The techniques of saxophonists like Ethiopian player Getatchew Mekurya and Texas tenors Gene Ammons and Tina Brooks, as well as the teachings of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, are just a few influences on Sam Hillmer and his group Zs. This prolific Brooklyn avant-garde ensemble has undergone numerous and drastic lineup changes over its 17 years. Originally a six-piece (see their 4-disc compilation Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002-2007), the band has recently been truncated down to a trio, with Hillmer still leading on sax in front of new drummer Greg Fox and new guitarist Patrick Higgins.
Balancing roles as an in-demand percussionist and music director at nonprofit arts space Pioneer Works, Fox—who has drummed for New York black-metal band Liturgy and Icelandic noise composer Ben Frost—has devoted his approach to the Moeller drumming technique: He hones in on the primal, hypnotic power of the snare and toms, the low-end of which substitutes for the bassist Zs lacks.
Higgins, whom Premier Guitar had called one of the best guitarists at SXSW 2013, infuses into the trio an approach that recalls the blunt, fetching melodies of ’60s surf rock—something he contrasts by suddenly altering the delay times on his pedals, or ramming against the fretboard for the purpose of unbridled, glitched-out dissonance. Higgins’ approach to Zs sounds a little different from Bachanalia, his 2015 album of classical guitar interpretations—with experimental leanings—on Bach.
Released the same year as Bachanalia, Zs’ excellent Xe solidified the new lineup. The album’s material had been live repertoire in the three years leading up to its release. One performance included a 2013 stop on eccentric local-access program The Chris Gethard Show (Amy Poehler was a special guest that episode), where they performed “Corp” and the title-track to swaying millennials and a guy dressed as a banana.
On July 6 at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn, Zs put on a special performance of improvisations as part of what they titled an “Immersive Projection Environment Set.” Their in-house projectionist, Laura Paris, displayed palm tree landscapes, ants crawling across dirt, a scrolling sidewalk and other natural world visuals on a loop throughout the night.
In addition to not playing Xe, Zs performed as a quartet, with accompaniment from New York producer Michael Beharie on electronics. Beharie’s solo work—his 2016 debut album Ray Like Morning is dancehall pop—doesn’t exactly recall the sound of Hillmer and company, but he’s a stalwart at local experimental hubs like Trans-Pecos, where he once shared a bill with Higgins (who was doing a solo guitar set that night). At Sunnyvale, Beharie supplied-live programmed percussion: low, crunchy rhythms akin to hip-hop, which occasionally filled in for Fox, who was busy droning out on his own modular synth.
Michael Beharie joined the group Zs for a performance at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn on July 6. (Photo: Dylan Hertzberg)
After all four members had perfected their respective stage setups, they began the slow-burning first improvisation. The delay that Higgins put on his guitar had a deliberately stifling effect, lasting for tiny intervals and suppressing the guitar so that each new note required intense picking in order to overcome such stifling. The overwhelming, assiduous strength Higgins instilled into each picking was palpable, as he sat hunched over and rocking in his chair, periodically surveilling his pedals.
Hillmer had his own chair, too, though because his setup was most frugal of the four (all he had was echo and reverb from the mixing console put on his sax), he had more bodily freedom than Higgins. The musical essence of everything would overtake him at times, and he would lunge forth from his chair, placing his knee up by the monitor while blaring out gnarly sax drones. From this position he’d slowly elevate so that he was bobbing atop the mist billowing from a nearby fog machine. His body was gone, only his beard and glasses and lips pursed around the reed were remotely distinguishable.
Sam Hillmer (foreground) performs against a backdrop by in-house projectionist Laura Parris. (Photo: Dylan Hertzberg)
In one passage, Higgins was riffing on something that sounded akin to his central melody in the Xe track “Corp,” and at any second it felt like they were going to launch into it. That wasn’t the case. The improvisations from their Sunnyvale set were, while reminiscent of their 2015 album, at the same time representative of yet another new direction for Zs, something that was logistically hinted at by the addition of Beharie.
It doesn’t seem like there’s concrete material yet under the quartet incarnation, nor is it clear when the lineup will be made official (as of writing they’ve yet to update their website and Facebook info), but the performance was an incredible rough draft indicating where the constantly morphing ensemble might possibly be going next. DB