Sometimes percussionist and composer Michael Zerang gets nostalgic for his early days, the late 70s, on Chicago's music scene. "Back then I think the scene was healthier, because the visual arts, performance art, and music were all part of the same scene. You'd go down to some loft on West Randolph, and there'd be sculpture and someone hanging paintings--but there'd also be bands like ours playing and performance art. It was all very underground, but it was really vital. I met lots of writers, poets, and theater people in addition to the musicians and dance people I already knew."
Zerang's taste has always been eclectic. Born in Edgewater, the son of an Assyrian father who'd migrated to Chicago from Iraq, he grew up around music, though it was seeing one of saxophonist Roland Kirk's last gigs when he was 16 that cemented his dedication to it. He never saw any chasm between traditional Middle Eastern music and jazz; his primary instrument remains the dumbek, a Middle Eastern hand drum, and he and his father and brother still perform in Kismet, a traditional Middle Eastern dance band. But his biggest obsession since the 70s has been improvised and experimental music--performing in ensembles and writing scores for theater and dance pieces, films, and performance art. He's had more than 90 commissions.
Perhaps best known as a member of Liof Munimula, the terrific improvised-music trio with Don Meckley and Daniel Scanlan that's nearing its 15th anniversary, Zerang has played with many ensembles, including the Neutrino Orchestra, Musica Menta, and the Vandermark Quartet, the late rock-tinged jazz combo that helped galvanize the free-jazz and experimental activity around town with its regular performances at HotHouse.
Now he's performing in a new quartet, Broken Wire, with Scanlan, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and keyboardist Jim Baker; he does duets with Baker; he has a trio with Baker and saxophonist Steve Nelson-Raney; he's part of the Neutrino Trio and the Quirt Quintet; and he plays in a frame-drum duo with Hamid Drake (their CD debut will be out soon on the local Okka Disc label). He's also scoring the upcoming Redmoon Theater production of Frankenstein (last year he scored the theater's Moby-Dick). In March he'll travel to Sweden, Finland, and Norway to perform and record with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson.
And he doesn't just write and play music. He organized the performance series at Link's Hall between 1985 and 1989, presenting people such as guitar improviser Derek Bailey and musical cutup Eugene Chadbourne and then-unknown performance artists like Lynn Book and Paula Killen as well as poetry readings with a populist slant before poetry slams took off. He programmed Club Lower Links for its first year and a half. And now he's programming every Thursday at Urbus Orbis.
He hadn't intended to take on another booking job. "I called [Urbus Orbis owner] Tom Handley and told him that I liked his back room and wondered if I could use it for a gig." Handley said OK, then asked Zerang to fill four Thursdays in October. Soon he'd filled every Thursday through March.
The intimate space has hosted performances by revered artists such as Gustafsson and New York free-jazz percussionist Jerome Cooper. But Zerang also wants it to be a place for adventurous musicians who rarely find a venue for their work. "I can give a platform to younger people who want to try something different," he says. "I'm not trying to be a curator. I have an open-door policy, the only caveat being that it should be music that's pushing some boundaries. Whether it's good or bad, whether it works or doesn't work, they have a venue to try things. With this series I'm trying to bring some people out of the woodwork, but really this only represents a sliver of what's going on in Chicago.
"I always had a fantasy that one day Chicago could be a real arts center like Paris in the 30s or New York in the 50s and 60s. It could easily happen. It's a big city, it's easier to live here, it's more spread out. But the mentality of the artists has to improve. If you're going to feel inferior, then you're going to be inferior."
The Experimental Music Series at Urbus Orbis, 1934 W. North, starts at 9 PM every Thursday; the cover is $6. If you picked up this paper on Thursday you can catch Zerang perform with Hamid Drake tonight. Next Thursday, February 8, will bring the Phenomenal String Quartet, with Scanlan, Lonberg-Holm, Bob Marsh, and Julie Pomerleau. Call 252-4446.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / J.B. Spector.