Jlin’s ‘Black Origami’ Gives New Shape To Footwork

An ambitious second album goes beyond dance music to something closer to free improv


Jerilynn Patton makes music as Jlin, in Gary, Indiana. A former steel mill worker, she has roots in footwork, the light-speed dance music from Chicago. Two of footwork’s stalwarts, DJ Rashad and RP Boo, served as mentors. Footwork is a fragmented, decentered sound, with enough repetition in the claps and kicks to keep dancers moving at 160 bpm. Jlin says that though she is part of the footwork community, she no longer makes music specifically for that world. On her second album, Black Origami, the 29-year-old producer goes to a place beyond utility, almost impossible to predict or track sequentially. What Jlin creates now is a chain of details, a record of movements outside the center. If footwork was the beat, Jlin’s music is the dancer, the response, the reverberation.

“Kyanite” is a track that shows how Jlin iterates ideas through rhythm. (There is little like melody on Black Origami, though drums and sounds are tuned at distinct frequencies.) Footwork dismantles both the dominant backbeat and a clear downbeat. Within that freedom, footwork phrases loop clearly enough to grant a sense of coherence. Jlin skips the idea of legible, individuated parts and goes right into the sound on “Kyanite.” A synthetic tabla is rattled, and concentrated rolls on toms are triggered. A female voice speaking an unknown language is chopped until it flickers like a loose light fixture. Though “Kyanite” stays within a tempo, the feel is closer to free improv: Sections don’t have clear lengths, nor is any one section prioritized over another. Only by checking the timing on your listening device will you know how long this track is, or how long you’ve been listening. Jlin packs infinite possibilities into rapidly shifting clicks, chirps, drums, and rattles, stretching out ideas until they shimmer like the horizon.

The constraints and the magic of Jlin’s approach are visible in Joji Koyama’s video for “Carbon 7 (161).” The track is a sequence of cramped drum rolls, cymbals, and smaller metallic pips, with a voice swooping through it like a drone, never choosing a spot. Dancer Corey Scott-Gilbert stretches both the definition of choreography — at one point, he sits on a tiny rolling chair, which glides along a concrete floor as he stutter-steps — and his physical gift. When Jlin toggles some drum-machine version of a cowbell in the opening, Scott-Gilbert synchronizes his face and twists his mouth up, as if trying to flip his head, eventually lifting his body up like a broken marionette that repairs itself and starts firing off poses. (You can screencap every other second here and get gorgeously executed arrangements that seem to represent different dancers.) Jlin moves through claps, scraps of vocals, and low drums, each one the basis for a musical gesture. Scott-Gilbert responds to them all, moving through a large space that appears to be the woodshop behind a theater. His articulation is magnificent; he can blend in bits of ballroom and ballet while expanding into gnarled frames and hunching into a beetle-back. Little of this seems like something you could do on your own, or in a club, which is not a metric if you don’t need it to be.

There are perils in the explorative mode. Brief stretches of Black Origami seem more or less like someone soloing on a drum machine, expertly, but to no particular end. Two years ago, on her debut, Dark Energy, Jlin’s sound fell somewhere between her current state of slippage and the trackable rush of footwork. The more helpful way into her current work is her live show, which foregrounds Jlin’s ability to shuffle various packets of material and twist tracks together into long, unstable threads. (She plays Brooklyn Bazaar on June 9, as part of the Northside Festival.)

But “Nyakinyua Rise” corrals the fuss, and something like an ensemble piece accretes. Voices, this time slightly lower than the others, are barking. There is a steady, dark drum keeping time in the mix, and the remaining drums rain on each other like a battle. Instead of trailing off in elegant isolation, the elements whirl and create a headwind, a circle of collaboration and competition. Here, the lack of traditional narrative means little — the energy builds up magnificently, using few familiar tricks. This is the sound of a dance crew from nowhere and everywhere, following nothing but the line of a fold in time.