Cut the chords
In the back corner of a downtown Reno bar, a chrome drum set, a classic upright bass and a saxophone set the scene, while three guys with talent beyond their years talk about jazz to an audience that barely breathes or blinks, in order to give more power to their ears. The musicians are Fiscus, a band with a fresh personality that was born in the rehearsal rooms of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Jesus Vega, with a straight back and a proud look, strikes a piece of paper sitting on one of his drums, bringing out an electric sound, while with the right drumstick, he hits a set of keys as an improvised shaker. In the middle, Zack Teran, nearly as tall as his double bass, curls his fingers around the strings making thick yet distinctive sounds. Chris Clark creates clean melodies on his saxophone. The songs are short, with influences from rock and hip-hop. The performance is deliberate, and it shows. The audience’s interest doesn’t wane, and the beer glasses are refilled as though by magic.
Hours earlier, a mass of students filled the hallway outside Nightingale Concert Hall, in the arts building at UNR. Everyone was carrying instruments, ready for their next class. As soon as the crowd dispersed, giving way to silence, Teran, Vega and Clark could be seen sitting together.
Of the three members, Vega and Teran speak Spanish, as they are from Mexican families. Both have been influenced by rhythms like salsa and cumbia, which have infectious beats and a repetitive pattern. This music was designed for dancing, like jazz from the 20s and 30s. They decided that the interview should be conducted in English because Clark, who has a more extensive background in “old-school jazzy elements,” doesn’t speak Spanish very well.
When asked about the name of their band, they laughed nervously, trying to avoid the subject. Fiscus comes from the name of a real-life muse, who was the first to contract them to play their “chord-less” music for an audience outside the university. They describe themselves as chord-less because of the intentional lack of piano and guitar, which helps achieve a more open sound. Vega explained that this formation “gives you lots of freedom. Piano and guitar have more notes, more melody, and that changes the way people play.”
The nature of the songs, composed mostly by Teran and Clark, is dynamic. That way, there are openings designed for improvisation. The amount of time they spend in those gaps depends on the level of “jazz nerdiness” the audience has. Teran explained that they already knew how to read listeners.
“If they clap or stare at the instruments, they will enjoy more minutes of improvisation,” he said. “It’s all about the balance between the spaces within the song.”
Back at the bar, there’s an intense vibe in the air. Nearly an hour of music has passed, and no one has moved. Those who arrived later remain either standing or leaning against the door frame. And the public reaffirms Teran’s observations: There are musicians who stare serenely, jazz aficionados dancing with their necks and feet, and general music lovers who yell for an encore as soon as the band finishes playing “Hunter,” by Björk. It has been a well-rounded night for the members of Fiscus, who finish their second set of the day amid congratulations and applause.