Monday, September 22, 2008
Pop went Weasel
I finally made it out tonight to see Weasel Walter, playing at the Delancey, of all places--that once-trendy, now utterly deserted three-floor dance/rock/scene club at the foot of the Wmsburg Bridge. WW has been playing about town and in the region for the past several days now; I think he did a trio last Wednesday with the great clarinetist Perry Robinson and then this past Friday--when I scored Randy Newman tix at the last minute--he was at Zebulon w/ trumpeter Nate Wooley and some others. So this was the only gig I could make it out to, and I'm really very glad I did.
Simply put, Weasel has become an outstanding free-jazz drummer. There was a time, not too long ago, when I considered his free-improv activities as secondary to his brutal-prog-metal activities. I know that Flying Luttenbachers has gone through many incarnations and that several of them were working in a free-jazz-ish vein stretching back to the '90s. But I never knew those lineups well. The Luttenbachers I know--and on the whole, enjoy very, very much--are the late incarnations with Ed Rodriguez (now of Deerhoof, formerly of Colossamite), Mick Barr, Mike Green and others. Cataclysm is an album that's well worth your time (I'm still digesting it after owning it for quite a while), as is the final Luttenbachers album, Incarceration by Abstraction, which is an overdubbed all-solo disc, though w/ a very full, live-band sound that's vastly superior to that of an earlier solo-Walter FLs disc, Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder.
So that was mainly the way I knew Weasel Walter: As a composer of extremely intense progressive rock/metal. And due to his own constant insistence, I did consider him that way: as a composer rather than as a drummer. He often claimed that he wasn't really a drummer, that he was only really playing drums in FLs out of convenience. But then around the time that the Luttenbachers were winding down, he started getting into a lot more free-improv stuff. I got ahold of the first of this new wave of out-jazz WW stuff, Revolt Music, and I remember thinking it was decent--serviceable free jazz, but nothing out of the ordinary.
When Stay Fucked shared a bill w/ the trio of WW, Moe! Staiano and Kyle Bruckmann at 21 Grand last December, I definitely noticed that Weasel's drumming had become a lot more confident and intense. But after hearing him tonight in duo with Peter Evans--the other set he played was with a sextet co-led by him and drummer Marc Edwards, a distinguished Cecil Taylor Unit alum--I can say that his playing has progressed in quantum leaps since even then.
I wrote a little while ago about Tony Oxley, and how the power of his playing has so much to do with timbre, with choosing sounds that slice through the free-improv jelly. Weasel plays a very pared down kit, but it's built for maximum cutting: woodblocks, two rototoms, a triangle, no washy crash cymbal,s etc. In addition, he makes copious use of double-bass, drumming something you never see elsewhere in free improv (albeit on a tiny bass drum that can't be more than 16" and may even be smaller).
But the great thing is that even though he comes from an extreme-metal background, he doesn't just import that style wholesale into his free-jazz work. He takes what he needs and leaves the rest, yielding an incredibly--and at times even comically--dense style that's also extremely nimble. His kit is so crisp-sounding and his volume control so sensitive that he can blurt out these machine-gun barrages while still remaining completely attuned to what a soloist is up to. He's also got mean hands that allow him to totally cook on the ride or bust out a pulverizing blast beat, sometimes even throwing in the deadly gravity blast. (Talking to Weasel between sets, he mentioned how that technique in particular is perfect for free jazz because it actually yields a very low-volume, but ultra-high-density sound.)
So basically what we have here is something unprecedented, or maybe not unprecedented, but extremely rare: someone who's got a very hands-on know-how of extreme metal approaching free improv on its own terms, i.e., he's not just showing up to a free-jazz gig and playing death metal. At first blush, he simply sounds like a particularly dense and kinetic free-jazz drummer. But the more you hear him improvise, the more you realize that he couldn't do what he was doing without the extreme-metal knowledge. There's a very subtle sort of fusion at work in his playing. Again, what I love about it is precisely that it's *not* some cheesy transidiomatic juxtaposition thing. He knows the conventions of free jazz and doesn't really try to mess with them. But he has developed a style which addresses one of the core problems of the genre and at times, seems to basically solve it: namely how to achieve density without losing definition and without drowning out the horns. Zach Hill could play circles around Weasel, but from what I've seen, he hasn't really coped with that core problem. If you're going to be a good improviser, you have to figure out how not just to sound awesome, but to make that sound gel with others. Over the past two years or so, Weasel Walter has worked his way up to that point. He's one of my favorite free-jazz drummers currently playing.
So anyway, my bad for not discussing the particularities of tonight's sets. Basically the opening duo w/ Evans was outstanding. From what I've heard, Evans has been getting into a lot of amplified playing recently and tonight he used the mike to outstanding effect, shoving it into the bell of his horn and producing these unholy fields of hissing sound that I probably would've taken for guitar feedback if I'd've had my eyes closed. Other times, he was playing speedy freebop on the open horn and always with that searing clarity that has become his trademark. This was free jazz the way I love it: with starkly delineated timbral areas for each instrument and with no auto-pilot-ness. The pieces were short and eventful and I wasn't bored for a second. How often can you truly say that about free-improv sets? There's a new Evans/Walter LP out on Weasel's ugEXPLODE label that I'd really like to check out asap. Excellent Walter duos w/ Evans and Mary Halvorson are hearable here.
Re: the Edwards/Walter sextet set, it was pleasingly high energy, but a little exhausting and predictable in its blowout nature. We've all see those free-jazz shows that start at full tilt and just sort of gradually exhaust themselves, and this was pretty much one of those. Typically it's hard to hear the horns and that was very much the case tonight, Evans excepted, b/c he was fantastically, blaringly clear and loud. In addition to Evans, Walter and Edwards, the others were bassist Tom Blancarte, altoist Darius Jones of the mighty Little Women and tenorist Paul Flaherty. Blancarte was massively amplified and rumbling hugely in a very awesome way. Wish I could've heard the saxes better. Jones was tossing out some very tuneful post-Dolphyish lines that I loved when I could make them out, and also on the last piece, he was eliciting some crazily loud, odd sounds by just blowing into his cupped hands. Flaherty was, for me, the weak link, engaging in repetitive post-Ayler ululation and not doing much to aid the set dynamically or engage with the others.
My favorite moments were when players dropped out, leaving a minigroup to go at it. The three horns had a pretty nice trio tangle at one point and the second piece began with a smokin' Jones/Walter duo that I wish had gone on longer. For the finale, Walter suggested an Edwards/Flaherty duo, but it didn't come to pass. I always appreciate that sort of effort to atomize large groups. I think most large free-jazz ensembles would benefit from a little spontaneous organization, i.e., simply plotting out where each player will enter and drop out. It's not really "free" at that point, but in my experience, freedom rarely leads anywhere but to Freedom, i.e., a full-bore screamfest, and there are so many other possibilities. Anyway, Flaherty aside, I really enjoyed what everyone was doing; I just wish I could have focused a little more on what each player was throwing down.
So that late set was nice in an ear-cleaning way, but that duo set, it really gave me hope. Free jazz can leave you depressed if misplayed; this, though, was just straight-up entertaining, and drummingwise, it nailed all the right bullseyes.