Friday, February 27, 2015

Spellcasting: Jim White drums with Xylouris White

The drums. You think you know the instrument, all of how it feels to play, to watch and listen, to experience. And then something comes along and reminds you that, well, no you don't. You know what you know, and what you don't know is vast, as well as inspiring. (In this regard, I highly recommend picking up Arcana VII, the latest volume of John Zorn–edited musician writings, and checking out the essays by Ches Smith, on his experiences learning Haitian Vodou drumming and incorporating it into his own aesthetic, and Tim Keiper, on his travels and musical experiences in Mali, Brazil and beyond.)

I've written before about the irreducibility of great drummers in performance, the way that if you're not in the room with them, picking up every sensation related to what they do—sound is just the beginning—you're not even coming close to experiencing their art.

Last night, I saw another drummer whose work I'd classify this way: Jim White, probably still best known as one third of the Australia's foremost violin-fronted instrumental-dirge-punk trio Dirty Three. He's also a sort of drummer to the indie singer-songwriter stars, most notably Will Oldham—before Thursday, the only time I'd seen White live in recent years was with Oldham, in 2009— and Cat Power, but also Nina Nastasia.

I remember being riveted by White's performance at that Oldham show and making a mental note that I needed to hear and see more of him. I'd listened to quite a bit of Dirty Three growing up, appreciated what White did in that group and seen them live once, but I never saw his percussive voice as something vital and elemental until these last couple show experiences, where White's weird, almost ritualistic vocabulary of gestures, his conjurer's approach to his art, really hit home for me. (Looking back, the fact that I hadn't yet delved into jazz when I caught that first Dirty Three show, probably around 1998, might explain why his playing didn't strike a chord with me at that time.)

Last night, White's current focal project, Xylouris White—a duo with the Cretan lute player George Xylouris—opened for Swans at Bowery Ballroom. (This New Yorker piece, into which Fugazi's Guy Picciotto figures prominently, serves as an excellent introduction to the band.) White was set up at center stage; this is clearly an equally matched pairing. What Xylouris does is gorgeous and absolutely essential to the project. Given that I know essentially nothing about the Cretan lute tradition, I humbly point you to the article linked above. Xylouris's contributions sounded at times Arabic, at times Jewish, at times even Indian. Hearing Xylouris blind, "Greek" would not have been my first thought. His lute playing suggested ragas as much as folk dances. There was a trance element, and an element of deep, stirring passion, as filtered through forceful virtuosity.

If there was a solemnity to Xylouris's playing—and given that he's coming out of a very strict tradition of lute performance, into which he was indoctrinated by his family, this makes perfect sense—White's presence embodied a certain kind of earthy flow, a sensuality with a hint of mirth. It seems impossible, or perhaps merely inadvisable, to attempt to describe his drumming without describing his appearance. A stocky man with a sort of mad-scientist Afro, White has a bearing of unflappable cool. His face bears a strange resemblance to that of longtime Altman actor Henry Gibson, but his dress (billowy shirt, unbuttoned about halfway), aura and presence suggest, to me, the Most Interesting Man in the World character you see in those beer ads. He looks, basically, as though he's seen just about everything there is to see, and that the years have engendered in him not jadedness but soul-deep contendedness and a sort of easy amusement with his surroundings.

White approaches the drum set as an object of fascination, as a site of mystery and delight. His movements are breathtakingly fluid. There is a dance that occurs, a pantomime, a flow, when he's behind the kit. He has strange tendencies—moving his arms in big, slow, exaggerated arcs, from over his head down to the drum, sometimes glancing up at his stick or mallet as it's poised over his head, as though marveling at the percussive act itself, the coil before the strike as much as the strike itself. There's a kind of inquiry and interrogation of the process, in the midst of that process. His torso dances. His shoulders shimmy. Sometimes he sort of clutches his left leg up and inward toward his body. He plays weird games with his unusually long sticks, not just tossing them in the air for a quick flip, but sometimes dropping one on the snare, letting it roll across the drum and picking it up with the other hand, and then doing the same with the other stick; back and forth, back and forth, as though in the midst of drumming, he were also juggling.

All this strange business brings about a kind of enchanted state, a feeling that's exactly analogous to what White does sonically and rhythmically. He has a way of sort of flowing around the kit, draping his sticks on the heads almost lovingly, that can disguise the power he commands. One minute he's consummately unobtrusive, offering up a quick subtle mallet roll across the toms or a tap on the tambourine he sometimes attaches to his hi-hat, and the next he's slamming out a fervent, rapid pulse on the kick drum, or playing some sort of bastardized backbeat with conventional sticks or those bundles known as Hot Rods. In these latter moments, his playing gives off the sense of limitless power deployed almost casually, like he could go full-on Bonham if he wanted to but prefers to keep the beat aerated, stumbling, fragmented, open-ended. There are miniature controlled detonations that, to me, at least, recall the more painterly realm of free jazz, but in general, I hear very little reference to any familiar tradition in White's playing. His pulse is insistent, yet blurred, hazy, always in service to the dance his body makes, rather than the other way around. His presence in the music is all about a personal experience of rhythm, a fluid exchange between a drummer's textural and timekeeping roles.

White surveys the audience as he plays, neither glaring nor smirking, but with a look that can touch on each of those. Last night, he flashed grins at Xylouris. There's much more of a sense of effort, of bearing down, in Xylouris's playing than in White's, and the drummer's glances at the lute player seem to say something like, "I'm right there with you, mate; I just don't have to try so hard."

Seeing White play, the overall effect was of having an experience you can't get anywhere else. In my mind, this aligns him with great jazz-oriented originals such as Ronald Shannon Jackson, Paul Motian and Milford Graves and with avant-rock masters ranging from Bill Bruford to contemporary giants such as Brian Chippendale, Zach Hill and Greg Saunier. As with those players, when Jim White is on a gig, you're hearing a concert of Jim White Music, as much as you're taking in whatever else in going on. That's not to say that he's a domineering force; sometimes, his sonic presence is downright self-effacing. Only to say that he is one of those elemental drummers. He walks onstage and there is a certain thing happening, between him, the kit and the air around it, that can't happen except in his presence.

Jim White's background is a bit hazy to me. I know the Dirty Three output fairly well, and I want to revisit it. I'm intrigued by Venom P. Stinger, the punk band he worked in with future D3 bandmate Mick Turner during the ’80s, which reunited and played New York in recent years. You can hear punk in his playing, and you can feel jazz in there too, in the overall looseness and his favoring of traditional grip. But there's a sense in which no genre you could invoke entirely accounts for his approach and aesthetic. He's created a whole world of behavior around his drumming. He walks onstage, sits down and begins not just a performance, but a relationship with the kit, the sticks, the room, and this attunement gives him unusual control over the flow and sensation of the music. When Jim White is drumming, I can't help but feel that he's casting a spell—slyly, without visible effort. It a spell that only breaks when he says so. I look forward to the next enchantment.


*A brilliantly conceived Xylouris White video. (Check out White regarding the dog around the 1:00 mark.) The Xylouris White homepage and their 2014 debut album, Goats. A Ben Ratliff review of a 2014 Xylouris White gig.

*Here's a Ratliff review of a 2010 Venom P. Stinger reunion gig, as well as video of a 1988 VPS performance.

*A beautiful White/Nastasia duet.

*My friend and former Time Out New York colleague Jay Ruttenberg wrote a remarkable profile of White back in 2007. Like most Ruttenberg pieces, it's funny, sharp and, in my view, definitive. Please excuse the horrendous web formatting and enjoy the article. (Here's the Conan performance Will Oldham references.)

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