The Cornelia Street Cafe is on one of those impossibly small streets in Greenwich Village, and its downstairs music room is equally cramped: a little corridor with tables down the sides. I’ve been to a few places like this in New York. They manage to be small without being intimate.
Still, I won’t complain about a restaurant that regularly supports the creative arts. After years of eyeing the Cornelia Street calendar, I finally managed to get down there to see drummer Jim Black and his Mystery Duo.
The Mystery came from the shadowy nature of Black’s duo partner, an unnamed guitarist who, according to the promo material, played music ranging from– oh, heck, it basically described Nels Cline. Black didn’t really mean for this to be much of a mystery. They did play a completely improvised set, so I suppose there’s mystery in that.
The music was a lot like the Berne Black Cline trio, from their CD on Cryptogramophone, but with added touches: Black adding laptop effects, or Cline bringing out the acoustic guitar. Cline went through a bag of electronics tricks, creating loops, reverb, echoes, and the occasional backwards playback at high speeds. The loops gave Black a chance to become the soloing instrument over a rhythmic bed, a nice reversal of roles.
Not that Black stuck to rhythms much; the whole point in an improvisational duo is to create a dialogue between soloist peers. I do love it when Black goes into a groove; he keeps it strong and pulsing, with accents that start out in the right place and quickly scatter around the beat. He had quite a few segments like that, but also long spells of creative mayhem.
Overall, it wasn’t your normal dinner jazz, but it also wasn’t as heavy as it could have been. The place was filled, and most people seemed to know what they were getting into.
It occurred to me — and I don’t know why I didn’t think in these terms before — that Black has carved out his own definition of jazz drumming. It’s certainly not the cymbal-tapping rhythm of bebop, and it’s more wide open than even the beat-shifting complexity of Max Roach. It’s more derived from rock drumming, with virtuosity and even some element of restraint. Having his own band has been an important part of that development, because it’s let him set the context for his own playing.
Black announced the end of the set by saying they’d play exactly the same music for the second set. Yeah, it was a joke, but it would be funny if they tried to pull it off.
I was tempted to stick around, but a long day at MOMA (saw “The Scream”!) and some wine with dinner a couple hours earlier were all catching up to me. I ceded my little table to one of the people who’d been SRO’ed in the back. I had a feeling the next day was going to be pretty long, and I was right.