(Getting It) Together Alone
Left to right: Andrew Cyrille, Jerome Cooper, John French
Cyrille photo courtesy of Drummerworld, Cooper photo by Michael Wilderman, courtesy of Vision Fest
Notes on some solo percussion recordings
by W. C. Bamberger
John French, in his witty liner notes to O Solo Drumbo: "I have heard many drummers quoted saying how much they hate drum solos. Based on the sole premise of finally discovering a group of people I could truly irritate, I have recorded this drum solo album."1
I'm not a drummer myself, and perhaps that's why I don't find solo drum and percussion albums irritating, but inexhaustibly fascinating. Great drummers set free from the responsibilities of group-playing revel in the sonic elbowroom, and their invention while working alone seems boundless. At the minimum, it is often greater than that displayed by whole groups: a good argument for individual freedom. The five albums and CD's I consider here, the four men who wrote and played them--French, Andrew Cyrille, Famoudou Don Moye and Jerome Cooper--certainly don't exhaust the mode's possibilities, or even the inventiveness of these players. These are simply my favorites among the solo percussion sets I have heard over the last thirty-some years.
The title of John French's 1998 CD is a nod to his previous work (on and off from the mid-1960's to early '80's) with the legendary Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. As "Drumbo," French was, in fact, not only the drummer for this almost impossibly demanding music, he was also the transcriptionist and arranger. French didn't just grow as a result of playing the music, much of the music literally grew out of him: he was his own most difficult teacher. The same rhythmic complexity he catalyzed for the Magic Band and others he's played with or written for since that time is insistently present here. On "Three For 5," for example, he simultaneously plays in 3/8, 4/4 and 5/4 (he writes that he had to program the rhythms into a drum machine in order to learn them). Rahsaan Roland Kirk frequently talked about how he would "split his mind" in order to play distinct melodies on two different horns at one time. French seemingly can split his into thirds--at least. On six tracks, French reclaims and reworks some of the drum parts he created during the Magic Band years. The CD opener, "Abba Zaba Drums," came about as a result of Don Van Vliet (the man behind the nom de eccentricity "Captain Beefheart") requesting an "African" rhythm (French writes that he likely picked this up from the soundtrack to the original "King Kong").
French's incredible limb independence only slowly dawns on the listener here. The drums begin simply, as much silence as repetitive tom rhythm. But the rhythm quickly fills in, until it seems to fill up all available space. But then, French begins moving beyond the original part's role as accompaniment, doubling each of the beats without losing the basic pattern, varying the accents again and again, until the drums begin to sound like the world's most nimble boxer working out on the light bag. Another Beefheart-related track is "The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole." Producer Henry Kaiser asked French if he could play the melody of this 1975 composition (which appeared on Beefheart's final album Ice Cream For Crow) on drums. "Four hours a day and 2 1/2 months later," French had created from the original tricky, lurching music this light and nimble arrangement. To achieve his goal of playing the melody (a term which here refers to the music behind the words: on the original track, Van Vliet recites rather than sings the poem/lyric) French had to borrow drums--because he didn't have eight tom-toms. "Bat Chain Puller: The Movie," which began life as an imitation of the windshield wipers on a Volvo, gets a similarly impressive treatment. These two are the best of the Beefheart retrofit pieces.
"Hair Pie Drums" and "Steal Softly Through Snow Drums" reprise French's drum parts from the legendary Trout Mask Replica album. French's ability to move from pattern or rhythm to another with no awkwardness or stress is impressive, but without the clashing guitars, they aren't very involving.
Even more impressive are some of French's originals. "Disposable Thoughts" is aural quicksilver, jumping from drum to drum with hi-hat accents jittery as a plucked spider web strung between them. (One of the things that make French a favorite of mine is that he uses cymbals very sparingly indeed.) The basic pulse here is an up and down canter, but over this French creates whole constellations of small rhythms. He explains that the title is a reference to the idea that great thinkers might store their thoughts on computer chips, which we could then plug into ourselves. This is sci-fi, but French at times does seem as if he has plugged his drums directly into his mind, and anything he can think of, he brings to life on his drums. "We Are in Control?" begins with improvisations on the basic drum part, which only emerges in the middle of the track. If the way Ray Charles used to quickly lean a shoulder way over could be translated into Drum, this would be that sound. "Suzanne," which French describes as his first attempt at playing a long string of difficult parts, sounds arrhythmic at first. But upon closer listening, we can hear that he is playing drums in much longer phrases than we are used to hearing. Rather than the close-knit question and closure singsong that underlies nearly all musical organization from chant to symphony, French's rhythmic sentences stretch out as long as a Kerouac riff. The effect is still there, but the questions and their resolutions are much further apart.
On "What's a Cobble Box?" the rhythmic units expand and contract like a living train, the hit-hat capturing the energetic snuffle of its breathing. It stops and starts a few times, gathering steam into different chambers each time, so that no development sounds the same; some rim clatter toward the end is especially nice. After a pause, a good-bye shout brings the CD to a close.
French clearly enjoys using strict time or successions (or even vertical stacks!) of precise times as armatures for his compositions and variations. In this, he shares some interests with such process music composers as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. But many other drummers when stepping away from group music choose to free themselves from any semblance of straight ahead steadiness. Andrew Cyrille's solo compositions, for example, tend toward this kind of freedom. Cyrille has long been well known as the drummer of choice for the most advanced kinds of jazz. He played with Cecil Taylor for years; I have seen him with Oliver Lake and on an earlier occasion with pianist Anthony Davis (the physical effort he puts into his solos truly is a sight to behold). Cyrille has done a number of percussion oriented duo (with Milford Graves, for one) and ensemble albums, but his 1978 album The Loop, is solo. 2
There are two trap set solo pieces here, "Excerpt from Spencyrspell," and "The Loop." On both, Cyrille is lightning fast, crisp and unrelenting, but strict time isn't much of a concern. Any section of the "Suite" could stand as a brilliant jazz solo, but episodes are broken with stops and starts, accelerations and brakings; strung together the pieces are full of contrast, swerving, endlessly inventive--an encyclopedic working-through of the drum set's possible colors. "The Loop" has more of a repeated pattern, like a rhythmic theme. Cyrille bats this around, stress tests it for elasticity.
Drummers, likely because of the traditional link between their instrument and the roots of religion and ceremony, tend to tap into the idea of dramatic, almost narrative flows of sound meant to evoke spirituality. Of the four drummers here, French is the only one who doesn't show any particular affinities with this "planet drum" school of thought. Cyrille, Cooper and Moye all exhibit degrees of interest in this ceremonial lineage of percussion. Cyrille's "5000 B.C.," for example, begins with an invocation of whispery small bell sounds. He then moves to gongs and cymbals and some nasal wordless chanting. Tiny metal sounds return and lead again to gongs, and Cyrille ends the piece by telling us its title.
"The News" is a play in sound and on words. We first hear Cyrille rustling newspapers as he covers his drums with them. He doesn't use cymbals or the bass drum here, and the resulting sounds of the snare and toms are pointillistic, deadened, ballistic. Cyrille crumples and rearranges the papers more than once--using the rustling itself as a novel percussive sound--and the resonance of the drums change. At times, it sounds as if he is slapping the drumheads rather than using sticks. Evoking the nature of his title reference, Cyrille's hands fly here, in patterns faster-breaking than the news itself.
"Classical Retention," the long concluding piece, is a clattering, mysterious percussion machine. Cowbell, whistle, trap set--and some unidentified groaning like a Chinese dragon's inhalation, gather together to create little four-pulse cells, each with a short pause at the end. The bass drum lumbers at a slow ballad plod or funereal pace, but the top layers are flying acrobatic dancers and sparks of light: the beat is bisected, trisected, quadrasected, all simultaneously. This is the soundtrack of adrenalized joy and exuberance. Smiles all around.
Several dancing steps even further away from traditional jazz or rock drumming is the work of Famoudou Don Moye, then best known as the drummer for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Moye's 1975 solo album--the first album from the Art Ensemble's own record label--was titled Sun Percussion Volume One. 3 That is "sun" as in "Everything under the..." Moye, who often wears face paint and African clothing when he plays, very much foregrounds the spiritual, ceremonial aspects of percussion. "Saba Saba," the first track, begins with a deep sonorous gong, then a high squeak, like a toy or a bat scrambling his radar, followed by conch sounds and the proverbial bells and whistles. At times, the piece is so quiet that it sounds like the Art Ensemble's "People in Sorrow," as when Moye's steel or brake drum almost whispers. "Att" also is a succession of sound clusters, but in a sharper, more metallic tonal key.
The third track, "Oyekeye," begins with a two-pitch, six note figure on a horn, then a whistle introduces a repetitive drum and voice dance. As with Cyrille, Moye at times sounds as if he were playing with his bare hands. On "N'Balimake," Moye makes vocal noises, plays balaphone and stirs the rhythm mix with his ankle bells and occasional comments from the bass drum or tom. In his liner notes, Stanley Crouch writes that Moye has a shaker in his mouth, but listening to the music makes it clear this would be impossible. It sounds, rather, as if the shaker were attached to one of his arms or wrists. Still, this is an amazing display of limb independence, dexterity and sheer brilliance on the fly. "Olosolo" is a conga drum feature and for all the energy Moye puts into his performance, this is the only track here that might have been done as well by someone else. "Scowiefamuja" is a 12-minute trap set solo. It's active and exhaustive as to parts of the kit and what sounds might be made with them. "Pioneer Song," begins with sounds just at the threshold of hearing--bells and metal objects (including the unique splendor of the hubkaphone), cymbals. The sound slowly rises in metal pulses, one shimmering cell after another. This is pioneer music, but "pioneer" of what or where, we are never told (inner or outer space seem equally likely). Gongs lead the processional out into silence.
Where John French chooses to stick to the last of the traditional drum kit (with a few added toms), and Cyrille and Moye both import other colors of percussion and "little" instruments (adding African and Caribbean sounds), Jerome Cooper's work moves furthest from the idea of the drum solo as we usually think of it. On 1978's The Unpredictability of Predictability, 4 Cooper spends marginally more time playing a large balaphone and a chiramia (a Mexican double reed instrument with the piercing nasal sound common to indigenous oboes around the world) than he does playing his full drum set. Twenty-three years after Predictability, in 2001, Cooper released the CD In Concert: From There to Hear. 5 In the liner notes, Cooper articulates the attitude that shaped both the early LP and the later CD, as well as the other recordings he did between the two. This is an attitude I think all the drummers here must share--and possibly most drummers anywhere. Cooper writes that no matter what an instrument might be, it can be played like a drum: "You have instruments that are structurally different from the drum, but they have the same characteristic in the approach to the drum (i.e. piano, balaphone and shoes with taps). In order to find the music of the drums, I had to change my assumptions and beliefs about music in relation to the drums..." Cooper's way of using his secondary and harmony instruments helps us to do the same.
Along with Cyrille and Moye, Cooper shares the idea of percussion as spiritual invocation. As part of this attitude, Cooper has named his instruments and given separate names to each part of his drum kit: his bass drum is named "OM," his hi-hat "Julio," and "'Repooc' is the psychic name" he's given his balaphones, talking drums and African cymbals. "Movement A, B" of the "The Unpredictability of Predictability" begins with a low flute tone that is repeated until the listener, coming to an album billed as solo percussion with expectations of a certain busy-ness, relents and agrees to let Cooper set his own terms. The sound then leaps high with whistles. The bass drum and hi-hat and chiramia enter while a tubby groove establishes itself underneath. Cooper pushes the chiramia into free-play territory, with strangled tones and squiggles alternating with long tones.
For "Movement C," Cooper plays the traditional drum kit with mallets. It is here that we can mostly clearly hear the effects of Cooper's conception of the drum kit as a confederation of separate instruments. He offers not a steady rhythm line, but a kind of lively Q & A session between drums, and between drum and hi-hat. In direct contrast, the last movement has a steady beat on the floor tom, with scattered accents and some vocal effects.
"Bert the Cat," which takes up all of Side 2, is skittering, tail-in-the-air fun. A six-note chiramia melody is played over and over, with variations, while in the best one-man-band tradition Cooper pounds out dancing rhythms on bass drum, balaphone and hi-hat. In a later solo album, Cooper offers this observation about Charles Mingus' elegy for Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat": "I like playing this piece because it is very much drum-oriented; meaning that the melody is so powerful that you can play any chords or rhythm with it. Most folk melodies are like this." "Bert the Cat" has this same folk-melody power, and the listener's interest and delight never flag over its 20:37 span.
For In Concert: From There to Hear, 6 in addition to the drum kit, balaphone and chiramia, Cooper adds a drum synthesizer, electronic keyboard and "electronic tonal rhythmic activator." He approaches the electronic instruments with the same attitude he approaches the acoustic ones. On the first track, "Bantul," for example, the drum synthesizer and trap set come up together, over a bass drum and hit-hat pulse, with a deep electronic bass pedal at the bottom (Cooper writes that the melody on the balaphone was inspired by Indian gamelan music, but I hear only American street attitude in its particular swing syncopation). The electronic instruments, paradoxically, help to keep the music human: Cooper's balaphone part grows simpler (unavoidably) when the bass riff changes--indicating he has to turn his attention to another part of the musical whole for a moment. This is no different from the way Blind Blake's complex ragtime guitar reverted to simple chording when he played solos on a harmonica held in a rack around his neck. The one-man-band approach, no matter how basic or augmented--from Dr. Ross the Harmonica Boss, to electric guitar genius Gary Lucas' electronic-delay-shaped excursions--always produces very human music.
Because there is a greater overt melodic element, the traditional jazz structure of theme/variations/ improvisation/reprise is more apparent in Cooper's music than on any of the other recordings considered here. "Monk Funk" is a solo version of a piece first recorded by Cooper with his Quintet in the late 1980's. 7 Cooper's approach here is interesting: first establish a rhythm, and over this play a "melody" on the cymbals--an upending of the drum kit's usual role. But the overall tinny-ness soon becomes off-putting, and the surface clatter blurs most of the first five minutes of the piece. The sound clears after the chiramia enters, but any pretense of sit-and-pound-the-earth root-ism vanishes when the electronic keyboard enters as accompaniment. Hierarchy is restored and the music loses some of its uniqueness. "The Indonesian," the shortest piece here, has an electronic keyboard bass and is colored by the synthesizer. This is the most straight-ahead track--pleasant but not quite of the caliber of the rest.
"My Funny Valentine" begins with a percolating free improv, and gradually builds up a structure that moves through a chrysalis of downshifting tempo and pitch to emerge as the famous ballad. The synthesized piano at the end suggests McCoy Tyner, reinforcing the tune's association with Miles Davis. "My Life" is a totally improvised mesh of cross-rhythms, with Cooper simultaneously blowing two chiramias above it all.
For me, the gem of this CD is Cooper's take on "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." The chiramia doesn't play the entire melody, but finds and caresses the characteristic giant steps of the melody over thick electronic chording, a sound like a broken voice yearning to raise itself toward the highest possible musical praise. It's clunky, nasal and lovely...
Finding this music played live isn't easy. Bands, particularly jazz bands, will often feature a drum solo or two in a concert, but a complete solo concert by a drummer is rare outside the smallest venues in the largest cities. Most of us will only hear playing of this caliber in recorded form--and several of the recordings considered here are no longer available. That's a shame. But other CDs are available, some only with a solo or two, and there are other players--Milford Graves and Glen Velez, for example--who have recorded similar music. Seeking out solo percussion performances is well worth the effort. There are few kinds of music better able to demonstrate--with stick and skin, mallet and rosewood, bell and whistle, wind and reed, even hand-flicked electronic switch, but most of all with mind and imagination--just how broadly, deeply human, how full of spirit and physical delight music can be.
1 Avan 024 (1998). French’s notes here, like Jerome Coopers for the live CD considered below, are both informative and entertaining.
2 Ictus 0009 (1978)
3 AECO Records 001 (1975)
4 About Time AT-1002 (1978)
5 Mutable Music 17506-2 (2001)
6 Mutable Music 17506-2 (2001)
7 Jerome Cooper Quintet Outer and Interactions, About Time AT-1008 (recorded 1987; released 1988)
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