Michael Blackburn's ART ZERO


Harry Zen's famously cultish recipe for making art was - I pick it up. Throw it around a bit. If it bounces, it's right. It certainly worked for Astrid Visions, the one and only classic LP that he issued with his band, The Jan Sax Quartet, in 1978. The band achieved a certain following that persists today, so there will be a market of sorts for the new digitally-remastered CD of its unique output. The band, of course, with due irony, was sometimes a trio, sometimes a quintet and occasionally even an octet, but never a quartet. And neither did anyone called Jan Sax ever appear in its line-up.

Never go back, they say, without explaining what happens to those who never leave in the first place. Following Harry Zen's simple philosophies, such as Reverse the mechanism, I did go back, and listened again to my old copy of Astrid Visions before trying out the CD. Sometimes the past is worth a visit, especially when you find that it's not only part of the present but also prefigures the future. The Jan Sax Quartet pioneered the fusion of techno, jazz, rock and just about everything else, years before everyone else. I won't try to describe the wonders of the title track, or of its accompanying numbers, such as Headingley Vespers and Take Six. Rumours about the identity of the beautiful Astrid have multiplied over the years - Zen has resolutely refused to comment, never confirming or denying her existence - and the new documentary to appear about Zen and the Quartet, The Band That Never Was, due to be aired on Channel 365 soon, only deepens the mystery. It contains previously unseen footage of the band live in various Leeds bars in the 1970s plus extracts from a recent interview with Zen by Didi Tsunami, who has made a name for herself by her probing but sympathetic treatments of other lesser-known contemporary artists.

Zen, minus the hair and beard of the glory days (What I call The Cheesecloth Era, he says in the interview), talks publicly (if cryptically) for the first time about the band and some of the musicians who played in it in the period of Astrid Visions: Buckton - What he didn't know couldn't be humanly known and Mohilton - He was our messenger from the cloud chamber, he was truly cosmic.

Even if you don't check out Astrid Visions (and you'd be a real no-brain not to), then you should catch the documentary - if only to see the delectable Tsunami interviewing the wacky Zen in a jacuzzi.