A warehouse or gallery show is a huge underplay for bassist Trevor Dunn, who is known for his work with John Zorn and the experimental band Mr. Bungle. But that's the type of venue he prefers when touring the Bay Area. Last year he packed 1510 8th Street in West Oakland, playing with the avant-jazz band Endangered Blood — most of the audience members were fellow jazz musicians who'd heard about the event by word of mouth. Last week he appeared at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco and The Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut in Oakland. This time he'd brought only a stand-up bass, a bow, and a bit of resin, and he planned to regale the audience with twenty minutes of uninterrupted playing. It was a pretty dicey proposition.
Dunn is one of the few musicians who could actually make it work. Positioned as the opening act on a bill that also featured saxophonist Travis Laplante and indie band Silian Rail, he started the show about forty minutes late, which was just enough time for everyone to finish drinking their beer. The Mindgaze Hut, which has become known for its electricity-free shows that often include a guy spinning records on a Victrola, had an awkward, faux-cocktail party atmosphere that night. Forty-four-year-old Dunn stood in the living room, looking small and rangy and unassuming.
Close to 10 p.m. the lights went out and Dunn picked up his bass. He began playing a composition called "Pentagram." The piece is thoroughly-composed, Dunn says, but to an observer it might sound improvised — partly because he obscures the time. He'll never start with a simple riff or ostinato; he prefers to zigzag along the instrument. By doing pizzicato lines with his fingers and grinding a bow along the bridge of the bass, he was able to create the illusion of three voices — or a melody with two things scraping in the background. Dunn didn't use any amplification, but his music was dense enough to fill the room and overpower the audience. One thing that stood out that night was the conspicuous absence of cellphones; it seemed that everybody was either perplexed by the performance, or totally besotted.
"Pentagram" ran for a half hour with no rest or pause, and its lack of hooks made the piece difficult to latch onto. That said, it was still a potent piece. The show's host, Robert Lopez, said that, given the circumstances, it was amazing that Dunn held the audience for that long. "No, he was not amplified. That's pretty gnarly since there were about seventy people in my living room," Lopez said later. Even gnarlier was the end of the performance: Dunn dug his bow into the bass and let the last note hover there. About twenty seconds passed — long enough for the silence to feel uncomfortable. Then the crowd burst into applause.