This past spring I got the chance to see Kimbra play in Denver at the Bluebird Theater, a show which I documented in this article. Her dynamic and colorful show impressed me at that time, partially because of her songwriting prowess and partially because of her versatile backing band. As she fiddled with an impressive stack of synthesizer and drum loops in the foreground, the two men behind her laid out a groove-filled atmosphere that elevated the songs into spaces that were both danceable and thought-provoking. Though they were overshadowed by the pop spectacle of the concert and the vibrant personality of Kimbra, I knew these were impressive musicians in their own right, and resolved to keep an eye on them.
One of those men, I found out, is named Spencer Zahn. A few months after the concert I was glad to see his name pop up on Spotify, in the middle of one of those “Release Radar” playlists they make for you every week. Along with a few singles he’d recently put out, the news was that he was releasing a full-length album of his own. “People of the Dawn” finally made its debut in September, featuring ten songs twisting and turning through worlds of free jazz and dark electronic ambience.
Zahn, a New York musician, found his place in the city by becoming a student of Charlie Haden, the legendary jazz bassist who passed in 2014. Inspired by the spiritual quest that Haden embodied in his playing, Zahn set out to incorporate the truth-seeking improvisational spirit of Haden and his contemporaries Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry into his next album. One way he did this was by taking cues from the revolutionary bass player’s ability to place the instrument in the foreground of an arrangement, bringing out a latent melodic element normally underutilized in the instrument.
To fulfill his vision for such an album, Zahn found a collaborator in Dave Harrington, known for playing in the electronic duo Darkside along with Nicolas Jaar. Through the intimacy of collaboration, Zahn and Harrington found a sound together that mixed together electronica and jazz, one that granted each of them space to work off of each other. You can see the interplay of Zahn’s bass and Harrington’s synth in every song. Throughout the album, bass melodies emerge out of thick haze of synthetic emotion, one that permeates the sonic landscape and informs the structure as the song goes along.
This kind of electronic experimentation, defined by a combination of programmed synthesizers and acoustic instrumentation, is becoming a powerful tool for experimentation in today’s music scenes. Just last year in Portland I saw two groups that were pushing their sounds in that direction and finding unique sonic landscapes in the process. Opening up the festivities that night was Golden Retriever, which alchemized saxophone and clarinet with electronic sounds, crafting an atmosphere that ebbed and flowed dramatically between darkness and light. The other was the vaporwave-associated group Visible Cloaks, which headlined the evening with an esoteric mix of sampled voices and rhythmic synth work, accompanied by several acoustic instruments including a flute.
Occasionally Haden’s influence seeps into Zahn’s otherwise futuristic sound. “Deep Breath” finds Zahn playing double bass over the constant throb of a synth bass. This piece finds strength in its attachment to the sound of jazz, almost treating the synth line as a new ground to work on top of, instead of the silent canvas in which a typical jazz improvisation would build itself around. It’s fertile ground for improvisation, and Zahn makes great use of it.
In an interview with the Vinyl Factory, Spencer talked more in depth about what improvisation means to him: “Improvisation is about listening and being in the moment. It’s about being open to adapting to what the music is doing around you.”
“People of the Dawn” can be challenging at times. Some of the sonic landscapes (the seemingly best way to describe them) are so full of grit and grime that they begin to teeter on the edge of atonal music. This contrast, especially when you arrive back at more traditional jazz chord structures or to a particularly beautiful stretch of ambience (perhaps akin to a field of golden wheat glowing in the sunshine), grants you a feeling of feeling of a relief at making it through the darkness. Viewed in the context of a storytelling technique, it makes powerful sense, though as a standalone song tracks like “Back Down the Light” suffer.
Other tracks are jaw-droppingly beautiful. “Cyanotype” is the sort of song you can bliss out to with your headphones on, letting the sounds invite you deeper and deeper into its world. The oscillation of the synth and the minimal instrumentation are a well crafted geography, one that lets you view it from every angle, whether that’s from the deepest pit of darkness or in a sun-glazed field at dawn. With Zahn you get the whole sonic story without a filter, one that delights in its duality.