Zubot Takes Artistic Gambles

What was he doing in there? When I called local string wizard Jesse Zubot in late October, Toronto drummer Jean Martin just happened to be hanging out in his living room, and midway through our telephone conversation Seattle bassist Keith Lowe turned up at the door. Given that Martin is one of the most imaginative percussionists in Canada and that Lowe's track record includes sessions with guitar genius Bill Frisell and mercurial art-pop singer David Sylvian, I imagined, at first, that the multitalented fiddler and mandolinist was assembling some kind of improvisational supergroup.

The truth proved slightly more mundane than that, however. Martin was in town because he had a Vancouver New Music gig with Idiolalla, the trio he shares with vocalist partner Christine Duncan and their friend, DB Boyko. Lowe, in turn, was here to join Zubot and long-time crony Steve Dawson in blues singer Jim Byrnes's acoustic band. But the popular group wasn't playing the Yale or the Cultch or the Commodore. Instead, Byrnes and crew planned on shuffling through their low-down blues in front of the high-stakes gamblers at Richmond's River Rock Casino.

All in a working musician's day, it seems. Or maybe not.

"It is kinda weird playing in that place," the soft-spoken Zubot allowed. "Those slot machines make that weird high-frequency sound that's constantly going off the whole time you're playing....It drives me insane."

Insane or otherwise, Zubot has so far managed to avoid the other hazard associated with casino work: blowing one's paycheque at the roulette wheel. "I've never gambled in my life, so I don't really have that problem," he said. "I just can't understand why I would want to."

The prairie-bred musician wasn't telling the whole story, however. He might keep a firm grip on his cash, but he's not above taking the occasional artistic gamble--like the bet he took when assembling the first record with his new band, LaConnor, which made its Vancouver debut at the Western Front on October 30.

The trio's self-titled disc--released on Zubot's own Drip Audio imprint--is a loose but entertaining collection of largely improvised pieces, and it sounds like it was put together over the course of a couple of pleasant days in the recording studio. But Zubot, Martin, and clarinetist Franí§ois Houle didn't have that luxury. Instead, thanks to the wonders of computer-based recording technology, the disc was completed without the three ever having to be in the same place at the same time.

"We basically just did everything in our apartments and sent each other the files," Zubot explained. "Franí§ois and I did pretty much everything first and kind of came up with a bunch of stuff, and then we sent the whole thing to Jean in Toronto. He basically just played on top of everything and tried to add some stuff to it. He did some mixes, too, and then he sent the mixes back to us. The only time we actually went into the studio was at that point; Franí§ois and I went into the studio for one evening to do some final fiddle-and-clarinet improv moments, which we played together on top of what Jean had done."

Despite its piecemeal creation, LaConnor reveals that Zubot, Martin, and Houle are very much on the same wavelength. The 14-song disc is a collection of sonic landscapes that range from the sweet to the sinister: it's more melodic than might be expected from three improv veterans, but it also incorporates found sound, passages of sheer noise, hints of chamber music, and, on the dreamy "Interlude #2", a guest vocal from Duncan.

One thing it is not is overly intellectualized. Houle, in particular, is fond of using elaborate conceptual strategies in his solo work, but LaConnor sounds like 21st-century folk music--if you take into account that its creators are fairly strange folk.

"I would definitely say that's part of what that album is about," Zubot divulged, responding to my suggestion that he and his bandmates are exploring a more whimsical brand of improvisation than they've worked with in the past. "But I would also say that mainly it just kind of happened like that. There wasn't too much thought as to, like, 'We should make a nice-sounding piece.' It just kinda happened."

That may be true, but with performers this skilled and generous, even their most casual undertakings ring like sweet music--to these ears, at any rate.