Malamute 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.
Human Feel got a predictably enthusiastic response at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, thanks to the turnout of fanboys (and girls) like me. But they also won over the Santa Cruz regulars and Kuumbwa members who’d come not knowing what to expect. I heard at least a couple of them walking away happy, in a chattering and giddy mood.
The band’s music, full of sharp-angled melodies and spans of loud improv abandon — certainly doesn’t fit the normal jazz arc, which is what attracted me to the band in the first place. But their tunes often have pleasant and traceable themes, and the band performed with convincing punch and verve. I’m sure they made a few new fans that night, and they didn’t disappoint the old ones.
The set was good, of course, and packed with energy and sweat, but Andrew D’Angelo‘s stage banter won the crowd over, too. He’s got good stage presence, but he was also gifted with some material in the form of a three-hour flight delay out of Seattle and a couple of lost bags. Airline troubles are nothing new to veteran musicians, but they still provide good stories to tell on stage.
The upshot was that the band, minus Kurt Rosenwinkel‘s guitar pedals and Jim Black‘s drumsticks, got into Santa Cruz just after the designated 7:00 p.m. start time. They rushed through a “live” sound check, testing out borrowed gear while we in the crowd finished our dinners and desserts.
As reward for our patience, we got D’Angelo’s spasmodic sax energy, the heavier guitar-hero side of Rosenwinkel (who spends most of the time in the background with this band, but it’s a hard-working, space-filling background) and of course Jim Black’s drumming, which quite a few people came for, judging by the crowd response. I chose to sit on Black’s side of the stage, so he drowned out the others sometimes (which is why I don’t have much to say about how Chris Speed sounded) but that was a conscious tradeoff, and I wasn’t the only one making it. We got to savor Black’s shapeshifting grooves, full of explosions, torrents, and subtle clinks and clanks.
They tried something really different on “Numer Ology,” a piece D’Angelo said was inspired by cosmic questions about the meaning of existence and the arbitrary nature of fate. Most people took it as a joke, but D’Angelo was diagnosed with brain cancer seven years ago and defeated it without chemo or radiation therapy, so these questions mean a lot to him.
The song consisted of short phrases and short improvisations, all separated by long, weighty pauses. It was at one highbrown and good-humored — and then at one point, D’Angelo picked up the mic and cued us to shout out our meaning-of-the-universe theories after the next phrase. Apparently most crowds just blurt it all out at once; we kind of did it one at a time, classroom-style. It wouldn’t have sounded great on a record, but people got into it.
If Human Feel has anything like a hit single, it’s “Sich Reped,” D’Angelo’s poking, sharp-angled 7/8 tune, and that was their closer. Most of the tune went by at a slightly slower pace than on the album Welcome to Malpesta, making for a sound that was still fun but not as jabbing as it could have been — until the end, when D’Angelo and the others opened up the throttle and poured it on. It was a great crowd-pleaser, and of course it got them an encore — a piece that D’Angelo dedicated to the airline they’d flown and that opened with a roaring, screaming improvisation.
Despite having four successful careers to juggle, Human Feel has now gotten together for two post-’90s albums — Galore, and the soon-to-be-released new album. I treated this show as my only chance to see the band, but now I’ve got my fingers crossed for the future.
Take a look at what’s on The Stone‘s calendar in March:
3/25 Tuesday (KR)
8 and 10 pm
Tim Berne (reeds), Chris Speed (reeds), Mike Formanek (bass), Jim Black (drums)
Black is calling it “Not Bloodcount,” but of course it’s the exact lineup of Tim Berne‘s Bloodcount, the band that got me into creative music in the first place and whose reunion tour I attended in Philadelphia.
“Not Bloodcount” is part of a week-long residency by drummer Jim Black that will also feature his piano trio, the Ben Monder Trio of the late ’90s (another early discovery for me) and other bands.
That’s the new model of The Stone: An artist gets a week to perform in whatever contexts he or she wishes. It can be a workout for a particular group, just like in the old days of the jazz clubs. More often, it’s a cross-section of a performer’s bands and projects, as Ben Goldberg is doing in the last week of February (first week of March). For Black, it seems, it’s also a chance to regroup with old mates from the ’90s.
With the name “Not Bloodcount,” though, he seems to be signaling that they won’t be playing Berne’s compositional suites. Bloodcount had a brief reunion in 2008, playing new material at shows in New York and Philadelphia, so a follow-up wouldn’t be out of the question, but it looks like the group will be trying something else at The Stone. Maybe an all-improvised set.
By contrast, the Ben Monder Trio‘s set, on March 26, is being billed as a reunion, with Monder on guitar and Ben Street on bass. I came across the trio on the CD Flux (Songlines, 1995), which had Drew Gress playing bass. I seem to remember discovering it while browsing at the Knitting Factory circa 1997. At the time, I was seeking out more of the Bloodcount crew’s previous work, especially Black, so it’s his name that caught my eye. What I found inside was some wondrous guitar work, with Monder spinning wispy chords that seem to never have existed before.
The opening moments of the track “Muvseevum” display what I mean. Here’s an old video of a live performance (with Street on bass):
Dust (Arabesque, 1997), also with Street on bass, has more traditional shadings. The chords are still tangly but in a mellower mode, and the guitar lines tap traditional paths more often. It’s good, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect on me as that first listen to Flux did.
Black’s residency will also include his own piano trio (which is supposed to have an album out sometime around now) but not his half-Icelandic Alas No Axis quartet. That makes sense; aside from the fact that Skuli Sverrisson and Hilmar Jansen might not be available on any given week, Alas No Axis already gets to tour fairly regularly.
Alas No Axis is essentially an indie rock outfit that happens to have a clarinet, and Antiheroes sticks to the same ingredients that have made rock stars out of the band.
You often get a catchy melody laid down by the guitar or even the bass, topped by Chris Speed playing sax or clarinet in his languid, drifting mode, often more a backdrop than a lead voice. Other songs tip their wings into noise territory, with Hilmar Jensson’s guitar providing a fuzzy haze that only hints at the melody. Black’s drumming varies between bashing and subtle, depending on each composition’s desired mood. It’s all familiar, but just as with a rock band that’s got a successful sound, it still works.
Despite the off-putting cover, the quasi-title track “Antihero” opens the album in a state of peace, a slow sunrise melody on tenor sax. It’s a risky way to start things, but then again, “Antihero” might have gotten lost if it were buried on Side 2, so to speak.
Things get noisy enough from there. “Much Better Now” is a mini-suite that features a quirky, bouncing clarinet theme and another friendly, folky melody. “Tockle” is noteworthy for being a non-pretty track in a pretty setting, calm and serene in its ugliness.
Of the song that are closer to outright rock, “Super K’s” is the most tuneful, but I’m partial to “Marguay,” where a pulsing bass beat is augmented by shards of glass out of Jensson’s guitar. Speed sticks to a chilled breeze on sax there, but the rest of the band is tearing it up.
The album ends with “Square Pegs,” a slow burner that’s like a sunny take on Sunn_0)))). The toneful, droning wash almost obscures the fact that there are chord changes and a beat, and it’s all followed by a long, long fade-out
I was thinking during my first listen that Antiheroes had less emphasis on melody and greater use of noise elements than previous albums, but revisiting the last two albums, Houseplant and Dogs of Great Indifference, I’m not so sure. With each listen, my ear seems to gravitate toward different aspects of the music — the writing, the effects, the drumming. Maybe the band’s depth is what keeps the formula so rich.
JACK is a new arts space in Brooklyn, an emptied-out storefront innocently tucked away in the hipster enclave of Willambsurg. Here, I got to experience an evening of aggressive noise.
The intention was a CD release show for an improvising trio called Iron Dog, but the theme was aggressive noise, with three like-minded groups playing one long improvisation each.
Mostly geared toward theater, JACK is an eclectic spot. It hosts Tuesday-night readings of French plays translated into English, for instance. And it hosts experimental music, including occasional concerts titled Aural Dystopia — big, noisy improvisation. My friend Dan clued me in about the November installment, and I made plans to go get a taste.
This was the same day as my Central Park tour, so after relocating my things to Brooklyn, where I would spend the night, I took a quick nap before heading into the subway. It wasn’t going to be a complicated trip, but it was still comforting to catch a glimpse of Jim Black — part of the night’s opening act — farther down the subway platform. At least I’d picked the right train.
I arrived early with the intention of finding an espresso, which turned out to be a little tricky. Old Brooklyn still dominates the neighborhood; Starbucks hasn’t yet overrun the two or three blocks that I explored. I did find a hipster grocery boutique called Brooklyn Victory Garden that gladly sold me a coffee and a dinosaur cookie. You can’t turn down a dinosaur cookie.
The show started with heavy saxophone blasts from Briggan Krauss, a choppy, ragged attack like a helicopter or a half-speed machine gun. That set the tone for the trio Han Blasts Panel, consisting of Krauss (sax, guitar), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), and Jim Black (drums), with all three adding electronics of various shapes.
We got to hear plenty of Black’s offbeat grooves, which start out tight and then unravel, as if slowing down (as I’d recently heard in his Nels Cline duo). Hasselbring sent the trombone through a variety of effects, and when he shut them off, the pure trombone sound suddenly felt bright and fresh.
Black added electronics played off of a pad, including low, floor-rattling bass tones that worked especially well when Krauss was playing electric guitar. Towards the end, Krauss was riding a one-note groove, settling himself as the rhythm section while Hasselbring soloed and Black contributed those bass notes and some electronics crackles. When Krauss broke out of the groove, Black switched immediately back to drums, and the piece exploded into a new life. Great sequence.
Next up was The Home of Easy Credit, the duo of Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen (sax, vocals) and Tom Blancarte (standup electric bass), who performed a set of sustained fury. They opened with Jensen playing smooth, mellifluous runs on sax, but Blancarte put a stop to that with a hard bass attack, using sticks and fingers to pull out loud, sticky notes, as if he were extracting teeth from the instrument.
(Jensen and Blancarte’s Web domains seem to have been replaced by spam sites, so use caution searching for them. Probably better to look them up on Facebook.)
Jensen’s demonic growls were spooky enough, but it’s a moment of overdubbed syllables, a falsetto harpies’ chorus that she built up from loops and echoes, that’s going to turn up in my nightmares.
Their set included some gorgeous cooldown segments (definitely in the minority) and some moments of mood-shifting that showed an attentive listening that’s the key to good improvisation.
Then it was Iron Dog‘s turn, performing their piece in the dark accompanied by abstract video. Sarah Bernstein played violin and recited poetry for certain passages. Stuart Popejoy played electric bass, usually so heavily distorted and pedaled-up as to become a roar of electronics. Andrew Drury at the drum kit was a treat to watch; I loved his jazz-influenced drumming, but he spent a larger amount of time in a soundmaking space, bowing his cymbals and creating other scraped noises.
Bernstein’s poems are written down, but she selects them on the fly, inserting them into the flow as one would a violent cadenza or a steady backing sound. She did this deftly, and the improvisation overall had a strong, episodic feeling, to the point that I thought it might have had a pre-arranged structure. But it was all improvised, with the group collectively steering the shifts in mood and intensity.
It wasn’t always that way, Popejoy told us after the show. It just goes to show what can happen when a band plays together for a long time, developing an instinct for one another’s moves.
The poems became a focal point, but Bernstein’s violin playing was terrific, too. (Turns out she plays in settings like Braxton ensembles.) At one point near the end, she sawed ferociously, fingers ratting up and down the neck, with the other two gradually building up until white-noise intensity. Another moment that stands out in memory is when Popejoy played with a fingerpicked guitar-like serenity, but with the bass producing a sound like shrieking steam.
As for the poems themselves, there was one about conversation being an accident, something you always wish could be undone. Another was a word collage — “didactic,” “auto,” several others — echoed back. Bernstein would repeat the words at a different tempo so that the echoed loop brought up thewords at unpredictable, incongruous moments. Simple idea, but I liked the sound of it.
The new Iron Dog album is called Interactive Album Rock, and it’s good. So, they’re on my map now, as is JACK.
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.
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.