Doing It Live

Drum'n'Bass—With Drums and Basses

The nouns in drum'n'bass have always had invisible quotation marks around them, denoting not instruments but vestigial timbres, primary colors in a certain school of sound design. No other popular music was ever so pointedly digital as early jungle: the frantic, pitch-bent breakbeats satirized "real" drum aesthetics; the absurdly low frequencies bore no referent outside the dub soundsystem. Electro-Brits from Roni Size to LTJ Bukem have used drummers and bassists, but as little more than eye candy for the stage or colorations for the mixer.

That's because recasting such a fast, pointillist language in a live setting is a self-limiting proposition. It selects for the virtuosic and perverse (like studio monsters Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun, who have busted that skitter and boombast on occasion). It demands instrumentalists with both extraordinary facility and an abiding interest in the sound of a quantized, envelope-filtered 303. In a word, nerds. Or at least Downtowners—young, brainy sidemen from avant-jazz combos and rap studios, people hip enough to grok Photek but anal enough to transcribe the drum patterns. That's roughly the profile of the bassists, drummers, and keyboardists recently congregating at the East Village's Izzy Bar, where under names like Nerve and Boomish they've launched a Manhattan Project dedicated to reconstituting drum'n'bass live.

The ringleader is former Screaming Headless Torsos drummer JoJo Mayer, a wiry, Swiss-born 35-year-old whose other human colleagues have run from John Zorn to George Adams to Me'Shell NdegéOcello. Two years ago, Mayer was working with some European knob twiddlers who'd typically record his beats then speed them up electronically to the proper bpms. On one such session, Mayer suddenly made like Dirk Diggler offering a second take: "You know, I could just play those beats faster." Thus began his distinctly premillennial project of be coming a Roland 909.

There on the Izzy Bar stage, Mayer's drum set reveals the extent of his mania: A tiny kickdrum, cracked and down-pitched cymbals, two 10-inch piccolo snares, little tambourine jingles everywhere—Rube Goldberg variations meant to affect the hiss, compression, and other recording imperfections that jungle made into a new sonic palette. (The set even in spired the Sonor drum company's new "jungle" line.) Likewise, bassists such as Tim LeFebvre and Jonathan Maron use F/X like octave dividers, auto-filters, and Moogerfoogers to approximate the grit and oceanic drift of the 303. In action, these efforts at what Mayer calls "reverse engineering" yield a decidedly Baudrillardian frisson: the real imitating the recorded imitating the real.

With DJ Cassien still spinning, the transubstantiation begins. Introducing high-hat tingles and subliminal bass drones, the band blends into the mix. Jamie Saft brings glimmering 4 Hero ambience out of a Fender-Rhodes. Henry Hey coaxes a nasty, Chemical Brothers–ish oscillation from a Roland. And Mayer subtly lopes into the foreground, picking up the bass and snare patterns of the Dillinja cut. After about five minutes of seamless grooving, Mayer starts one long, clamorous snare roll and the group crashes into a new, self-directed section—all live now—a frantic steeplechase with LeFebvre driving the dementedly burbling pitches of a Grooverider bass track. The performance is full of the bells and whistles that signify U.K. drum'n'bass—even the trademark double-pitched snare rolls typified by the Omni Trio's ur-breakbeat "Renegade Snare." Only it's way more fun to watch.

Eventually, though, live drum'n'bass proved a surprisingly unforgiving form. Without melodies or chord changes, elements like tempo and son ic dimension become crucial. When Mayer or Boomish drummer Zach Danziger dropped much below 160 bpms—into, say, a loose-limbed shuffle at 110—the music's separate elements tended to break down in ways infelicitously familiar. Keyboardists tried to keep it real with analog noise and wahwah static, but muscle memory seemed to pull the rhythm section inexorably into Weather Report country. Somehow, Mayer's rolls and fills started to sound like Billy Cobham. And soon, the music came perilously close to the swinging funk, Fender-Rhodes posturing, and Urban Outfitter grooves of acid-jazz. The syndrome is well-documented, audible in the many beats'n'riffs records of the early '90s. The text was hip-hop then, and the talisman the 808, but the charms and pitfalls much the same. In fact, most of today's jungle-as-new-jazz ruminations simply reconfigure that era's critical aperçus at about 50 bpms higher.

For the most part, the Izzy crew skirted doom through close attention to jungle's unjazzy rules—though not always. When the Icelandic bass virtuoso Skuli Sverrisson sat in with Nerve, his acute touch and sensitivity were practically deficits. Reserved instead of looming, on-the-beat instead of madly subdividing, Sverrisson's playing actually sapped the flow of jungle animus. A less monstrous bassist like LeFebvre was more fluent in the vocabulary and much more successful: his loud, distorted basslines were perfect: huge, retarded, mechanically careering, and utterly unlike any other music.

All vamp-based music faces a more constitutional problem: the need for a voice, for some bar-crossing narrative that develops over time. In jungle, that voice is chosen and shaped by the mixer. Live, there is no one to point the way, and still no vocals, soloists, or song form. Despite a strong sense of breakbeat mathematics, Boomish's Danziger often became too static, leaving the group's samples to provide the central melody and techno bravado. It was a reasonable strategy, but the sampler-free Nerve seemed to solve the problem better.

Thrashing and paradiddling along at breakneck speed, Mayer him self provided the voice. It was a long, protean discourse, essentially one hyperextended drum solo—somewhere between Elvin Jones's polyrhythmic time keeping and a pissed-off windup monkey. (No wonder the sets are only half an hour long!) Mayer wasn't un dynamic—he rose, fell, changed-up, spaced out—but he somehow sustained the intensity with an airier take on jungle drumming, more gestural on the cymbals and hotter on the snares. It had both the needed violence of soundsystem drums and an impressionistic fluidity.

Plus, he was listening. And his sidemen were listening to him. In one thrilling passage, keyboardist Karsh Kale used snare and tom patches on his Korg workstation to double bass lines and complicate Mayer's playing, adding complexity and intrigue to the patterns, morphing and augmenting the timbres like a sampler untethered to a click track. This was the closest thing to true live jungle I've ever seen: crazy sounds modulating measure to measure, separate voices developing synchronously and independently, themes and rhythms spiraling and intertwining like individual thought pat terns meeting. That's something only humans can perform.

Don't misunderstand: an excellent DJ is certainly a live musician, acting and reacting in time. Some might even call him a late-century echo to this year's centennialist and "jungle music" progenitor, Duke Ellington, who used flesh and brass in stead of vinyl and silicon. But how many surprises does that one wahwah track really have in it? How much after-the-fact shading can you really do with phase-shifters and pitch controls? It's no accident that mixmasters like Ellington, Mingus, Sun Ra, and George Clinton all happened upon some form of the construct "organized chaos," which is another term for society.

Which, of course, speaks to the most fundamental charm of these musical John Henrys. In the end, all the reverse engineering and click-track mimesis is simply a form of gestalt therapy. Mayer and company are not trying to reinvent the breakbeat, just fire up their own musical world. They're looking for another language to play. Drunk on cyber-rhetoric, many rave messiahs seem to think their scene is actually doing things like "rewiring the cerebral cortex" or "multitasking the ear into subharmonic frequencies." Let's not forget that, in music at least, these terms are metaphors. Computers do amazing things, but they can't erase thousands of years of musical ritual. As the tech nopopsters put it so eloquently, people are people. They still like to play.

Nerve, Boomish, and the Prohibited Beatz posse play Tuesdays at Shine.

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