Drummer Jim Black finds melody in chaos with his piano trio

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The Jim Black Trio (with pianist Elias Stemeseder and bassist Thomas Morgan) - ROBERTO CIFARELLI
  • Roberto Cifarelli
  • The Jim Black Trio (with pianist Elias Stemeseder and bassist Thomas Morgan)

Drummer Jim Black has one of the most immediately recognizable styles in jazz—his wonderfully unhinged playing bears the mark of the rock backbeat, but he makes it special with a clanking, disruptive quality that forces his collaborators to heighten their reflexes. I first heard him as the infectiously sputtering engine behind Tim Berne's fantastic quartet Bloodcount, but Black's roots reach back to Seattle, where in 1987 he cofounded Human Feel with reedists Chris Speed and Andrew D'Angelo and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. Black has maintained an especially fruitful relationship with Speed, not just in the reactivated Human Feel but also in the reedist's old band Yeah No, his more recent Endangered Blood, the Eastern European-influenced collective Pachora, and the drummer's own Alasnoaxis.

In recent years Black has led one of the best bands in his busy career, an unlikely piano trio (with bassist Thomas Morgan and Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder) that balances his investments in chaos and melody. As he tells writer Hank Shteamer, who wrote the liner-note essay for the trio's excellent new The Constant (Intakt), "I like songs." To most music fans, that probably doesn't seem like something that needs saying, but what Black means is that he's interested in more than improvisational energy and interpretation—he values concision and catchiness in compositions. He wrote all but one of the ten songs on the new album, his third with this lineup, and on a superficial level they remind me of the original tunes the Bad Plus were producing before returning to artful covers on their latest album, as well as early recordings by Norwegian trio In the Country—though Black clearly has his own thing going on. A busy rhythm section pummels and stretches the piano's melodic shapes, which alternate between pretty and tempestuous.

On the opening piece, "High," Morgan plays a melody that serves as a connective thread on the album, resurfacing subtly in later tunes. The ballad "Medium" begins with knotty bass pizzicato, piano-string scrapes and rattles, and dizzying, seemingly random patterns by Black, and that melody emerges unexpectedly from the bedlam like a ray of sun piercing storm clouds. That duality of lyricism and chaos appears over and over, but Black's love of song wins out—once you're aware of the tune, it asserts itself throughout the improvisational disorder and charged soloing.

Black's ballads are the most effective pieces on the record. "Song E," the last of four compositions whose titles spell out "home," is exquisitely tender, underlining the sensitivity and warmth of Morgan and Stemeseder's solos; Black exercises great restraint while still kicking out firm backbeats. The album concludes with a take on the Jerome Kern ballad "Bill," which Shteamer points out that Morgan previously played with drummer Paul Motian—whose singular style, dragging but lyrical, is a clear precursor to Black's approach. This version of the tune is a marvel: its classic form and melodic features shine through, but the trio accent every turn with contemporary flourishes, as if they'd picked up a lovely old vase, admired its symmetry and detailed glaze, and then given it a good thwack to test its strength.

Below you can hear one of the more extroverted pieces, "Song H," where Black's off-kilter funk and love of clank are complemented by Stemeseder's skillful manipulation inside the piano, with a mix of preparations and spontaneous tinkering that produces muted and distorted tones. Eventually the piece settles into a calming midtempo groove, but the drummer's accents and out-of-time feel provide a wonderful tension that never recedes.
Today's playlist:

JACK Quartet, Áltavoz Composers (New Focus)
Ziv Taubenfeld, Shay Hazan, and Nir Sabag, Bones (Leo)
Dikeman/Noble/Serries Trio, Obscure Fluctuations (Trost)
Tyondai Braxton, Hive1 (Nonesuch)
Various artists, Music of Indonesia 13: Kalimantan Strings (Smithsonian Folkways)

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