Drummer Dan Weiss, who turns 40 this year, occupies a singular niche in jazz. A student of tabla virtuoso Samir Chatterjee since 1997, he has conceptualized ways to translate North Indian rhythmic concepts—the specific mnemonic syllables known as bols, the fractally complex meters and extended beat cycles—onto the drums and cymbals with idiomatic fluency.
He also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the lexicon of hardcore jazz drumming across a timeline spanning Papa Jo Jones through Ed Blackwell and beyond.
On his new recording Sixteen: Drummers Suite (Pi), Weiss acknowledges his debt to Blackwell, Kenny Clarke, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach and Tony Williams with six fully orchestrated compositions for a 16-piece ensemble (it includes three vocalists, two trombones and tuba, three saxophones, flutes, harp, guitar, piano, keyboards, acoustic bass, percussion, drum set and tablas).
Weiss builds the compositions around drum patterns that he heard the drum icons play on various recordings. “Tony,” for example, extrapolates Williams’ rhythmic phrases between 6:37 and 6:50 on Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti”; the raw materials of “Philly Joe” are Jones’ improvised response to the flow between 5:10 and 5:14 on the Red Garland Trio’s “Billy Boy” from Miles Davis’ Milestones.
Via Skype from Berlin, where he was midway through a European tour with vocalist Lana Is (one of the album’s vocalists), Weiss discussed his latest opus.
DownBeat: What was the gestation point of Sixteen?
Dan Weiss: I was taken with a snare-and-bass-drum pattern Elvin Jones played at a certain point of John Coltrane’s performance of “Vigil” [2:15 to 2:23], and that is the source material of “Elvin,” the first piece on Sixteen. After learning that, I wrote pitches based to the snare-and-bass-drum pattern, and from there, I wrote a piece just based on that drum motif. Then I thought I could create a suite for my large ensemble out of different drum material, and started looking for things I liked and that had enough scope.
What are some differences between this and your previous large ensemble CD, Fourteen (Pi)?
I definitely made it a point to get more deeply into orchestrating, using varied combinations within the ensemble and going further in terms of color. Perhaps I gave the singers harder material than on Fourteen, where they were more like a choir section than instrumentalists, whereas on Sixteen it’s more interweaving with the instrumentalists.
Were Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke and Ed Blackwell the six drummers who occurred to you right away? Or was there a culling-down process?
I was thinking of about 10 drummers, but it was pretty clear. I’ve been into all these things for a long time. For example, I was always crazy about Kenny Clarke’s intro on Dexter Gordon’s “Broadway” from Our Man In Paris [0:00 to 0:09], and when it occurred to me, I thought it would work. On the “Max” piece, I’d been experimenting with his super-slick comping pattern from “Jodie’s Cha Cha” on Deeds Not Words [1:02 to 1:11], so it was on my mind.
Was it the idea in each case to create pitches and motifs from the drum patterns played by the different limbs of the drummers in question?
Not necessarily. In some pieces, things are rhythmically verbatim throughout the ensemble. I might be playing a Max figure, but other melodic and harmonic things are implied from my study of Max and his influences. Max played chess a lot, and he was fascinated by what people were doing with turntables in hip-hop. I remembered an interview where he said his impetus for playing the solo drum set was seeing a tabla concert, and he thought: “If these guys can do this with a pair of drums, why can’t I do this with the drum set?”
I guess it’s a good thing to have longterm relationships with a group of musicians who know your language. Were you thinking about their sounds and personalities in creating these scores?
One hundred percent with their sounds in mind, what they do best, how they can interact with each other, and which people interact. I’ve played with some of these guys for 20 years—Jacob Sacks, Ben Gerstein, Jacob Garchik, Ohad Talmor. Dave Binney and Thomas Morgan, 15 years. Miguel Zenón and Miles Okazaki, 18 years. We’ve also practiced together throughout the years, and worked on ideas—especially Miles and Jacob Sacks.
Over the last seven years, I’ve gotten really close with [pianist] Matt Mitchell, and we talk a lot about music. So you know your ensemble, how to write for them, what kind of rehearsals work, how many rehearsals you need. It’s like chess or poker. You know how to gauge those things, how to time those things. You have a plan and you know how to execute that plan. That goes with preparation, just like a chess opening.
Everybody in the ensemble, to some degree, has had a high degree of rhythmic training (a good example is the rhythmically challenging piano two-hand passage in “Ed”)—I’d say Steve Coleman paved the way for that skillset. But I don’t think about complexity in the music. I’ve exposed myself to as much music as I can throughout my life. I love simple music, too, though simple music, obviously, can be the most complex, and the most complex movement can be the simplest. Those are hard terms for me. You could say that Trane’s music was super complex, but at the same time it was super simple because it was straight from the heart, more so than any other jazz musician I listen to.
How about the drummer on these pieces? Were you at the center of this musical universe? Were these pieces also tailored to you?
Yeah, I tailor it to me. On “Max,” I was experimenting with his comping pattern from “Jodie’s Cha Cha,” doing it in different speeds, as in Indian classical music, where a basic formula is to play something at the original tempo, then 1½ times the tempo, then double the tempo. I would say that’s pretty tailor-made to something that I work on and have been working on. If I was writing for a different drummer, I would write the drum parts differently. There’s a lot of notated drum parts in this that I have to really work on.
It was a three-day recording session.
Yes. We did the six rhythm section players the first day, the horns the next day and the vocalists the third day. That’s the most efficient way to do it. Doing the whole thing together would have taken probably three to four weeks.
What do you want the fate of these scores to be? Do you see these sorts of pieces entering the knowledge bank for musicians of the next generations?
It will be nice to perform this stuff in the future, and I’ve been working on it. It’s not easy to take 16 people on the road. Some promoters have suggested I take a group of six guys and they’ll get the rest. I’m not into it. But I could see these things being played in the future. I don’t see why not. They’d have to work hard.
This was recorded about 15 months ago. What’s your next project?
I wrote for a trio record with Jacob and Thomas that will be recorded in the spring or summer. The next project I might write for would be drums, three bassists and three pianos. And I’d really like to do another large ensemble. I want to write a piece for six drum sets. That’s on the immediate horizon.