June 17th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Great Barrier Reef is dying? ... Again?

CANBERRA OBSERVED McCain, Keating wade into South China Sea

EDITORIAL No heads roll despite quarantine foul-ups

EDUCATION FUNDING With Gonski reboot, Turnbull taps in to way to lose Catholic vote

INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS Aboriginal recognition in the constitution?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Low job prospects keep a generation at home

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Donald Trump has the world in a spin

EDUCATION FUNDING Gonski numbers shrink in the light of day

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Qantas bans pensioner: an abuse of process

MUSIC Jim Black: accent on rhythm

CINEMA King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: The East End treatment

BOOK REVIEW Apocalypse and redemption

BOOK REVIEW Poems exhibit delicate strength


ELECTRICITY Bad science + bad economics = bad policy

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Jim Black: accent on rhythm

by David James

News Weekly, June 17, 2017

Bands led by drummers tend to be a rarity in jazz for a good reason. They tend not to work because drumming is largely focused on accompaniment.

Drummer Jim Black

There are exceptions, though. The great Art Blakey and Buddy Rich were two obvious examples of drummers who were excellent leaders. Another great drummer, Tony Williams, was less convincing as a leader. His prodigious ability tended to dominate and one always had the sense that other players, many of whom were exceptional in their own right, were looking to match him rhythmically, which was all but impossible. Also, the bands he led were playing jazz-fusion, a style that lends itself to un-endearing, excessive displays of technical prowess.

Given the patchy record of drummer-led bands, it was interesting to observe the approach of contemporary American drummer Jim Black at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on Monday June 5.

Deconstructed ensemble

Black has established a style that has rock as well as jazz elements. He typically deconstructs standard ensemble playing by combining the parts in ways that are as much textural as melodic or harmonic – the aim being to absorb soloing into the group rather than have it out front.

In this performance, at The Toff in Town, Black played with Australian musicians: Julien Wilson on saxophone, Stephen Magnusson on guitar and Chris Hale on electric bass.

It was a patchy performance that got better as it went on. The musicians played from charts (sheet music, presumably prepared by Black), which allowed them to integrate their playing without having rehearsed much. The structures were built up from long sections in which the musicians tended to adopt different improvisational styles.

Some of the playing was based on unison melodies between Wilson and Magnusson, or swapped motifs. Some of it was based on dissonant, pointillistic playing that, like most deliberately chaotic improvisation, sounds mostly indulgent and formless. It was not helped by Wilson’s ugly use of subtonics.

Some of the playing was predicated on extended feels, which was by far the most convincing dimension of the performance.

By setting up in this fashion, Black had freedom either to explore improvisational possibilities or to play feels. It is a structure designed to give the drummer more freedom.

The melodies tended to be repetitive, and there was little harmonic progression, so to create variation – to find ways of creating tension and release – there was a heavy reliance on dynamics and changes of texture.

This is what Black did, and it sometimes worked. But the approach would have benefited from more use of silence. The playing throughout was busy, which meant that it tended to sit somewhere between monotonous and hypnotic.

The spirit of the music could be described as mournful seriousness; there was no lack of earnestness or commitment. In terms of authenticity of expression, there was plenty of blood but little guts. One always had the sense that the requirement on the Australian musicians to be clever operated as a constraint on the intensity of their performance.

There was certainly no lack of skill within the band. Wilson’s tone, when he is not choosing to be deliberately ugly, is beautifully woody. He does not boss the rhythm section, however, which means he tends to sit on top of what is happening below, wafting over the maelstrom below; not entirely irrelevant, but not entirely relevant either.

His intonation is excellent, which meant that the unison lines resonated beautifully.

Magnusson’s guitar playing is educated and fiery. He provided some skilled architecture. One would have liked to have heard more extended soloing from him, but that was not what the gig required.

Intriguingly, the musical highlight of the night was a solo by bassist Hale, which had some beautifully poised, yet slightly off-balance, phrasing. This was where the ensemble playing worked well. Usually bass solos just involve bass and drums, but in this case the full ensemble provided support, creating a broad context. The result was a lovely basso continuo effect.

From about this point Hale’s playing became more aggressive; he provided a stronger bottom end. This was revealing, because it put Black more into the role of accompanist. As a consequence the balance of the ensemble was greatly improved and the rhythms became more compelling.

The conclusion? It is an intriguing idea to make the drummer a leader, but in the final analysis it is an approach that tends to have limitations. Black’s quartet only partly overcame them.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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