Jim Black: Alas, Not Exactly a "Houseplant"


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The only thing I think I must do is play; no, I know that's the only thing I have to do really, is play
A day off is something drummer Jim Black rarely takes. At Skirl Party V in April, he played two sets with different bands, recorded with one the next day and left the day after that to tour Europe with another group. Next, it was Australia for several shows during the Melbourne Jazz Festival with a new trio and a concert and recording with local musicians. Black then flew straight back to Europe and picked up a last-minute gig before hitting the road with still another band, leaving himself one day off in six weeks.

"I'm just pushing the limits of what I can do, maybe physically," says Black—not that he's complaining. "On any of the stuff we do, there's no taking it easy."

Black has embodied this attitude since emerging in New York during the early '90s in saxophonist Tim Berne's Bloodcount, trumpeter Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, the trios of saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and pianist Satoko Fujii and the collectives Human Feel and Pachora. He earned a reputation as a fearlessly energetic improviser drawing from a swath of influences—jazz, indie-rock, Balkan, Brazilian, minimalism and pop.

An inquisitive and kinetic drummer, Black shifts and colors his grooves with inverted rhythms and displaced beats and, as a soloist, adeptly implies a song's movement while embellishing with extended fills. He's forged a personal sound using a loosely- tensioned bass drum for booming resonance, a highly-tuned tom-tom for crisp attack, smaller hi-hat cymbals for bell-like responses and a trashed crash cymbal for curt punctuations. He augments the kit with laptop electronics and found objects like a steel bowl, metal chains, strings of shells—not as a gimmick, but to extend his textural range.

"The only thing I think I must do is play; no, I know that's the only thing I have to do really, is play," says Black. This has been true since he was a kid banging on a plastic toy tub 'drum set' and strumming the cardboard-and-rubber-band 'guitar' his dad made. Born in California in 1967, Black received his first drum set when he was 11, after his family settled in the Seattle suburbs. Throughout his youth, he played in garage rock, wedding and concert bands, soaking up a variety of styles. In 1985 he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, then relocated to Brooklyn in 1991 after graduating.

He came to New York with the band Human Feel —guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonists Andrew D'Angelo and Chris Speed—exploring the interstices of composition and improvisation. Black has played with both saxophonists since the ninth grade. Shortly after arriving, he started working with Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, combining East European folk music with jazz improvisation, a theme tested further with Speed in Pachora.

Around 1993 he joined Berne's Bloodcount, with Speed and bassist Michael Formanek. Black garnered notice for deftly navigating the labyrinthine pieces. A year later he got together with Eskelin, whose music had a different density than Berne's. With accordion and keys player Andrea Parkins completing the trio, Black had room to expand as a percussive colorist. After 15 years together, Eskelin considers him a consistently resourceful drummer. "No matter what I throw at him he usually throws it right back, in five different flavors at once," Eskelin jokes.

Despite his scheduling demands, Black maintains long associations with other artists, like Fujii and bassist Carlos Bica. Human Feel, Bloodcount and Pachora also resurfaced the last few years after long hiatuses. "Somehow if the bands really dig each other, even if they cease to work for a period of time—for a year or ten years—you know that these groups don't really break up," Black says.

Since 2000, Black has composed for his band AlasNoAxis, with Speed and longtime associates, guitarist Hilmar Jensson and bassist Skuli Sverrisson. Writing is an intensely personal experience for him and he's been fortunate to compose on his own schedule. Formulating tunes with guitar and voice, he fleshes out arrangements with the band. Their debut CD was a sprawling 15 songs that touched many musical styles and gave the impression of a hip mix-tape. The music has become more song-oriented and the group's fifth CD, Houseplant (Winter & Winter), was recently released. "I think it's a definite jump for me and my band, as far as overall quality control and me as a composer, making sure that what I was hearing was coming across on the loud speakers, musical intention-wise," Black says. He wanted to simplify things rhythmically, focusing on harmonic clarity and richness, imbuing depth with layered and doubled sax and guitar tracks.

"He gave us all the material, it was there," Speed says of the new songs' focus. Working together for so long in many groups, including Speed's yeah No, the two have a deep rapport and still inspire each other creatively. "I'm not so interested in figuring out analytically why it works; it just does," he says.

Typically, Black is busy and has projects lined up for the next 18 months: the North American release of Houseplant and shows to support it; One Great Night... Live, the first concert recording from Eskelin, Parkins and Black; new discs from Tyft (Black, D'Angelo and Jensson with guests Speed and trumpeter Peter Evans) and D'Angelo's trio with bassist Trevor Dunn. The drummer hopes to play more and record with BBC, an improvising trio with Berne and guitarist Nels Cline. As time allows, he'll teach workshops, which he's done throughout his career and seize the inevitable spontaneous opportunities. "I like the balance of being a sideman and leading my own projects and being part of collectives," Black muses. "Somehow this has all mixed up throughout the years; it feels really good."

Recommended Listening:

Human Feel, Eponymous (Human Use, 1989)

Dave Douglas Tiny Bell Trio, Eponymous (Songlines, 1993)

Tim Berne's Bloodcount, Unwound (Screwgun, 1996)

Ellery Eskelin, Arcanum Moderne (hatOLOGY, 2002)

Satoko Fujii Trio, Trace A River (Libra, 2006-7)

Jim Black AlasNoAxis, Houseplant (Winter & Winter, 2008)

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