A pillar of New York’s hybrid art/jazz/rock universe, the prolific Zeena Parkins has appeared on dozens of albums with Tom Cora, Fred Frith, Elliott Sharp and John Zorn. She and Cora jointly invented the electric harp, an amplified tension machine that became her trademark as a member of the unconventional Skeleton Crew. In 1986, Parkins and singer/guitarist Chris Cochrane formed No Safety, a high-energy quintet with the emotional power to reach beyond the collegial walls of the old Knitting Factory.
The group’s smart debut, This Lost Leg, is a trim exercise of the best of ’80s brain sounds: Skeleton Crew, the Art Bears and Etron Fou Leloublan. The rhythm section of Curlew — Ann Rupel (bass) and Pippin Barnett (drums) — punctuate a record that is as limber and physical as it is heady. No Safety are effective songmakers without relying on established blues-based ways of doing things. Their offbeat tonal math is as invigorating on its simplest level as when analyzed to the nth degree.
Spill, the foot-dragging American debut (for which Barnett was replaced by Tim Spelios of Chunk), reflects the mediocre art-rock malaise that seemed to dampen the downtown scene’s spirit with the onset of respectability. Primary vocalist Cochrane imparts the unfortunate specter of Sting on middling fusion-rockers like “Summer Dress,” while the group’s instrumental aptitude too often digresses into jammy white funk.
All of No Safety’s best assets are recaptured for the fiery Live at the Knitting Factory, on which Parkins and Cochrane alternate vocals on 16 new songs which tackle topical subjects (“Ms. Quoted”) and personal matters (“Take Me”) without really drawing a distinction. The Rupel-penned “Balm” is a transcendent high point. Guitar and harp gristle agitate the creative flow, wresting a danceable cacophony that makes great organic sense. “Eight Year Old With an Uzi” voices complicated feelings eloquently, shifting between dissonance and fluidity like the Meat Puppets riding with Jazz Passengers. Parkins sparks the proceedings with excitement, while Cochrane’s angry character comes across like Neil Young dipped in the fountain of youth.
Before No Safety and outside of Skeleton Crew (which she joined in the mid-’80s), Parkins launched a solo career. Something Out There is a collection of duets with cellist Cora, percussionist Ikue Mori, turntable manipulator Christian Marclay and others. Good as Gold showcases a project with ex-Branca drummer David Linton. Ursa’s Door consists of a long title track (with Cochrane, cellist Margaret Parkins, violinist Sara Parkins and percussionist David Shea), plus a fifteen-minute piano solo. Her contribution to the Table of the Elements series is an eclectic fifteen-part meditation on electric and acoustic harps.
The meat of Isabelle is a ten-part suite inspired by Isabelle Eberhardt, a nineteenth-century Swiss adventuress and Sufi convert. Joined by pianist Lisa Crowder and the two string-players from Ursa’s Door, Parkins twists modern chamber music with Middle Eastern vocal samples and serpentine harp arpeggios. The CD also packs Hup!, a set of five duets with Mori in which Parkins shows her most animated and peculiar musical personality.