"Zero is six guys trying to fit into a phone booth at the same time... or maybe, into a bathtub."
Zero's music encompasses a vast variety of musical forms, ranging from jazz, fusion and funk to psychedelic rock, Latin rhythms and blues roots. It is a band of paradoxes - precise yet unstructured, technical yet soulful, roots-oriented yet experimental. A Zero piece can change instantly from a collection of unrelated fragments to a tight and together paragraph.
"We are six guys in a phone booth all listening to each other, but only one of us speaks at a time," adds Martin Fierro, sax player and spiritual leader. "Whoever is on the soapbox, we just listen to him and, musically, we hold an on-going dialogue."
Certainly, the ability to hear what the other band members are saying musically is a key element in Zero's improvisational sound.
"it's a lot of listening because the band always turns and goes different ways," explains Bobby Vega, the group's veteran bassist. "You have to be on your toes and have your ears on."
"It's like a million-mile-an-hour conversation up there at every moment," Anton says. "You have to just slip and slide without interrupting anybody."
Zero's latest effort, Chance In A Million, showcases the band's diverse influences. Released on its own Whirled Records label (as in "Visualize Whirled Peas"), it was recorded live during a three-night stint at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall in October of 1992. Along with Anton, Fierro and Vega, the album features virtuoso Steve Kimock on guitar, Judge Murphy on vocals and a host of keyboardist friends, including Vince Welnick of the Grateful Dead and Pete Sears of Hot Tuna. Chip Roland has recently stepped in full-time with the jazz/blues sounds of his Hammond B-3 organ.
The record also marks the first contributions from long-time Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Earlier records, Here Goes Nothin', Nothin' Goes Here and Go Hear Nothin' featured only instrumental cuts. The current live repertoire mixes these earlier instrumental forays with the newer vocal arrangements.
Anton recalls how the Hunter association came to pass at a Bay Area party about two-and-a-half years ago: "What Hunter said was, 'You guys can remain one of the most respected bands around by musicians, or else you can do some songs and maybe have a chance at making some money.'" At the time, the Dead were dormant, allowing Hunter to join with Anton and Kimock in the songwriting process.
"It's been a real interesting trip working with Hunter," says Anton. "The guy is really prolific. He does that one very specialized thing - putting words to chords. He's incredibly perceptive about where they go, and about rhythms of syllables and vowels versus consonants."
Of course, the addition of lyrics necessitates the addition of a vocalist. Enter Judge Murphy, whose vocal style Anton likens to "meat potatoes and gravel." Murphy admits that singing Hunter tunes was a big challenge at first, having been schooled in the blues.
"I enjoy singing these songs," Murphy says. "They're very personal and very passionate." In fact, Hunter composed the songs "Horses" and "End Of The World Blues" (both on Chance In A Million) with Murphy in mind. The latter tune, which Murphy calls his autobiography, is a "low-down and dirty" blues that Hunter devised after hearing Murphy's rendition of the classic "I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town."
The new album might as well be called "A Million Chances" in light of the band's knack for backing themselves into and out of faraway corners.
"Within the songs, there are mini-structures, which we leave from and come back to," notes Roland. "They're places from where we can take off and land."
Raised in Athens, Georgia, Roland cut his teeth playing soul music and Motown in Southern fraternities, and he brings his R&B roots to the Zero smorgasbord of sound. Ironically, it was an unfortunate incident three years ago that led him back to the purity of the Hammond organ.
"I went through the whole progression of synthesizers and all that stuff in the '70s and '80s," recalls Roland. "Then all my stuff was ripped off out of my van [on Fillmore Street in San Francisco]. Someone took my stuff out and left chicken bones in place of my equipment. It was the best thing that could have happened. I just went to my storage unit, got my Hammond out and never looked back."
Vega, the bassist, also contributes a rhythm 'n' blues slant to Zero. His impressive resume includes stints with Etta James, Sly Stone, Billy Preston, Paul Butterfield, Olatunji and Airto. Growing up in San Francisco, Vega was exposed to what he calls "a melting pot" of musical genres. At home, his uncle would blast Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix in the basement. Upstairs, his aunt would spin Smokey Robinson, James Brown and Stevie Wonder.
Vega describes his role in Zero as "trying to bring the whole band together, to have a foundation, to give support to whoever's soloing."
If Vega is the musical foundation, then Fierro is, without a doubt, the spiritual and philosophical foundation.
"I hope that somehow we can touch people in a very special way," Fierro explains. "If it's musically, that's cool. If it's spiritually, that's actually better."
Upon meeting Fierro - half-Mexican, half Apache - one cannot question the man's sincerity or his genuine love for music and people. "I've been playing music 37 years," he says, "and that's what it's always been about - just making people happy, making people feel good about themselves."
Included in those 37 years of performing are tenures with Mother Earth, Sir Douglas Quintet, Boz Scaggs, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jerry Garcia's Legion of Mary. Fierro's early influences were jazzmen John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Harold Land, though he will never forget his encounter with two other jazz legends nearly 30 years ago.
"I met Dizzy Gillespie in Mexico City in 1967, and I invited him and Thelonius Monk to come hear us play," he remembers. "Dizzy told me, 'You're from Texas, aren't you? I can hear it all over your playing.'" Fierro nodded, and Dizzy continued. "Do you still listen to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and all those people you used to listen to? Don't listen to them anymore! From now on, you walk with your own two feet."
Although Dizzy offered to find him jazz gigs in New York, Fierro opted for San Francisco and the Summer of Love. "I decided I wanted to be just a musician, not a jazz musician," he explains. "There was no way I could eliminate the jazz roots, but I just eliminated the name."
Fierro enjoys fond memories of his association with Jerry Garcia. After sitting in on the Grateful Dead's Wake Of The Flood and then touring with them, he spent about seven years with Garcia and Merl Saunders in the Legion of Mary during the early '70s.
"When I played with Garcia," he remembers, "even though we were making a lot of money, there were a lot of heavy things going on. Like John Lennon coming down to hang out with us in our dressing room at the Bottom Line [in New York City]. It was very strange times for me personally because I wasn't used to all the attention. Consequently, I tried to just stay out of the way."
Fierro followed this period with, what he calls, a period of "hibernation." Apparently, he was aware that Anton was on a quest to find and recruit him, but he also knew that "when they found me, it would be the right time."
At first, he resisted Zero's advances, claiming he was in retirement. Then Anton told him that John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service) and Steve Kimock would be playing with them. Fierro paused. "Maybe I better change my mind!" Fierro sat in the next night and has been a Zero man ever since.
Indeed, it was the prospect of teaming Kimock and Cipollina that served as an impetus for Zero's formation. Anton and Kimock had played with Dead alumni Keith and Donna Godchaux in the Heart Of Gold Band. After Keith's death in a car accident in 1981, Donna moved in a gospel direction, leaving Anton and Kimock to formulate their own concepts. The pair's first effort, the "Avatar Sessions" of 1983, became the core of the Zero instrumental material. When Cipollina joined the fray soon after, a dream of Anton's had been realized, only to turn into a nightmare upon Cipollina's death.
"He died six years ago, and a couple of days don't go by without somebody having a John Cipollina story," says Anton. He recalls an incident in which a female admirer of Cipollina's sneaked into his hotel room, stripped down and climbed into bed with him. A startled Cipollina inquired about her motives, and she replied, "I'm here for some super sex."
Cipollina: "I'll have the soup."
"He was such a unique character - the most enduring guy I've ever seen," adds Anton. On Chance In A Million, Cipollina receives credit for "electric soul guitar." Recently, Zero played an emotional tribute to him in Marin County, California on the anniversary of his passing. The inspired set included Cipollina favorites "Mona" and 'Who Do You Love." After hearing a tape of the show the next day, Anton swore "you can hear him playing."
Cipollina's death left Kimock as the sole guitar force, and Kimock remains the focal point of the Zero sound. He is an extremely versatile musician who has fused numerous styles to create his own original voice. He can shift from searing slide leads (as in their rendition of Dylan's "Highway 61") to smooth, melodic, spine-tingling runs in a heartbeat. He is as comfortable with the hard-core funk progressions of the Meters' "Rigormortis" as he is with K.C. Douglas's raunchy and rollicking "Mercury Blues." Kimock attains that often elusive tandem of thoughtfulness and technical mastery. The result is a potent combination of creativity, energy, soulfulness and precision.
Kimock scoffs at the notion of pinpointing his array of influences.
"I've been playing for 25 years," explains Kimock, "and every couple of days somebody influences me." He cites the second-generation electric bluesmen - Clapton, Hendrix and Johnny Winter - as early influences. Miles Davis' modal jazz period (circa 1958), with Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans, is still some of his favorite music.
"The real big influences are the people that you play with or the people that started you playing," Kimock is quick to add. "My aunt Dottie and my cousin Kenny really got me started playing. They're much bigger influences.
"My mom is a bigger influence on me than Allan Holdsworth on guitar! And as much as I love Cannonball Adderly's playing, Martin is more of an influence on me as a horn player than Cannonball. If I'm standing on stage playing, who am I going to be influenced by as a drummer - Philly Joe Jones or Greg Anton? My influence at that moment is Greg."
Kimock owns a dazzling array of classic guitars, using a ten-guitar rotation at Zero gigs. "Each one of them will push the thing in a different direction," he says. "It's not so much what I'm trying to play as it is what the guitar allows me to play." For example, some guitars are more responsive to soloing and bending notes, others to chord progressions. The system is designed to inspire creativity and diversity.
"They're all set up to offer a lot of physical resistance, all very difficult guitars to play," he notes. "It's a mistake to think you could make playing easier by making them easier to play."
Kimock is perpetually creating challenges for himself on stage, purposely digging himself into deep holes only to create a way out.
"It's about how clearly you're thinking," he asserts. "If the guitar does offer a lot of resistance, you're not able to physically overpower the thing. You have to mentally and spiritually overpower it in some fashion."
Behind Kimock's inventive work, Zero can swing from dreamy, New Age-type passages into funk grooves or harddriving rock seemingly without effort. Its style is a "planned spontaneity." Vega calls it, "controlled spilled water." Zero creates the illusion that its music "just sort of happens" when, in reality, there is considerable thought and effort.
Thus, a Zero audience becomes an active participant in the music's creation. The crowd, replete with tapers, spinners and positive vibes, is loyal and attentive. At a June show at New York's Wetlands Preserve, a formidable number had made the journey from Zero's Bay Area home base. The listeners and performers enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
Zero is a musician's band, a purist's band. It is forged through the band's total devotion to music and to their own friendship.
As for explaining all that is Zero in words, perhaps Roland, the band's newest face, says it best: 'That's what the Zero consciousness is - the lack of there being a word for it."
Like Robert Hunter writes in Zero's "Home On The Range": "Twenty parts reason, twenty parts rhyme ... If it comes out like a song, it's all right with me. If it sounds sweet and strong, save the recipe."
Relix, October 1994, Vol. ? No. ?
[Many thanks to Rosannah for sending me a copy of these pages.]