Zen Land: Zen Land
Warped Records

The five musicians that make up Zen Land—Michael Zentner (violin), Dean De Benedictis (keyboards), Tim Young (guitar), Doug Lunn (bass), and Vonette Yanaginuma (harp)—bring an eye-opening list of credits to their collective venture. By way of background, Zentner has worked with members of The Who, Yes, Sting, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Gong, and others; Young plays in the Seattle trio Thruster (featuring Pearl Jam/Soundgarden drummer Matt Chamberlain) and has worked with Wayne Horvitz, David Sylvian, Beck, Bill Frisell, and others; De Benedictis (aka Surface 10) has played with The Stratos Ensemble, Brand X, Ian Boddy, and Nels Cline; Yanaginuma's worked with Nelly Furtado, Seal, and Solomon Burke; and Lunn boasts an impressive CV that includes recording dates with Mark Isham, Andy Summers, David Torn, and countless others.

Zentner would appear to be Zen Land's guiding force, given that the album was produced by him and appears on his Warped Records label. Yet while his violin often functions as the lead voice, the others are equally critical parts of the whole. On paper, the instrumentation (with one exception: the harp in place of a drummer) might suggest a jazz-fusion outfit, but Zen Land, in keeping with its name, plays a wholly different kind of music, specifically meditative music of an understated and inordinately soothing kind. The hour of music presented on the group's self-titled release isn't static; instead, the music unfolds with a natural and organic grace. Each piece gives the impression that it was executed live, with each player listening and responding attentively to the others in the moment. But the material doesn't sound like the product of pure improvisation either, as there are melodic phrases that recur throughout a given piece to lend it identity and differentiate it from the other settings.

Though the musicians don't generally solo per se (Zentner comes closest to doing so during “Zong”), there's a sense in which they're always soloing. That said, the playing primarily centers on texture, not soloing, with each helping to build a dense, multi-layered totality. De Benedictis, for example, doesn't play conventional keyboard melodies or patterns; he instead provides a backdrop of atmospheric effects, similar in effect to the sitar-like drone that persists throughout an Indian raga. Young and Yanaginuma likewise contribute flourishes that complement the whole, while Zentner does much the same in using what sounds like a customized electric violin to thread brief phrases into the music. Lunn's fretless bass playing is as stellar and tasteful on Zen Land as it is on the other recordings he's appeared on. His unerring sense of time confidently guides the music along as it wends its lulling way through the album's six settings, the prettiest of which is “Song,” a stirring moodscape whose hypnotic, dream-like lilt makes the strongest argument on the project's behalf (it appears in two versions, by the way, one eight minutes in length and the other twelve).

Though a clear sense of unity prevails, subtle differences emerge between the pieces. In contrast to the Indian drone-styled character of the opening settings, for example, “Vong” gives off a prog-like aroma due to the inclusion of mellotron-flavoured details. Finally, it's not clear whether Zen Land is a project the five intend to carry on beyond this debut album or simply a single-album release they decided to collaborate on. Here's hoping it's the former: it'd be great to hear Zentner and company develop the group's sound further on at least one more album.

June 2015