It was a mighty bold move booking experimental composer/drum soloist Gerry Hemingway for this year’s Wachovia Jazz Series. Producer/director Michael Grofsorean and his staff deserve high praise for taking a chance on such a risk-taking artist. But Hemingway delivered one of the most uniquely expressive and daring programs of this year’s series — all by himself.
A strong crowd lined up in the lobby at the Simons Center for the early-evening performance (for whatever reason, they couldn’t open the doors until 15 minutes before show time). Eavesdropping on a few groups in line, it was obvious that some weren’t clued in to what was in store. “He’s a jazz drummer playing solo,” one husband said to his wife. “It’s a classical percussion show,” another said. I think many in attendance assumed that as part of Spoleto’s Wachovia Jazz Series, this was going to be snappy, swingin’, Buddy Rich snazz. They were in for an unsettling surprise.
In his introduction, Grofsorean asked the audience to remain as silent and attentive as possible to allow Hemingway “a little more space” during the most delicate moments of his program. The lights dimmed completely. The drummer stood by a lone cymbal stand, off to the side of a four-piece drum kit and two tables-worth of odd hand percussion and electronic gear. Bird and cricket noises chirped faintly through the side speakers. A solo yellow spotlight beamed down as he scraped an orchestral bass bow along the edge of the cymbal and carefully started the first “movement” of the program.
As he conjured various tones, vibrations, and creaks out of the brass, Hemingway looked more like a painter (or witch doctor) at work than a traditional drummer. He gradually increased the sound and volume, muting and cupping the tones with a woodblock. It was eerie and beautiful. Two young children sitting next me with their mother whispered, “Mom, what’s going on? What’s wrong with that man?” The kids were verbalizing what half the audience surely felt.
With the spooky tone set, Hemingway began moving from one instrument from another … or, rather, one sound source to another. He rattled a cluster of long sticks. He whispered loudly while rattling two hand shakers and pacing the back of the stage. He simulated rain forest sounds with one handful of unseen woodblocks and another handful of pats and scrapes across lowly-tuned bass drum.
In an interview before the show, Hemingway told City Paper, “What interests me is the idea of continuous sound, which is not really what the drums are designed for. That’s what led to using bowing sounds, rubs, scraping sounds, and other things that had a continuum to them, which allows me to stack sounds and create a piece with harmonic coherence.” I saw and heard what he meant.
This was not a traditional drum solo in the “jazz “ sense; this was a fluid, atmospheric soundscape. Hemingway successfully took a completely new approach to utilizing instruments — and parts of instruments — to create a seamless, improvised musical piece.
After his first few cycles around the battery of gear, he finally landed on his main drum throne behind the kit and switched between using various mallets, sticks, blocks, brushes — or just his hands or fingers — across an array of drums and cymbals, some of which were quite clangy and noisy (was that a chunk of sheet metal lodged inside his hi-hat cymbals?). Rhythmic patterns became more prevalent, pronounced, and complex. Accents became louder and, at times, more startling. The dynamics swelled and dissipated from very loud to barely audible.
Hemingway was deeply into his own groove and determined to push the program to a strange crescendo. He used abnormal techniques — some of which I’ve never seen or heard of before. He dug the butt end of his brushes or sticks into the snare drum head, or scratched his fingernails across the tom heads to create scraping noises and atonal sounds. He banged a rope of cowbells into his main kick drum. He rattled a stick between the shells of two drums. He blew into a siphon tube that was connected to the portal air hole on his floor tom to control the pitch of the drum from with in the shell — much like a tympani — while playing thunderous rolls across the thing. The build-up was hypnotic; scary and disturbing at times, but quite effective.
During the most linear and “jazzy” moments of the performance, Hemingway veered slightly toward the traditional Big Band drum solo stylings, keeping a steady rapid pulse on the bass drum while embellishing with syncopated snare and tom rolls and fills (the classic “Krupa beat” snuck its way in!). The bustling crescendo scattered into random phrases as Hemingway steered the piece into a tranquil conclusion.
After a standing ovation, his brief encore consisted of a quick solo with mallet and a small hand cymbal (maybe a Xiao Bo?).
The drummer’s fascination with creating new sounds —and multiple layers of sounds aiming for another dimension — led to a highly memorable show. Thumbs up to Spoleto for presenting this.
Gerry Hemingway • Spoleto Festival USA • Wachovia Jazz Series • 1 hour • Fri. June 6, 6 p.m. • Recital Hall, Albert Simons Center, 54 St. Philip St. • (843) 722-2764