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Album Review

In live performance, N.Y.C. drummer Jim Black can't help but grab a lion's share of the audience attention from his bandmates. Even in ensembles led by such stellar players as Dave Douglas, Tim Berne, Ellery Eskelin, and Chris Speed, his percussive pyrotechnics are simply riveting, and one wonders whether those bandleaders have noticed the many instances when everyone's eyes are locked on the guy back there thrashing away on the skins and adding coloristic flourishes with a host of oddball paraphernalia. Fans of post-bop are among those who sit up straight and take notice; yes, he has caused even trad jazz jaws to drop. Black now has his first CD out on the estimable Winter & Winter label, and he's pulled a bit of a fast one on the jazz crowd — this skews away from being a jazz record, even an avant jazz record, much of the time. Black sometimes tips his hi-hat to the type of music his jazz-focused fans might expect; there may be some modern creative experimentation as practiced by Berne or Eskelin, but the avant Balkan jazz of Tiny Bell Trio or the Mediterranean-influenced groovefest of Pachora is not much in evidence at all. This is closer to Black's work with Chris Speed's yeah NO or the Human Feel collective, but even rockier, or at least post-rockier, than either of those. And, whether intentionally or not, Alasnoaxis even draws a bit from the annals of prog and art rock, with Icelandic electric guitarist Hilmar Jensson throwing a few Robert Fripp and David Torn influences into the mix now and again (certainly taking this group farther from the territory where one would find Brad Shepik). Wisely, Black seems to understand that an album such as this can't rely on his percussive skills alone; the kinetic excitement of his live performances won't transfer 100 percent to the CD format, so composing and arranging skills will have to come into play. And come into play they do. Black has fashioned a set of 15 mainly short pieces, some even structured like instrumental indie rock tunes. There are explosive, distorted power chords from Jensson, and ominous underlying textures are employed as undercurrents to the conventionally structured pieces as well as stand-alone ambient-flavored tracks, giving the proceedings a sense of both melancholy and unease. While saxophonist and clarinetist Speed (a partner to Black on many projects) has plenty of wild and forceful moments here, Black has also placed him in settings that tend to bring out a plaintive and fragile quality in his tone, creating a striking contrast when the reedman faces off against the deep growling beast of Jensson's guitar. Skuli Sverrisson, like Jensson a native of Iceland, anchors the goings-on with deep basslines that settle in and move the band along or — in the case of the impressive, loping "Optical" — thrust against the music's prevailing currents. Of course, it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the current is in "Optical," as all four bandmembers seemingly occupy different universes (with Jensson exploring Frippertronics-like sound washes) that only intersect at the piece's conclusion. In "Icon," nearly static multi-layered atmospheric ruminations balance with a beautiful slowly unfolding melody that emerges in altered form as a solo clarinet statement from Speed at the piece's conclusion. The following number, " Luxuriate," is given over to ominous low textural soundscapes for much of its length; the mid-tempo groove and pretty theme of "Boombye" become unhinged by crashing power chords from Jensson that again recall Fripp, as Speed places his mellow clarinet over the top in one of the album's characteristically unusual juxtapositions. The crisp and propulsive up-tempo drumming that often elicits cheers from live audiences emerges most clearly on "Nion" and the unlisted portion of the album closer "Angels and Artiface." (The off-kilter ostinatos from the guitar on "Neon" actually recall King Crimson's "Discipline.") Alasnoaxis is a great debut for Black, although those who prefer their jazz unsullied by elements of the indie, prog, and avant rock worlds may be a bit put off. Oh well, you can't please everybody.


Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '00s

Drummer and percussionist Jim Black has become one of the most in-demand drummers in avant-garde jazz and experimental rock since emerging as a key member of the New York downtown scene during the '90s. After growing up in Seattle, he moved to Boston to attend Berklee and began performing and recording with Human Feel, which also included guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and reedmen Chris Speed and Andrew D'Angelo. In 1991 Black moved from Boston to New York City (as did many others who would become prominent...
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AlasNoAxis, Jim Black
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