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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dan Weiss - Sixteen: Drummers Suite (Pi Recordings, 2016) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Dan Weiss returns with a slightly larger ensemble and a more-cohesive, driving vision. His previous album, FOURTEEN, was a grand big-band spectacle. On SIXTEEN: DRUMMERS SUITE, Weiss has crafted a glorious tribute to six of the all-time great drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke, and Ed Blackwell. The source material for each composition (“Elvin,” “Max,” “Tony,” “Philly Joe,” “Klook,” and “Ed”) comes from specific patterns performed by each drummer on a certain recording. And truly, one could spend hours digging into the original recordings, comparing them to these compositions, digging further into each drummer’s discography to pull together the various threads of inspiration that informed how Weiss attempted to shape each track in the style and personality of its namesake. But I want to spend slightly more time on what an exceptional big-band album this is.

“The Drummers Meet” introduces the album’s concept with a Weiss solo that incorporates elements of each drummer’s style. Weiss then abruptly kicks off “Elvin,” the track that inspired this entire project. Sixteen retains many of the same players from Fourteen, with a few additions and substitutions: Stephen Cellucci, Thomas Morgan, Jacob Sacks, Matt Mitchell, Miles Okazaki, Katie Andrews, Anna Webber, David Binney, Miguel Zenon, Ohad Taylor, Jacob Garchik, Ben Gerstein, Judith Berkson, Lana Is, and Jen Shyu.

Morgan introduces “Tony” with a brief solo. About a minute in, the horns lay down the first melodic line, followed by a short piano duel and harp riff. By the time Taylor, Binney, and Zenon begin trading saxophone solos, the rhythm section, along with the vocal trio, is absolutely swinging. Later, Mitchell is heard on glockenspiel backing Okazaki, a pairing that recurs a couple of times throughout the album. And these are the kinds of moments that showcase Weiss’s imagination, dazzling interplays often between instruments you’d never typically match up.

“Philly Joe” opens with a beautiful tabla pattern, eventually settling into a meditative choral stretch that takes up most of the middle section. A Xenakis-inspired horn pattern pulls the track forward into a fascinating blend of new music and wordless vocals, that somehow segues into a Mitchell organ solo, countered by Sacks’s circular piano line. During the last third of “Klook,” Morgan and Weiss perform an evocative duet, teasing a pairing I’d love to hear more from.

At 15 minutes, “Ed” is the undisputed standout. Opening with a free, unaccompanied chorale, the entire band gradually joins in, adding another voice and layer to the floating improvisation. There seem to be shades of color here, rather than discreetly composed lines (though I may be mistaken), as only a few melodic elements repeat. After Weiss joins on cymbals, there’s an extended duet by Sacks and Mitchell, echoing some of the lines heard during the horns’ warmup. The echoing line is picked up again by the saxophones, and the full band comes and go in thick waves, with Binney and Zenon occasionally singing a high alto note above the fray. Weiss plays a couple of tabla-inspired drum solos, but “Ed” somehow manages to showcase all sixteen players at once. Webber’s flute, like Binney and Zenon’s altos, cuts through in later sections, but the group’s heady interplay is what’s being showcased, in many ways an inspired reflection on all the drummers honored here. The album fades out on a contemplative conversation between guitar, glockenspiel, and piano, punctuated by quiet fills from Weiss. It’s an unexpected finish to the thicket that came before, suitably elegiac and thoughtful.