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June 2000

Cindy Blackman
Works on Canvas
HighNote Records

After drummer Cindy Blackman's eruptive 1987 debut, Arcane, it's interesting to hear how delicately she opens her latest album, Works on Canvas. Pianist Carlton Holmes' sparse accompaniment at the beginning on the standard "Green Dolphin Street" is given added sparkle by Blackman's shimmering brush strokes. Shortly afterwards, she steadily builds the climax with her sparkling cymbal work and quick cross-rhythms. Tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen then improvises on the melody with a dark robust tone, while bassist George Mitchell helps Blackman drive the classic into a fiery yet impressionistic bliss. The end result is one of the most magical interpretations of the Kaper composition in recent years.
Understatement eluded much of Blackman's work in the past. It seemed that her formidable strength and agility often got in the way of her compositions. But more recently, she's learned to create more open rhythmic pockets that allow the compositions to shine. While Blackman thunders heavily on Works on Canvas, as on modal excursions like Allen's "Mudee Ya" and her own composition "Ballad Like," which evoke the inspiring intensity of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, respectively, there's also her alluring reading of "April in Paris," where she highlights the compositions with speckling cymbal rides and rolling tom fills. Much of Works on Canvas illustrates Blackman pacing her solos more evenly and playing with greater emotional complexity.
The record is also a great indicator of Blackman's growth as a composer and bandleader. True to its name, Works on Canvas proceeds like an impressionistic suite in which she not only functions as the main rhythmic engine of the music, but also a magnificent colorist. As a composer, many of the compositions here have the electric/acoustic vibe of Miles Davis' transitional period in the late '60s, thanks to Holmes' subtle Fender Rhodes shading on the "Three Van Goghs" interludes and "Sword on the Painter." The music also benefits greatly from the wonderful cohesion of the quartet, especially when they craft the thrilling elastic tension atop hypnotic grooves on songs like "Ballad Like" and "Sword on the Painter."
Works on Canvas is an amazing portrait of one of this generation's most colorful drummers.

Originally published in June 2000
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