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District Jazz

The Resounding Sound of Cindy Blackman

By Published: October 15, 2003
So with an intriguing scene already established, Blackman mounted the stage, counted off, and launched into the night’s opening number, a Holms’ composition, “Theme for Ginger’s Rise”. As would be expected from a drummer-led group, the piece exploded with an irresistible, perfectly synchronized and propulsive drive. Bassist Mitchel laid down a fat, supportive walking line as Blackman kicked-off a frenetic display of snare and tom runs which encircled the heavily bass drum-founded groove. Blackman’s impressive—and for jazz performances—unusual volume, was notable. The resounding punch of her finely tuned instrument was enough to clearly differentiate the group’s approach. Within these first moments, Blackman’s immense technique became clear. As she moved, her sticks blurred around the set with scintillating alacrity, instructionally inventive phrasing, and perhaps more than anything, tremendous bass drum technique. It was hard to believe, even with eyes glued to her feet, that such booming, rapid fire strokes were possible. Over this, Mitchel, on acoustic piano, worked a melodic motif in an improvised rise toward the upper octave range. The crescendo’s summit reached, Blackman erupted into a blazing, snare-focused solo of intense energy, only to drop suddenly in dynamics as she returned to the groove. At this point Mitchel reversed direction, winding his way through a dimmuendo at the nadir of which guest saxophonist Stacy Dillard began his tenor solo. Unfortunately, Dillard seemed a little overwhelmed by the material, understandable considering he was standing in for the band’s regular reed man. Perhaps for this reason, in spite of his technical skill, Dillard’s slightly sharp, grainy quality failed to blend with the group’s overall tone, and his solos felt strained. Even so, Dillard’s inexperience with the group did very little to disrupt the evening’s performance, and by the middle of the set, Dillard appeared more comfortable, his sound much more integrated.

During the following viciously up-tempo swing piece, “E.S.P.”, Blackman performed a prolonged, powerhouse solo centered on a sparkling snare run that could stand as an aural essay on the immense textural, rhythmic, and dynamically expressive potential of snare work when executed properly. By the close of this piece, Blackman not only had the packed house firmly in her grasp, she had demonstrated a sensational instrumental capacity and confirmed her estimable stature as a band leader and arranger.

Blackman next featured five of her own compositions. The first, a funk-oriented tune, “New Song”, established a kicking groove which gave Mitchel space to delve into his own bag, while providing Dillard a chance to smooth out his playing, so that his tone on this piece came through more rounded, his phrasing more consistent. Blackman’s comping demonstrated an unusual ability to maintain precise time while keeping almost solo-like swirls of alternate voicing and rhythmic change flowing behind her band’s soloists, without overwhelming or disrupting the free development of their ideas.

Shifting moods, Blackman transferred to a combination of brush and stick as Holms began the next piece, “Heaven Sent”, with an atmospheric introduction performed on synthesizers. Evoking a fluid pulse and freeform ambience, the collective efforts of Holms, Dillard, Mitchel, and Blackman here comprised one of the more sonically innovative and challenging musical displays I’ve encountered in a long time. Holms’ playing merged jazz’s improvisational idiom with a sonic ethos genetically related to electronica’s texturally explorative movement, begun circa 1970 by such bands as Kraftwerk, developed throughout the ‘80’s by the likes of New Order, and fulfilled in the mid-‘90s by such innovators as Brian Eno, Jason Broderick and Mick Harris. Behind this, Blackman’s brushes exhibited an expressiveness surpassing the delicate soup-stirring techniques typically reserved for jazz ballads, while Mitchel matched his full tone to Blackman’s tight, organic tom timber. Further establishing the floating mood, Dillard developed appropriately curving lines that supported Holms’ abstract excursions nicely.

Switching to soprano for the next selection, “Curiosity”, Dillard presented his best work of the night. His tone was cleaner, and, though still marked by the same slightly squeezed feel of his tenor work, much more appropriate to the mood of the piece, falling in line with the natural tendencies of the soprano sax. Dillard’s solo twisted and turned, deviating into terrain grounded in the composition’s base material but also more expressive of a personal voice.

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