Jim Black and the Piano

Jim Black TrioSomatic (Winter & Winter, 2011)

It’s very hard not to draw comparisons to Paul Motian during “Tahre,” the opening track on drummer Jim Black‘s first piano trio album. While the piano and bass set up a rhythm, Black is busy on airy brushwork and small, precise cymbal taps. It’s busier than a Motian landscape, but it’s got the same gossamer feeling, that same disconnected sense of rhythm.

At first, I figured Motian’s relatively recent passing was just on my mind. (See Motian Studies.) But no — while “Tahre” eventually gets into a more defined beat, driven by some signature Black cymbal crashes, I do think he’s channeling a bit of Motian on most of the track.

It’s a departure for Black, whose drumming in most contexts is rollicking, explosive, and several leagues removed from traditional jazz drumming. His Alas No Axis band is arguably closer to indie rock than jazz. (See Houseplant Arriveth.) Those elements are still present on Somatic. It’s just that the piano trio format opens new directions for Black to try, and that’s a good thing.

The album consists of 10 Black compositions, and that indie-rock element is definitely present. “Hestbak” has the kind of hummable melody you’d find on an Alas No Axis album, played in comforting piano notes, and “Chibi Jones” is a slow and very pretty tune. “Terrotow” comes closer to Vince Guaraldi-style piano jazz, with a gentle, pattering theme backed by Black’s beat, quietly splashed out with lots of cymbals.

Austrian pianist Elias Stemseder is quite a find, and apparently quite young (20 or 21 at this writing). He’s got a patient, flowing way with the piano, working lovely solos out of Black’s quilted harmonies, yet leaving plenty of space for the bass and drums to share. Thomas Morgan is apparently one of the most in-demand bassists in New York these days. In fact, he’s got another piano-trio gig, with Craig Taborn, and he’s recorded in the piano trios of Masabumi Kikuchi and Dan Tepfer. He does other things too, like being in Steve Coleman’s band, but he’s certainly got the piano trio thing down.

Somatic sticks to a mostly comforting mood. Black doesn’t rock out much, and it’s interesting to hear him in this new context. Of the other tracks that stood out for me, “Somatic” is quite pretty and has the calm flow of a traditional piano trio. But “Protection” is more experimental, with spiky piano and poking bass. On that one, Black gives himself more leeway to rattle and wander on the drums; it’s a very Jim Black sound.