sense.

FJB:  Do you see the label as a political statement? Why / Why not?

DM: I wish it weren't politicized, to expect that an organization providing essential health services to people who may not have any other access to them would continue to receive public funding to do their work, which fills in a gap that public services, let alone private health care, have left open. Unfortunately, it is, because there are wildly opposing visions of what equality and equity mean among different groups of people in the U.S. That being said, I don't see the label is a "statement." I see it as an activity, that is more constructive than declaring a stance or writing a manifesto.

VA: Yes it’s a political statement, but it’s also an effort to help fund Planned Parenthood, an organization that is unfortunately politicized. If a musician's work is on Minus Zero it means they support a woman's right to choose, basic healthcare for women, equal pay/opportunities for women, as well as sending a message that we are going to do everything we can to do make that a reality. All the proceeds from this label, (besides a small percentage for Bandcamp and Paypall) go to Planned Parenthood.

BG: Culture is bigger than politics. Right now our culture is under attack. What is being called the right is attacking basic common sense, like listening to each other, respecting opinions, and understanding the difference between truth and lies. It's being called "politics," as if one side will win, but when these values are eroded everyone loses. We sometimes use the word "culture" to mean "high culture" -- activities or events that are defined as luxuries. But culture is not a luxury. Cultural activities -- poetry, music, art, scholarship -- are exactly what makes us human. That's why Trump and his people have no culture -- it's not just that they read different books or appreciate different art -- there is actually no overlap. We are faced with a "political" movement that is trying to undermine our cultural values, and that brings into focus the fact that any kind of cultural activity or motion -- talking to your friends, reading books, gathering for music -- is an act of resistance.

FJB:  You are starting with 19 albums, that's quite a catalog! Was is difficult to persuade the musicians to participate? How long did it take from concept to launch?

DM: Everyone I approached was eager to contribute! There's always a bit of cat herding that goes on with something like this, but the only misses were either folks who didn't have something available to contribute on short notice, or artists who were already involved in another charitable project whose impact they didn't want to dilute, not because they weren't enthusiastic about the idea.

VA: It was easy to persuade the musicians to participate. Everyone represented here was very enthusiastic and more than willing to be a part of this. It took 3-4 months to put this together. We are fortunate to know a lot of great musicians who are willing to participate in this worthy cause.

FJB: What would you like to see the label accomplish?

DM: I would measure the success not in an amount of money raised, but in presenting a broad number of artists in different genres, and achieving some longevity. I could even imagine a festival or something like that, it would be amazing if all the contributors who don't necessarily know each other IRL were able to meet, there would probably even be more ideas generated about how to turn our musical energy toward benefitting people who have fewer advantages than we do, or who are in need. On the other hand, the online platform is kind of magical in bridging space and time, so I'm glad we were able to work with the bandcamp platform to create something widely accessible to people everywhere. If Minus Zero simply continues to add artists from different regions and musical zones, and generates a steady stream of contributions to Planned Parenthood at any level, that will be great. More generally, I think it's significant to have laid out a simple way for artists, who often don't feel like they have a surplus of either time or money, to be able to contribute to something concrete THROUGH making and releasing new music. Minus Zero has already accomplished that, and I would love to see the importance of that accomplishment spread by word of mouth among other musicians who I think will be interested in taking advantage of the opportunity.

VA: I would like to see this label raise some substantial money for Planned Parenthood as well create some more awareness of these issues. I also would love to see more people discover interesting thought provoking music through this label. The site could be a great way to check out some unusual artists who are doing interesting work.

FJB: The three of you have albums available here, For My Mother features Vijay Anderson; 1(800)729-3700 is with Ben Goldberg, and Tethered Music features Dina Maccabee, just to pick a few. All of these albums reflect different styles, ranging from free improvisation to jazz compositions to folk. Would you say that there is something for everyone here? Any favorites? Were any of these albums recorded specifically for the label?

DM: I hadn't planned to release Tethered at all. I had written and recorded it last year for a dance performance, but I was glad to have a place to present it when this project came up. What's nice is no money was spent on that recording, a friend donated his time for mixing it, and I wrote the piece without being paid as well, so it really feels like a contribution that stands outside the horrible contortions we all go through of trying to monetize our time and our work. When you have something you did without any money changing hands, it's both valueless and priceless, which is a great feeling, so I was happy to let it generate some value for this project, monetarily for planned parenthood, and in enjoyment units for whoever buys it via this platform.

I didn't know Sarah Bernstein's music at all, so that was great to be introduced to... I've always been a big Duo B fan... Prasant Radhakrishnan's saxophone ragas are transcendent...

.. It's all really really good!

VA: We have a great start, with a good representation of what we want to do. I think diversity is going to be key in making this an appealing label. So far we have musicians from jazz, free improvisation, classical, Indian carnatic music, noise, folk, pop, and rock influences. I would love to see some more recordings added from different styles or genres, and more music from various cultures around the world.

None of these recordings so far, were recorded specifically for this label. I do think that this label is an ideal place for re-issues, live shows, short ep length recordings, extra tracks or unissued studio recordings, as well as new releases.

BG: I hope that people will find this label to be a rich source of songs and records where you might find something you like, that will bring something pleasing or interesting into your life.

FJB: You’ve just started the label so it may be a bit premature to ask, but are there future plans? If so, what?

VA: We will continue to seek interesting music. We have plans to release music from Vinny Golia, Steve Adams and Tim Perkins, Joelle Leandre, Beth Custer, Joe Baiza, Mara Rosenbloom and hopefully a lot more. Thanks to these recordings will be available here permanently and we hope this will have a positive impact on Planned Parenthood.


Michael Coleman, Ben Goldberg, Mat Nelson, Ches Smith - 1-800-729-3700 (Minus Zero, 2017) ****

1-800-729-3700 by keyboardist Michael Coleman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, Saxophonist Matt Nelson and percussionist Ches Smith is a crackling and splintery outing. Eschewing outright melodies and rhythms, the opening track 'Supplement' combines electronic burbling with quirky lines from the woodwinds to generate its spikey themes. The following 'Parlez Vous' features a more traditional approach to song through Goldberg's melodies, and at the same time favors non-linear electronic and percussive accompaniment. 'Rock and a Hard Place' embraces a more driving pulse and a distorted analog synthesizer sound pushing the group into a more avant jazz-rock direction. Other tracks like the miniature 'New Memory' engages the listener with evocative textures and 'Winner' gets the heart pumping with a straight ahead rock beat before erupting into a cascade of counter melodies.

The quartet here is quite resourceful developing a varied and exciting set of improvisations, it may take a couple spins before it sinks in, but it's a recommended use of time!

Dina Maccabee - Tethered Music EP (Minus Zero, 2017) ****

This little gem by violinist Dina Maccabee may be only 12 minutes long, but through its four tracks a full musical vision is presented. Maccabee is a Bay Area violinist, whose classical training influences 3/4 of these folk-tinged pieces that evokes pastoral scenery as well as a chamber recital. The anomaly is 'Tethered Duet' which uses a simple clap to establish a pulse, and then over triads from an acoustic guitar, Maccabee overdubs singing. Along with Maccabee's violin, viola, and vocals, is Jessica Ivry on cello. The work was originally developed to accompany choreography by Teresa Heiland but stands quite well on its own.

Diane Moser, Mark Dresser, Vijay Anderson, Hafez Modirzadeh - For My Mother (Minus Zero, 2017) ****

It's a pleasure to find modern jazz that has the ability to excite ears that have been rewired by experimental music. Easily fitting that description, For My Mother, is the work of a group of musicians comfortable in both worlds, who met for the to play a festival in California. While the music skews to more modern jazz with a strong sense of swing and melody, it is not without exceptional moments of nontraditional and fiery playing.

The opener 'If You Call Me, Then I'll Call You' is exemplary - Moser's piano is work is at once accessible and full of unusual phrases and exepected twists. Her comping behind saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh is excellent, swirling in complexity until the two begin exchanging rapid atonal phrases over bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Vijay Andrson's infectious rhythm. Next up, 'Unfoldings' is another track that feels quite straightforward, yet has a subtle unsettling undertow. Throughout there are surprises, like the dense climax that the seemingly light-weight 'Dancing with the Sparrows' reaches or the rich harmonics from the base on the abstract opening of 'I Can Smell You Listening'.

An excellent album that leans more towards 'jazz' than what we typically cover, but well worth a listen.

Sarah Bernstein, Alexis Marcelo, Stuart Popejoy, Nick Podgurski - Prepolis (Minus Zero, 2017) ****

If it's experimental that you're going for, check out this electronics ripe recording. Heavy with abrasive textures in an alluring darkness, the opener 'Get Me the Medicine' begins with static and proceeds with a heavily processed violin and keyboard over a lurching rhythm. The half hour long improvisation goes through myriad changes, at times the mood lightens, but it's not long before say a disturbing vocal section materializes. Half way through, the whole piece has broken into short snippets - shards of sound - that fly past the ears. The shorter follow up, 'Not Your Corpus', begins deep in the place where nightmares are forged, replete with boiling cauldrons of acoustic/electric skronks. An acoustic piano is placed next to the ripping sheet metal of processed violin and bass, while the drums providing just the outlines of a discernible pattern.

The ever changing sonic landscape is mesmerizing in its evolution, and say a deep listen. It almost doesn't matter which instrument is which in this mesmerizing fear inducing dream factory, however, here is the staff who is hard at work:

Sarah Bernstein – violin/voice/effects
Alexis Marcelo – piano/keyboard/effects
Stuart Popejoy – electric bass/effects
Nick Podgurski – drums

Devin Hoff - Baile as Baile (Minus Zero, 2017) ****

Bassist Devin Hoff creates a sonic world all his own on this short solo recording. Starting off with a gently plucked melody, the simple sweet melody of 'Plain Songs 1 (the wind)', is overdubbed with a bowed melody that see-saws between the diatonic and the dissonant. After a part 2 and 3, a new theme emerges with far Eastern overtones ('Wey Lo') and then is followed by the Celtic -inged 'Witches Reel', which ending in an explosion of deep resonant tones. The song that wraps the album is possible the most effective, 'An Buachail Caol Dubh'. Hoff's delicate, but insistent, song is imbued with classical and folk sensibilities and the personal and powerful track is the crowning achievement of the EP.


Colin Green said...

If I’ve understood it correctly, the objectives of the label and the music – the means by which money is raised -- are independent. Obviously, worthy causes do not necessarily make for worthy music, and vice versa. If it was that simple, I could record an album entitled “An End to War, Famine, Poverty, Injustice, Hatred, Prejudice and People Generally Being Nasty To One Another” and I’d have a masterpiece on my hands.

Paul said...

I don't feel that the two were conflated here. The label is a way to support a cause.

Richard said...

Just snagged the Sarah Bernstein album and it's terrific, and as a transplanted American living in Canada, I'm happy to send some money back to a good cause in difficult times.

Dom Minasi said...

Thanks Paul for a great interview and making the public aware of a wonderful cause.


Unknown said...

Really disgusted that the music I love the most is now being politicized. It is especially self-righteous as if the viewpoint being espoused as it seems to be assumed automatically that no sane person could not possibly disagree with the "Cause" by someone who also has a passionate and considerable concern for others.

The assumption is that all those not in favor of the over-throw or the resistance is some sort of Neanderthal bigot is laughable and ignorant. Hey I just shut my mouth these days when I hear "poets" espousing murdering cops or whining about how horrible it is here in this country when I go to shows in NYC. I've actually gone to less and some of that is due to the negative vibe created by the politicization of the music. It is spirit sucking and counterproductive as it doesn't do anything except increase rage, hate and intolerance to and open exchange of ideas. Nobody wants my viewpoint so I'm not interested in hearing the continued diatribe of the failed policies of the past.

The asumption from this viewpoint is that there is only one way to help mitigate or start to solve the problems of the world and they are all from a left-wing perspective. In doing so someone such as myself who thinks in a different or alternate manner now I feel alienated from the music to some extent. I've long known most of the musicians and some of my heroes think differently but the music has always come first. I'm friendly with musicians and people who think in this manner but has always been in the background. Now I'm stuck with not buying any of these releases when I might have since I'm not interested in supporting planned parenthood. Keep in mind I'm not supporting ANY political causes - even those I agree with.

Anonymous said...

Let's not get too worked up over this, if you don't want to help out poor women you don't have too, if you don't want to listen to the music you don't have to.