Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Inside-outside: Billy Mintz and jazz infinity
Last night, near the beginning of a set by his working quartet—part of the exemplary Sound It Out series at the Greenwich House Music School—drummer Billy Mintz played a long solo using only mallets. He spent a lot of time teasing a shimmer out of a riveted cymbal, sitting there with his eyes closed and just drawing the waves forth, proceeding as patiently as any percussionist I've seen doing anything in quite a while. He was clearly just letting the moment be. It was beautiful, and I felt the urge to classify Billy Mintz as a texturalist, the kind of drummer who had the good sense to let pure sound guide him.
And I think he is that kind of a drummer. But he's also many other kinds. There were moments during the set when he really bore down on the groove, swinging dangerously hard in a rumbly, tom-heavy, post–Elvin Jones style. There were others when he played wispy, barely there brushes, or a sloshy, slinky soul-jazz groove. He was deep in the pocket, or he was out in space. He was featured prominently, or he was acting as a distant backdrop, a kind of weather behind the other musicians—John Gross on tenor sax, Putter Smith on bass and Robert Piket on piano, keyboard and, on one beautifully subdued track ("Destiny"), vocals, all of whom appear on the sixtysomething drummer's 2013 debut as a leader, Mintz Quartet, and who complement Mintz's beguiling aesthetic remarkably well.
The breadth of the repertoire was equally wide: the most romantic, elegant ballads imaginable—all, I believe, Mintz originals, including the "Naima"-esque "Beautiful" and the consummately songful, unhurried "Beautiful You" (yes, two distinct tunes); the scampering freebop piece "Shmear," which sounds a bit like one of the more manic, minimal compositions in the Paul Motian book; the aforementioned soul-jazz groover, "Cannonball," with Piket featured on funky B3-esque keyboard. As with Mintz's own playing, whatever space the band was inhabiting, it was fully in that space—Gross's ballad playing was as full, songful and lush as you'd hope from any student of the great ’30s tenor men; likewise, during the moments when Mintz let his inner Elvin loose, Mintz responded with fierce, flinty, wailing post-Trane expressionism, fully convincing and not just a special effect.
Before last night, it had been more than a decade since I'd seen Billy Mintz play. I remember catching his Two Bass Band—a nine-piece little big band—at the avant-jazz series (was it Dee Pop who ran it?) that ran weekly for a long while in the basement of CB's 313 Gallery in the East Village. I'm guessing the show I saw went down in 2002. Anyway, I remember little about that night except taking note of Mintz and his highly unusual, though extremely unassuming, playing style. During certain moments, Mintz holds his right-hand stick so that only his thumb and forefinger are touching the wood, right at the fulcrum point, and he raises the stick ever so slightly up and down, and sort of drapes it over the ride cymbal. When he does this, it honestly looks and sounds as though the stick were made of some elastic material. I've never seen this kind of fluidity in a grip before; I'd almost be tempted to call it a magic trick, if the effect Mintz produces weren't so characteristically subtle. That, for lack of a better term, fluid grip made a strong impression on me that night, and I'd been wanting to go back and witness it again ever since. Mintz has been playing around town a lot more over the past couple years, and I had a lot of recent opportunities, but last night was the first time since that Two Bass Band gig that I was able to make it out. Sure enough, there was the fluid grip again, as mesmerizing and logic-defying as ever.
Yesterday, I mentioned to a friend that I was going to see Mintz's band, and I described the group as "inside-outside." It's an inadequate, noncommittal term, but as I watched the show and reflected on it afterward, I realized that it's probably the best descriptor I know of to get at the brand of jazz that moves me most, the brand that Mintz's quartet specializes in. In other words: jazz played by musicians skilled, versatile and mature enough to truly inhabit whatever realm they're operating in. In jazz of the past 20 years or so, the aesthetic of undermining, of literally or metaphorically winking as one plays, has become such a major part of the collective vocabulary. I like to see a band engaging styles head on—whether that's a so-called inside ballad or a so-called outside free-improv episode. At this point, neither or these forms is any more or less traditional, any more or less familiar; each can be transcendent or numbingly rote, depending on the execution. Mintz's band is one of the few that I've seen that's both open-minded enough to address such a broad spectrum of jazz practice and shrewd enough not to treat any point along that spectrum flippantly. To me, that is the true meaning of inside-outside.
The effect of inside-outside, when it's done really well, is that both "poles" start creeping toward some sublime aesthetic center—the traditional starts to seem weirder, the weird starts to seem especially sturdy, dignified. That is absolutely the case with this Mintz band. By the end of the set, as a listener, I felt like I'd been thoroughly transported into their self-styled aesthetic zone. There were familiar signposts, sure, but little by little, as they traversed all these seemingly disparate styles, they demonstrated that these forms were all really just part of one "mother" style, facets of what jazz can be when its makers really devote time and care and attention to each element of its making—the warmth and the harshness, the swing and the abstraction, the groove and the texture. This is when jazz feels infinite to me, and when I love it most.
P.S. I caught Mintz's quartet during the second night of a five-date "Walking Tour," during which they're playing various spaces throughout the city. This Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, they're at Barbès, IBeam and Smalls, respectively; and tonight and Thursday, Mintz and Piket turn up at Korzo and ShapeShifter Lab, respectively, with first saxist Louie Belogenis and then bassist Max Johnson. See Roberta Piket's website for details. If I weren't so busy this week, I would make it a point to see several more of these shows.
P.P.S. Mintz's history—detailed here, here and, presumably, in this interview, which I haven't yet had a chance to view in full—is indicative of a certain kind of veteran jazz musician who's worked in the "trenches" for decades and played with big names such as Lee Konitz and Charles Lloyd, but who, perhaps due to a fair amount of East Coast–West Coast relocation or to a far-flung discography (I'd like to hear all of these, but I'm guessing many of them aren't too easy to come by), isn't well known outside his niche. I'm glad to see that he's been playing out more (I'd love to catch Vortex, his trio with saxist Tony Malaby and pianist Russ Lossing); he, and especially this particular band, need to be heard.
P.P.S. Billy Mintz might be the only drummer I've ever seen pull out a can of WD-40 between songs to spray a squeaky hi-hat stand. I'd heard the squeaking earlier in the set, and just assumed that the listeners and musicians were agreeing to ignore it. But when I saw Mintz address it, I understood just how exacting his sonic standards are. To him, whether he's playing quiet or loud, no sound is incidental.