For those who think to themselves, “I should really try to get into jazz,” Zebra may be a helpful stepping stone. If we take his MySpace page at its word, Blau’s recent work has been explicitly imitative of such musicians as Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman as he attempts to recreate the “sounds of men of African descent.” The result is an album that marks a clear progression from Blau’s first two releases.
His new direction is most fully realized on the album opener “Waiting for the Wind.” The bass takes center stage and keeps time while drums, piano and synthesizer comp. It’s followed by “Crucial Contact,” which takes those elements and adds a bluesy chug. But just when Zebra has you convinced that Blau has eschewed eclecticism in favor of a full exploration of African music, he bends the formula toward rock (“Free the Bird”), Doors-y blues (“Welcome in NW”), and perhaps the most danceable song he’s ever written (“Dark Sedan”).
Only rarely does Zebra take its African inspiration into territory already well-charted by extended Phish jams — jazz without the virtuosic performances — but even they leave you clamoring for the oddities Blau created on Beneath Waves and Nature’s Got Away. The experimentation with jazz styles yields better results when Blau takes its lessons and unconventional rhythms but leaves aside the exoticism. The highlights of the album are comparatively simple songs, such as “Goodbye Little Song,” whose off-kilter bass line forms the unobtrusive foundation for piano vamps and lilting vocals, or those that maintain a sensibility rooted in folk and rock music, such as “Free the Bird.” The (relatively) heavy riff on “Free the Bird” builds on an Afro-Caribbean bass groove, but after the bridge Blau’s vocals channel Kurt Cobain as well as anyone can.
Zebra has a cumulative effect, then. The heavy bass, the jazz drums, the gentle piano and Blau’s unmistakable voice don’t demand attention, but slowly permeate. Blau’s new brand of folk-funk, heavy on bass with accents of piano, guitar, and organ, could be outtakes from Miles Davis’s fusion period, at least the more noodling and restrained bits. It’s not until the album is over that you realize that the man from Anacortes, Washington (read: nowhere) has fashioned an entirely pleasant and unlikely sound.