Back in July of last year, Unum: For Improvised Music and Performance premiered in a Minneapolis art space to exactly one audience member. That event, featuring solo reeds followed by duets for piano and contrabass, probably would have happened with no audience at all. For the musicians in this ongoing series of free-jazz improvisation, a chance to play is a chance to make something they've never heard before. If someone is out there listening, that's icing.
Since its obscure birth, Unum (see: "E Pluribus...") has attracted a core of devout fans to attend the biweekly Sunday performances at Gus Lucky's, the quirky gallery tucked in the commercial hodgepodge of East Lake Street. The gradual growth of this series, along with another called JT's Jazz Implosion (Mondays at the Turf Club), spotlights a modest flowering of improv music in the Twin Cities. At a time when Ken Burns's televised jazz elegy has codified a nostalgia-clouded history of the art form, and when Happy Apple may seem the lone option for local avant jazz, Unum hopes to find a place for experimental musicians who aren't afraid to lull and think in the midst of a sonic riot.
Conceived and most often curated by Davu Seru, the series has imported a few acts like the French-Vietnamese percussionist Le Quan Ninh or showcased locals like the cello-guitar duo Jigsaw. Unum's staple food, however, has been a coterie of Twin Cities regulars who appear in mutable configurations. Mostly peers of the precocious 22-year-old Seru, this crew shares a serious, studious attitude toward the music ("creative discipline," Seru calls it), and often practices together offstage.
"You try to start from nothing," Seru explained at Gus Lucky's a few days after a recent Sunday show. "No structure or tradition, nothing but a question: What is sound? What is silence? And what are the possible permutations between them?"
Some answers had been offered at the latest Unum performance, which saw a quartet of players weaving a multifarious soundscape while standing in front of an abstract red slab hung on the back wall. The physical manifestations of the music made for an enthralling narrative, each player searching, sometimes calmly, sometimes maniacally, for his next sound. To wit: Leaning into his contrabass, Andrew Lafkas might attack its wooden body with a bow, pause, then shuffle his fingers slowly along the heavy strings, initiating a small parade of thumps and scratches. Meanwhile, Patrick Crossland shoulders his trombone like a delicate grenade launcher, sways from heel to toe, then lets loose a spray of brassy moans and squeaks. Sitting on a stool before a battered piano, a hunched Alan Ernst claws sporadically at keys as if trying to get underneath them, sending slightly warped tones into the room's thickening sound fabric. Filling out this evening's unit is Davu Seru on percussion, one moment rolling a tympanum almost inaudibly with soft-headed mallets, then running pell-mell over smaller skins with chopsticks, clacking metal rims along the way.
Watching Seru--a barefooted jumble of knees and elbows--is especially spellbinding because he uses such eclectic instrumentation, including an array of little rhythmic wonders he keeps piled on a nearby coffee table. It doesn't seem to matter what or how he plays, as long as it fits into the spontaneous composition, even when that means slapping a Tibetan singing bowl with a brush, or rubbing a necklace of nut shells against a crash cymbal, or dropping a cast-iron skillet on the floor. This kind of creativity informs all the musicians and what results is an ever-morphing texture, everyone listening for new ways to add to (or subtract from) the whole, moving unpredictably, twisting torsos, flailing appendages, contorting faces, or suddenly falling into paralysis. Sometimes the instruments seem to be playing the players, and what's heard might be defined by what's not heard.
Which is to say that jazz that comes this free has a near Zen quality to it. However earnest these improvisers might be about discovering uncharted aural states, Seru readily concedes that "as long as you have a brain, you can't get beyond structure." He takes a similarly pragmatic view in addressing the pressures of musical influence and tradition. Lately he's been on a jag with modern avant-garde composers like Morton Feldman, and he's usually searching for good "world music," he says, while cringing at that genre name. As for jazz, he can bow his head to post-bop icons like Coltrane, but Seru has a particular affinity for players who carve out more breathing room, like those involved with Chicago's legendary collective AACM.
Seru began teeth-cutting on bebop standards at age 18, returning avidly to drumming after having bashed around his stepfather's kit while growing up in north Minneapolis. Late in 1998 Seru entered the world of Gus Lucky's, performing with a group called Mooter as part of the gallery's first public musical event. There he connected with curator Jon Whitney, who envisioned a more expansive use of the space, and has since presented, with his partner Veronica del Carmen, an admirably wide scope of art events, including film, spoken word, and dance. One of Whitney's curatorial babies is a series called Item: Prepared Solo Instrument which draws from the ideas of John Cage and invites any comer to prepare a sound instrument out of any materials imaginable, including one's own body, and perform on it at the event. A recent contraption of his own involved a man-size paper cone connected to a huge faux stylus rigged up to scrape sandpaper and other abrasive material spinning on a beat-up phonograph.
Gus Lucky's has become, it appears, a lab for artistic inquiry, and it was partly this atmosphere that pulled Seru back from Chicago, where he'd spent a year playing with various free improvisers, including members of the AACM. Whitney was eager to offer a home to Unum, which has become, he says, a kind of centerpiece for the gallery's performance efforts. Seru aspires to continue expanding the imaginative range of Unum. Already, the local granddaddy of out jazz, Milo Fine, is an ardent supporter and frequent performer in the series. And Jon Morgan, impresario of Minneapolis's Meniscus label, whose niche is improvisational music drawn from around the world, has curated a number of Unum events. Of course, Seru also wants to continue broadening the audience, although it's clear that doing so won't mean watering down the music.
After one performance, Seru recalls, a woman in attendance told him, "I can't say I liked it, but I have no doubt you guys are good." That she was paying enough attention to be displeased strikes Seru as a high compliment.