Songs You May Have Missed #300

Zach Sestili

Zach Sestili: “When the Lashes and the Stars Fall” (Year Unknown)

Frequently I hear musicians capable of producing enjoyable music. Occasionally I’m fortunate enough to come across someone with a true musical gift. Rarely is my soul graced by an artist who inspires true awe. And exactly once in my life I was blessed to be able to call such an awe-inspiring artist my friend.

Zach Sestili, whose performing name at the time was Zee Steel, used to haunt the weekly local (Pittsburgh) open stages in the 90’s. Since I also owned a guitar and wrote songs, we did this together. But we didn’t really do it together. More accurately, I played Salieri to his Mozart. Zach praised in earnest tones the melodies I came up with, but I always wondered if he was busting out in that mischievous Tom Hulce giggle behind my back. Because when Zee Steel took the stage, jaws dropped across the room.

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Zach Sestili was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Mobile, Alabama at age 6.

Beginning at age 7 when his dad taught him some drumming technique, Zach had quickly progressed in his mastery of: drums, saxophone, piano, guitar, bass, vocals, songwriting and music theory. At age 11 he sang lead vocals and played drums as his band performed Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in his middle school talent show. By age 12, with his brother on guitar, Zach’s band was actually gigging, and he was developing his compositional skills.

Influenced mainly by progressive rock at the time, Zach’s next band (ages 14-16) covered Yes, Rush, Genesis and Mr. Mister and actually played in the 1988 Mardi Gras parade, and their accompanying outdoor courtyard performance placed them in front of a crowd of about 6,000.

Moving to Atlanta at age 16, Sestili met new friends who helped expand his horizons by introducing him to jazz fusion. For the next several years some major influences were Michael Hedges, Pat Metheny, Al DiMeola, Kazumi Watanabe, Chic Corea and Weather Report.

It was the intrigue this complex, colorful music held for him that sparked an interest in music theory and effectively charted the course of his subsequent musical interests. While beginning to read widely on  relationships between modes and scales, he found published sources to lack the explanations he sought regarding what he calls the “logical but intangible relationships” between musical moments within related scales and modes. His desire to understand the nature of the interconnectedness of modes and scales has led to his own original modal theory, which he has been working on for about two decades. He lives in Hawaii now and has presumably had his head so deep in modal theory that he’s only recently begun reconnecting with the outside world via the wonderful world of social media. I hear he’s married.

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When I first met Zach (then “Zee Steel” and later “Zach Pendulum”) he was back in Pittsburgh (temporarily) and around 21 years of age, managing the keyboard department of a now-defunct downtown music store, writing musically adventurous songs in a genre that seemed to blend jazz fusion complexity with new age optimism, and playing solo at open stages. While he was most enthusiastic about playing his latest compositions, he was a gracious performer and always willing to give a slot in his 3-song set to one of his older songs that we his friends and fans begged him to do.

One such song is “When the Lashes and the Stars Fall”, which Zach says he mainly wrote at age 16, finishing the guitar parts by age 17. Although this is only a demo, sourced from a cassette that must be at least 20 years old, you can still hear the complex interweaving of instruments–all played by Zach himself–in a song that is screaming for a modern digital upgrade.

There are so many moments of musical magic here, from the quite original drum pattern that opens and closes the song, to the echo-effect guitar that vaguely trails the vocal melody, to the little vocal exhalation that follows the line “caught in my mind, it’s impossible”, to the variety of keyboard sounds that begin to inhabit the corners of the song shortly after the first chorus, playing lines of such subtlety I only discerned some of them for the first time on recent re-listening.

Yes, it’s a muddy old analog recording. Yes, it might sound dated to your ears (although not to mine–I’ll admit to a complete lack of objectivity here.) But it’s hard to deny this is an imaginative composition wondrously arranged. On the  occasion of hearing it again for the first time in years I had all the mixed emotions I once had every Thursday night at The Artery in Shadyside: the awe of hearing someone who clearly seems to be touched by God, and the little twinge of envy that comes from knowing the same gift was not given to me, much as I desired it. I’ve always thought if I could write and perform just one song as good as “When the Lashes and the Stars Fall” in my life, I’d be content with that.

But I’ve come to accept that my destiny was merely to be witness to the Gift–to be Salieri.

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2015/04/27/songs-you-may-have-missed-529/

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