Zéro DB, directed by Aurélien Bodinaux, follows Nic Thys in New York and Brussels as he works on and records a composition called "Circles." He composed it 15 years ago, but didn't do much with it at the time and it was never performed, or even titled.
The film recounts the process through which an idea takes form outside the musician's mind. In this case, how "Circles" becomes a recording. In the beginning, Thys talks about the process in general, and its dangers: that the actual music might not sound as good as imagined. During an early brainstorming session, the director blurs the voices of the three people in the room, creating a metaphor for the process. Unfortunately, the film soon abandons this poetic aspect to become little more than a slightly quirky documentary following the flow of events: Thys recording some demos by himself, rehearsing with Pierre Van Dormael and finally all the musicians playing their parts in the studio.
Thys has just returned to Belgium after 7 years in New York, so the showing also served as a welcome back party of sorts, with many friends, family and colleagues in attendance. Everyone in the large crowd was amused to see Thys's increasingly hirsute beard and touched when Otti Van Der Werf dropped by the studio to add some handclaps.
Nicolas Thys - el b
Pierre Van Dormael - acoustic g
Stéphane Galland - perc
After the film, a clean-shaven Thys came onstage to play duets with Pierre Van Dormael. The first two pieces were sort of Belgified country songs that hid their contrapuntal and structural complexities under unassuming melodies and relaxed yet alert playing. Thys remarked that his older songs were more complicated than his new ones, because his life was more complicated then. It seems to me that he is perhaps better able to communicate and challenge simultaneously. I've recently noted a similar change in Octurn's music, due to Magic Malik's influence, though their level of complexity is much higher. Maybe it's a generational thing.
The third and last duet was inspired by Thys's visit to his wife's family in New Mexico and its amazing landscapes. He started alone, playing a steady bass line and a melody above it. It was relatively simple and, appropriately, sounded like Johnny Cash singing a cowboy song. When the guitar joined in, the form was stretched and extended, but the basic feel was never lost.
Stéphane Galland joined them at this point, on tubs, a metal pipe and a few other metallic implements I couldn't see. It was amusing to hear him play his amazing Galland-isms on these much brighter and drier surfaces, using just sticks, no feet. The opportunity was there to create a sort of hi-tech washboard band, but that connection wasn't explored, fortunately or unfortunately. It did, however, allow for really clear interaction between the three instruments. They played "Can Festis," which you can hear on Pierre's MySpace and "Circles," the evening's running theme.
The crowd called them back for an encore, to which Thys replied: "Well, this is unexpected. When you've run out of written and rehearsed material, what do you do? You play jazz." They then proceeded to play "Moment's Notice" - at least, that's what I thought at the time, but I'm not so sure any more. In any case, they brought their 3-way counterpoint and the weird harmonies they, Pierre especially, are masters of, to a more standard jazz form, which the guitarist acknowledged with a winking "St. Thomas" quote.