PERSONNEL: Zach Phillips (wurlitzer elec piano, voice) Derek Baron (flute, voice) Ayla Combes (voice), Stephen Cooper (elec. Bass), Unknown (elec. guitar), Louisa deButts (voice–reading), Christopher Forgues (voice–reading), Miguel Gallego (acoustic guitar), Sarah Goldfarb (cello), Alexis Graman (voice–reading), Levon Henry (tenor saxophone), Will Henriksen (violin) Paige Johnson-Brown (elec. gtr, voice), Adrian Knight (dx7 synthesizer) Mike Kolb (microkorg synthesizer), Calvin LeCompte (voice), Asprey Liu (voice), Amelia Moyer-Perez (voice), Billy McShane (alto saxophone), Rebecca Rom-Frank (voice–reading), Sarah Smith (voice–lead), Austin Vaughn (drum kit), Marlon Cherry (percussion), Leah Wishnia (voice)
SET LIST: Leave Some For Writing (Phillips/S. Smith), Crooks Like Children (Phillips), Duke On The Beach (Phillips/S.Smith), Wheel of the Law (K.Smith), Deaths and Disappearances (Phillips), Alibi (Phillips), Real Name James (Phillips), Bring Me To Silence (Phillips), Now I Want The Following Home (Phillips), Tout Suite (Phillips)
HIGHLIGHTS: “Real Name James” featured strong electric bass playing from Stephe Cooper, whose own band Cloud Becomes Your Hand has also been making waves.
Zach Phillips’s new project “Saxifrage” is a self-described “20-30 piece quiet group” named after a flower. Their collective style was heard at The Glove in Bushwick, a venue inside an unmarked door near the Gates J/M/Z station.
Phillips is the son of Louisiana-born poet Cleopatra Mathis and filmmaker/screenwriter William F. Phillips. He’s from New Hampshire originally but spent many years living and working in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he studied and worked with the jazz guitarist and composer Christopher Weisman, whose polytonal folk-jazz aesthetic is a clear influence on Phillips’s current output.
The group played Phillips’s own hard-to-categorize compositions and one cover by the neo-psychedelia songwriter Kendra Smith. The group’s sound, songs, and ethos are connected to Phillips’s recent recording project Martyr Group (which features him singing and playing Wurlitzer on his own songs with backing from four jazz-trained guitarists/bassists) and older songs from the now-defunct band Blanche Blanche Blanche (co-led with vocalist Sarah Smith who also joined Saxifrage on two songs). This music is dense, wide-ranging and somewhere in the sphere of jazz-literate freak pop.
Phillips described this particular performance as a more collective, jazz-influenced project than his previous bands and recordings. While there was a core group of musicians, there was also an open invitation to bring friends and collaborators to join the evening if they agreed to learn the music. Demos and charts were sent out beforehand and the group rehearsed briefly before the show.
The group of 24 performed with the lights on so that the group could read their stapled packets. Performers spilled into the audience, with only Phillips’s core band and Wurlitzer on the stage. Four “readers” were stationed throughout the room with microphones and tasked with reading disconcerting poetry between each song.
The set began with “Leave Some For Writing,” an up-tempo, largely diatonic song with a fast saxophone melody break played by Levon Henry and Billy McShane. Sarah Smith sang two numbers with the group which she co-wrote with Phillips. From the Blanche Blanche Blanche repertoire, “Duke On The Beach” featured a complicated, poly-metric structure with major seventh chords moving in strange, often chromatic ways. “Crooks Like Children” was built on a beautifully gnarly rising chord progression on the keyboard with a chanting rap verse. “Deaths and Disappearances” involved dissonant suspended poly-chords. “Alibi” was catchy and filled with Phillips’s signature brand of anti-jazz harmony. “Bring Me To Silence” was a saccharine love song with an anthemic chorus melody and asymmetrical harmonic rhythm, upheld nicely by Austin Vaughn on the drum kit and Marlon Cherry on percussion. (Cherry surely knows his Airto.) “Now I Want The Following Home” was dreamy and almost psychedelic; the verse chords sounded impressionistic and distinctly American (Ravel meets Ariel Pink with a side of Carla Bley?), although the chorus had — no joke — a standard II/V/I progression. On top of everything else, there was a guitarist who I couldn’t see on stage playing what sounded like synth guitar through a tremolo pedal, transgressing fairly left-field bebop lines. (Leo Blevins with Sun Ra?)
The ballad “Tout Suite” was a bittersweet bookend to a twisted evening of forward-thinking, genre-warping music.
— by Tom Csatari