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Let There Be Drums


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Michael Zerang & Hamid Drake

Lunar Cabaret, July 22

What's left out of jazz can mean as much as what's played. Listen to Miles Davis's classic recording of "My Funny Valentine": the spaces in his bittersweet solo tell as much as the notes. Sonny Rollins's brilliant album A Night at the Village Vanguard, on which the tenor saxophonist is accompanied by only a bassist and drummer, owes much of its bristling drive to what you don't hear--the familiar harmonic cushion of a piano or guitar. And the World Saxophone Quartet achieved a distinctively vocal sound on their early recordings by eliminating not only the harmony instrument, but the bass and drums as well.

The Chicago-based duo of Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake offers a sort of sonic reverse-image of the early World Saxophone Quartet. They likewise don't have a harmony instrument or bass. But instead of leaving out the drums, they leave out the horns. After all that subtraction--horns, piano, guitar, bass--what's left onstage are two men playing drums. The absence of other instruments, instead of limiting them, provides the pair--and their listeners--with rare musical opportunities.

At the Lunar Cabaret, Zerang and Drake, whose collective musical experience ranges from cutting-edge jazz to reggae, played two very different sets. The first comprised three improvised pieces in which the drummers drew on musical traditions from other parts of the world, playing a variety of drums. The second consisted of an extended tribute to the wonderful jazz drummer Ed Blackwell, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman, which they played on trap sets.

Seated side by side, the duo began the evening with Zerang on the dawala, a small bass drum from Turkey, and Drake on the deff, a lighter sounding frame drum from Iraq. For the first few minutes they played rhythmically free phrases. One would begin and the other would join in, then the one who had followed would lead. But the distinction between leading and following soon disappeared. Zerang would play deep tones on the middle of his drum one moment, hit lighter ones on the outside the next, and then play a series of differing pitches by pushing down on the drum with one hand while striking it with the other. This brief introduction accurately foreshadowed what was to come. Despite the absence of melody and harmony instruments, the music would be richly varied in tone and color. And instead of melodic invention and harmonic development, the heart of this music would be conversational interplay.

These unmetered phrases soon dissolved into an irresistible medium-tempo groove. Freed from the usual role of providing support for a melody instrument, these drummers could focus wholeheartedly on rhythm. The result was a beat that was insistent but never monotonous. Instead of repeating the same patterns, Zerang and Drake were constantly in motion--doubling an accent here, hitting one behind the beat there, then omitting one altogether. Like sand dunes in the wind, their beat was at once stable and shifting.

Such improvised drumming requires a high degree of rapport. Whereas a satisfying horn solo will have independent logic and coherence, drum playing is interdependent. Hearing one of these drummers without the other would have made no more sense than hearing only one actor in a two-character play. Zerang and Drake engaged in a true musical dialogue: one would state the beat explicitly while the other played against it; one would lighten his sound while the other's darkened; and one would add to a phrase that the other had begun.

The success of this music also depended on the relationship between the drummers and the listener. This performance worked like a dance in which the drummers led and the listener followed. If drummers surprise a listener too often, the music seems chaotic. But if they surprise too infrequently, it seems mechanical. The trick, as this concert demonstrated, is to strike a balance between fulfilling and confounding expectations. Such a balance keeps the listener slightly off-kilter.

Ordinarily a drummer is expected to maintain a steady tempo throughout a piece. But just as a conversation will naturally speed up and slow down, these drummers often changed tempos. Rhythmic power is usually associated with playing hard and loud, but this music was often most driving when it was also most delicate. Its expressiveness depended not only on rhythmic momentum, but on subtle shadings of tone and color. At the end of the first piece, both players conjured otherworldly moans by wetting their fingertips and dragging them across the drum skins.

For the second set Zerang and Drake abandoned their hand-played drums for trap sets and sticks, and then sat down facing each other. Understandably this image might have been enough to prompt someone who'd arrived between sets to get ready for a headache. Outside of their role as accompanists, most trap drummers become busy and flashy. Like someone whose conversation is all nervous energy, they quickly grow tiresome. While most trap drumming becomes unbearably tedious within five minutes, Zerang and Drake enthralled this audience for an uninterrupted set lasting an hour.

They began in unison at a brisk tempo on the cymbals. After the hand-on-skin sounds of the first set, the cymbals shimmered and rang. Both drummers approached their instruments--like Blackwell did--as a choir of voices, each having a distinct musical personality. Whereas many trap drummers appear to give much thought to rhythmic patterns but little to where and how they're played, Zerang and Drake played sounds rather than simply rhythms. In their hands a series of sounds played on a cymbal had the same sense of inevitability as that of a sequence of notes in a great horn solo. Most trap drummers lack a compositional sense of structure; they develop their playing in the most banal fashion, gradually becoming faster and louder. But this piece had a dynamic structure: composed passages at the beginning and end were juxtaposed against improvised sections in the middle; joint call-and-response improvisations were set off against solos; and a fiercely swinging pulse was interrupted at times by rhythmically free passages. And whereas the playing of many trap drummers has the emotional expressiveness of a slam-dunk contest, Zerang and Drake played with feeling. Unlike many jazz drummers, they weren't afraid to play simply and directly. Though technically sophisticated, their playing was never more complex than it had to be. At their best, they sang on the drums.

For all their virtuosity, the concert stumbled in places. On one piece Zerang left his drums and picked up a wooden flute, which proved to be a mistake for two reasons: his flute playing wasn't nearly as inventive as his drumming, and the relationship between the musicians shifted from intimate interplay to a static combination of melody and rhythmic accompaniment. At times during the Ed Blackwell tribute, the music meandered briefly before regaining its momentum. Otherwise, Zerang and Drake played with the greatest immediacy I've heard in the last year. Over and over again this performance called to mind a line by poet Michael McClure: "Let there be physical suddenness."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark PoKemper.

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