Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #16 — Jim Black

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

Jim Black – who was born in 1967 and raised in Bellevue, Washington – has been one of the most influential drummers on the progressive music scene since the early ’90s, renowned not only for his technical fluency and kinetic verve but also his uncommonly wide musical purview. While going to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he formed the band Human Feel with Seattle friends Chris Speed and Andrew D’Angelo, plus Kurt Rosenwinkel later. Jim moved to New York City in 1991, soon playing in top bands led by the likes of Tim Berne, Ellery Eskelin, Uri Caine and Dave Douglas. In the late ’90s, Jim featured in the collective Pachora, a Balkan-accented group with reed player Speed, bassist Skúli Sverrisson and multi-instrumentalist Brad Shepik. The drummer also formed his own intrepid band around this time – AlasNoAxis, including Speed, Sverrisson and guitarist Hilmar Jensson – that released a string of albums melding improvisation with a song-oriented, post-rock feel.

Along with his big ears, it has been Jim’s mixing of rock style with jazz chops that has been such inspiration on a generation or two of drummers. Mark Guiliana, one of the most virtuosic and versatile drummers around, told me: “Of anyone today, my biggest inspiration has been Jim Black. He was the first guy I witnessed who really mashed together a wide variety of diverse influences. That gave me the confidence to develop a personal sound.” Jim isn’t just a drummer’s drummer, though, as he has always been just as compelling for audiences. JazzTimes said: “In person, he is fun to watch because he is theatrical in his movements, a ballet dancer. On record, the drama and diversity of his percussion content still comes through.”

Jim has recently figured in a power improv trio with Berne and guitarist Nels Cline, as well as in the infectious, rollicking Endangered Blood with Speed, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and bassist Trevor Dunn. And just out is Jim’s latest leader album, Malamute, which takes on board electronic atmospherics, with Elias Stemeseder on keyboards, Óskar Guðjónsson on tenor sax and Chris Tordini on electric bass. But Jim’s primary focus as a leader in recent years has been his trio with Stemeseder on piano and Thomas Morgan on double-bass, ideal partners. The Jim Black Trio’s three albums – Somatic (Winter & Winter, 2012), Actuality (Winter & Winter, 2014) and The Constant (Intakt, 2016) – have set a poetic new standard for the modernist piano trio. JazzTimes, again: “Bill Evans is most often credited with liberating the bassist and drummer within the piano-trio format. But Black’s ensemble takes it all the way, to a tripartite endeavor among equals.” Along with the beautifully interactive playing, these trio albums are a showcase for Jim’s gorgeous writing – something of a revelation in this format. NPR, reviewing The Constant, pointed out: “The drummer likes nice tunes and knows to give them room to breathe.” Having previously played Sound It Out with Endangered Blood and Curtis Hasselbring’s New Mellow Edwards, he returns to the series to lead the Jim Black Trio on February 10, 2018. — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

A tie: John Coltrane’s Bye Bye Blackbird and Miles Davis’ Nefertiti.

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

Loveless by My Bloody Valentine.

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants by Oasis, from 2000. I never listened to Oasis before this year, but I fell in love with Liam Gallagher’s sound and attitude, along with Noel’s songs. Yeah, this album was kind of critically panned (no surprise by that point). Yet there are many solid tracks on this one, like the other smash albums. A matter of taste I gather…

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

Naked Lunch, by Howard Shore featuring Ornette Coleman.

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

I never fall out love with music, even if my expectations for it can change. Three key concert experiences from 2016: Steve Coleman’s Five Elements at the old Stone, in New York City. Meshuggah at Astra l in Berlin. Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan Duo at the Village Vanguard.

  1. Which are your very favorite and least favorite venues for live music?

The best: The Village Vanguard, of course, in NYC – for the intimacy and the sound. It’s jazz church. The worst: Well, there’s always a new worst nowadays in New York – playing for tips, terrible sounding rooms. Emergency plan is in effect…

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

“How is a mind that is so heavily burdened with fear, with all its conditioning, ever to be free of it? Or must we accept fear as an inevitable thing of life? And most of us do accept it, put up with it. What shall we do? How shall I, the human being, you as the human being, be rid of this fear? Not be rid of a particular fear, but of the total fear, the whole nature and structure of fear?” — J. Krishnamurti

  1. If you could have a drink with any late visual artist of the past, who would it be?

Vincent Van Gough would be a hoot. Meeting Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali in the morning for coffee would rock as well.

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

My mental health, my physical health, my current laptop.

  1.  What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

I don’t think there is one that doesn’t impact my music making…

  1. What are your top media sources of writing/opinion/news about music?

My trusted friends.

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?


  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

Aww, that’s too personal to mention, but the qualities are many: patience, humanity, humility, kindness…

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most despise?

Anyone I’ve despised at one point in time I have forgiven. Nothing kills you faster than hate and wishing/wanting revenge.

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

Zambujeira do Mar, Portugal – for the feelings of timelessness, freedom, infinity.

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

Hopefully, 50 years from now.

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

Memories of Orwell’s Animal Farm are coming to mind a lot these days.

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

There are hundreds. Let’s start with The Last Jedi.

  1. What aspect of the past do you miss most – and what’s one thing you look forward to about the future that doesn’t yet exist?

I miss the mid-’90s in NYC for the scene, the hang, the pools of people. A financially stable and affordable situation/place/city for artists to create and thrive.

  1. What would you like your last meal to consist of?

Trattoria Da Ruggero, Firenze, Italy. The spaghetti carretierra is inexplicably the greatest pasta I’ve ever eaten, year after year. It’s a family-run restaurant – they grow and bottle their own tomatoes to make the sauce year round. Add a ribolita/pappa pomodoro as an appetizer, with the stewed artichokes as a side dish. And one killer bottle of Brunello di Montalcino.