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Rhythm jugglers

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As I'm checking out Nourishment, the brand new CD by Alex Weiss and his tasty world-beat outfit, Different Drum, the myriad rhythms massage my senses. Imagine cracking the lid on an aromatic pot of homemade soup: The first sniff is a rush. I hungrily spoon up the stew of hot congas, bubbling bass and horns aplenty. Sonically speaking, dinner is served.

Weiss, the Durham-based percussionist with swift hands and quicker wit, will forgive the culinary imagery because he no doubt understands that good music provides--just like the title says--nourishment.

"Jewish boy from Queens drinks from Cuban well." That's how Weiss describes a tune on the CD called "Klezmer Rumba," a tart Havana brew unlike any you've ever tasted.

"I wanted something with a rumba rhythm, and then this other thing came out," the New York native winces, referring to the instrumental's mournful melody. "I guess I just can't get away from the Jewishness in me."

Message to Weiss: no apology necessary. As it turns out, an old-school Eastern European folk song sounds just right when propelled by the clave, the surging heartbeat of Cuban dance music.

So if your mind's open to such artful juxtaposition, truck on down to the CD release party on July 17 at 7 p.m. at the Durham Art Council's Adaron Hall, and you'll experience Weiss' uncanny multi-culti mix to the max. On Monday, the performers will superimpose a jazzer's sense of high-improv upon hot-footed funk imported from pan-Africa, Brazil and islands from throughout the Caribbean. Different Drum, you'll discover, is a band of rhythm-jugglers.

"It might seem strange that musicians would be inspired by a juggling troupe," Weiss explains, "but it's true. Do you know the Karamazov Brothers? They're jugglers, yes, but juggling is just part of the act. They say the most meaningful things as they perform."

Weiss remembers the first time he saw the Karamazovs. "The show began with one man juggling alone. Then he was joined by another. And another. As they juggled together, demonstrating one technique after another, they said something very profound. 'First you learn the rules,' they said, 'and then you break them.' 'What a cool concept,' I thought."

The troubadour says he's borrowed that way of thinking in his own music, adopting a particular rhythm and playing with it for weeks. "I take it apart--and learn how the different beats work together," explains Weiss. "I'm not trying to copy these rhythms per se, but trying to get the feel. And then I try to make them my own somehow.

"Some people have mastered hundreds of rhythms," Weiss adds ruefully. "I know, oh, maybe a couple of dozen."

The drummer's personal arsenal of beats includes chacha, soukous, samba and a formidable Nigerian rhythm called batakato, which fuels the most adventurous cut on Weiss' CD.

Masterfully overdubbed, "Introducing Clarity" frames a thread of recitation spoken by different voices that darts in and out of a dense weave of percussion, cornet, recorder and harmonica. Jeff Brown's colorful sax and Willie Lockett's dark-toned bass join in, too. The fabric of mantra-like drums and stream-of-consciousness poetics soothes the soul.

"I wrote it during a summer evening at dusk," Weiss recalls. "It was dry. The air was crystal clear. So I took this floating, ethereal melody and let it wander. Then--boing!--resolution. That's the clarity I felt as the sun was setting."

"Clarity is seeing the world through the eyes of a kid," says one child-like voice. A woman answers: "Clarity is knowing the difference between what you really want and what you really need." Later, a man earnestly pronounces that "clarity is the silence between the notes ... "

Unmistakably, that proclamation belongs to Weiss, betrayed by the brittle Queens accent and the abstract quality of his message.

If silence is the essence of clarity, I wonder, then what is music?

"A lot of musicians can play," Weiss admits, "but do they have a vision? Me? I just want to take the music--and go somewhere with it."

With the release of Nourishment, Weiss is one step closer to his destination. EndBlock

Contact differentdrum@mindspring.com for information on Alex Weiss and Different Drum.

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