Photo by Schindelbeck

on Nature Work

A jazz vet improvises a wild ride through the blazing new effort by a pair of prolific jazz songwriters.

After the fiery, dueling horn intro that opens Nature Work—the newest project from musicians and composers Jason Stein (bass clarinet) and Greg Ward (saxophone)—veteran jazz improviser Jim Black explodes with a barrage of dirty crashes, cracking snare accents, rolling yet jagged tom fills, and rapid cymbal chokes. That’s all before the drummer emerges from the satisfying rubble unscathed with gorgeous time, pushing the quartet (which also includes bassist Eric Revis) tastefully through “The Shiver”’s head and brilliant solos.

Throughout the rest of Nature Work, the quartet straddles a broad line between freer jazz and the more straight-ahead melodies of Stein and Ward, with plenty of dark yet beautiful dynamic sways. Following suit, Black’s drumming shifts on a whim between Philly Joe bop, Bonham swing, and Paul Motian space—all while singing freely with his own electric voice behind the kit. It’s a voice the drummer tirelessly developed throughout his career with artists such as the saxophonist Tim Berne and trumpeter Dave Douglas, and in his own projects AlasNoAxis and Pachora, among others.

We recently caught up with Black to dig into Nature Work, which was released this past June 21. Don’t miss out on this one.

MD: How did this project come together?

Jim: I subbed for Jason’s trio, and it was a lot of fun. He asked me to do this album with Greg and Eric, so I fl ew out to Chicago, and we made it happen.

MD: What was the writing process like?

Jim: Jason wrote the songs with Greg. We got together, and they had loose sketches. We could immediately have at them and find our sound.

MD: Did you have a previous musical relationship with the group?

Jim: No. It was out of the blue for me. But it was great to meet and play. And that’s what you do as an improviser. You listen to each other and play with them. I mean, I’ve known Eric through Branford Marsalis’s or Orrin Evans’ albums. I’d heard Jason and Greg on various recordings. But when you play together, you interpret each other quickly and make it happen.

MD: How do you maintain confidence in a new situation?

Jim: You have to instantly trust that they hear what you’re doing and you hear what they’re doing. And you have to understand what music is—different types of time, melody, harmony, how forms work, how sounds work together. And you share and go for it.

MD: How do you approach modulations? In “The Shiver” it sounds like you shift into a different time signature around the 2:55 mark.

Jim: Being that it was a new band, you can really try anything and see if it works. It was probably something suggested by the composition. The songs have ideas and motifs inside of them. You can choose to play over it, ignore it, embrace it, or develop it further. It’s an improvisational choice.

Plus these guys understand time and groove in such a way that you can play in different shapes or speeds on top of each other, and you know it’s going to resolve, or you know that everyone’s feeling the groove or feeling how the tension and resolution work rhythmically.

MD: Do you have a specific warm-up routine?

Jim: None. [laughs] It’s a matter of connecting my ideas and my center with the end of the stick. I don’t really think about technique too much. I just try to stay out of the way of the stick.

And I don’t sit and try to play a five-stroke roll. If I hear that shape or allow my hands to make that shape, that’s another story. But you play what you hear—the rhythms and melodies. I think if you have that in your head, it’s amazing how the notes just appear in the right spots. Because I really can’t stand drumming. It’s terrible. [laughs]

MD: What?

Jim: I mean in that way where you play like a drummer. You have to hire musicians. You don’t hire drummers. Of course the sport of drumming is awesome. Come on, we know what that is.

But I think some of these technical cats can get to a certain musical level, and that’s what you see with a drummer like Mike Mitchell. He has zero technical limit. He’s just having a blast when he plays, and you feel his music first, even though technically it’s insane. I think a lot of drummers work on the technical [aspect]. They’ll be trying to calculate and think. But they’re not really hearing a musical idea. And I think that’s the one thing about drummers. We’re a little dangerous by nature, where we have such a regard for the “church of technicality” where we forget that it’s actually music that we’re playing. If you approach any of the stuff as a melody or musical idea, technical issues don’t become a problem.

MD: Why do you refer to it as a “church of technicality”?

Jim: Drummers can tend to be wowed by a technical grace of facility, speed, or velocity. Very few people notice the slow drummers. Someone like Paul Motian, he was defined by what he didn’t play, not what he did play—the space he left between the notes and how heavy his beat was, even though he was barely playing sometimes. But you could feel the weight and shape of that. And all of the masters have that. They’re all musicians first, drummers second.

Jim Black endorses Vic Firth, Remo, Hammerax, and UFIP products.


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