Photo by Marc PoKempner, 2014

Michael Zerang & The Blue Lights

Composer and percussionist Michael Zerang assembles a new band to play his recent compositions, featuring Dave Rempis and Mars Williams – reeds, Josh Berman – cornet, Kent Kessler – contrabass, and Zerang on drums and percussion. Zerang has a rich history of collaboration with these wonderful, Chicago-based musicians, in some cases dating back over 30 years.

The debut release, entitled Songs From The Big Book Of Love, a CD containing eight original compositions by Michael Zerang, came out May 15, 2015, on the Pink Palace label. This live recording features the band at it fiery height, playing a local club date in Chicago. In conjunction with this release, a limited edition, 7” vinyl of two other compositions were issued, as well as a cassette release entitled Hash Eeaters And Peacekeepers, that features four arrangements of Middle Eastern tunes that inspired Zerang in his youth.

Active since 1976, Zerang has been involved with creative music, as an instrumentalist and composer from his home bass in Chicago and touring to over 34 countries. He was an original member of the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet from 1997–2012, and continues to work with Joe McPhee's Survival Unit III since 2004, as well as with an ever-widening pool of international collaborators.

Mars Williams is an open-minded musician, composer and educator who commutes easily between free jazz, funk, hip-hop and rock, Mars has played and recorded with The Psychedelic Furs, Billy Idol, Massacre, Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, Ministry, Power Station, Die Warzau, The Waitresses, Kiki Dee, Pete Cosey, Billy Squier, DJ Logic, Wayne Kramer, John Scoffield, Charlie Hunter, Kurt Elling, Swollen Monkeys, Mike Clark, Jerry Garcia, Naked Raygun, Friendly Fires, The Untouchables, Blow Monkeys and virtually every leading figure of Chicago’s and New York City's "downtown" scene. 

John Zorn credits Mars as "one of the true saxophone players--someone who takes pleasure in the sheer act of blowing the horn. This tremendous enthusiasm is an essential part of his sound, and it comes through each note every time he plays. Whatever the situation, Mars plays exciting music. In many ways he has succeeded in redefining what versatility means to the modern saxophone player." 

In 2001 Mars received a Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Record with his group Liquid Soul. Despite his busy touring schedule with Liquid Soul and The Psychedelic Furs, Mars manages to stay active on the Chicago underground improvising scene. In recent years he has toured and recorded with the Peter Brötzmann Tentet, Switchback, Full Blast, Scorch Trio, the Vandermark 5, and Cinghiale, teaming him with such musicians as Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake, Michael Zerang, William Parker, Kent Kessler, Fredric Lonberg Holm, Peter Brotzmann, Joe McPhee, Paal Nilssen-Love, Mike Reed, Jeb Bishop, Harrison Bankhead, Dave Rempis, Kidd Jordan and Matts Gustafson.

In addition to performing and creating music, Mars has been an educator in the field of woodwinds and jazz improvisation for over thirty years. Mars held the position of Woodwind Instructor at Bard College for two years. In the last few years Mars has presented Master classes and clinics to a number of private and public institutions including, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Chicago, Roosevelt University (Chicago, IL), and June Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art (Auburn, AL).

Saxophonist Dave Rempis has been an integral part of the thriving Chicago jazz and improvised music scene since 1997.  With a background in ethnomusicology and African studies at Northwestern University, including a year spent at the International Centre for African Music and Dance at the University of Ghana, Legon, Rempis burst onto the creative music scene at the age of 22 when he was asked to join the now-legendary Chicago jazz outfit The Vandermark Five. This opportunity catapulted him to notoriety as he began to tour regularly throughout the US and Europe playing clubs, concert halls, and festivals on both continents.

During his tenure with The Vandermark Five, Rempis also began to develop the many Chicago-based groups for which he’s currently known, including The Rempis Percussion Quartet, The Engines, Ballister, Wheelhouse, The Rempis/Rosaly Duo, and  The Rempis/Daisy Duo. He’s also performed with with Paul Lytton, Axel Dörner, Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake, Steve Swell, John Tchicai, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Kevin Drumm, Paal Nilssen-Love, Nels Cline, Tony Buck, and Joe McPhee, and has been named several times in the annual Downbeat Critics’s Poll as a “rising star” on alto saxophone, and as a “rising star” and “established talent” on baritone saxophone.

Aside from performing, Rempis is also active as a presenter, now in his 13th year of presenting weekly concerts of improvised music Chicago’s Elastic Arts.  He also was a founding member of Umbrella Music and the producer and curator of its annual festival from 2006-2014. Since 2005,  he’s been one of the main organizers of the indie-rock Pitchfork Music Festival, a 60,000-person event which takes place in Chicago’s Union Park every July.

For more than ten years, cornetist, improviser, composer, and music presenter Josh Berman has been an essential contributor to Chicago’s active improvised music scene. His work encompasses both developing opportunities for presenting improvised music, and performing in a variety of highly collaborative formats. He’s a co-founder of critically acclaimed Umbrella Music, as well as co-curator of the Emerging Improvisers’ Organization. He’s performed as bandleader of his own groups, Josh Berman’s Old Idea and Josh Berman and His Gang, and as co-leader of Chicago Luzern Exchange. 

In addition to his work as bandleader, Berman has performed and recorded with some of the most internationally respected musicians and composers in jazz and improvised music: Bill Dixon, Ab Baars, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Rob Mazurek, Jeb Bishop, and Paul Lytton. He is also a frequent collaborator with dance artists; his collaboration with dancer Ayako Kato and musician Jason Roebke was awarded a CROSSCUT grant for New Collaborations in Sound/Movement from Experimental Sound Studio and Links Hall. Berman was named in the DownBeat critics’ poll among Rising Stars, Trumpet. He has toured the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. 

In 2009, Berman and his group Old Idea released their first full length CD/LP, Old Idea, on Delmark. Josh Berman and His Gang’s There Now, also on Delmark Records, came out in 2012. The albums have garnered critical acclaim in publications including The New York Times, DownBeat, Jazz Times, the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune.

Jazz bassist Kent Kessler is best known for his part in numerous Chicago bands, usually in line-ups with reedsman Ken Vandermark. He first began appearing on recordings in the early '90s as a member of Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble. The band continued after Russell's death in 1992 with the addition of clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Vandermark. Kessler and Vandermark went on to play together in a number of bands that have revitalized Chicago's jazz scene, putting it back on the map of current avant-garde and free jazz. The Vandermark 5, DKV Trio and Steelwool Trio are just some of the many groups that feature Kent Kessler's wide and gritty sound. He has performed and recorded with a number of leading European improvisers, such as German powerhouse Peter Brötzmann (in his Chicago Tentet), Swedish avant-garde saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (in FJF), acclaimed Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, and Dutch avant-garde saxophonist Luc Houtkamp. Kessler has also worked with legends that are closer to home, including Joe McPhee and Fred Anderson! Through his many projects, Kent Kessler has toured all over North America and Europe and has performed on an increasing number of albums per year, mostly on the Chicago labels Okkadisk and Atavistic.

Michael Zerang was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1958, and is a first-generation American of Assyrian decent. He is a practicing musician, composer, activist, and producer since 1976, focusing extensively on improvised music, free jazz, contemporary composition, puppet- and experimental theater, and world musical forms. As a percussionist and composer, Michael has over ninety titles in his discography and has toured nationally and internationally to 34 countries since 1981. He works with and ever-widening pool of collaborators in many disciplines, including regularly with Hamid Drake, Blair Thomas, Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Jim Baker, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Kent Kessler, Axel Dörner, Johaness Bauer, Mars Williams, Clayton Thomas, Magda Mayas, Jean Luc Guillonet, Kathleen Baird & Taralie Peterson. As an arts activist, Michael founded and was the artistic director of the Link's Hall Performance Series in Chicago from 1985-1989 where he produced hundreds of concerts of jazz, traditional ethnic folk music, electronic music, and other forms of forward thinking music. Michael was a Board Member of Links Hall from 1989 - 2013. He continued to produce concerts at Cafe Urbus Orbis from 1994-1996, and at his own space, The Candlestick Maker in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.

Current tour dates

Mar 1, 2020 - Mar 5, 2020
Also available on request!


Contact us if you want to offer a date for this tour, and we will advise you on availability.

(...) the music of percussionist Zerang & the Blue Lights clearly has been designed to welcome listeners into the world of avant-garde jazz. It would be difficult to imagine a much more effective enticement. Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

Michael Zerang has a rich history of collaboration with these wonderful, Chicago-based musicians, in some cases dating back over 30 years. Their heady rhythms buttress and color the all-out assault of brass rupturing from Windy City heavies Rempis, Williams and Berman. Their first performance is a great indication, expect deep acid grooves in a potent decoction of World vernaculars. — Uncanned Music Chicaco

The intricate counter-point of massed horns versus bass on Bright Lights And Saucy Tights brings to mind J.S. Bach, while the syncopated cadences and earthy, low-end melody of Chicago Rub Down contain the potential for some serious funk. But this is still music for improvisers, and it won’t be complete until the last time these musicians play it. — Bill Meyer, Chicago Music

Some of the most majestically beautiful work of the evening unfolded in "Come to the Palace of Love," from the new album. Kessler's bowed lines on bass and the horns' wide-open tones gave the piece a regal, fanfare-like quality. Before long, Rempis' murmuring alto, Zerang's gently rolling percussion and Kessler's softly stated bass lines showed the subtle side of the Blue Lights. Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

Zerang put together the group last year, and based on three demo tracks I’ve heard, it’s dynamite. The pieces are built around warm, woody ostinatos from Kessler (a Zerang collaborator from the beginning), with tart, sparse horn parts filling in the foreground—first with soulful calm, then with increasing agitation. The lovely themes would remind me of late-70s and early-80s recordings by the likes of David Murray, Craig Harris, and Julius Hemphill, except they’re imbued with Middle Eastern sonorities. The melodies’ graceful simplicity allows Williams and Rempis to take flight without losing touch with the elegant grooves. I can only imagine how hot the Blue Lights will be by the time they wrap up this weekly Tuesday residency at the end of the month, but they’re already on fire. — Peter Margasak

The musicians opened strongly with "Bright Lights & Saucy Tights," from the new album, the muscularity of the venture apparent from the outset. Even skeptical listeners would have found it difficult to resist the silvery arabesques of Berman's cornet solo or the all-over-the-horn virtuosity of Rempis' alto saxophone breaks; the writing for those two horns plus Williams' tenor was a model of lucid counterpoint. Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

One of the true saxophone players – someone who takes pleasure in the sheer act of blowing the horn. This tremendous enthusiasm is an essential part of his sound, and it comes through each note every time he plays. Whatever the situation, Mars [Williams] plays exciting music. In many ways he has succeeded in redefining what versatility means to the modern saxophone player. — John Zorn

These fierce individualists, however, have wholly embraced Zerang's approach for the Blue Lights, crafting a music that bristles with dissonance in its solos but is very nearly euphonious in ensemble passages. Most of the pieces the band played during the first set were built on an easily perceived backbeats – or at least a fairly steady pulse – giving even casual listeners something to hang on to. Add to this songs that often conveyed catchy riffs and three-part horn writing of considerable tonal beauty, and you had the best of two worlds: fiery solo statements alternating with carefully crafted, melodically attractive passagework for the ensemble.  Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

Tags: Projects, Michael Zerang & The Blue Lights, Michael Zerang, Dave Rempis, Mars Williams, Josh Berman, Kent Kessler, Songs From The Big Book Of Love, Pink Palace label, Chicago
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Zerang's Blue Lights Touring Europe this November

Following the release of their debut album "Songs From The Big Book Of Love" and it's cassette companion "Hash Eaters & Peacekeepers" on Pink Palace Records this May, Michael Zerang & The Blue Lights (European Edition) are heading to Germany, Poland & Austria next month to present Zerang's original compositions written for this brand new band, plus arrangements of Middle Eastern tunes that inspired him in his youth. Read more..


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© 2015 Svetlana Selezneva

Michael Zerang & The Blue Lights on BBCRadio #JazzOn3

Kudos to Jez Nelson and Peter Margasak for this great feature/playlist on the ‪#Chicago‬ scene at ‪BBCRadio3's JazzOn3‬! Go have a listen to Michael Zerang & The Blue Lights "Dacing for Cigarettes", taken from the debut album "Songs from the Big Book of Love," released on ‪#‎PinkPalace‬ Recordings, May 15! Direct streaming link: Read more..