Peter Zummo’s enigmatic take on minimalism flourished in the wake of the highly influential “downtown” experimental scene of 1970s New York City. His compositions built upon the strict aesthetic ideals of early minimalism and expanded them to encompass elements of jazz and world music. Classically trained on a variety of instruments, Zummo has garnered acclaim for his distinct style of trombone playing and challenging compositions. His longtime musical apprenticeship under master-teacher Carmine Caruso solidified his playing technique early in his career, ultimately allowing him to explore the instrument’s most polarizing tonal extremes.

Zummo with an X was first released in 1985 and marked the first formal compilation of Zummo recordings. The LP is comprised of three different compositions which illuminate the many musical sides of its creator.

The album begins with 1985’s “Song IV (trio)” which captures a hypnotic improvisation between an unlikely trio of tabla, trombone and cello. Bill Ruyle’s tabla playing is precise and steady, reining in Zummo’s free-form flights of fancy. His trombone technique is unpredictable and stunning in its versatility, shifting between brilliant bursts of melody and languid, crackling drones. The timing of his entrances are chosen with the utmost care and serve as unpredictable detours from the methodical pulse of the tabla and cello.

Cellist Arthur Russell interjects jagged tonal clusters into the spiraling grove, and his electronically sculpted tone provides pleasing new textures throughout the composition’s 20-minute duration. The fact that Arthur Russel – known primarily for his remarkable disco/pop/classical compositions – appears on Zummo with an X is reason enough to examine these recordings; his musical approach was a clear influence on Zummo during this period and the 1980s art-music scene owes much to his pioneering recordings.

“Instruments” is X’s second composition and proves to be its least revelatory. It’s comprised of seven movements, each chronicling a different intervallic musical concept (sixths, half-steps, etc.). Rik Albani’s trumpet joins the trio of Ruyle (now on marimba), Russell and Zummo as they meander through the brief musical exercises. There’s a distinctly humorous tone to the recordings as each musician falls slightly out of unison with one another, developing new syncopations and rhythmic interactions. The individual movements are engaging as free-standing mini recordings but begin to grow tedious when heard in succession.

At the time of the recording Zummo was heavily influenced by the Fluxus movement of the ’60s and ’70s and the freedom of their approach to music, art and creative expression. In a 2006 interview for X’s liner notes, Zummo reveals the theoretical intentions behind the piece: “Instruments was my answer to a militaristic sort of minimalism that had become popular at the time. I had a much freer-flowing notion.”

The final component of Zummo with an X is his brilliant score to Trisha Brown’s dance “Lateral Pass.” Here Zummo is adventurous and bold in his musical choices, electing a quintet of amplified cello, accordion, marimba, various percussion and trombone. The dance’s three movements pulsate with an otherworldly energy lead primarily by Russell’s breathy vocal exchanges and cello drones. The instruments blend together, but remain distinct in their musical roles. The addition of Guy Klucevsek’s accordion and Mustafa Ahmed’s startling percussion hits allow “Lateral Pass” to carve out a sonic niche which contrasts distinctly with the rest of the album’s unified, jazz-based texture.

The New World Records reissue of X contains a bonus rendition of “Song IV” played by Zummo’s quintet from “Lateral Pass” as well as extensive liner notes chronicling each composition. His visionary arrangements and idiosyncratic playing technique are showcased in each portion of the album. Zummo with an X is a wonderful introduction to Peter Zummo and proves that he’s a master of small-ensemble minimalism.

Peter Zummo

Zummo with an X (Reissue)

New World

Rating:4 out of 5 stars

Avant-disco composer Arthur Russell: a
select discography

First Thought Best Thought (2006): Recent compilation by Audika Records which re-releases his Instrumentals series and Tower of Meaning, as well as some previously unavailable rarities.

The World of Arthur Russell (2004): Great introductory album which culls most of his best dance singles and a few abstract works.

Tower of Meaning (1983): Extended avant composition conducted by the wonderful singer/composer Julius Eastman.

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