On a rainy Chicago night, Gregg Bendian brought his Interzone ensemble into the historic Schuba’s Tavern in the city’s Wicker Park area. The small hall was perfect for the mostly acoustic band. The sound was crisp and clear, and full of details. The band was touring in support of its recently released third CD, Requiem For Jack Kirby. Kirby was the famed comic book artist who redefined the art form with his work on the X-Men, Spider Man, The Fantastic Four, and many others. Bendian's compositions are filled with little details, themes, and changes that are a perfect soundscape for Kirby’s drawings.
The first set was dedicated to playing the new recording. Opening with "Kirby’s Fourth World," orchestra bells and chiming guitar start things off ringing out through the air. Drummer Alex Cline comes in with brushes and the band is off swinging on the theme. Bendian brings a new slant to the vibes. While he has some be-bop leanings, it’s not like Milt Jackson or Red Norvo, who Interzone’s second CD, Myriad, was dedicated to. Having played both drums and vibes with master free jazz artists like Cecil Taylor, Peter Brötzmann, and Derek Bailey, Bendian brings a sense of the abstract to his playing and compositions. The band swings in a loping sort of way. Guitarist Nels Cline (twin brother to Alex) bends and sways, pulling notes out of his well worn guitar. His solo is filled with short staccato bursts of sound. Bassist Kermit Driscoll holds things together with a solid underpinning.
"New Gods" is an eclectic mix of styles. The drums roll around on top of unison vibes and guitar. Alex Cline is in constant motion coloring the music. His drumming is more textural than rhythmic. Driscoll’s arco bass then shifts the tone to a slow pace until Nels enters with a frenetic guitar solo. He is as much a tonemeister as anything, using his effects to generate showers of sound. While he plays with intensity, he is also capable of extreme delicacy. Bendian, hunched over his vibes, is a blur of motion with mallets flying. His solo is both percussive and melodic, building things to a climax.
"The Mother Box" opens with a beautiful vibe melody. Then vibes, and drums played with mallets, introduce a counterpoint theme that later switches to guitar and drums. The song is filled with short staccato bursts of sound from all the band members. This is as much about rhythmic fragments and texture as it is about melody. Bendian’s avant-garde side comes to the fore here, as echoes of Cecil Taylor’s discordant musings are heard.
"Teaneck In The Marvel Age" opens with a bass intro. Driscoll is lyrical with a big bodied tone. Things then alternate between a boppish statement and free improvisation where the band heads for uncharted territory. On one frenetic guitar solo, Nels pulls out all the stops. It’s easy to see why he also plays with the rock and noise crowd of Sonic Youth and Mike Watt.
"Air Above Zen La" changes pace with Alex setting up a march beat. He achieves a "trashy" sound by placing small cymbals on the drum heads. Bendian produces very sharp tones by using hard mallets and metal bars on the vibes. Nels uses a metal rod on his guitar strings, extracting metallic tones. The whole song sounds intense, loud, and industrial.
The second set starts with what may be Interzone's best song, "Sunblade Strafe the Continent," from their self-titled first release. It opens with Bendian bowing the vibe bars and Driscoll playing arco bass. There is a serene beauty to the sound. The band enters with Nels playing a hypnotic melody on slide guitar. The song is about mood as much as anything. The music is haunting, melancholy, and beautiful.
"Pattern Master," from their Myriad CD, was written for sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. Here the mood changes completely. Unison arpeggios and melodies provide a quick pace. Alex pushes things along, prodding his band mates with a sure hand. He is an adept drummer, part Tony Williams, part Jack DeJohnette, all rolled into his own unique style. Driscoll switches to electric bass and matches Cline’s drumming step by step.
Things slow down a bit with "Diaspora." Guitar and bass open at a slow, deliberate pace with vibes playing long, ringing notes. Alex colors the proceedings with mallets on his toms. Nels uses a volume pedal to create sweeping tones. The song is brooding in a haunting sort of way.
The concert closes with "Blood: Sassoon zi tavit." The intro alternates heavy, rapid chords with airy improvisation. Then behind an accented tom beat, the band plays short staccato bursts that interlock the different instruments. Alex moves to a slow paced heavy rock groove while his brother shows his manic guitar side. He plays distorted, feedback laden tones, using a metal egg whisk to whip things to a frenzy. This is their most rockish tune of the evening. The song keeps evolving as the pace picks up with both Gregg and Nels let out solos of rapid fire notes. Things come to a climax and then the air is still.
Interzone is a tight-knit ensemble that straddles the line between swinging, boppish free-jazz and driving, intricate, progressive rock. Bendian is a formidable composer able to pull off this musical amalgam. Check out their new CD (www.atavistic.com), Jack Kirby would be proud of it.