For this year's Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Jim Black, percussionist extraordinaire, led a quartet from the back of a blue lit stage at the Toff in Town. The venue provides a clear acoustic space and is being praised by visiting musicians playing there for the first time. The quartet – Black on his customized drum kit along with Julien Wilson on that jazziest of instruments, the tenor sax, Stephen Magnussen on guitar and Chris Hale on electric bass, made music which was a mixture of improvisation and compositions from all four musicians. Black’s played with Wilson and Magnusson in Melbourne before, referring to them as ‘my instant band.’ Black talked about this being his shortest trip to Australia – a fly in, fly out concert.
This show created a dynamic balance between Black and Hale holding the rhythm section with Black’s typical off-beat timing and layering of rhythms, and the sax and guitar working in and around them. There were no extended solos; this was an ensemble work driven by the drums. The total sound was the whole of its parts.
It’s a lot of fun seeing Black perform; he’s almost comical to watch with his unselfconscious gestures and expressions. His drum set becomes a living thing, an extension of his body. You watch the percussive impulse originating from deep in the gut. Black almost doodles over his drums, slapping them with his hands in seemingly random percussive flourishes, dangling the drum sticks and nearly falling into his drum kit. Black possesses a singular physicality and seems almost intoxicated at times, occasionally uses himself as an instrument with the odd slap to his chest or leg with the drum sticks, all the while trying to make as many different sounds as possible come out of the drum kit.
Genre-wise the performance didn’t stray from the standard form of modern jazz, a contemporary modern experimental style and pattern. This sort of music is what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘New York jazz.’ It can sound discordant with a bit of glam rock shoving its way in amongst the crunchy, scrapey sounds. The music moves in waves, becoming fuller and boomier at times and then calming. There are moments where the driving guitar sounds like keyboards. But it’s not dancey, nor even a toe-tapping sound. You can’t let your attention simply float across this kind of music; you have to get into the rhythms, into the groove, man! And the effort, if it is any effort, is so well-rewarded.
2017 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Jim Black Quartet
Venue: The Toff in Town | Second Floor Curtin House, 252 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Date: 5 June 2017
Tickets: $55 – $49