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Finding Alex Weiss

The many beats of a master

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It's damned hard to draw a bead on musician Alex Weiss. Though he's based in Durham, his spangled, multi-culti repertoire traverses the whole planet. Just listen, as his blur of hands float palms-down across the skin of the conga drum--and you're compelled to gently shake a tail feather.

The beat is enticing but ambiguous. So what is Weiss' rhythmic calling card, one wonders? Brazilian samba? Bodacious highlife hailing from Ghana? Or the Sicilian tarantella, perhaps? In fact, it is all of the above--and more.

Happily, Weiss the rhythm-machine is also a maker of memorable melodies. The spiral of notes that spill from his alto recorder--just one instrument in his bottomless trick bag--suggests an irresistible road trip of global proportions. Weiss' music conjures up images of the blistered sandscapes of north Africa. Or wanders down a weathered backstreet of some Havana 'hood, fueled by the scent of cigarettes and the cadence of caffeinated conversation. Or returns to Queens, his birthplace, when Weiss' fat-toned cornet mimics the honk of a mad taxi late for somewhere.

And that's exactly where the music is going: somewhere!

In the case of this crafty composer, the destination is--more often than not--somewhere starkly beautiful. The title of his latest CD, Beautiful Melody, tells the truth.

While his previous recording, Nourishment (2001), was a percussive tour de force, Beautiful Melody charts Weiss' maturation as a writer. Brass and woodwinds intertwine, tracing simple patterns of notes that cling to the listener's memory. The presence of pop-like hooks, however, is shaded by episodes of melancholy. Indeed, this CD is serious listening.

"The CD is dedicated to the struggle of indigenous cultures," Weiss explains via email. "I commissioned a Navaho painter friend of mine who grew up on the reservation in Arizona to do the artwork for the cover. I wanted a desert scene where the wind could blow through the open places in the music."

Like the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, another sonic minimalist, Weiss as composer-player is searching for, in his words, "the silence between the notes."

Constructed like a long, meandering suite, the 14 cuts that comprise Beautiful Melody are strangely unified. A soft bed of percussion cushions the presentation without dominating it. Though Weiss and his mates are capable improvisers, gratuitous soloing is taboo. Instead, brass, woodwinds and softly plucked strings (bass, guitar, banjo) rise up, establish a mood and fade away anonymously into the ether. Between tunes, the listener hears the chirp of birds, chatter of crickets and the restless wind as it tickles bamboo chimes. Strains of the whimsical title tune appear, disappear and appear again. Just as the amber of dawn gives way to black midnight, Weiss' concept album is as deliciously cyclical as life itself.

Alex Weiss and Different Drum will reveal what Beautiful Melody sounds like live and in the flesh Friday, May 14 at 6 p.m. at 706 Lakeview Road in Durham. Admission is $15/person or $20/couple. The price includes a Mediterranean-style dinner, a copy of the CD and a performance by a band clearly on a roll. For more information, go to www.differentdrum.us or dial 477--7577.

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