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 Barb├Ęs, 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.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Brrrrrr-rap-pap: The rhythmic poetry of Slint's Britt Walford

"Even after all this time, those screams gives me the chills… If Brian [McMahan] hadn't made himself vulnerable on that record we wouldn't be talking about it now. It would have just been an interesting album of instrumentals, but he wore his heart on his sleeve."—Dave Pajo on Spiderland

I think Slint guitarist Dave Pajo is probably right. Though vocals play something of a background role on Spiderland, they're pivotal to the appeal of the album. Pajo's referring specifically to the famously torrential "I miss you!" climax of "Good Morning, Captain," but the act of "[making] himself vulnerable" extends to the other two McMahan sung/spoken tracks on the record, "Breadcrumb Trail" and (especially) "Washer," not to mention drummer Britt Walford's haunted turn at the mic on "Don, Aman." I know that, to me, forming my own Slint mythology as a teenager, the delicate emo-ness (for lack of a better term) at the heart of many of these songs—buried beneath layers of stoic restraint—was crucial to their appeal. The vocals were often cryptic, but they were key.

Seeing Slint last night at the Wick (great room, btw!), I felt a similar kind of emotional pull, a familiar choking up. But while part of that was just nostalgia kicking in—I've loved this band and its songs for 20 years—there was something else going on, too. As I've grown older, the part of my brain/heart that connects with music seems to have fused in some very direct way with the part of me that drums and experiences the drumming of others, so that when I hear drumming I truly love, I feel the same kind of emotional squeeze, if you will, that I used to associate most directly with the voice and the verbal expression of feeling.

I always had a sense that Britt Walford was a special kind of player. But it's only during my recent listening to Slint that I've elevated him into my personal drumming Hall of Fame. (Inhabited by the likes of Levon Helm, John Bonham, J. Read, Milford Graves, Neil Peart, Dale Crover, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Bill Ward, Whit Dickey, Bill Bruford, Damon Che, Roy Haynes, Ed Blackwell, Pete Sandoval, Thymme Jones, Dave Lombardo, Paul Motian and John Stanier, for starters.) What these players have in common—in my own head, at least—is the ability to bring something so personal to their execution ("style" feels too superficial for what I'm getting at) that to hear them drum is to hear them speak. Walford, a man who does, in fact—to judge by Lance Bangs's excellent Breadcrumb Trail doc—have a very distinctive speaking voice, has developed one of the most simultaneously unassuming and unmistakable drum voices I've ever heard. There's something about that act that moves me to no end.

The Walford voice is there on record, but as with, say, Milford Graves, you need to hear it live to really know it. What it comes down to is the primordial boom-thwack, the massive lowness of the bass drum, floor tom, etc., and the high, cutting punctuation of the snare. Walford is a master of the rimshot, where you bring the stick down more or less exactly parallel to the head, so you grab a bit of metal (or wood) from the rim of the drum as you strike. Even on hushed songs like "…For Dinner," increasingly one of my favorite Slint tracks, Walford truly goes for that thwack. He's not a basher, but he knows, physically, how to bring the hammer down, how to focus your attention with that one well-placed stab.

There's also his feel. To me, this is holy ground, beyond the realm of what you can really talk about. It's the part of drumming that, these days, can literally bring tears to my eyes. Behind-the-beat isn't everything to me; I am after all a devotee of Neil Peart and Tony Williams, two quintessentially alert, "forward-leaning" drummers, to my ears. But behind-the-beat is a big part of who I am as a player and a listener. I rarely get closer to heaven than when I'm listening to, say, Bonham or Helm (both classic behind-ers) play time. After last night, I would add Walford to that list. There is a glorious shagginess to his time, a feel that, as with Helm, is tough to dissociate from his drawly Southern vocal cadence.

The absurdity of Slint getting saddled with the term "post-rock" really hit home anew last night when I stood there and listened to Walford grind out the absurdly rocking chorus and bridge on "Nosferatu Man" (Drew Daniel ingeniously singled out Walford's "sidelong lurch into the one" in his Wire review of the Spiderland reissue; the initial kick-in on "Nosferatu," around the 1:00 mark on the record, is a great place to hear that in action), or the relentless, tripping-over-itself groove of "Glenn." It's no wonder that, according to the documentary, Walford gravitated to playing blues in the years after Slint's breakup (God, would I love to hear what that sounded like…): This man has the grease, the slipperiness of cadence that's a signature of so many of my favorite players, that sense of approaching the instrument with a kind of deceptive sluggishness, giving the beat that essential drag, that hair, that shuffle. The realm in which a word like "leaden" is the highest compliment.

I love these feels that lurch along, and Walford has one of the lurchingest I've heard; it's almost cartoonish how much he slurs the beat, but he's always, so to speak, in time. To hear him play live, that combination of deadly boom-thwack dynamic control and unflappable rhythmic lag is all the more poetic. I really did feel choked up being that close to it. And so, yes, the "I miss you!" climax of "Good Morning, Captain" stung a bit, in the way it used to, but a classic Walford move shortly before it squeezed my heart even more. It's that tiny stutter of a fill he plays right around 5:30 on the album version, which slurs and punctuates the transition into the staccato end section of the verse: brrrrrr-rap-pap. I never knew exactly how he was playing that brrrrrr part. It wasn't that it was necessarily difficult to play; it's just that there are a few ways you could approach it—toms only, some tom / bass-drum combination. But I made sure I paid close attention last night. Walford has these two large, super-deep rack toms that he makes beautiful use of throughout the set (the downside is that they completely obscure him if you're watching him, as we all were last night, from a low angle), and it turns out that the brrrrrr is a quick roll on these two toms, culminating, of course, in that mighty double snare thwack. It's the kind of fill that a lesser player might have stumbled on by accident and discarded, but in Walford's hands, it's the emotional pivot point of the song—the drummer's alley-oop pass to McMahan, who is gearing up to shout his lungs out during the most straightforwardly climactic moment in the slim Slint discography. And yes, I do love that "I miss you!" moment, but to me, now, it's almost beside the point: all I need to know, emotionally from this music—its meticulousness, its idiosyncrasy, its stubborn rockingness (post-rock be damned!), its groove, its patience, its violence, its surprise, its joy and anguish, is locked up in that brrrrrr-rap-pap. It's been said of Steve McCall that he could "break your heart with a drum solo." Walford is the kind of player that, for me, only needs about 1.5 seconds of rhythmic real estate, the space of a fill that many listeners might gloss over completely, to accomplish the same feat.


I've followed all this recent Slint activity with great interest. Such a weird feeling to have all these interviews suddenly appear (that Guardian piece I linked above is probably the most insightful, but Drowned in Sound and Fact have also run great pieces), and to think that McMahan and Walford declined to work with Scott Tennent on his still absolutely essential Spiderland book only a few years back.

Re: the box set and the documentary, you need to hear/see these if you're a fan. Re: the box, I'm particularly thrilled by the surfacing of a studio version of the great lost Slint track "Pam," which was—much to my delight—the opening song of last night's set. (I really hope they see fit to record "King's Approach" at some point.) And re: the doc, I mean—I loved it all. That basement practice footage stopped me in my tracks like few music-related archival-video excavations ever have. Shockingly, we get a quick, tantalizing visual/aural glimpse of the Walford brrrrrr-rap-pap at 1:30 in the trailer. Look at the way he holds the sticks, lets them fall with deceptive slackness. Have you ever seen such looseness coupled with such deliberateness? (And is Walford using the same red kit today that he was back then? I think he might be…) Kudos to Lance Bangs for zeroing in on that crucial moment.