Meet Beings, The New Experimental Supergroup With Zoh Amba, Steve Gunn, Jim White, & Shahzad Ismaily

Ebru Yildiz

Meet Beings, The New Experimental Supergroup With Zoh Amba, Steve Gunn, Jim White, & Shahzad Ismaily

Ebru Yildiz

What does faith sound like? How about respect, or trust? There Is A Garden, the new semi-improvised album from Brooklyn-based experimental supergroup Beings, answers these questions with scarcely a word spoken across its nine songs. Listen to the beginning of “Happy To Be,” one of two songs from the album released today, and hear percussionist Jim White find his footing in real time alongside saxophonist Zoh Amba: the crackling croon of her horn finds a gentle melody against which White builds his thundering drums. Then, Steve Gunn enters the scene, his reverating guitar adding texture as much as rhythm, freeing Amba to further explore the range of her instrument, introducing motifs that will appear, almost as if by magic, later in the song. Bassist, keyboardist, and producer Shahzad Ismaily, the musical polymath who has performed with everyone from Marc Ribot to Yoko Ono, is ineffably present in the delicate, almost imperceptible glimmer of a synth that undergirds the song and unites its disparate elements.

By the end of the almost seven-minute odyssey of “Happy To Be,” it’s hard to decipher where instruments begin and end, each band member seemingly intuiting which direction to take the melody, when to retreat to allow an instrument to take prominence, when to swell to support a particularly emphatic blast of Amba’s saxophone. It’s emblematic of the ease, excitement, and ecstatic joy that can be felt across Beings’ debut, an expansive reflection of each musicians’ virtuosic performances that is far greater than the sum of their parts.

The start of Beings can be traced back to the summer of 2022, when Ismaily asked Amba, already an accomplished saxophonist in her own right, to accompany him for a performance as part of the Monheim Triennale in Germany. It was the saxophonist’s first time in Europe; “It really changed my life and my career,” Amba added. Their mutual respect was obvious from the start: Amba had watched Ismaily perform at a festival in New York a few months prior but was too nervous to say hello; Ismaily remembers wondering what other musicians he could mention in his Monheim invitation to convince Amba to join him. Soon, Amba, Gunn, and Ismaily began hanging out in Brooklyn, as friends as much as collaborators, taking long walks, sharing meals, and dancing in the street to Beyoncé together. “We all just enjoy each other’s company a lot,” Amba said.

The band took its final form when White entered the picture a bit later, after Gunn suggested he perform with Amba. White, a prolific session percussionist (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Bill Callahan) who also recently released his debut solo album, rarely said yes to new collaborations, but something about this combination seemed special. “I thought, ‘You know, this feels like something,'” White recalled. Within months, the group began performing live as a quartet — in jazz spaces like Philadelphia’s Ars Nova Workshop and small Brooklyn venues like Littlefield. When I spoke to them, they were glowing as they reflected on the energy of a recent performance at a surf shop in Williamsburg.

Talking to the group in the basement of Ismaily’s Prospect Heights studio, Figure 8, the liberatory nature of improvisation came up again and again. Cocooned in the room’s dim lighting, low seating, and colorful Persian rugs, Ismaily detailed an apt metaphor White recently relayed to him: “If an object falls out of your hand, you can stop worrying about it before it hits the ground, because it’s inevitable.” White added, “It’s already broken; let’s forget about it.” Easier said than done, but that comparison feels immediately applicable to the live nature of the band’s performance: There is a relaxed posture to even the album’s wilder forays into drone or free jazz, the sense that every note will eventually find its place in a grander tapestry as it unfolds.

Even though the group had barely performed together when they booked time at Ismaily’s studio, there was an innate sense that something magical was going to happen. “I felt very confident, and I think everyone did, that we were going to make a record in two days. It had the feeling that it was going to be something, and I didn’t really question it,” White said. Gunn similarly felt that the collaboration would be fruitful from the start: “I remember when we first got set up, being able to hear the drums all mic’d up, hearing what Shahzad was doing and Zoh warming up, I was like, ‘Damn, this is going to be very cool.'” For Gunn, the record resonates because it “doesn’t sound like anything.” He elaborates, “It has a newness to it, musically speaking, but it also has a mysterious symmetry too.”

Exhilarating, surprising, never the same minute to minute, There Is A Garden is a trust fall in the form of an album. The group met once, a day prior to recording the album, to work through ideas that Amba sketched out ahead of time, but otherwise, the songs across There Is A Garden capture the quartet finding grooves and rhythms as they happen, without any guarantee of what comes next. That novelty makes it an album that even its own performers return to: “I think it was the first record I enjoy listening back to, and I’ve done a lot of recordings,” Amba said. For her, the constant evolution of their sound kept the record alive, even after they finished recording: “This felt like a family, like a long term type of thing,” she added. “We made this record, but we’ll also do something nicer as we keep playing.”

“It feels to me like the deep spirit appears on the record,” Ismaily said. The “spirit,” to him, was present in Low’s first record, I Could Live In Hope, or on various Velvet Underground records, or on Moon Pix, the Cat Power record on which White just so happened to play drums. Gunn echoed that sense of profundity: “It’s about this exchange and listening and feeling the energy of the room. For me, that’s the deepest way to experience music.”

For Amba, performing with Beings allows her to focus on just the present moment. “Everything else vanishes during our time together,” she said. “I think that’s really, really beautiful.” That beauty takes many forms across There Is A Garden: the torrential horn squeals and drum fills of “In The Garden,” the coarse synths that spread and retreat like waves leaving markings on the sand on “Sun Greeted,” the elegiac guitar and saxophone gesturing towards the album’s exit on its final song “Do Come Again.” Each song on Beings’ album carries its own distinct character, a mark of the room at the time of its recording. Yet that same liveness unifies the songs as a shared reflection of their environment, gossamer specters — or spirits — of the recording process.

There are very few lyrics across There Is A Garden; when they do appear, they beg a close listen. Amba wrote most of the words for Beings’ album when she was a little kid growing up in rural Tennessee. On “Morning Sea,” she looks at a tree growing and imagines it asking: “What’s the rush?” That image — the wild branches of a tree, sprouting at their own pace — is perhaps the perfect analogy for the sound of Beings. Unhurried by conventions of songwriting or traditional pop structure, Beings is a flowering life form that blooms a bit more with each note. Amba again sings about the natural world on “Flowers That Talk,” also out today: “Deep in my heart, there’s a garden with flowers,” she says in her distinctive low register. You can hear those flowers blossoming, bolstered by the support of her collaborators, all across There Is A Garden.

01 “Small Vows”
02 “Flowers That Talk”
03 “God Dances In Your Eyes”
04 “In The Garden”
05 “Face Of Silence”
06 “Sun Greeted”
07 “Happy To Be”
08 “Morning Sea”
09 “Do Come Again”

07/21 – Guelph, ON @ Hillside Fest
07/22 – Detroit, MI @ Trinosophes
07/23 – Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club
07/24 – Chicago, IL @ Constellation
07/25 – Louisville, KY @ Headliners
07/26 – Nelsonville, OH @ Nelsonville Music Festival
07/27 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Sprezzatura
07/29 – New York, NY @ Le Poisson Rouge
07/30 – Philadelphia, PA @ Solar Myth
08/08 – Saugerties, NY @ Opus 40

There Is A Garden is out 6/7 on No Quarter. Pre-order it here.

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