Jim Black’s Next Act: Malamute

Jim BlackMalamute (Inkakt, 2017)

black-malamuteMalamute feels like an update of Jim Black’s Alas No Axis band, but with revamped personnel including keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, from the drummer’s piano trio.

In fact, I started out by writing that the quartet on Malamute is an amalgam of those two bands, but that’s not right. Malamute clearly comes from Alas No Axis’ sphere, carrying that same laid-back demeanor fronted by the deadpan saxophone of Óskar Guðjónsson, whose tenor sax could be a stand-in for Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet.

Black’s M.O. involves languid, luscious compositions backed by energetic drumming that I tend to call “rock-oriented,” but there’s more to it than that. The Jim Black sound elaborates on a straight rhythm by adding smart fills and a looming sense that he’s about to unleash with abandon (which, often, he does).

A nice example is “Sought After,” with its steady, perky beat, snappy bass, and pleasant sax melody — instrumental indie rock, really. By the end, the track has become a noisier affair, with the rhythm crumbling like a satellite burning up in re-entry.

As that ending suggests, Malamute is replete with new sounds. On “Just Turned Two,” Chris Tordini uses chugging, guitar-like bass (another occasional feature of Alas No Axis) to support the song’s low-key sax and squelchy keyboard electronics. “Chase Rabbit” is a seasick sax-and-synth mixture that paints a blurry landscape for Black’s restless patter.

Stemeseder, so elegant on piano in the Jim Black Trio, seems to have loads of fun playing the role of noise man, whether he’s adding frilly extras on “Toys Everywhere” or creating a staticky landscape on “Stray.” Tordini gets into the act in the second half of that track, building a whitewash of feedback and distortion.

As mentioned, Óskar Guðjónsson — an Icelandic musician who’s played with Skúli Sverrisson, one of Black’s Alas No Axis compatriots — sounds a little like Chris Speed with his sleepy sax sometimes wandering through microtonal territory. “Almost Awake” is a nice showcase for him, starting off in a dreamy mood and building into something faster and noisier, with Guðjónsson still retaining that languid tone while also reflecting the dire tension building around him.