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.)
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.
The Blackman Quartet closed the night with a return to a funked-out groove piece, “Seven”, followed by a rollicking encore Blackman composition, “The One”, both of which slammed with force, beguiling inventiveness, and several exhilarating solos by Blackman. Although none of these matched the no-holds-barred quality of the night’s first blistering display, each reconfirmed Blackman’s status as a percussionist expanding the limits of her instrument.
In conclusion, although Blackman readily proclaims a debt to Tony Williams—and some of her playing clearly falls within that school—this writer has avoided such comparisons; the all too common discussions of lineage and name-dropping employed in jazz criticism to place an instrumentalist historically, and probably more often, to circumnavigate the difficulty of describing an individual’s style. In the case of Blackman, comparison is more than useless. Through assiduous study, a genre vaulting career, and a rare dedication to a notoriously frustrating and critically neglected instrument, Blackman has done what only the most singular of artists is capable. She has developed a style totally her own, one marked by innovative concepts of dynamic variation, a precision and consistency of stroke no less than astonishing, and a blend of melodic, textural, and rhythmic improvisational development deserving far closer and more expert analysis than possible here.