Dawn of Midi look like a standard contemporary jazz trio: bass, drums, piano, v-necks, and scruffy beards. After forming at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Amino Belyamani (piano), Qasim Naqvi (drums), and Aakaash Israni (bass) put out a full-length album called First in 2010 and a live EP in 2011, both of which were freely improvised. On those records, the band sounded roughly like a modern jazz trio; which isn’t to say their music wasn’t brilliant and unique. It was, but Dawn of Midi’s early recordings definitely had more in common with the Craig Taborn Trio than electronic musicians like Aphex Twin or minimalist composers like Steve Reich. You can’t say the same for the trio’s sound on their second album, Dysnomia, which they will perform in full at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul on Saturday, November 15 in a co-presentation by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series and the Walker Art Center.
Dysnomia is a fully composed, forty-seven–minute piece of looping hypnosis. The textures are deep and synthetic. Naqvi keeps fishing wire taped under his drums, giving them the buzz of an 808 snare. The only cymbal he uses is his hi-hat. Belyamani manages to give his piano an electronic timbre by muting and manipulating the piano strings with his left hand. More often than not, Israni plays bass harmonics to match the higher frequency of the piano. Their acoustic instruments breathe organic life into the sonic palette of electronic music.
The album begins with a simple, repeating bass line, and eventually a muted piano drops in, sounding like a synthesizer that’s oscillating just barely out of time with the bass. A kick drum fades in with another off-kilter rhythm. It’s strange at first, the pulse of the “deceptive” rhythms, as Belyamani calls them. But as the piece builds, the disjointed beats slowly starts to swallow you, and soon enough, you’re dancing.
Sam Segal: I first came across your music in a 2010 radio session Dawn of Midi did on WFMU. At that point, you guys were making this quiet, spacial improvised music that seemed to be working more inside of the jazz idiom. Can you describe how you moved from that sound to the tight, composed, electronic-influenced music you are making now?
Amino Belyamani: As thrilling as it is to be immersed in the risk of each single moment, when playing freely improvised music, it is almost impossible to reach those golden musical moments at every concert. The majority of the music we love listening to is structured pretty heavily, if not entirely composed. If one wants to guarantee that kind of listening pleasure, for the audience as well as for the performers, then everything needs to be worked out beforehand.
Segal: What was the compositional process on Dysnomia like?
Belyamani: By the time we started working on Dysnomia, and understood the kind of compositional endeavor we were about to dive into, we put our improvisational skills to the side and began focusing on “deceptive” rhythms. I wrote the majority of the piece, sometimes bringing into rehearsals fully worked out parts for all three of us. Other times, since we recorded and documented every single rehearsal, we would decide on certain parts based on trial and error. Our bassist, Aakaash Israni, contributed to some of his parts.
Segal: It seems like in the contemporary jazz world, the idea of “the band” has fallen out of style. Musicians will form different combos, make a couple of records, and then disperse. That’s not the case with Dawn of Midi. Was maintaining the fellowship and group aesthetic of a band something that you guys deliberately set out to do?
Belyamani: I believe the real value is friendship. We were tennis mates for over a year before we even played music together. It just happens to be that our common aesthetic was the foundation of our friendship, as well as for our musicianship as a band. We got lucky. Even the name of the band was not deliberately meant to be a foreshadowing of Dysnomia, just a light-hearted joke about this time before MIDI came to be.
Segal: Dysnomia is a piece that really transcends any sort of gimmickry. You guys aren’t performing some parlor trick where all you do is fool people into thinking an acoustic band is an electronic producer. Could you talk about some of the non-electronic influences on the album?
Belyamani: Actually, what seem to be electronic influences were, once again, an accident. It was only after recording ourselves and hearing the sounds we were making that we noticed that it kind of reminded us of electronic and dance music. The intention, all throughout the compositional process, was to translate North and West African music into the western instruments we played. Growing up in Morocco was a great environment for absorbing what I call “deceptive” rhythms. That is, music where the underlying pulse is where you least expect it, where the silences are. Then in college at CalArts I studied heavily with this amazing Ghanaian master drummer named Alfred Kwashie Ladzekpo, who has retired back to Ghana now. The Moroccan and Ghanaian influences are what make up Dysnomia.
Segal: There’s a looping, rhythmic quality to Dysnomia that makes it very danceable. Do you ever wish jazz/experimental music audiences were more willing to bust a move or two?
Belyamani: Absolutely! I believe that dance and music are inseparable. In fact, in many African languages, they only have one word that encompasses it all; dance, music, poetry, and style. Those “deceptive” rhythms I talk about are there for that reason; they don’t come from an intellectual or compositional process. They exist so that the dancer fills up those empty spaces, that would be the pulse, by their body, and that’s how trance is achieved.
Segal: Could you give us a hint about the direction of your next record? Can we expect another tightly composed piece, or are you guys stepping back into a more improvisational mode?
Belyamani: All I can say, without spoiling the surprise: Dancing will be mandatory.
Segal: Finally, if you could see any band/artist in any year, who would you see and when would you see them?
Belyamani: I would have loved to be at the Kalakuta Republic, in Nigeria where Fela Kuti resided, in 1974 and see his band blow my mind.