Dan Weiss doesn’t like labels.
Like any self-respecting polymath, Dan Weiss doesn’t like labels. Labels restrict, after all. They close doors, forcing false choices. Is he a drummer or a composer? A bandleader or a sideman? A master of his craft or a lifelong student? Likewise, there may be more right ways than wrong to describe his latest album, Starebaby — a hyphen-hungry avant-jazz-prog-metal collection of eight tunes that brood, groove and smash their way to the center of the listener’s being. Finding the balancing point among all these disparate elements takes an act of supreme concentration and discipline, and whatever you want to call him, Weiss is up for the challenge.
Chances are he’s practicing right now. No, really. In an interview with All About Jazz, he described his experience with the Hindustani classical music practice called chilla, a solitary retreat during which a musician practices their instrument for days on end, pausing only to satisfy the most basic bodily needs. Every drummer woodsheds — but not for 120 hours straight. (Or 40 days, the goal Weiss mentions in the interview.) That said, it’s not likely that Weiss is after mastery of whatever instrument he’s practicing — drum set, tabla, piano — for mastery’s sake alone, but rather to achieve the facility he needs for bigger-picture ambitions like navigating the full range of his musical interests or, as he might put it, conversing in music’s “universal language.”
The effort it takes to learn a language is largely wasted, of course, if you don’t have others to speak it with. Despite his comfort with extreme isolation, Weiss has found much fruitful society in a loose group of frequent collaborators, including many of his Pi Recordings labelmates. Even his pair of purportedly solo outings — Tintal Drumset Solo (2005) and Jhaptal Drumset Solo (2011), full-kit transcriptions of tabla rhythm cycles — involve contributions from guitarist Miles Okazaki, who supplies the hypnotic melodic ostinato known in Indian classical music as lehara. In the context of his most recent work as a leader, though, Starebaby does mark a drastic reduction in personnel, distilling the large-group approach of Fourteen (2014) and Sixteen: Drummers Suite (2016) — carried out, you guessed it, by ensembles of 14 and 16 musicians, respectively — down to a group known in their YouTube clips as the Dan Weiss Metal Jazz Quintet.
If Weiss could find enough people with the chops and genre-bending sensibilities necessary for bringing the astonishing sui generis stuff of his last two albums to life, then finding the right folks for Starebaby couldn’t have been that hard. In fact, when he was asked all the way back in 2011 whether he knew any jazz musicians who were into metal, without hesitation he named pianist Matt Mitchell, guitarist Ben Monder and bassist Trevor Dunn — all of whom, surprise, are here. Sharing key and synth duties with Mitchell, the fifth member is Craig Taborn, a pianist best known for his work with such free-jazz greats as William Parker and Roscoe Mitchell and as a leader of several albums on the timeless ECM label.
As technical as much of the music on Starebaby is, the presence of two pianists has less to do with Weiss writing parts that require four hands than it does with his overall approach to composition and improvisation — one that puts the total effect of the group’s sound over individual identities or egos. Which pianist is playing what? Or is that guitar? While the sheer scale of Fourteen and Sixteen called for incredible detail and meticulous structuring, simply accounting for that many people also resulted in a relatively conventional solo-spot rotation. Not so on Starebaby — or not quite.
Take Monder. “A Puncher’s Chance” opens the album with a darkly pretty acoustic fingerpicking pattern, recorded intimately enough to hear the friction of the guitarist’s fingers sliding along the strings. But rather than a showcase for Monder’s considerable talents, this introduction proves to be stage-setting for the collective work — balancing classical and jazz improv traditions — of embellishment, variation and development. Each repetition of the opening passage slightly alters it, whether doubling it on electric guitar or piano, setting it against synthesized textures or wringing it through a variety of drum beats, themselves growing with each renewal of the cycle. When Monder does play out, it’s often against certain restraints. On “Depredation,” his solo is barbed with single thorny notes, knotted here and there with quick finger-work; almost as soon as the band drops out at the climactic moment and Monder is left shred alone, the distortion begins to escalate, grinding his individual notes into a digital paste. On “Annica,” his playing never really rises above the level of droning intimation — a technique Weiss could have picked up just as easily from Sunn O))) as from the Indian tanpura.
The other relevant reference point here is film music. While Weiss calls attention to this influence specifically with “Badalamenti,” named after the frequent David Lynch collaborator, the idea of soundtrack music more generally illuminates the way Weiss’s compositions seem executed in service of something bigger — not narratives, per se, but sound-worlds where instrumental voices play out relationships and tensions: The delicacy of piano against sludge-black guitar and bass. The snag of Byzantine odd-meter grooves against the rush of all-out cymbal-crashing vamps. The push of breakneck unisons against the quicksand pull of contrasting layers.
Perhaps this is why so many parts of the album perform double duty, exciting you in their own right while also setting the groundwork for the next scene. Halfway through “Badalamenti,” Weiss takes what passes for a drum solo on Starebaby — an unbroken groove doggedly working a single rhythmic motif, the same motif the rest of the group builds upon in the next section. Something similar happens on the quarter-hour closing track, “Episode 8,” and it’s the same thing that happened with Monder’s fingerpicking on “A Puncher’s Chance”: Weiss runs the piece out the gate with an uptempo beat that turns out to be a perfect skeleton sketch of the manic unison prog melody that kicks off half a minute in. By now it’s clear that this is music that teaches you how to listen to it. There’s so much else on Starebaby worth your attention, it may take a few listens to catch on. But that’s probably OK by Weiss. As he says of his 20-year tabla teacher, Pandit Samir Chatterjee: “My Guru has imparted knowledge that I have only begun to understand after some years” — and he’s doing just fine.