I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with the perfect way to introduce Doom Jazz to you, the reader, but sometimes a thing is so perfectly described by itself that there is no need for any more elaboration on it. What is Doom Jazz? Well…it’s doom jazz, and for nine years the album by inventive and dynamic duo Swami Lateplate has been the gold standard (and maybe the only) example of this particular blend of genres. So much so that Subsound Records has decided to reissue it and bring the world to a second look at a truly unique entity.
We’ve done a bit of jazz-adjacent reviews here, but never anything that has jazz as the foundation of its sound, at least to my knowledge anyway. I happen to love jazz, and I also happen to love doom, so I am a little disappointed in myself that it has taken me this long to find Doom Jazz, but nonetheless I am glad that someone somewhere had the brilliant idea to put these two seemingly disparate genres together. Those two someones are Swami Lateplate, better known individually as drummer, composer and performer Bobby Previte and keyboardist, bassist, producer and composer Jamie Saft. Previte has received numerous accolades for his compositions that straddle the fine line between composed and improvisational music and has been the artist-in-residence at prestigious institutions such as the Rockafeller Foundation, the Montalvo Arts Center and the Hermitage Artist Retreat, while Saft has producer and provided session work for the likes of the B-52s, Iggy Pop, Bad Brains, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn, as well as scoring Oscar-nominated and Sundance-winning movies. Both veterans of the New York City underground scene, the duo came together in 2012 as Swami Lateplate to record a stunning blend of improvisational jazz with the plodding repetition of doom metal. The end result is something the duo describes as “carried by subdued bass lines and ornamented by the piano like salt on a glacier,” with “each moment [being] its own event, each note frozen in amber.”
Upon listening to Doom Jazz, the aspect of this sound that is the most immediately clear is the juxtaposition and role-reversal of the basic fundamentals of each individual genre and the music as a whole. Especially if you are a consummate metalhead, when you hear “doom jazz” you probably think of jazz-flavored doom metal, but what you get instead is true jazz framed inside the loose-fitting aesthetic of doom, with deep, looping basslines holding down the structure while piano and drums take turns playing off each other. There isn’t a single guitar, nor any of the characteristic crushing distortion or swirling tones to be found. Doom Jazz is more than just jazz played really slowly though. The improvisational nature of jazz is at the forefront, led primarily by Previte’s drum work. The drums actually stand out as a lead instrument, rarely consigning themselves to keeping a beat and quite frequently going off on tangents and odysseys before landing right where they need to be. Saft’s bass work keeps the songs flowing, usually repeating a melody under Previte’s free-form drum work and Saft’s piano melodies and flourishes. While all this might sound like it would be hard to digest, it’s actually quite the opposite. Framing everything in the context of doom metal and keeping things slow and open makes every note pop (especially so because of the wonderful production by Saft). You get a real sense of what genius composers these two are. Every single note and drum hit is both deliberate and from the heart, and most importantly, these two performers are perfectly in sync with each other. No one runs away from the other, no one has to keep up and each has their turn to shine and show what they are made of.
I throw around the word “unique” a lot, especially here, but one of the things that I seek out when I look for albums to review for this column are works that sound like nothing else, and to my knowledge there is nothing out there that sounds like Doom Jazz. It is a tremendously creative work that expertly shifts and writhes between experimental and traditional, improvisation and composition and hits like nothing else does. Best yet, there is plenty for fans of metal, jazz or both to enjoy here. Doom Jazz belongs just as much in a smoky jazz club as it does in a grungy metal bar. It’s just really great, genius music, and on the reissue, you get a bonus track, so what’s not to love? If you haven’t yet gotten around to this, don’t be like me. Do yourself the favor now.