Zen is when at Symphony Hall
You may not achieve nirvana but you can experience “The Music of Zen,” that is “The Music of Zen For Primates,” in the “Jazz Upstairs,” 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17, Rodale Community Room, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.
When asked to characterize the group’s music, which has been dubbed “cabaret rock,” Krisukas, a founder, composer and guitarist of Zen For Primates, says, “I really can’t describe it. It’s too complex to explain in one sentence. Part of the approach from the beginning was to juxtapose various styles.”
The band’s music blends rock, jazz, and klezmer styles with a mixture of other influences its members have experienced over the years. Audience members will take a musical journey though Zen history with tunes from each iteration of Zen For Primates.
The inaugural version of Zen For Primates goes back to 1987 when Krisukas and Mark Golin were working on music for a production by Obie-winning playwright Jeff Weiss at Muhlenberg College, Allentown. Golin, violin, and Krisukas, guitar, were joined by Pete Fluck, saxophone.
The group played the Philadelphia and New York scene as well as local venues. Dave Smith, saxophone, replaced Fluck, who later returned to replace Smith.
Krisukas relates, “We played all over the country … spent quite a few years chasing that record deal. The band really did a lot of stuff.
“We had a lot of people on our side. Record companies would say, ‘This is great, but what is it? Could you do some love songs and add a drummer?’”
Ed Stasium, Grammy-winning producer (The Ramones, Talking Heads, Mick Jagger), has said, “Zen For Primates is a collaboration of the most amazing group of musicians I have ever seen. They don’t follow the main stream core of the music business, which in this day and age settles for artists which are clones of other acts.”
Ultimately, Zen turned down two or three independent deals in hopes for a big label that never materialized.
Around 1997, Zen added Jodi Beder, cello. Krisukas notes, “We really wanted a cello to go with the violin.” About five years later, came Shelagh Maloney, adding another violin.
Beder and Maloney join Krisukas, Golin, Fluck, and Smith for the “Jazz Upstairs” concert, which includes two sets. There’s light fare and a cash bar.
Doug Hawk will be doing vocals. Krisukas notes that Hawk has his own style and won’t be trying to match long-time and former Zen vocalist T. Roth’s trademark deadpan delivery.
“We’re very much an arranged band,” says Krisukas. “There’s pretty much structure with all these songs so they have to be pretty much similar to the originals.”
Zen For Primates has recorded six CDs, the last being 2007’s “Mary Ann’s Dead Husband Was My Stella Novagratz.” Other Zen albums include: “Albatross,” “Blessed Are the Sheep Herders,” and “It’s Polka Time.”
Songs popular with fans of Zen include: “Just To Be You,” “I Don’t Want A Job,” “I Do Do That,” “Whatever Happened To Me,” and “Pizza Man Of Alton Park.”
Projects beyond the “Jazz Upstairs” performance are individual with Krisukas “doing compositions.
“I’ve written for plays, movies, etcetera. I’m pursuing projects in that realm. I’m also working with Doug Smith and Mark Golin ... just kind of putting some things together. Shelagh has contracts with orchestras and other individual pursuits.”
While the band members seem headed in separate directions for the future, discerning devotees of Zen can catch “The Music of Zen For Primates” in the “Jazz Upstairs” series. Who knows? There may be another reunion show for this distinctive band sometime down the line.
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715