Gary Heidt trained a small video camera on the two musicians hunched over their instruments — James Gilmore, a self-taught jazz guitarist from Durham, and Vattel Cherry, a free jazz bassist who lives in Burlington — during a late-afternoon session at Glenwood Community Bookshop on a recent Saturday.
Gilmore plucked out an atonal melody of delicate beauty and strength that was quiet almost to the point of imperceptibility as Cherry tapped his bow against the neck and then joined with a mournful reverie. The improvised piece gradually shifted into something more swinging. At one point, Gilmore responded to Cherry by modulating guitar notes to make squibs of sound that managed to be both tremulous and intrepid.
A veteran of New York’s improvised music scene and a native Texan, Heidt is an improbable ringleader. Having lived in Greensboro for less than a year, he hosts the monthly Perceiver of Sound League performance series at the bookstore and a weekly show with the same name on UNCG’s campus radio station. As a student at Columbia University in New York City, Heidt hosted country and soul music shows. He co-founded Mammals of Zod, whose 1994 album Kill the Humans was pronounced a “masterpiece” by the Village Voice, performed with former Sun Ra sidemen Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter, and established the annual free music festival Lovesphere. Heidt continued to perform with Mammals of Zod and Fist of Kindness, which also includes his common-law wife, Cassandra Chopourian.
The need to be closer to Chopourian’s mother necessitated the couple’s move from New Jersey to Greensboro in October 2015. It was an easy transition professionally: Chopourian works remotely as a bookkeeper for a building in New York City that leases space to artists and Heidt works from home as a literary agent. But cultivating a musical life in Greensboro required more intention.
“I was culturally active,” the 45-year-old Heidt said. “I really did not want to feel like I was missing out or that I had given up when I moved down here. I did my research to find musicians to play with. If this city had an improvisational series, I would have gone to it. Since it didn’t, I thought it was imperative to start one.”
He knew about Eugene Chadbourne, an avant-garde multi-instrumentalist in Greensboro with an affinity for country music, and made a point to go see Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands at a concert in New York.
Shortly after Heidt and Chopourian moved to Greensboro, they met Laurent Estoppey, a Swiss-born saxophonist who founded the experimental collective Colapss.
“We went to a house party at Laurent Estoppey’s house,” Heidt recalled. “They had a quartet playing this interesting avant-garde music. It felt really welcoming.”
Perceiver of Sound League came about as an effort to incorporate a legal entity for Lovesphere long after the annual festival was founded.
“We incorporated it as a religious organization under the laws of Hudson County, New Jersey,” Heidt said. “To qualify for nonprofit status, a lot of arts organizations tack on an educational mission. I see art as being a fundamentally spiritual activity. I think it makes sense to go to a more fundamental nonprofit status. You don’t see any religious organizations without music, so I see music as preceding religion. At the same time, we thought it was important to make it non-dogmatic. You don’t need to get into cosmological or metaphysical questions. Music is really fundamental to our being.”
Both Mammals of Zod and Fist of Kindness, whose other members are based in the New York area, released new music last year. Fist of Kindness, a country-inflected ensemble that defies convention by throwing in the odd fifth note into its arrangements, released two albums in 2015; the lyrics for all 16 songs on Electric Objects are adapted from the writings of Gertrude Stein, while Chopourian wrote the songs on The Beast Within. Since moving to Greensboro, Heidt has earned a place with F-Art Ensemble playing guitarron, a short, six-string bass used in mariachi. And next month Heidt will perform at Perceiver of Sound League with Dave Doyle of F-Art and Bryan Crott as the BryDaGar Trio.
In North Carolina, Heidt reconnected with Vattel Cherry, a bassist who had played with free jazz luminaries Cecil Taylor and Charles Gayle in New York. Cherry had similarly relocated to Burlington so his wife could be close to her mother.
“He was one of my favorite people to play with in New York in the ’90s,” Heidt said of Cherry.
Heidt and Cherry joined McLeansville percussionist Sandy Blocker for a performance at Carrack Modern Art in Durham in July. Heidt recalls James Gilmore as being the only one in the audience at that show.
When Heidt asked Gilmore to perform at Perceiver of Sound League in Greensboro on Sept. 17, Gilmore turned to Cherry for accompaniment. The two had never so much as rehearsed together.
“It’s like abstract art — it is abstract art,” Cherry said after their set. “It’s not for everybody. You have to be careful who you play with. It’s important that you know the same vocabulary.”