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Peter Zummo - Zummo with an X

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Artist: Peter Zummo

Album: Zummo with an X

Label: New World

Review date: Jan. 23, 2007

Peter Zummo should, in many ways, be a footnote’s footnote, being the trombonist who played for Arthur Russell. Sure, he has the pedigree, having studied with Roswell Rudd and Sam Rivers, and performed works by Rhys Chatham, Phil Niblock, Larry Polansky, Yasunao Tone, amongst others, but he’s easy to lose among the brighter lights (and brighter hypes) of the Downtown scene. But as this CD shows, his music is well worth investigating beyond his role as a sideman.

What is immediately striking about Zummo’s trombone playing is his tone - a soothing, expansive, bass-heavy sound that is just brassy enough to sound full but never enough to become blatty or overly bright. He is not one for virtuosic flourishes, content to communicate with individual notes, short melodic licks and simple multiphonics with just a touch of reverb. It’s interesting that he sought out Rudd for lessons, yet ended up very much Rudd’s opposite. He is, however, the perfect complement for Russell’s cello playing; they are both intensely human, simple yet deep, and intensely focused on melody. Even when neither is playing something overtly melodic (as on “Instruments” here), they still approach it like a melody.

Zummo With an X documents two of Zummo’s compositions from the 1980s along with an alternate take of a movement from one of the pieces. Zummo’s approach to composition is rooted in process-based minimalism and improvisation , in that he comes up with a concept for blocks of music, then lets the performers themselves come up with ways of realizing those ideas. “Instruments” is based on intervals, with each movement consisting of one type of interval. Each player is allowed to play the intervals at any rate they want and can change the rate at any point. The idea is fairly mundane, but it comes to life because the players don’t try to make it sound polished and perfect. Zummo and trumpeter Rik Albani occasionally struggle to hit the notes fast enough and Russell’s cello is occasionally harsh and sadly buried in the mix, but the whole thing has a spontaneity that would otherwise be lost. This is not a classical musician’s composition, and it’s better for it.

“Lateral Pass,” written as accompaniment for a Trisha Brown dance piece, takes that same kind of performer freedom and loosens up the material. Three of the four movements are more mood pieces than anything, centering around Russell’s voice and Zummo’s trombone. The standout, though, is the fourth movement, “Song VI,” which appears twice, first in a stripped down trio of Zummo, Russell and Bill Ruyle on tabla to start the disc, then as a quintet of that trio plus accordion and marimba in the context of “Lateral Pass." While both versions are impeccable, it is the first that really shines, sounding almost like an outtake from Russell’s Calling Out of Context. The marimba and accordion add wonderful details that fill out the arrangement, but they take away the sense of intimacy that Zummo and Russell so effortlessly create in the trio version. The two connect so seamlessly that it’s difficult to imagine one’s music without the other. Zummo has other releases and played in other groups, but none of those recordings has the warmth of this one.

By Dan Ruccia

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