In the late Eighties and early Nineties, mutts thrived in New York. Bands like Curlew, Mofongo, The Scene Is Now, and V-Effect were descendants of all countries and none. Their music held traces of jazz harmony, prog-rock structures, the unpredictable accelerants of free improvisation, noise, melody, and force. As the 21st century faded into view, structurally tricky forms faded out as referents for live bands. Complexity didn’t pair with the simultaneous rise of retro and laptops, both of which favor grids and repetition. The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem were adept at wringing new juice out of simple motifs. As for laptops, the list is roughly: everyone.
The bias in favor of the minimal has lessened as more analog, real-time hybrids appear. Thank Los Angeles for a push here; Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington have done extensive legwork putting jazz back into view for younger listeners. The rest of the gratitude can go to the country’s community of improvising musicians and small labels, which has continued along its own particular corkscrew path of evolution for decades. (When money is off the table, trends don’t matter much.) None of this means bands now sound more like “jazz” groups than before; simply that a certain kind of formal fullness and technical freedom is easier to find. My favorite expression of this, in 2016, is 75 Dollar Bill.
75 Dollar Bill is a duo that expands easily to two or three times its original size. Drummer Rick Brown, who played in both V-Effect and Curlew, creates both anchoring beats and low frequencies with a plywood crate, a kick pedal, shakers, bells, and maracas. Guitarist Che Chen, of True Primes, plays two electric guitars, one of them a twelve-string solid-body with standard frets, the other a hollow-body refretted to allow quarter-tones. This means that an octave allows for twenty-four tones rather than twelve, all sounding in equal temperament, as with the Western scale.
75 Dollar Bill’s 2016 LP, Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock, follows three full-length cassettes. Horns and a viola fill out the sound, though the momentum of all four tracks (the longest of which runs almost fifteen minutes) comes from Chen and Brown prompting each other with melodies and meters that have room to breathe, leaving the musicians to work in the trench between through-composed pieces and improvisation. At some point during a 75 Dollar Bill song, it is likely you will try to pinpoint the band’s placeless origin. West African? The American South? Somewhere in Eastern Europe?
“I spent twelve days in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in 2013, taking guitar lessons from Jeich Ould Chigaly, an amazing musician who plays in a band with his wife, the great singer Noura Mint Seymali,” Chen explained in an email. “It was an ‘intensive’ in the Moorish modal system, but given the brevity of my trip it couldn’t have been anything other than superficial. I’ve spent just as much time listening to the Velvets and Ornette Coleman as any African music, and Rick brings in all kinds of rhythmic ideas that couldn’t be further from an ‘African’ sensibility. I was born in the States to Taiwanese immigrants, so it’s hard for me to feel like there is a music that is ‘my music.’ ” Of the sound’s origin, Brown wrote, “I’ve called it ‘elemental’ and Che has talked about missing rhythm in improvised music.”
75 Dollar Bill performances are rich in the ways a moiré pattern is rich. Pit small differences in phrasing and meter against each other, wait, and waves of detail follow. You are not likely to hear a traditional solo in a 75 Dollar Bill song, no matter how many musicians are in the room. The band does its research beforehand, sets up the active ingredients, and lets them interact for as long as it takes to bring up the heat. It is a sound that conjures the old in the specific sense of music that is suitable for various kinds of social activity: dancing, mourning, commemorating, or simply beginning again.
“A few months ago, Other Music asked us to form a marching band in honor of their closing after twenty years,” Chen wrote. “It was incredibly fun despite the bittersweet occasion, and fulfilled our longtime dream of leading a second line. A few weeks later, we led another marching band at the wedding of some friends. Hopefully, there’s more ‘processional’ work out there for us as well.”
Book them now for your November funeral march, perverse celebration, or however you’re planning to mark our coming electoral apocalypse.
75 Dollar Bill play Union Pool on October 2 with additional member Cheryl Kingan, of The Scene Is Now, on saxophone.