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Gerry Hemingway: Drums that Sing [A Different Kind of Drummer - Part 2] Gerry Hemingway: Drums that Sing [A Different Kind of Drummer - Part 2]

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Gerry Hemingway: Illuminating Music in Time and Space

Gerry Hemingway: The human body and all its parts is his instrument

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There are elements in music [both necessary and profoundly palpable] of mathematics – of arithmetic [often with an unconscious imprint of Fibonacci], of special geometry and of beautiful algebraic equations. But always in the context of music. There is timbre and texture, and colour in melody, harmony, and rhythm. The is the sound of human speech… language and literature that can fill libraries both real and – like mythical ones of the singular making of Jorge Luis Borges. But above all, in a manner of a Zen Koan – like something because there is nothing [or vice versa], there is sound and there is silence… simply because there are spectral spaces in the nooks and crannies of that very silence that begets sound.

And then there are the artists who have penetrated the gossamer skin of the rarefied realm… like Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Katharina Rosenberger, Anthony Braxton [and other musicians from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music…] and a handful of others who – like musicians from Bach and Beethoven, and from Stravinsky and Stockhausen, from Messiaen and Dutilleux – have perceived the deepest secrets of music. To this small roster of artists, we must include Gerry Hemingway: the composer, lately an inspired lyricist whose poetry is evocative of Rimbaud and Dylan, vocalist with a raspy elegance, master of a considerably extended drum set, quintessential percussion colourist, for whom the layer of sound – every ghostly overtone – from every note is an echo of the human voice, real and surreal vision of the hyperreal.

Gerry Hemingway ‘picking up sticks’

In the case of Bach that musical space in the rarefied realm was often said to be ‘spiritual’ [even in his music that was decidedly secular]. Beethoven’s was convinced that the rarefied realm was Divine. Stravinsky didn’t have a name for it but may probably have aligned himself with both the former as well as been in line with Mr Braxton, who favours ‘Ghost-Trance’ and M. Grisey, M. Murail, Miss Rosenberger and more than likely Mr Hemingway for whom ‘spectral’ seems likely.

Other names for ‘the space’ between sound and silence as well as the sound of silence and the silence of sound no doubt abound and – who knows – a gilt-edged new tome may have to be compiled and delivered to us, impressively bound. Only time will tell. Until then we have the translucent music of artists such as Mr Hemingway to seduce us, to hold us willing prisoners not simply with his riveting musicianship that informs every aspect of [his] performance…

Mr Hemingway studied for a while with the late drummer and much-sought-after pedagogue Alan Dawson. As a teacher Mr Dawson favoured a Holistic approach to drumming, emphasising “music as a whole, rather than concentrating on percussion alone” stressing the importance of learning the melody and structure of a piece – even singing a melody out aloud. His [Mr Dawson’s] Rudimental Ritual which included extensive exercises to be practiced with brushes enabled drummers to develop almost elasticized wrists and so to allow for a sense of “picking up the sticks”.

Gerry Hemingway and Anthony Braxton Old Dogs

Mr Hemingway learned his lessons so exceedingly well that among he is almost alone among modern drummers and percussionists who seems to make the drums swing and sing in a traditional sense, even as he elasticizes rhythm – in the contemporary sense – seeming to make Time both malleable and ductile and, in turn, giving timekeeping proverbially wide berth. Extrapolating this conceptual approach to a battery of drums and percussion instruments Mr Hemingway has achieved an almost full-orchestra sound seemingly on his own. And he has done so with a quiet dignity, consequently commanding the affection and somewhat awed respect of everyone with whom he performs music.

One of his most enduring musical relationships has been with a most iconic American composer and master of reeds and woodwinds, Anthony Braxton. This began when he joined Mr Braxton’s quartet and made a series of recordings beginning with Four Compositions (Quartet) [Black Saint, 1983]. Three discs followed on Black Saint between 1983 and 1986 and included Six Compositions (Quartet) [1984] and Five Compositions (Quartet) [1986]. Mr Hemingway anchored the quartet with his singularly melodious orchestral percussion.

Clearly Mr Braxton had become an early admirer. In 2007, he told the writer Graham Lock during the production of an epic duo recording: “I have always felt that Gerry and I have had a complete affinity in the music. If anything, our affinity has only deepened. This is why I love playing music with this great American master… There is an inter-radiance that permeates from the music; that speaks of the good luck I first experienced when this guy came into my life.”

For his part, Mr Hemingway returned the favour gave each of four Inventions, spread across the four discs, by improvising with a choice of “orchestral possibilities”. He has always attributed this to his fascination for how forms work in space. “…in the elegance of how they flow from one end to the other, in the three dimensional aspect[s] of how you can see backwards and forwards in a piece,” Mr Hemingway said, repeating an observation he had made of playing with Mr Braxton almost a decade earlier.

Gerry Hemingway and Maralyn Crispell Table of Changes

It was during the Quartet recordings that Mr Hemingway was introduced to the work of the intrepid pianist Marilyn Crispell. His musical relationship with the pianist has always been special, which would account for his ability to forge a duo relationship with her – something musicians usually reserve for ‘someone who communicates in a special sort of way’, and which both pianist and drummer enjoy. This is because both Miss Crispell and Mr Hemingway think like composers when they perform. This, in fact, they both are, but to think and play ‘like a composer’ is an unique gift. Both musicians are blessed in that regard, and this has been the highlight of their duets, such as the recording Table of Changes [Intakt, 2013].     

Although there may be no such thing as a ‘characteristic performance’ by Mr Hemingway [or by Miss Crispell, for that matter], Their approach for this music – recorded live in Arles, Amsterdam, Le Mans and Ulrichsberg – swings between mind over emotion and vice versa [depending on where the music takes one or the other musician. This is music of dynamic contrasts, between spiky staccato arpeggios [on the part of the pianist] and spiky staccato punctuated often by subtly muted dynamics [on the part of the drummer]. Ideas veer from unanimity during unison passages – cue Roofless and Windy City – followed by deeply exploratory variations, with plenty of breathing room for exquisite explorations with dramatic changes in timbre, colour and a good deal of tonal warmth.

Brew: Gerry Hemingway Miya Masaoka and Reggie Workman in 2012

Judging by the fact that Mr Hemingway’s early performances [significant in every artistic regard] with Mr Braxton it isn’t hard to see just how and why he is able to forge [equally meaningful] artistic relationships with other artists in a long and distinguished career. With contrabassist Reggie Workman, and a group of personnel that has included masterful contributions from – but not exclusively – saxophonist Sam Rivers, trombonist Julian Priester, vocalist Jeanne Lee, clarinetist Don Byron, violinist Jason Hwang and others. That relationship with the contrabassist bassist spun off a prodigious trio Brew which also included the Japanese koto specialist, Miya Masaoka.

Brew produced two significant recordings two decades apart. The 1999 recording Heat and the 2019 recording Between Reflections, both on the forward-thinking Portuguese Clean Feed. This is a trio with an intriguing aural concept largely – but not restricted – due to Miss Masaoka’s koto, a very large string instrument which opens up the timbral possibilities of melody, harmony and rhythm arising from but not restricted to the ‘gut and pluck’ sound of the koto’s strings. Once again, the trio plays with considerable improvisational surprises – with no regard [on the part of Miss Masaoka] to slavish period awareness. Moreover, as all three musicians contribute performances on electronic instruments the musical canvas is dramatically enhanced as Keffi’s Journey [from Brew] and Sun Shadows [from Between Reflections] will testify.

Like his relationship with Mr Workman, the celebrated drummer has also developed a fabulous relationship with trombonist Ray Anderson and contrabassist Mark Helias. That trio – BassDrumBone [Auricle Records, 2016] – produced one of the most startling trio double-albums of original compositions It is a stunning example of how the lugubrious human speech-like sound of Mr Anderson’s trombone – often mournful and always spiritual – is woven into the rumble of Mr Helias’ contrabass. The glue is [often as not] the luminous sonorities of Mr Hemingway’s controlled melodious rhythm on his impressive battery of percussion instruments that make up his drum set.

WHO Trio: Michel Wintsch, Gerry Hemingway and Bänz Oestler

And then there is the brilliant and spectacularly mournful repertory recordings of Ellingtonia re-imagined [an often misused word] by another enduring Hemingway-ensemble the WHO Trio [featuring pianist Michel Wintsch and bassist Bänz Oestler]. That recording – Strell: The Music of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington [Clean Feed, 2018]. Once again Mr Hemingway’s drumming makes Ellington and Strayhorn sound like music of the natural world. Nature, that is Ellington and Strayhorn – represented by such classics as The Mooche, Black and Tan Fantasy, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and six others – here is not domesticated and anthropomorphised: it’s wild, strange, and wonderful. Contours, tones, shiftings of sound are pieces together with a free-thinking logic that’s rigorous and yet at the same time delirious in a magnificent way.

Tree Ear: Witches Butter

Mr Hemingway has performed on over two hundred [probably a lot more] recordings and appeared on soundstages the world over, from Switzerland, where he now makes his home. So it is almost impossible – even pointless – to play catch–up with his entire repertoire. However, a few other recordings do stand out. One is a recording with another trio featuring the saxophonist and clarinetist Sebastian Strinning and the guitarist Manuel Troller  –together called Tree Ear – which yielded the album Witches Butter [Clean Feed, 2017]. From the allegorical cover and the adventurous music, you would be quite right in assuming that the metaphor here describes what might easily be said to be a dangerously – kind of gunslinging – volatile encounter between three hard-drinking, hard-driving gringos and a re-take on the Blues.

The music says, “brace yourself for change” and features composers – and performers – noted for their willingness to strike out along individual paths and embrace change. Edgy and unpredictable the musicians of Tree Ear perform music that is as invigorating as a shower of cold water. Seven works of short to medium length, each with an evocative title and imaginatively captured on this recording by Tree Ear features music marked by the visceral volatility of Third Man Walking to the muscular artistic exhortations of Kill Button. Listening to this exciting, cinematic experience It’s impossible not to imagine how the west was won.

Another Hemingway-classic stand-alone feature is the album Composition O [Listen Foundation, 2017] a duo percussion recording with Vincent Glanzmann and comprises an extended composition in six movements. The recording is a remarkable set of extended improvisations on a series of composed themes. Gestures are free flowing. Neither percussionist lets age, the familiarity of a relationship that began in 2015b stand in the way of making everything new. The music is a palimpsest to new percussion and features the inventions of two great percussion colourists. The music dances and is – by turns – spirited and nicely flowing.

Gerry Hemingway with Sarah Weaver

Two other recordings stand out from among Mr Hemingway’s discography. Both recordings feature music written by another far-sighted composer, Sarah Weaver, but both of which are graced by Mr Hemingway’s ingenious musicianship. Reality Axis [Sync Source, 2018] featured music by Miss Weaver, written for Mr Hemingway. It is a tour de force of melodicism, dynamic harmonic variations set in three works – Node 111: Vol. 1, 2, 3, Reality Axis and Nexus Expanse – together featuring a sweeping rhythmic testament that is evocative of music evocative of Mr Hemingway’s roots in the songful, dancing drumming culture first developed by Max Roach.

The other recording of the works of Miss Weaver – Synchrony Series – Music of Sarah Weaver and Collaborations is a double-disc that dedicates performance time to Mr Hemingway as a solo expressionist and in large ensemble. As always Mr Hemingway brings to life the shifts and swerves of Miss Weaver’s intrepid compositions to which Mr Hemingway lends the arching melodic and rhythmic line a twinkling improvisatory quality, and an irresistible sense of play that will give any percussionist a run for his or her money.

Gerry Hemingway: Afterlife

Fittingly Mr Hemingway has gravitated – a fortuitous return, one might say – to recording his compositions and singing original lyrics on Afterlife [Auricle, 2022]. Percussionists, and percussion recitals are hardly common these days but, with Afterlife, Mr Hemingway has put together a collection of pieces through which he shows that he is unafraid of wearing his heart on his sleeve. This recording is a masterpiece of modern music in every way – composition and performance in a production package that is simply superb in every way.

This music remains a modern classic by sheer dint of a methodical understatement which Mr Hemingway realises with keen elegance. This is a model recording of how to present music – percussion or otherwise – within a spacious acoustic, which together with a booklet of delightfully whimsical design, featuring surprisingly masterful poetic lyrics in the surreal manner of a Rimbaud – all of which that adds enormously to the musical experience of one of the major artists of this generation.

Gerry Hemingway: Rimbaud of the generation in communion with the world

With that recording and what may follow from there onwards, Mr Hemingway is clearly in the rarefied realm of artists whose instrument is much bigger than that one he plays – in this case his drum set. That instrument is the one he inhabits whole-heartedly with his full body. That instrument is Gerry Hemingway himself.  

However, it is as a percussionist that he first found his calling. And here he is untouchable. Whether he is inhabiting the angles and swerving around the twists and turns of a Braxton score, seeming to seek out the hidden nooks and crannies suggested by linear melodic lines, Or whether he is following abrupt changes in rhythm and pulse provoked by one of his own compositions or scores written for him to interpret…

Gerry Hemingway is the master of carving the air around his battery of drums and percussion instruments, often redolent of a gleaming vibraphone, to provoke the melodic hum from the skins of his drums, punctuated by the hissing of cymbals and the stuttering from the high hat. Indeed, Mr Hemingway has long established his prodigious musicianship. And in doing so he has placed himself on a no-touch pinnacle that may take years for generations of gawping acolytes to catch up to.

Deo Gratis

“Up the Down Stairs” by Chrory Thicket with Christy Doran, Ronan Guilfoyle and Gerry Hemingway
Gerry Heming/way, Vera Baumann, Florestan Berset performing at Jazz a Luz – July 2023 – Variation #3

Note: The second – and final – part of the series A Different Kind of Drummer

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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