Why shouldn’t jazz and metal find a common cause? A good slice of both genres thrive and precision, complexity, and instrumental prowess. The composer (and sometime saxophonist) John Zorn put them together in bands Naked City and Pain Killer a generation ago. Now the drummer Dan Weiss has put together the band Starebaby to make the junction even more potent, gloomy, and impressive.
Starebaby’s second outing, Natural Selection, is simply more varied than its elevator speech might suggest. It is more varied and intriguing than the debut, featuring a less consistently doomy set of sonic constructions. The band’s superb keyboardists, Mitchell and Craig Taborn, get more moments to play beyond a strictly “metal” or electronica context, while Ben Monder’s guitar is given a varied set of roles, from biting to growling to atmospheric. The bassist Trevor Dunn rounds out the band, bringing his experience with Zorn and many other boundary-crossing projects.
Starebaby falls beautifully into the new jazz framework of complex composition that is willing to draw its colors and techniques from just about anywhere in world music.
Weiss’s resume includes various killer new jazz ensembles, including Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition fusing bebop and Indian music, a dazzling duo with pianist Matt Mitchell, his own piano trio, and too many others to count. His background is in South Asian tabla playing, classical composition, jazz, and doom metal. His desert island discs include Coltrane, Stravinsky, Metallica, Rush, Nikhil Banerjee, and Elis Regina. In short, he is a head-spinning musician—and a Gen Xer young enough to be utterly uninterested in any supposed genre-purity issues.
True, the opener, “Episode 18”, mimics “Episode 8” from the debut recording and presents as a pure metal anthem with Monder and Dunn playing a raging octave speed lick that Weiss joins with glee, leading to a slow, dark metal passage that segues into a synthesized mystery. But the bulk of Natural Selection plays more like a particularly imaginative fusion that happens to be unafraid of darker textures.
“Today Is Wednesday Tomorrow?”, for example, strikes me as entirely beyond genre, and hardly either metal or electronica. The gentle opening statement from Mitchell’s Prophet synth invites a beautiful wave of accompaniment from acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, electric guitar, and textural drums. It is the aural equivalent of a starry night—all sweeping wonders and light against a dark, ghostly backdrop, but never less than sumptuous, particularly as it develops into a slow, arcing melody traded between the synth and guitar. Weiss begins a stuttering groove in the background, however, with Dunn adding a thumping counterpoint. That leads into a blinking piano part, then two interlocking piano parts that make the last two minutes a hypnotic Morse code workout more reminiscent of Steve Reich than of Pentagram.
The 14-minute “A Taste of Memory” could barely sound less “metal” for its first stretch. A melancholy single-note piano line creeps in, low in the instrument’s register, reverberating across a sonic canyon, then limned with the gentlest synth. Weiss uses the METAL!!! implication of this band (including shadowed baby doll photo on the cover) to steel the listener for deathly power, and then he really shocks us with quiet. Which makes it more effective when the darker sounds do come.
So, “A Taste of Memory” then brings in Monder’s dark, fuzzed-out tones, yes, but the figures that take over sound more like fusion or Zappa, odd-metered counterpoint with a dose of buzzing unison as well. Eventually, this herky-jerky theme is played by piano alone, revealed as an angular pattern that might have come from Erik Satie if he just knew a bit of Thelonious Monk music. Dunn joins the theme an octave lower, then Weiss is back in on drums, and Mitchell’s ghostly synth becomes a wispy soloist.
The other epic performance is “Accina”, which begins on a long acoustic piano tremolo, giving way to a Deep Purple-sounding section with a simple lick for twinned Monder/Dunn getting moved about and reshuffled various ways, but largely driven by the power of the acoustic instruments (drums and piano). Monder takes a long solo, followed by the album’s most atmospheric section: the whole band shifting into a set of whispers over a grounding bass lick that sounds like a clock striking the hour, over and over. The pianists get an even more open improvisation section in the last third of the tune.
The real achievement of
Natural Selection is how Weiss brings together different voices that we don’t associate with “creative music” into a balanced whole. The recording isn’t jazz guys getting dirty playing metal but rather a way of allowing a heavy, overdriven guitar to become an utterly valid voice in a set of compositions driven by a range of influences.
“The Long Diagonal” uses several rhythmically complex lines, mainly for acoustic piano that could
almost be Latin montunos, around which drums and guitar fly. For certain listeners, the result will inevitably bring to mind the complex pieces that Chick Corea designed for his Return to Forever band. The joyful difference, however, is that this band never sounds overly slick or predictable. The piano solo on this tune, by Taborn, I believe, flies and tumbles and rolls joyfully, not to be contained or overly programmed. “Dawn” finds Weiss playing brushes, propelling a limber set of interlocking lines, including Monder’s guitar ringing almost like a bell! It’s “fusion”—but not just of “jazz” and “rock”. Its amalgam is more nuanced and complicated.
Natural Selection is not really a Jazz Goes Metal (or electronica—even less so), then it’s not a “jazz” record either. There isn’t even one tune where things “swing” in some conventional way, for example. It is very much in line with the new jazz of compositional complexity and improvisational freedom, but admitting to the playhouse some different sounds: metal-y guitar, atmospheric synths, a way of arranging the bass in connection to other instruments. In the humanity of Weiss’s drumming, though, the lineage of Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette comes through, particularly as those players were extended into a new century by Jim Black, Bobby Previte, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. The way that “Bridge of Trust” builds in layers over Weiss’s rolling toms and colorful cymbals, pliantly played, the project could almost be a futuristic fracturing of A Love Supreme.
This doesn’t mean that Starebaby doesn’t know how to get nasty (the thudding guitar on “Head Wreck”) or create bizarre electronic texture (Taborn’s effects-distorted Fender Rhodes on the same tune). It’s just that this band and the Weiss compositions that drive this project are sound-omnivorous: eager to use every timbral and textural option in the service of music that wants to take us on a journey, paint us a picture.