In ways both nostalgic and renewing, local music often comes full circle. In the former instance, there's the return of Woody Sullender, a former Chapel Hill musician and label owner. For several years now in Chicago and New York, he's been playing the part of an inexhaustible jazz improviser, always looking for a new context for a centuries-old instrument, the banjo (much like violinist Billy Bang). Sullender plays with the instrument solely outside of its traditional use in bluegrass or old-time music, focusing instead on its unique acoustic resonance and percussive design.
But the nostalgia is renewing because Sullender's arrival at such a creative point has plenty to do with his '90s past in North Carolina. Before Sullender moved to Chicago to study music and sound at Bard College, he was a WXYC DJ and an organizer of the touchstone experimental and electronic festival Transmissions. He continues to run Dead CEO Records, which released Zaum in 1999. Zaum showcased a diverse collection of Carolina talent from Beatless and the Micro-East Collective to John Randll Pelosi and Gloatdragon, a one-off trio of drummer Ian Davis, Bicentennial Quarters guitarist Walker Martin and former Spatula member Chuck Johnson.
Another strand of renewal comes through Sullender's opener: The Quarters once played with complex rhythms and snarled notes without rivals, but they broke up without releasing a proper record. Drummer Shannon Morrow, another Triangle musician who left for Chicago, played in the Quarters with Chris Eubank. But she's returned to the Triangle to live after stints with Chicago no-wavers Bride of No No and an immersion in the fertile improv scene there.
Upon returning to Durham, she formed the Scene of the Crime Rovers marching band, which performs pieces by such avant-garde composers as Pauline Oliveros and John Zorn. Morrow and Eubank are rejoining for this show, collaborating with Chuck Johnson in a new project, Mahasamatman. Initial tastes of their collaboration point to dense improvisation, focused on texture and the chemistry of seasoned collaborators.
However one encounters these blooms, whether it be at the Nightlight with Johnson's electronic project Pykrete or in New York with Sullender behind a banjo, it's easy to see their strong roots. That's because they still run deep into the last decade's rich creative soil while reaching relentlessly up to the future.
Uncle Woody Sullender performs in a duo with cellist Kevin Davis at Nightlight on Friday, June 1. Mahasamatman opens. The 10 p.m. show costs $5.