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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Theoral - Conversations with Hamid Drake and William Parker (Self, 2016) ****

Nickelsdorf in Austria is home to the great Konfrontation art festival and also to Phillip Schmickl, the driving force behind the 'the oral', an ongoing oral history project that has so far produced 12 volumes on artists and musicians, the latest being Conversations with Hamid Drake and William Parker. A conversation with Hamid Drake on the eve of the festival in 2015 is the starting point for this volume.

Schmickl doesn't ask a lot of questions, but rather sets a direction, and having an interviewee like Hamid Drake helps - he's  loquacious and thoughtful, empathetic and well-rounded. The freewheeling discussion that we get to eaves-drop on is part autobiography - a reflection on the artistic life, and part philosophical - with topics extending from the political to the existential to the mystical. Occasional references to the influence of other musicians also appear - such as saxophonist Fred Anderson and current Chicago stalwarts - but the crux of the discussion is about being awake. Openess and the exchange of ideas is what drives Drake, and he works hard to embody it, find it in others, and to make it happen. In a short passage that I particularly enjoyed, Drake talks about the current condition of humanity succinctly:
'We're suffering from the disease of, what some people call egotism and small mindedness. I think that's one of the major things that people are suffering from is just being small minded and not allowing themselves to see things from a larger and broader perspective ... I remember when I first started traveling I thought I was gonna encounter all these different people with these incredible huge open minds, you know,  but soon I was shown that no, that's not the case.'
It's the second part of the book, the interview continues with William Parker, and the conversation takes a pointed turn towards the political and the personal. Parker starts off slow, with an anecdote about growing up in the projects of New York City and how in retrospect he sees it a self-sustaining village, but soon, the repartee sharpens and the talk is about understanding between race and ethnicity (with the NYC subway as metaphor), the refugee situation in Europe, and the story of violinist Billy Bang. The energy of the conversation is palpable as the musician's riff on life. 

The short book wraps with a transcript of a discussion panel conducted in Warsaw, where the author is joined by Krzysztof Wójcik, Paul Lovens, and Hans Fal. Here the author's own interests in the music are laid bare. He started theoral series after finishing his doctoral studies and not finding work that he felt suited him. When combined with a passion for the music that he developed in his life in Nicklesdorf, the result is this interesting window into the creative lives and thought processes of one of the most sought after rhythm sections in improvised music. 

More about The Oral (which kind of occupies a category between a journal and a book) can be found here:

A table of contents and some excerpts here: