New York based drummer-composer Dan Weiss is an industrious and questing musician who has carved out an impressive niche for himself in the American contemporary music scene. As a sideman, he adeptly handles highly complex musical structures working with the likes of Rudresh Mahanthappa and David Binney. As a solo musician and band leader, he has successfully applied his extensive knowledge of Indian tabla forms and techniques to the drum kit, resulting in two thrillingly musical drum solo albums (Tintal Drum Solo and Jhaptal Drum Solo) and two excellent albums with his unconventional and imaginative trio (Now Yes When and Timshel). Weiss is the kind of musician, as his often brilliant YouTube videos attest, who can find music in aspects of every day life (the musical phrasing in the speech patterns of an auctioneer, to cite just one example).
With Fourteen, his first work for a large ensemble (incorporating, perhaps unsurprisingly, 14 musicians), Weiss now stakes a claim to be viewed among the serious artists of contemporary American composition (Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Threadgill are two of the major figures that sometimes spring to mind when listening to this intricate, demanding but exciting music. Although it is divided into seven parts, Fourteen is essentially an extended composition. This places it in that world of serious art music that is hard to classify – it has elements of a jazz performance as well as elements of classical composition (including influences drawn from Indian music). It is unusual, highly nuanced and not for the faint hearted. As with some of the best work in this field, it is sometimes hard to distinguish moments of improvisation from through-composed elements, so carefully do these skilled musicians interweave their ideas.
Fourteen works so well because it achieves its complexity and density through imaginative contrasts, juxtapositions and layering. Many of the individual lines are clear and communicative. The individual parts often begin in a gentle, unassuming way (although Jacob Sacks’ presaging piano part does feel like a harbinger of something more menacing, or at least unsettling). Part Two veers from a deceptively pretty acoustic guitar part to a deft, thrilling cascade of clapping rhythms and syncopated vocals. Weiss’ use of voices as instruments (three female singers appear on Fourteen – Lana Cencic, Judith Berkson and Maria Neckham), and their crucial role within his orchestrations, provide just one of many delights to be enjoyed in Fourteen.
Whilst much of Fourteen is mysterious, perhaps even melancholy, Weiss is strident and unafraid of calamity and chaos. There’s the brilliantly jarring dissonant stabs and insistent distortion on Part Four, expertly meshing large ensemble jazz compositional techniques with the dynamics and fury of a small rock ensemble. It feels suitably apocalyptic. Part Three also finishes with some cathartic, excoriating saxophone improvising from David Binney and Ohad Talmor).
On first listen, it sometimes feels as if, through prioritising his writing and arranging, Weiss might have pushed himself into the background of his own recording – but this is of course far too simplistic an interpretation. He remains a purposefully versatile drummer, able to produce startling dynamic contrasts at the flick of a switch, and creating sounds, timbres and textures that define the mood of his music.
Fourteen is a defiantly contemporary work, but it defly sidesteps many of contemporary jazz’s more trying cliches. This is the sound of an individual musician developing a strong creative voice and applying it to new creative settings; of someone challenging both themselves and their audience. This is where numbers get serious.