The first thing one notices about the Cindy Blackman Quartet is that it’s got style. Blackman’s layered, gauze-like attire, bassist George Mitchel’s thick dreads and nose piercing, and piano/keyboardist Carlton Holms’ euro-chic, technophile garb immediately signify a departure from conventional jazz’s traditional jacket and tie presentation. Some might dismiss these stylistic factors as showbiz elements held over from Blackman’s rock experiences, particularly her time as drummer for Lenny Kravitz. But this is doubtful. Confronting a musician with such extreme dedication and talent as Blackman has, these departures seem to reflect the distinct character of her musical personality and artistic aspirations, one of which is evidently mastery of percussive possibilities. It is a stretch of the imagination that Blackman, at this point in her career, is very much influenced by anything other than herself.
The next curiosity that jumps out is the array of keyboards surrounding Holms, one deck stationed directly on top of the house acoustic. However, the final clue these cats are up to something different is Blackman’s drum set.
It’s not that many top-notch percussionists don’t haul their own traps gig to gig, it’s the fact that Blackman’s is both beautifully crafted and exceptionally sleek, featuring a—for jazz—relatively large bass, a series of deep toms, and a compliment of seemingly mismatched, dulled-bronze cymbals. A drummer’s choice and arrangement of cymbals can provide a lot of insight. The cymbal sound, like a painter’s brushstroke, often becomes the signature aspect of a player’s style. It is unusual for one ride to both “ping” cleanly and swell with a full depth of overtones, so a consternating balance must be struck by every percussionist based on the preferences of the player and the nature of each musical environment. Cymbal searches, the relative merits of manufacturers, casting years, thickness, dimensions, and the qualities of individual cymbals often occupy a large percentage of drummers’ conversations and mental space. No two cymbals sound alike. That’s why you’ll almost always see drummers affixing their own hi-hats, crashes and rides to house sets, no matter what quality of equipment the club offers. Yet surveying Blackman’s set-up before she took the stage for last Thursday’s show at the club Blues Alley, it was somehow apparent before hearing a single ping from Blackman’s wide, dimpled ride, that it was prepared to provide a penetrating ring replete with rich, rolling overtones. (This presentiment proved uncannily accurate. Throughout the night, Blackman extracted from that pounded metal disc a ride chime of such clarity and so laden with ripple upon ripple of sonorous, resonant overtones that with eyes closed you’d swear she was striking two completely different devices; an effect explainable only by an uncommonly beautiful instrument and excellent technique.)