Photo: Barbara Rigon. Courtesy of DanWeiss.net.
Dan Weiss is a drummer with ambition and range, a superb jazz player, no doubt, but also a deep student of Indian music (via the tabla) and someone with a degree in classical composition as well. You may have heard him with his trio or perhaps playing as a sideman with Rudresh Mahanthappa or Rez Abbasi.
But with his latest work, Fourteen in your ears, you realize that you didn’t really know Dan Weiss until now.
Fourteen is essentially an extended composition for a large (14-piece) ensemble of percussion, horns, voices, organ, harp, guitar. Though there are seven tracks on this recording, Fourteen is really one. And that is what is so impressive and so demanding here for the listener.
Things start simply, with an angular piano part (Jacob Sacks) consisting of a single line that toggles between low and middle register, funky and quirky at once, eventually joined by Weiss’s thudding and insistent drums. The effect, here and in many other places, is that of layers of complexity slowly building. A lead melody appears through wordless singing, and then things start to mushroom: Miles Okazaki’s classical guitar, doubled voices, bass, saxophones (David Binney on alto and Oahd Talmor on tenor) — with some parts falling into unison to thicken the texture but others generating independent counter melodies. And by the five-minute mark this is not merely a highly complex piece of music but a full-fledged exercise in contrasting rhythms, daring sonorities, and classing harmonic tensions. The voices rise and soar, the saxophones begin wailing, Okazaki switches over to electric guitar and gets to raging, and you have on your hand what can only be called a genuine climax.
“Part One” brings to mind the “minimalist” music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass in that there are relatively simple lines and rhythms that begin with strong and simple clarity and then, through contrasting sets of relative simplicity, develop complexity through overlap and layering. The difference, however, is that Reich’s and Glass’s minimalism tends to remain flat or more technical — it builds in complexity but not in passion. Fourteen uses Reich’s layering but adds a clear pattern of rising volume, intensity — almost fever. Many of these sections reach peaks of ecstasy. Do they ever.
But it’s equally true that the sections connect organically. “Part Two” has its way paved by a wall-of-sound organ chord that takes over “Part One” at the very end and then gives way to gentle but distorted guitar part that transfers over to brass and then classical guitar, a pretty chamber part breaks down the music to simplicity again, only to have it woven back into interest by a harp part and then woodwinds, glockenspiel (Matt Mitchell, the superb pianist and composer), and eventually voices and drums that turn this track into a zone of mysterious impressionism. “Part Two” doesn’t build in a straight line, by the two-thirds point a set of pulsing vocals, tricky handclaps, and low-and-steady bass line bring the listener to a different kind of delicate climax.
These intriguing transitions and morphing changes continue. “Part Three” uses a Weiss vocal that imitates a tabla drum before it a set of insistent accents on the third beat to whip up a thrilling vocal whirlwind — matching only by the exciting simultaneous saxophone improvisations that follow. Binney and Talmor spin and prattle with their horns, seemingly copying Weiss’s tabla example, all until things suddenly stop.
“Part Four” comes out like a driving rocker in four-four, with organ and electric guitar shouting. Except there is an irregular measure every few, and then horns start bleating loudly with the keyboard, the pulses coming but more slowly. Eventually the band, with drums still driving like Metallica, sets of a shorter and shorter pulses that sound like Morse code coming from across a war zone. Whew, it’s effective.
Brass starts off the next section: two trombones in duet, playing a part that circles around a keeps coming with recurring interest. But you know what to expect by now: add alto sax, one voice, then two. Glock doubles part of the melody, then a counter-melody enters and wiggles around the edge. “Part Six” begins with voices singing the trombone parts before brass begins a nervous syncopated throbbing up high and the organ and guitar hold long, ominous notes. Piano and drums bash out off-kilter accents. It builds again under a tenor sax solo, but mainly this section commits itself to a sense of insistence.
How can it all end? Fourteen is rife with transitions, yet it is also seamless as a whole. The melodies are not harmonically complex and distinctive like set of seven Cole Porter songs — they are all within a general pulsing range of similarity, so it’s hard to imagine the perfect conclusion. What Weiss gives us (as he composed everything here) is a final section that just whispers and rumbles, chimes and shivers. Mostly, it is Sacks’s piano and low grumble of tuba, with guitar sneaking in a bit. It is a coda of silence and whole notes, held single notes. The music melts away rather than aiming for one more crazy climax.
This ending seems just right because now your whistle is whetted but you could stand a bit more. And back to “Part One” you probably go, eager to hear again how it all unfolds and connects. No one player dominates, not a single voice overpowers the listener, you could stand to hear quite a bit more from everyone.
What Weiss has accomplished here is hard to categorize. It’s not a jazz recording by any normal definition: no real solos, not an ensemble of individual voices who play improvised variations on a theme. But it’s far from classical music too — it’s just not that kind of controlled playing, notated though it almost mostly is. It incorporates world music but is plainly a product of Weiss’s idiosyncratic imagination rather than any folk tradition.
Maybe it’s best just to hear Fourteen as a kind of pure abstraction — a number, you might say. A number with passion. A number with fire.