Jim Watt Leads a Riveting Jazz and Painting Performance to Benefit Musicians Imperiled During the Lockdown
Thursday night at Collab in Bushwick was a rare opportunity to watch painter Jim Watt creating art out of thin air. Beyond public murals, sidewalk art or the occasional landscaper dedicated to capturing a scene alfresco, painting is typically a solitary craft. What made the evening even more fascinating was that Watt was engaging with an allstar improvisational jazz quartet, in a multimedia spectacle that resulted in about twenty black-and-white Japanese Sumi ink washes, each of them projected on a screen behind the band as Watt worked, methodical but unhurried.
The night was part of Watt’s ongoing 1000W project, where he hopes to raise a hundred thousand dollars to benefit musicians imperiled by the lockdown through sales of these works through his dealer, Jim Kempner Fine Art. Filmmaker Danny Clinch is also working on a documentary about the project.
Watt’s setup was simple: two brushes, one in a container of ink and one in water, which he didn’t bother to change as it grew cloudier. Occasionally, he’d reach for a cloth when he felt the need for a broader brushstroke or smudge.
Bleed is the key to this Japanese technique. The most spectacular moment of the night was when he sketched out a geometric figure with his water brush, invisible onscreen until with one deft stroke of ink, the design filled up in seconds flat. With magic like that, who needs electronics?
Some of the designs were distinctly figurative, notably apartment buildings and a profile that resembled an Egyptian hawk hieroglyph. Other washes were more simple and geometrically-oriented. To what degree was interplay with the musicians involved? Watt was definitely the ringleader here. Drummer Alvester Garnett began the night solo, responding to Watt’s initial, stark design and then a murky, dense one by rising from suspenseful washes of cymbals to a shamanistic tom-tom tableau.
The rest of the band – guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Antoine Drye and bassist Barry Stephenson – then joined the festivities, rising and then falling away as Watt would finish up and then move on to the next drawing. A mysterious pedalpoint fleshed out with lots of bass chords figured heavily in the first set, where the band were most closely keyed into the visuals unfolding on the screen. Drye’s austerely resonant, often mournful, blues-drenched washes maintained a contrast with Frisell’s thoughtfully spaced jangles and pings and chordlets. The exchanges between band members grew more vigorously conversational as the night went on.
They began the second set by seemingly conjuring up an early 60s Prestige style postbop swing shuffle, Frisell spicing it with a handful of devious quotes. After that, the guitar icon led the group down a noir alleyway, his desolate clangs drawing a hauntingly wafting solo out of Drye before Garnett shifted gears into funkier, spikier terrain. Then, subtly caching a clave into a slinkier groove, he drove the atmosphere to an almost aching, distantly troubled, Bob Belden-esque vamp before ending the night on a calm but similarly saturnine, blues-infused note. While concerts and public gatherings in general have been in painfully short supply in this city until the past couple of weeks, this was unquestionably one of the best of the year so far.