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William Hooker - Black Mask

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Artist: William Hooker

Album: Black Mask

Label: Knitting Factory

Review date: Apr. 2, 2002

William Hooker is a jazz drummer who’s earned the admiration of many high profile out-rock musicians, including Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Donald Miller. The reason for their esteem is clear on Black Mask, most of which is played aggressively and smothered with electronic noise. Unfortunately, a poor recording keeps the album from reaching the thrilling heights of the best avant-rock or ecstatic jazz.

Hooker doesn’t show much emotional flexibility in his playing here — even during the quieter sections, he’s busy, pounding on his toms as if he can’t wait to get louder again. Black Mask is all tension, no release. If the production were more intimate, all the unease might work well, but Hooker and his collaborators sound distant, as if the mics and the performers were at opposite ends of the room. Even when I turn it up loud, I strain to hear what’s actually going on.

For example: on the first of three pieces on which she appears, keyboardist Andrea Parkins creates a cloud of sustained noise that’s way too low in the mix. As if sensing there’s space to be filled, she adds a prickly but perhaps unintentionally distorted electric piano solo, then concludes with some repetitive accordion (?) playing that is, again, way too quiet. This would probably sound incredible live, but here, because of the recording, it's a mess.

To make matters worse, Hooker's other duet partners, violinist Jason Hwang and saxophonist Roy Nathanson, don't quite pull off the difficult task of keeping up with him. Or maybe Hooker doesn't quite pull off the task of meeting them on their own terms. If I'm listening to a duet involving Hooker, I want to hear a barrage of wild, Pharoah Sanders-like explosions. Nathanson, on the other hand, wants the music to breathe a little, to ebb and flow. His playing is strongly Coltrane-influenced; he has a hard, metallic tone and a finely-honed sense of phrasing. He would probably sound great paired with a more graceful drummer - Rashied Ali, for example - but Hooker doesn't show much interest in meeting him halfway.

Hwang, on the other hand, at least tries to throw some Ayler-style punches, but a violin is too lightweight to go man-to-man against Hooker's drums. A fairer fight might have been Hwang and Parkins playing together with Hooker... with a sympathetic engineer as referee.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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