Drummer Franklin Kiermyer Channels Coltrane And The Buddha

Two new CDs reflect artist's spiritual paths.

On most jazz artists younger than 50, the influence of saxophonist John Coltrane is apparent. But few musicians approach the music from the same spiritual wellspring that "Trane" did.

Franklin Kiermyer is one who does. He recently created his own label, SunShip Records (after a 1965 Coltrane album) and has released two new discs, Sanctification and Auspicious Blazing Sun. If SunShip has a guiding principle, it is "Liberation Through Sound," a motto that adorns the jackets of both discs.

"Basically, the idea behind SunShip is to further the idea of using music and sound to aid and be a vehicle for spiritual practice," Kiermyer, 44, says from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he resides half the year, the balance being in Nepal. "I always felt that the ideal situation would be to have records come out on a label that was dedicated to spiritually motivated music. The only way was to put it out myself."

Sanctification is a fiery quartet date that is the musical equivalent of a perfect storm: It explodes and takes you for a ride. Pianist John Esposito, bassist Fima Ephron, saxophonist Michael Stuart and Kiermyer jump directly into the fire with the 15-minute title cut.

The road map for the music is A Love Supreme–era Trane, 1963–66, but Sanctification is far from derivative. The playing is superb: The tight band obviously communicates on a personal level while flying at full burn. Not that everything is delivered at a heart-racing pulse. The slow, haunting "Dedication" (RealAudio excerpt) lets the quartet play in a soft, but not languid, fashion.

As the saxophonist, Stuart has perhaps the most difficult job in the band. How to play this music without resorting to a hackneyed bag of Trane tricks? On "Aspiration," the tenor rises into the stratosphere, propelled by Coltrane's rhythmic sensibility, but the melodies are all Stuart.

To The Beat Of A Similar Drum

"I've known Michael for 15 years," Kiermyer says of his sax man. "We all came together because we all were devoted to that same type of vibe in music. That overall spiritual direction, which says music can be a vehicle for revelation. We have gotten to this point."

Esposito speaks about the sessions: "With Franklin, he is very direct but with little discussion. He tends to write things that on the surface are simple, chantlike melodies or rhythms. But then you're on your own. What he gives is really a mood, maybe a few notes, but this is very expressionistic music."

Kiermyer and Esposito have known each other for almost a decade. "Franklin looked me up when he was needing a piano player who also wanted to play music that was rooted in Coltrane's style," Esposito says.

Kiermyer first heard Coltrane's music when he was 15, growing up in Montreal.

Trane Tracks

"I had a friend who told me to check out Sun Ship. He said, 'I'm not sure what's going on and I'm not sure it makes sense, but it sure feels like it does.' It wasn't just jazz music. Its purpose was to further that feeling I was having of expansion and revelation. So then I got deeper into his music.

"Coltrane's Transitions and the first Meditations were also really influential records for me. [Coltrane] transcended a genre and had the conviction, strength and need to purify what he was doing."

Coltrane's music involved a meshing of technical mastery, interpersonal telepathy and a common intent.

"They were playing longer and longer phrases that went way beyond the bar line. Along with that comes the longer sense of faith and belief that this is real. That's what comes across to me in Coltrane's music."

Kiermyer has a more literal connection to Coltrane. He recorded the well-received Solomon's Daughter (Evidence) in 1994 with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, a Trane alumnus.

"It was a great experience. I couldn't believe his sound," Kiermyer says. Before that disc, the drummer released In the House of My Fathers, featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist John Stubblefield, and Kairos, a 1996 Evidence date with reedmen Sam Rivers and Eric Person.

Spiritual Inspiration

Kiermyer follows the teachings of Jetsun Milarepa, an 11th-century father of the Karma Kagyu, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Milarepa is known to have taught primarily in song.

Auspicious Blazing Sun is the result of a musical conversation Kiermyer had with another Tibetan master, Umdze Lodro Samphel, who visited the States in 1999. The album of traditional Buddhist chants features Kiermyer performing with several monk musicians who play instruments indigenous to their homeland.

The 15 compositions on the CD alternate between chants with small percussion instruments and those with bombastic drumming. There is a sense of tension and release between selections, but the question is, What is the tension and what is the release? The harmony and melodic structure in the chants are not familiar to Western ears, but the explosive drumming certainly is. So, is a loud drum excursion a release from a meditative, serenity-invoking chant? Perhaps. It is strange to refer to the "Tashi Prayer" or the "Mahamudra Lineage Prayer" as "cuts," but check those out, then get ready for the raging, percussive drum blast that is the "Guru Rinpoche Dance (In Praise of Padmasambhava)" (RealAudio excerpt).

"What I can say about Auspicious Blazing Sun is, simply, this is what we all do. If you listen to the record I did with Pharoah in 1994 and then this one, you can see what I try to do and also chart my development as a musician."

SunShip will release a CD in September that does not include Kiermyer. Calling the Guru From Afar is an album of chanting and singing from the 80 monks of Nepal's Pullahari monastery.

"Although I'm not playing, this record also is a good example of what the label is all about," says the drummer. "Liberation through sound."