Dan Weiss on David Binney's Criss Cross Recordings

David A. Orthmann By

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His drumming can be sparse, brutally direct, or breathtakingly complex.
Dan Weiss's drumming makes an indispensable contribution to a pair of recent recordings by alto saxophonist David Binney, Bastion of Sanity (2005) and Cities and Desire (2006), both on the Criss Cross Jazz imprint. Binney's idiosyncratic compositions draw from a variety of jazz and popular music styles. The topography of his music often includes the slow, incremental building up of pressure or wildly fluctuating improvised movement that retains a stable core.

Possessing a strong, individualist bent, Weiss throws himself into Binney's variegated frameworks. Even as he's playing a head one way, Weiss often gives the impression of weighing several other options. His drumming can be sparse, brutally direct, or breathtakingly complex. Weiss possesses abundant technique, an uncommonly light touch, and sounds at ease in odd and mixed meters. He weaves an impressive array of beats into the fabric of the group's improvisations, immediately responds to every change in direction, and moves from a fury to a whisper in an instant.

Bastion of Sanity opens with Wayne Shorter's composition, "Lester Left Town, from Art Blakey's 1960 Blue Note recording, The Big Beat. The band takes the tune at a tempo that's considerably faster than Blakey's version. Although Weiss's drumming on the opening head includes some of the master's signature devices, like rim knocks, press rolls, and chocked cymbal crashes at the end of the tune's bridge, all in all he's lighter and more fluid. The neat metallic ping of his top cymbal stays in the forefront.

Binney's solo doesn't leave many holes for Weiss to fill so the drummer takes a parallel, complementary course by maintaining the steady ride cymbal beat, consistently accenting the snare, plus adding occasional stick shots and hits to the tom toms. He executes all of these things at a volume that leaves room for Thomas Morgan's vigorous walking bass line, and, most importantly, he never crowds or tries to dominate Binney. During pianist Jacob Sacks's turn, there are fleeting interludes in which the steady pulse is suspended and each instrument pulls in its own direction. During these moments Weiss slows down and speeds up the ride cymbal before abruptly snapping back into place.

In contrast to the stable opening of the track, the out head is boisterous and full of surprises. At one point Morgan stops walking and mimics Binney, briefly sending the whole band into free fall. Weiss does his part throughout by playing with less restraint, and executing long, busy, and somewhat obtrusive fills. His most galvanizing contribution occurs during a brief lull in the tune's bridge. Anticipating a climactic point of the melody, Weiss smacks the bass drum against the beat four times, and then immediately hits the snare and cymbal twice in unison.

Taken at a slow, ballad-like tempo, Binney's Plan is at once a constantly changing and beautifully restrained piece of music. For the first sixteen bars, Sacks and Morgan play in unison, mostly on beats one and three of each measure. Weiss taps out loosely knit variations of the standard jazz ride cymbal rhythm. At first they're barely audible. He also intermittently drums his fingers on the head of the snare in no particular pattern. A few pairs of hits to the bass drum foretell increased activity. When the horns—Binney and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter—begin to play a sparse, somber melody, Weiss's cymbal strokes get louder and more clearly defined. He starts adding snare accents and some strokes to the toms, becoming more assertive and inventive, keeping time and providing rhythmic counterpoint.

As the piece continues to evolve over the piano and bass pattern, Weiss plays an increasingly prominent role, finding his own zone somewhere between accompaniment and excessive activity. He cooks in a manner that doesn't override the band or shatter the reserved character of Binney's composition. When each of the horns starts to play variations of the song, the music gets somewhat louder and more intense, but ultimately the lid stays on. Weiss continues to improvise, becoming more and more expansive, executing somewhat brusque rhythms that serve as an ideal foil for Morgan's quietly twisted bass lines. For the last eight bars, the horns play an adaptation of the original melody at a low volume. Once again, Weiss's rhythms are subdued and barely audible.

Nearly ten minutes in length, the vigorous title track of Bastion of Sanity features a head by Binney in which he and Chris Potter often sound like a flock of honking geese. Weiss plays all manner of rhythms, textures, and dynamic levels throughout two extended saxophone solos before taking his own protracted turn.

During Binney's solo, Weiss and Morgan (Sacks lays out) skate in and out of straight jazz time without ever losing the swing feel. Weiss begins by playing conventional rhythms on the ride cymbal. Aside from three accents that sound like something being abruptly choked off, his snare drum comping subtly insinuates its way into the music. When Morgan stops walking and Binney repeats variations of a tart lick, Weiss executes a few stiff, bracing snare and bass drum combinations. As the bassist resumes a steady pulse, Weiss plays several seconds of sweeping snare accents and then spreads out single hits that sound like he's slowing things down; all the while, the ride cymbal continues to suggest straight time.

A combination of snare strokes, bass drum beats and three hard cymbal crashes announce a temporary halt. Weiss starts up by deliberately going around the snare and toms, imitating something Binney played a few seconds before. A multi-stroke roll to the snare and tom toms ends in a dynamic cymbal crash. Straight time on the ride cymbal is tethered to several poking rim shots. Weiss immediately responds to Binney's live-wire, Dolphy-like line with a loud, tumbling pattern to the snare and toms. When Morgan conspicuously breaks up the beat and Binney launches a repetitive figure, Weiss repeats variations of a closed roll and rim shot combination, and eventually makes chomping strokes to one tom-tom and rumbling hits to another.

The straight jazz time feel generated by Morgan and Weiss is largely absent during Potter's display of tenor saxophone prowess. Weiss begins with the light but distinct pecking sound of his ride cymbal in precise eighth and sixteenth note triplet combinations amidst Morgan's walking and Potter's muscular, animated lines. The effect of the cymbal is one long, busy continuous loop that stands apart from snare and tom tom accents. When Potter repeats a nice, fat swing phrase Weiss jumps hard on the snare and toms, often landing on beats two and four.

As the pulse gets freer and less defined, Weiss frequently crashes the cymbals. Potter waxes histrionic, Morgan walks, and the drummer intimates a wobbly version of straight time. Things continue to get looser and finally a recognizable pulse is abandoned altogether. Potter brings his solo to a close with an extended array of shrieks and bellows. Sacks drops out, and Morgan plays only intermittently. Weiss resorts to loud, dense, and free chatter—a welter of snare, tom toms, bass drum, and rim shots.

Moving in and out of Binney's head and variations, Weiss's two minute solo is the antithesis of a slick, extravagant drum feature. It begins over a skeletal framework provided by Sacks and Morgan, consisting of three bars in three-four and one bar in four-four. Weiss plays terse, relatively simple patterns, using stick shots, the snare and bass drum. Then the tempo begins to slow down and he eases into a nice, relaxed swing feel. The horns join in with a new, laid back theme that is repeated four times. In each instance Weiss adds another layer of complexity and moves from conventional time to a kind of lopsided swing. He accents the snare, positions off-the-beat bass drum hits in broken eighth note triplets that sound like their bumping into the rest of his strokes, utilizes eighth and sixteenth note triplet fragments to the snare and ride cymbal that blithely skip over the basic pulse, and attaches tom tom strokes that reply to the melody.

The horns move on to Binney's busy "honking geese line and repeat it ten times. Weiss develops themes logically and in relation to the line, and uses different components of his kit in imaginative and exciting ways. During various parts of the solo, strokes to the snare, toms, and stick shots surround the horns and loosely connect to the melody. The busy chattering ride cymbal (not unlike behind the beginning of Potter's solo) surfaces for awhile and is accompanied by sharp incisive beats to the snare and toms. Weiss briefly creates a loose pocket by using a shuffle pattern on the bass drum. Then a consistent bass drum and hard cymbal crash in unison is tied to Sacks and Morgan, and eventually Weiss adds grinding buzz strokes into the mix.

Though Weiss rocks out on Binney's hard-charging "Montreal (Cities and Desire), the back beat on the snare as well as repeated eighth note bass drum thumps never calcify; he expresses an improvisational sensibility while hammering rhythms not commonly associated with the jazz mainstream. Weiss's playing on the intro and head contains some unusual and significant touches—like hits on two consecutive beats to the hi-hat, followed by a hard smack to the bell of a cymbal that's a split second before the next beat. The band continues to race on, yet the effect of the bell's clamor is a momentary disruption. His rapid, punchy fills to the snare and tom toms are judiciously placed at a key juncture between sections of Binney's composition and amp the level of excitement up another couple of notches.

The solos on the track consist of fervid sixteen bar exchanges between Binney and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Morgan and pianist Craig Taborn repeat a cyclical pattern that leaves Weiss room to roam. By the third round he's off and running, keeping the back beat going and challenging each horn by superimposing a barrage of thrashing hits to the snare.

Binney's stunningly beautiful ballad, "Miami (Cities and Desire), finds Weiss playing with restraint then evolving into a subtle groove and gradually reaching an expansive peak. During the head as well as throughout Morgan and Taborn's solos, he's barely noticeable. You can hear the faint rustle of brushes, an occasional tap to the bell of a cymbal, and slight whooshes by the hi-hat cymbals.

About a minute into Binney's solo the music starts to build, and some of Weiss's brush stokes are more audible. After Binney reaches the first of several climactic points, the drummer switches to sticks, begins to execute neat, quasi-jazz cymbal patterns, and soon adds brief snare and bass comping. Weiss stays at a low-to-medium dynamic level, and for the first time on the track you can feel a steady beat. His playing contains more backbone but is still not blatantly assertive.

The music continues to build and Binney's lines become more agitated and prolonged. Weiss's long buzz roll tied to a cymbal crash announces another rise in the music's temperature. The precise ride cymbal, snare, and bass have suddenly vanished. Weiss now often hits the snare on beats two and four, and the pulse has a slow motion rock feel. He begins to add a number of cymbal crash and bass drum combinations. As always, Weiss is perfectly in tune with Binney. The crashes are controlled and overall there's still a good deal of restraint in his playing. Then the wave subsides and Binney eases back into the head.

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