Dan Weiss Credit: courtesy of Pi Recordings

In the liner notes to his dense but enjoyable new album, Sixteen:  Drummers Suite (Pi), percussionist Dan Weiss explains that working with a large ensemble on his previous recording, Fourteen, opened up his thinking. He wanted to do dig in deeper, and that’s exactly what he’s done with his latest project—its title refers to the number of musicians on the recording. Sixteen pays homage to legendary drummers who’ve inspired Weiss, among them Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones, and not just in broad strokes. It zeroes in on very short fragments of their playing, mostly from their classic recordings, in order to highlight the kinds of distinctive improvised phrases and creative patterns they might inject into the flow of a tune (as opposed to during a solo). In the CD packaging, Weiss details his sources—the Elvin Jones bit is taken from live John Coltrane footage from 1965 that’s been uploaded to YouTube—and indicates where exactly in each original recording you can hear the passage he borrowed.

On a tune named after Philly Joe, Weiss uses 13 seconds of Jones’s drumming from a performance of “Billy Boy” on the Miles Davis album Milestones—the longest snippet of source material employed by any of the album’s six pieces. The rest are all less than ten seconds, but Weiss has built richly arranged, through-composed pieces from those brief passages, reworking them so thoroughly that it’s rarely readily apparent how they’ve provided his compositional foundations. Weiss is a serious student of percussion practice, but he also notes that he sought to reflect research that he conducted into the life of each musician. Mirroring the way jazz drummers have always listened closely to one another, he additionally tried to cross-pollinate each piece with some element redolent of his other subjects.

The album opens with the short solo piece “The Drummers Meet,” which fuses the six passages into what the press materials say is a chakradar, a type of tabla composition (Weiss is a superb tabla player in addition to being a great kit drummer). His group has a very unusual sound: its three vocalists (Judith Berkson, Lana Is, Jen Shyu) sing wordless passages, and its large contingent of reeds and brass (including Anna Webber, Miguel Zenon, David Binney, Ohad Talmor, Jacob Garchik, and Ben Gerstein) rarely plays jazzlike tones or riffs, instead moving orchestrally and creating shimmering tones that blend beautifully with the voices and the other instruments (Katie Andrews’s harp, Miles Okazaki’s electric guitar, and Matt Mitchell’s kaleidoscopic variety of acoustic and electronic keyboards). The album is heady and packed with ideas, with rigorous counterpoint, frequent tempo shifts, and wildly varied, enveloping harmonies. It’s the kind of record that could inspire academic analysis—or you could just lose yourself in it for days at a time. It’s not a jazz record per se, but it wouldn’t have been possible without jazz.

Below you can listen to “Tony,” named for Tony Williams and built around a dynamic passage he played near the conclusion of the classic Miles Davis recording of “Nefertiti”—its pulsing calm is repeatedly punctured by bomblike explosions. There’s not a lot that obviously links “Tony” and “Nefertiti,” though Weiss does drop some similar bombs about a minute into his piece. It still gives listeners more than enough to grab onto, however: the slaloming unison patterns (which suggest Hindustani music) that Okazaki plays with a succession of his bandmates, for instance, and the tense, choppy funk that Binney and Zenon chew up in back-and-forth sallies before they go head-to-head. Dig in.
Today’s playlist:

Tristan Honsinger, Toshinori Kondo, Peter Kowald, and Sabu Toyozumi, What Are You Talking About? (IMA/DIW)
Daníel Bjarnason, Processions (Bedroom Community)
Don Wilkerson, The Texas Twister (OJC/Riverside)
Fred Van Hove, Complete Vogel Recordings (Unheard Music Series)
Elvin Jones, Midnight Walk (Atlantic, Japan)