Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sound and color

Just back home from The Stone where I could hear two very interesting sets with pianist Russ Lossing and drummer Gerry Hemingway, first in duet, and then in quartet with Loren Stillman on alto saxophone and Samuel Blaser on trombone.

I was absolutely excited at the prospect of returning to this avant-garde jazz hall (it has been my 3rd concert there, the first one was in 2010, with Sylvie Courvoisier, Thomas Morgan and Ben Perowski, and the second, last year, with Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer) to listen to Gerry Hemingway, and the cold rain falling on New York City did not diminish my enthusiasm. (Although I had to take care on the streets, for one could almost see nothing...) I feared I would arrive late, but Gerry Hemingway was still installing his tools, various sticks, small cymbals, woodblocks, as well as a cello bow...

I admit, it took me some time to appreciate the music. Of course, it was free jazz (so what?) and I couldn't really follow the stream of music. Both musicians were acting delicately and skillfully (no discussion) at creating sound, as a painter would spread brush strokes on a canvas—and actually, Hemingway was playing a lot of brushes, those drum sticks made of many (wire or plastic) strings that have a delicate and not very resonating sound... Color after color, something was emerging, sound was being shaped.

There is an eternal discussion about the nature of music (is it rhythm? melody? harmony?) and consequently about the role of each instrument in the shaping of the music. A related question is the way a given instrument should be used to produce sound.

None of the obvious answers was to be heard tonight. Russ Lossing sometimes stroke the strings of the grand piano with mallets, something almost classical in avant-garde piano music. I should have been prepared by the concert of Tony Malaby's Tubacello, that I attended with François Loeser in Sons d'hiver a few weeks ago, where John Hollenbeck simultaneously played drums and prepared piano, but the playing of  Gerry Hemingway brought me much surprise. He could blow on the heads of the drums, hit them with a woodblock or strange plastic mallets; he could make the cymbals vibrate by pressing the cell bow on it; he could also take the top hi-hat cymbal on the left hand, and then either hit it with a stick, or press it on the snare drum, thereby producing a mixture of snare/cymbal sound; during a long drum roll, he could also vary the pitch of the sound by pressing the drum head with his right foot—can you imagine the scene?

It is while discussing with him in between the two sets that I gradually understood (some of) his musical conception. How everything is about sound and color. That's why he uses an immense palette of tools, to produce the sounds he feels would best fit the music. He also discussed extended technique, by which he means not the kind of drumistic virtuosity that could allow you (unfortunately, not me...) to play the 26 drum rudiments at 300bpm, but by extending the range of sounds he can consistently produce with his “basic Buddy Rich type instrument”—Google a picture of Terry Bozzio's drumkit if you don't see what I mean. He described himself as a colorist, who thinks of his instrument in terms of pitches; he also said how rhythm also exists in negative, when it is not played explicitly. A striking remark because it exactly depicted how I understand the playing of one of my favorite jazz drummers, Paul Motian, but whom I couldn't appreciate until I became able of hearing what he did not play.

The second set  did not sound as abstract as the first one. Probably the two blowing instruments helped giving the sound more flesh and more texture. Samuel Blaser, on the trombone, was absolutely exceptional—go listen at once for his Spring Rain album, an alliance of Jimmy Giuffre and contemporary jazz—and Loren Stillman sang very beautiful melodic lines on the alto sax. The four of them could also play in all combinations, and with extremly interesting dynamics, going effortlessly from one to another. And when a wonderful moment of thunder ended abruptly with the first notes of Paul Motian's Etude, music turned into pure emotion.

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