The trombonist and Arthur Russell collaborator reinvents the cult composer’s work with an experimental sextet
8 October 2014
’Let’s just say, I can sometimes have an attitude about the cellist who’s going to play Arthur Russell’s music. When we were choosing the right musician, I think it’s fair to say I expressed a few opinions,’ Peter Zummo confesses, laughing quietly down the phone from his home in Staten Island, New York.
As someone who worked and shared a music studio with the cult composer – the one-off, mysterious genius that was avant-garde / proto-disco producer / musician Arthur Russell – Zummo is understandably a bit picky about anyone attempting to recreate the distinct cello sound of his friend. ‘It was never just about sentimentality with Arthur, he played with this raw energy and supreme intelligence, it’s important not to get the wrong interpretation of that.’
But Zummo – himself a noted experimental composer and trombonist – is giving the seal of approval to Oliver Coates, the cellist who’ll join him onstage, alongside Ernie Brooks (guitar) and Bill Ruyle (hammer dulcimer, percussion) with live beats and processing from JD Twitch and Bass Clef. As a half American, half British sextet, they plan to play live over selected tracks from Russell’s vast back catalogue.
‘Keith [McIvor, Glasgow’s JD Twitch] has isolated the rhythm of ‘Is It All Over My Face’, for example. He’s taken an extended sample and remixed it – that will be the foundation that we play live on top of.’ While Zummo is keen ‘to check back in with the original songs’, he also thinks Russell, himself an endless reshaper (there were 40 tapes with mixes of the same song found in his apartment when he died), would want them to push the sound forward. ‘He moved fast, he didn’t believe in repeating himself. If he was alive today, he’d be into totally different stuff, so I think it’s entirely appropriate for us to rework his stuff, rather than spin out the same concept.’
Although Zummo initially wasn’t keen to get involved in the growing Russell revival following his death in 1992 (‘I figured we should let him rest in peace!’), he is pleased he eventually let himself be talked into it. Zummo featured on 2011’s debut album from Arthur’s Landing – a collective of ‘Russell alumni’ – musicians who’d all worked with him at some point, on his more introspective, acoustic work (World Of Echo) or his pioneering disco projects (as Loose Joints and Dinosaur L). Arthur’s Landing visited Scotland that year to play the Tramway alongside Chris and Cosey, curated by Optimo DJ Keith McIvor. McIvor first got in touch with Zummo, asking if he could re-release his Zummo With an X, a gorgeous record of Zummo’s from 1981, featuring him on trombone, Russell on cello and Bill Ruyle on tabla. ‘I took over mastertapes with me, and Keith ended up putting the record out on Optimo. From there I seemed to start building up a lovely bunch of UK contacts.’
And so it is that Zummo finds himself, four years later, returning to Scotland.
‘Some people find it odd to have live instruments playing over a pre-recorded track, but that’s exactly how Arthur used to perform, back in nightclubs in New York in the 70s and 80s. If he wanted to create street level interest, he’d go into a dance club, do a cameo performance, with him singing, or playing cello, or with a guest vocalist over a track that he’d prepared.’
‘It’s the same now, if the rhythm is tight enough, then the trombone can just float on top.’
Summerhall, Edinburgh, Thu 16 Oct.