Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Stick control: Dan Weiss Trio live
Watching Dan Weiss play drums from about four feet away at Cornelia St. Café last night, I kept thinking about a book. As a drummer, I'm mostly self-taught, but I have undertaken some formal study here and there, most notably a year of old-school, rudimentary percussion during college. The focus of that study was a 1935 book called Stick Control, which consists of a number of simple patterns designed for intensive drilling and repetition. It's one of those Mr. Miyagi–ish instruction books, the kind that seem utterly menial and tedious, removed from real-world application, until all of a sudden, you jump into the ring and you're blazing beyond any reason.
I have no idea whether Dan Weiss has studied Stick Control. (I do know he's studied tabla drumming, which I'm sure demands an otherworldly attention to detail.) What I do know is that I've rarely witnessed a drummer who has internalized the core message of that book—easily reducible to, yes, "stick control"—to a greater degree. The sticks animate in his hands, bouncing twice, thrice, four times or more, as needed—gliding and smacking and criss-crossing with a magical kind of precision.
Is my appreciation just arcane drum geekery? Maybe a little, but there were moments during last night's set—a suite-like run-through of many (all?) the pieces on Timshel, my top jazz album of 2010, with regular bandmates Jacob Sacks on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass— that anyone could've appreciated. For one long stretch near the beginning of the set, Weiss meditated on a single cymbal. He touched no other portion of the drum kit and zoned out on the stick rebounds, the breathing metal sounds they yielded, dampening, reveling in the economy of gesture and the impossible riches of just that one implement, making it seem almost profane to hit anything else along with it. At another point, he caressed the snare with one wire brush, gently twisting the prickles into the drum's surface, swishing them around, while tapping the underside of the hi-hat with his other hand, making it murmur. And when loudness arrived, it really meant something: a funk backbeat, say, crammed impossibly full of ultra-exact ornamental snare notes.
And the best part about all this was that it was only a tiny fraction of the complete story. This was not a set of drumming; it was a set of music. Timshel is a stunningly graceful record, full of flowing, reflective and sometimes spooky themes. Last night these themes functioned like milemarkers, always there to guide the proceedings. Weiss, Sacks and Morgan maintained constant eye contact, a head nod from the leader signaling a grand flourish, a point of transition, a textural shift. Each musician played unaccompanied or feature-type passages, but this wasn't a set of solos, where the thematic material is trotted out and then shoved in the cupboard so the improvising can begin. As on the record (and this is what grabbed me so much about Timshel in the first place) the themes hang heavy in the air, the band attending to them almost worshipfully, whether balladic ("Stephanie"), sleek and groovy ("Teental Song"), conceptual ("Always Be Closing," based around a passage of dialogue from Glengarry Glen Ross, which played over the PA), darting and playful ("Florentino and Fermina"). Sacks and Morgan seemed as invested as Weiss in the core mission: stewarding this sacred cargo, infusing it with loving passion.
A little while back, I praised the Bad Plus on this blog for their resolute BAND-dom, and Weiss's trio gets at something similar, even if the mood is entirely different. This band (Weiss/Sacks/Morgan) has been together for a good while now—at least since 2006's Now Yes When, which I heard a while ago but really want to revisit—and you can hear the focus, the mission, the hive-minded-ness in their playing. There's flair and virtuosity, especially from Weiss—all the splendid trimmings—but above all there's control: the safe-and-sound conveyance of the material. As a listener and spectator, you know you're in good hands; you can zero in on the microdetails, as I did, and know that the eggshell will never crack. This is all I ask of music.