Percussionist/composer Dan Weiss‘s new album, Fourteen, is out now on Pi Recordings. (Pre-order it from Amazon.) It’s a single, 37-minute, through-composed work featuring 14 musicians: in addition to Weiss on drums and vocal recitation, Jacob Sacks plays piano; Matt Mitchell plays glockenspiel, piano, and organ; Thomas Morgan plays upright bass; Miles Okazaki plays electric and classical guitar; David Binney plays alto saxophone; Ohad Talmor plays tenor saxophone; Jacob Garchik plays trombone and tuba; Ben Gerstein plays trombone; Lana Cencic, Judith Berkson and Maria Neckam provide vocals; Katie Andrews plays harp; and Stephen Cellucci plays percussion. The second track features a section of polyrhythmic clapping from Weiss, Mitchell, Okazaki, Binney and Cellucci.
Fourteen begins with solo piano, setting out a meditatively paced melody. Mitchell is soon joined by Morgan’s bass, Weiss’s drums, and wordless female vocals, singing a countermelody. At the two and a half minute mark, the saxophones come in, providing a third melody that winds between the other two, and before long, the harp and classical guitar are present, too. They all come together like they’re walking down a road and gradually turning into a parade. The horns create sinuous, at times almost klezmer jazz-like lines, as Weiss’s drums maintain a marching rhythm. In the final two minutes of the piece, Okazaki’s guitar begins to scream in a Sonny Sharrock-ian manner, still nestled within the mix but demanding to be heard, until at last it’s drowned out by blasts of organ, which lead directly into the second section.
Stream “Part One”:
As Fourteen continues, it seems to become less and less classifiable with each passing moment. The vocal melodies frequently fall somewhere between the swoops of Sergio Mendes‘s Brasil 66 and the stark recitations of Philip Glass‘s Einstein On The Beach (Weiss himself erupts in near-glossolalia in the third movement); the saxophones embark on simultaneous solos recalling the interaction of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders circa 1966, but stop as cleanly as if the tape had been sliced; Weiss’s drumming swings at times, but locks into a hard rock groove at others; the organ can sound like it’s being played with someone’s elbow; but there are passages of astonishing, pastoral beauty, too, where harp and classical guitar come to the fore and it’s like sunlight pouring through a picture window. The pastoral burbling of voice, trombone and tuba in the fifth section is contrasted with the blaring power of the organ in the sixth, but even this gives way to the most conventionally jazz passage of the entire piece, with Sacks’ piano clambering around like a monkey on a cargo net as the horns play long tones behind him. With all these seemingly contradictory impulses at work, Fourteen should dissolve into chaos, or facile collage, but it never does. It’s multifaceted and stream-of-consciousness in a thoroughly human, and completely comprehensible, way; it’s the sound of Dan Weiss‘s heart and mind, as translated by his hand-picked crew of musicians. It’s one of the most unique and compelling albums of the year.
Weiss answered a few questions about Fourteen by email.
How did the idea for a through-composed piece come to you, and how long did it take to conceive and finish?
This was something I started writing in 2010. The things I was hearing at that time were a little grander in scope, instrumentally, than the piano trio I usually write for. So I would compose on and off for two years, mainly at night. The writing part was finished in March of 2012. We went into the studio in May of 2012.
Did you write each part with the musicians who play it in mind, or did the piece alter as the lineup came together (and how much input did each player have into shaping their part, beyond what was on the paper)?
I wrote every part with the actual individual in mind (except the harpist. I didn’t know any harpists personally). All of the musicians on the record are friends of mine and most of their sounds have been in my head for years. All of the players took what was on the page and made it their own. I didn’t need to tell them much, even though the parts are specific. I have trust in their creativity and musicality. They all did amazing jobs.
Each section of the piece begins with a single instrument (or a single voice, in the case of part 6), and then the ensemble starts to gradually fill in around them. Explain what you were going for, structurally, with this pattern.
Well, the piece was conceived as one long composition. The track numbers seemed to make sense starting in those spots where there were one or two instruments playing. But that’s a purely practical thing. It’s really one piece.
The wordless vocals, rhythms, and to some degree the melody and instrumentation on certain sections, remind me of the prog-rock band Magma. What artists or works actually influenced this piece?
I do love prog bands like Rush, Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson. I can’t say I’ve ever checked out Magma. I will now, though. Everything that I’ve heard in my life has influenced the piece. I was going for a very intense energy juxtaposed with a meditative energy. Some things offhand I remember listening to around the recording: Meshuggah, John Coltrane‘s late records like Interstellar Space, Om, and Live at Temple University 1966, a lot of Indian classical music. But I’ve always loved long compositions as well. Symphonies ranging from Beethoven to Per Nørgård, Morton Feldman compositions, et cetera. I try to be as well rounded as possible. I try to not have any holes in my record collection. Everything from jazz from the ’20s, to all different African music, to all different North and South Asian music, to South American music from various places, to blues of all sorts, to rap of all sorts, to electronica of all sorts, to Western classical of all sorts, punk, metal, Motown, rock, hard rock, glam rock, shoegaze, folk. You get the picture. Music is basically my religion and it’s a way to find a common ground with everyone on the planet.
What were the recording sessions like? The sound is extraordinarily clean, which makes me think everyone did their parts separately—is that the case, or were they all together?
For parts 1, 3, 4, and 6 the rhythm section layered their tracks down first. Then we just layered the others on top. Usually the voices would record together, the horns would record together, et cetera. Track 2 we did in a few sections. The guitar, harp, and glockenspiel recorded along with the horns, then we added the vocals and clapping. Track 5 and 7 we recorded live. It was a stressful process that required a lot of preparation.
What are your plans, if any, for presenting this music live?
The 14 of us are doing a CD release show at the Jazz Gallery April 11 and 12. It can be done live. I have a couple offers from festivals as well. I plan on playing live. I’ll lose money ’cause it’s a big production and there are a lot of people to be paid, but it’s more than worth it.