Correction: This review has been updated to reflect the following: the performance was not improvised (it was a recreation of the album “Dysnomia”), “Dysnomia” is not the group’s debut album and the drum kit featured hi-hat, not cymbals.
In the endless debates about what is or isn’t jazz, it’s easy (and perhaps beneficial) to adopt the famous position of Justice Potter Stewart: I’ll know it when I hear it. Then along comes a band like Dawn of Midi, the trio that played the Black Cat’s backstage on Wednesday night, to muddy even those waters. After hearing their set — a nonstop 46 minutes of interplay — the answer to the question is, “Who knows?”
Dawn of Midi’s 2013 album, “Dysnomia,” was classified by many as jazz, and the trio participated in New York’s Winter Jazz Fest earlier this month. Certainly the instrumentation — Amino Belyamani on piano, Aakaash Israni on upright bass and Qasim Naqvi on trap drums — is jazzy. They also used conventional harmonies, and at one point late in the set, Belyamani fired off some jazz phrases. Nothing else was nearly so clear-cut, however. The concert was a feast of groove, with long stretches of repetition that masked the frequent shapeshifting.
These shifts were often subtle: Belyamani might move his accents on a 4/4 meter from beats 2 and 4 to 2 and 3, for example — an innocuous change that nonetheless reconfigured the whole. At another point, all three members took part in fluctuating the groove: the pianist plucked a simple figure on the piano strings, upon which Israni elaborated. Naqvi played a contrasting line, and when the band shifted as one to follow him, he transitioned again. At that point, trying to keep track of who was playing what meter was a fool’s errand.
The groove never stayed in one place and neither did the texture. Belyamani kept one hand in the chamber of his piano throughout the set, producing strange guitar-like sounds, and often what seemed to be (and may very well have been) synthesizer voicings, always with a hammering percussive touch. Naqvi alternated his pounding of the kick drum and the rim of his snare with light work on the hi-hat. Israni, however, was the constant, the pole around which magnetic fields fluctuated. For the bulk of the set, he was holding down the same rhythmic figures while Naqvi and Belyamani found ways to nonetheless alter their trajectory. So steady was the bass that when, on occasion, it was Israni who made the transitions, it felt earned and all the more impressive.
The crowd loved it. “Feel free to dance, or do other hypnotic-type gestures,” Israni suggested as the show began. It was less an entreaty than a spot-on suggestion.
West is a freelance writer.