reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris
Spring 2001—The drummer Cindy Blackman has been on the scene for many years, at least since the early Eighties with Sam Rivers and, later, Wallace Roney, and I was pleasantly surprised to see her one evening a few years back when I was working lights at the Aragon Ballroom and she was backing the guitarist Lenny Kravitz, kicking much harder and funkier than Sheila E. had playing behind Prince. On record, I recalled her playing on Roney's The Standard Bearer with Gary Thomas, Mulgrew Miller, and bassist Charnett Moffett.
I wasn't really sure what form her newest band would take when I went to see her a couple of weeks ago at the club Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia, partly because the bandstand area looked a little tight, but I was open to anything she would come up with. As it turned out she would be fronting a quartet with basically the same personnel as on her new disc Works On Canvas, with the exception this night of Carlos McKinney instead of Carlton Holmes on keyboards.
In a critic's pick piece by writer Nate Chinen in the Philadelphia City Paper, she was described as "consistently propulsive, in the manner bequeathed to her by the departed legend Tony Williams", leading a band with the same sound as that of Miles Davis' second great quintet, late-era. This led me to believe the music would echo the pre-Bitches Brew albums Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, and Miles In The Sky.
The piano solo on the first tune of her set was the first indication that the music would follow that line, what with the Herbie Hancock-like runs, tempo changes, modulations and funkified block chords. The Wayne Shorter blues modal playing—nothing but an extension of Coltrane's when he was with Miles—was evident in tenor player J.D. Allen's solo on the same tune.
The second number ended up being a blues with a heavy emphasis on Filles De Kilimanjaro-like changes, that is, it used a repetitive theme played in a linear fashion with each soloist taking turns fronting with the theme, displaying finally an Afro-centric chanting posture. I wondered at times during the tune if I heard more Chick Corea or Hancock in McKinney's comping. J. D. Allen's tone on the tenor sax was consistently light to the ear-touch.
Throughout the set, Blackman never allowed the intensity and tension to lapse, with the occasional rim-shot on her snare to punctuate things. At one point, there was even some Zydeco riffing on a tune—bringing to mind the Tony Williams tune "Life of the Party"—before a beautiful drum tone-poem—another Williams touch—led into a relaxed version of "Someday My Prince Will Come." As a final homage to Miles and the band, Blackman finished her set with a swinging "Walkin'." I look forward to the time when one of the Chicago-area jazz venues brings Cindy Blackman's hip ensemble to town. She's backed a few people here in the past; it's time we saw her skills in full display.