Gerry Hemingway Dances On The Cutting Edge

Composer behind the drum kit has new CD and a date with ROVA in San Francisco.

Gerry Hemingway, perhaps best known as the drummer in visionary reed player Anthony Braxton's quartet from 1983–95, will make a rare West Coast appearance Friday and Saturday to play with the venerable ROVA Saxophone Quartet at the ODC Gallery in San Francisco.

Though ROVA and Hemingway, 44, are veterans of the creative-improv scenes in the U.S. and Europe, this will be the first time they have performed together.

"I'm a little bit dazzled by what I can do with these particular players," Hemingway said. "They have a lot to offer, so I'm very much looking forward to it, and I think it will be an exciting combination."

With the chops the musicians have, one can almost imagine them switching roles — Hemingway playing melodies with his sticks and brushes, and ROVA keeping time with their horns.

Hemingway has been a mainstay on the improvised-music scene's cutting-edge. With the ability to leap from a whisper to a scream in a heartbeat, Hemingway is considered one of the most inventive and adaptive drummers in jazz.

He's also a seasoned composer who has steered his own bands for 20 years, releasing about 40 CDs as a leader or co-leader. His latest, Thirteen Ways, was recorded with pianist Fred Hersch and reed player Michael Moore.

Glistening Expressions

Hemingway's bandmates and collaborators throughout the past 25 years comprise some of the great names in improvised music: pianists Cecil Taylor, Marilyn Crispell and Anthony Davis, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, guitarist Derek Bailey, trombonists Ray Anderson and George Lewis, clarinetist John Carter and many others. Lately Hemingway has been playing in legendary bassist Reggie Workman's ensemble.

Hemingway says that although he is informed by concepts as diverse as Sardinian vocal music, Schoenberg's harmony, Balkan music and James Brown's groove, to name a few, his goal is not to merge the influences in a contrived manner.

"These [influences] have been more or less assimilated into my understanding to where I can abstract elements out of each one. That can be synthesized as something that comes out more or less as the way I hear. I don't say I am trying to merge, you know, classical European repertoire with jazz music. That's really not my point of view."

Thirteen Ways is full of glistening, introspective expression. Perhaps more mellow and straight-ahead than much of the heated work he has done in other groups, Thirteen Ways is by no means a disc anyone could possibly call mainstream.

Spacious Swing, Heated Moments

The trio's interpretations of Kurt Weill's "Speak Low," Thelonious Monk's "Boo Boo's Birthday" (RealAudio excerpt) and Jelly Roll Morton's "Mr. Jelly Lord" (RealAudio excerpt) are interspersed with originals by Hemingway, Hersch and Moore. Much of the album has a spacious swing, though it also includes heated moments when Hemingway and band snap in tight unison. Hersch's lyrical playing forms a foundation that Moore uses to create flurries of spiraling clusters.

"Michael and Fred are literate musicians," Hemingway said. "When they get together to play a standard, they'll play it in any key — they're just very fluid with this kind of material. And the other thing that's a nice blend about Fred and Michael, and one I quite relate to as a composer and an improviser, is Fred is a very harmonically sophisticated player — he understands harmony in a deep way. And I know no one who is more of an omnivore than Michael — he just listens to everything."

The same could be said of Hemingway. Rare among drummers, his refined and complex sense of composition matches his undeniable polyrhythmic virtuosity. Among his ongoing projects is BassDrumBone, a group with trombonist Anderson and bassist Mark Helias that's been together for 22 years. Their most recent release, Hence the Reason, is full of marvelous tonal colors and manages to sound modern and classic at the same time. On the title track (RealAudio excerpt), Anderson and Hemingway's rhythmic interplay evokes '40s bop but with an edgy postmodern sensibility.

Hemingway has always had a fresh attitude toward the drums.

"When I stumbled onto jazz, I recognized a feel and a sense of approach to the instrument that was more transparent. How did they get that kind of dance to happen? How did Roy Haynes play with that kind of beautiful, liquidy sound?"

He brimmed with enthusiasm when talking about his drum influences. "I got to sit right next to Elvin Jones during a recording session when I was a teenager. Unbelievably rubbery hand. The way he interacts with a cymbal is just mind-boggling. Watching Tony Williams hit for the first time was pretty intense. Chick Webb I viewed as a pioneer. The first guy to pull off a drum solo. [In the climate of] big band music, that was pretty daring. He set the standard for a lot of people."

New Path Inspired By Prince, DiFranco

Among Hemingway's forthcoming projects is a radical departure for the drummer — a vocal record. It is inspired, he says, by Prince and Ani DiFranco.

"Her music has been very influential in me going this direction," he said of DiFranco. "I think she's one of the most exciting songwriters that has come along in quite awhile. I think she is a great singer, speaking to our time and what's going on in our politics and our intimate life like nobody else."

Hemingway recently won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship and plans to use the money to create a piece to be played with an orchestra and two of his frequent collaborators.

"The three improvisers are myself, pianist Georg Graewe and cellist Ernst Reijseger, although they don't know that I'm planning on doing this. First I have to write the music, but improvising with an orchestra is my design. I want to do more in this department."

Also on the bill with Hemingway and the ROVA Sax Quartet this weekend are two groups, Heart of the Matter and Sometimes Why. The former features ex–Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, koto player Miya Masaoka and ROVA's Larry Ochs. The latter consists of ROVA, guitarist John Schott, bassist George Cremaschi and computer-music specialist Tim Perkis.