75 Dollar Bill
Little Big Band
The conceptual composer and multi-instrumentalist Che Chen used to be best known as a violinist from projects with the Brooklyn improviser Robbie Lee and the Dutch lutenist Jozef van Wissem, while Rick Brown was an experimental rock drummer for New York bands such as Alan Licht’s Run On.
But when the pair formed 75 Dollar Bill, Chen’s violin was replaced by a cheap electric guitar. Brown’s drum kit devolved even more: He sat on a wooden crate, pounding it with his hands and mallets, perhaps with a few cracked cymbals and shakers for variety. “None of his equipment looked as if it cost more than a pretty good sandwich,” The New York Times remarked in a fascinated review in 2014, when the duo was building its live legend in Brooklyn bars with only a four-song cassette to its name.
75 Dollar Bill took root in the wedding music of Moorish griots, which Chen studied briefly with Mauritanian master Jheich Ould Chighaly. But in the captivating albums and buzzy residencies that followed, they stretched their lean setup and their traditional roots to chart a truly original course between minimalist jazz and experimental rock. The duo swelled into a big band with saxophones, strings, electronics, and more for I Was Real in 2019, which The Guardian hailed as “a contemporary swirl of mantric psychedelia” deepened by “placeless, gripping grooves.” They come to Big Ears as a ten-piece to churn up their inimitable Saharan post-punk, a kaleidoscope of bluesy, gritty, and entranced moods.