Zummo, born in 1948, is a Wesleyan graduate who relocated to New York City in 1975. A trumpet player who accidentally took up trombone in order to give lessons at a prep school, Zummo eagerly explored the new instrument and the idiosyncratic possibilities its slide and mouthpiece opened up for him. He began listening assiduously to greats like James Fulkerson and took up studies with free jazz legend Roswell Rudd, who taught Zummo "chromatic improvisation" and "[trombone] cyclonics", as well as "improvising without moving the slide," which would greatly influence Zummo's work with circular breathing and droning forms of composition. "His playing flipped me out," says Zummo. "[He taught me] to make as much music as you can within a severe restriction."1
This is the basis of the Instruments suite (1980) presented here, which uses Zummo on trombone, Russell on cello, Rik Albani on trumpet, and Bill Ruyle on marimba. The idea is fairly straightforward: set phrases within various scale systems are played by the performers at speeds of their own choosing, in free, unmetered time. Far from being a concept that's more fun on paper than heard through speakers, Instruments offers the opposite. It takes a very bland concept that only excites when fed through the individual personalities of the players. Zummo's tone is warm and playful on tunes like "Whole Steps", "Sevenths", and "Chromatic Fourths", melancholy and wistful on "Unisons" and "Four Notes, Large Intervals". The simple lines that phase in and out of each other form beautifully interlocking patterns, reminding the listener that the music you play isn't quite as important as how you play it.
The compositions that make up Lateral Pass (1985) were scored for a dance by Trisha Brown with a set by Nancy Graves that featured "neon-ish blobs that came down from above in different areas." This element of futuristic gaudiness informs the four songs in this brief suite, beginning with Russell's ominous cello and vocals working in unison, before Zummo ghosts in with his Harmon mute to create a wavery, synth-like backdrop. "Slow Heart" involves complex interweavings between Zummo's simple, throaty riffs and the ethereal accordion of Guy Klucevsek, Mustafa Ahmed's shimmery percussion, Russell's bowed phrases, and Ruyle's marimba; it's a case of the sum being more than its parts, as the melody seems to be spaced over a wide range of instruments, each contributing its small part to the larger tapestry. "Song VI" begins with a rather alien-sounding brass effect from Zummo, a distorted oscillation that gives the rest of the ensemble a sense of urgency heard in their surging, stuttering playing. The entire suite could be the soundtrack to a noir film set on Mars, or an alternate score to Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville.
Lateral Pass concludes with the composition "Song IV", heard for the first time in a previously unreleased quartet version with Zummo, Russell, Ruyle and Klucevsek stretching out for fifteen blissful minutes. Ruyle lays down a steady tabla beat while Russell's voice floats by and Zummo spits out hip trombone lines, Rudd-style -- "This coolness," as Zummo dubs it. Its best moments feature the trombone, marimba and accordion dancing around each other in repetitive, semi-improvised phrases, complementing one member's fiery lick with an appropriate drone or a new rhythmic layer. It finishes beautifully with slow, extended surges of accordion and trombone multiphonics played together. The better-known trio version of "Song IV", which pares the group down to Zummo, Russell and Ruyle, is very similar but achieves a warmth not quite present on the first take, with Russell filling the space with scraped phrases and electronically treated vocals. Those small, beautifully circular trombone melodies, the uncanny effect produced by the tabla/cello rhythm section (blurring together into one sonorous whole), continually stripped to its bare essentials by the piece's end... Zummo's music takes you out of the everyday into a world where notes float by in free time and magical connections are made to create oddly brilliant tone colorings. Because, says the composer, "ultimate discontinuity is not possible within the body. The music comes out organic and will have a flow, no matter what."
1 All quotes taken from an August 24, 2006 interview with Peter Zummo included in "Blue" Gene Tyranny's liner notes to Zummo With an X (available as a PDF on New World's website).
Peter Zummo - Song VI.mp3 (192 kbps, 6.4 mb)
Peter Zummo - Zummo With an X (New World, 2006; 87.6 mb)