Were you to isolate the je ne sais quoi of Chicago music, you might identify an openness among its musicians to experiment. Chicago trio ZRL (Zachary Good, clarinet, recorder; Ryan Packard, percussion, electronics; Lia Kohl, cello), whose improvised music suggests a striking range of musical idioms, extends this lineage. Individually, their work runs broad and deep, and prioritizes improvisation as a crucial part of their creative practices. The three are highly regarded composers, instrumentalists and arrangers, and have collaborated with artists including International Contemporary Ensemble, Makaya McCraven, Whitney, Circuit des Yeux, and Natural Information Society. Our Savings, their new album and first LP, draws on the spirit of such collaborations, bringing together classical frameworks and sonic explorations, sliding from acoustic ambience to cacophonous clatter to quietly virtuosic displays of musical invention.
ZRL recorded Our Savings during a residency at Edgar Miller’s Glasner Studio in Chicago, and the album draws influence from the space in which it was recorded: a cavernous room, trimmed with stained glass, called the Garden of Paradise. Close considerations reveal Easter eggs throughout: wild creatures living in windows and ceiling beams, scrap tile lining a fireplace. This freespirited blend is characteristic of Miller, who produced hundreds of commercial commissions, many in Chicago and its environs, and was highly regarded in his time as a master of seemingly any medium: printmaking, painting, woodwork, batik, graphic design, cutlery, stained glass. Like Miller, ZRL works without sketches, synthesizing a broad array of creative lineages and approaches. Together, the trio’s instruments wash, crash, sprint, glide and divide, darting around and between each other, like they’re playing hide-and-seek.
Even in a space as generative as the Glasner, the challenges of focused group improvisation remained. “Our solution,” says the trio, “was to treat each take as a performance, interspersing recording with crowding in the tiny kitchen to simulate a greenroom and filing out to the ‘stage.’” The results are playful and textural yet austere, often evoking other sound sources entirely. “Recent Ornithology,” insistent and jarring, evokes bagpipes, sirens, busted windshield wipers. Between “Daylight Savings” and “Remarkable Savings,” Good oscillates between soft drones and piercing, frenetic octaval hurdles, recalling ice cream trucks and baseball cards in bicycle spokes. Meanwhile, “Our Savings” conjures Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning presented by an outer space ensemble; as Packard’s electronics collide with his bandmates’ chordal drones, Kohl’s bowing quickens and disintegrates, like a rocket on reentry.
The band approached recording with a visual quality: “We were throwing a moment at the wall and seeing what shapes we could make.” On occasion, their instruments trade roles: on “ATM” or “Butterish,” Kohl’s bowing takes on a percussive quality, while Packard charts melodic movement and Good’s clarinet evokes a cello or synthesized sound wave. ZRL’s music incorporates the sounds of their environment into their considerations: someone power washing the building next door, a flock of birds. There’s a clear parallel between their album and Miller’s work, about which, in 1932, Architecture magazine wrote that “the composition emerges full-blown, with superb finish, from the material itself.” No surprise that Our Savings emerged in much the same way. “We were in our own worlds, often totally in sync, often creating spaces unknown to us at the time, conjuring objects and colors and references that we only hear later, now, with you.”