Click here to [close]

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Solo percussion & percussion duets and even more percussion

By Stef

Is it possible to create meaningful music with only percussion? The answer is clearly yes. But the challenge to keep non-percussionists motivated to keep listening is high. The absence of any lyrical or harmonic instruments is a barrier to many. But I recommend to listen to some of the following albums, released in the last year: some solo albums and some duo albums, and one that is even not only percussion but one that still might fit in this overview.

In the last few years, we have seen how progressive music opened towards more open sonic environments, offering a new world of sound in which texture and timbre become more important than rhythm and harmonies. This increases the opportunities to explore, because the boundaries are gone, and it allows for musicians to deepen the possibilities and potential of their instruments. I assume that especially for percussionists, this opens new aural vistas, as you hear on the following albums.

Various Artists - Free Percussion (Tsss Tapes, 2019)

Let's start with the most exclusive one: a wonderful compilation of what modern percussionists have to say with their instruments. The artists are - in this sequence: Claire Rousay, Rie Nakajima, Chris Dadge, Håkon Berre, Ted Byrnes, Tim Daisy, Will Guthrie, Simon Camatta, Kevin Corcoran, Skyler Rowe, Francesco Covarino and João Lobo. Each one of them performs on one track, and as the liner notes say, using:"Snares, bells, sticks, cymbals, pinecones, rattles, brushes, bass drums, mallets & other objects that make a sound if you hit them, stroke them, let them bounce". Each artist has his or her own approach, yet all music is thoughtful and carefully paced, creating sonic environments rather than rhythmic explorations in which percussive sounds merge with silence, scrapings, stretched tones, combining minimalism with more expressive moments. A mixed tape for sure, but with unity. 

Listen and buy from Bandcamp

Tim Daisy - New Works For Solo Percussion (Relay, 2019)

Chicagoan drummer Tim Daisy is of course well known to the readers of this blog. He has performed with musicians such as Ken Vandermark,  Steve Swell, Dave Rempis, Jeb Bishop,  Mars Williams, Jaimie Branch, and many more across the continents. It's no wonder that he is in such demand. He is a drummer with skills and ideas, which he already sufficiently demonstrated in his many collaborations.
On this album, he takes the time to share his own thoughts on new possibilities. He combines different styles and types of drumming, sometimes rhythmic, playing different instruments at the same time. The long opening track demonstrates it all: marimba, toms, crotales, woodblocks, cymbals and gongs create a sonic universe that oscillates between tension and fun, between intensity and calm, between pyrotechnics and tenderness. I think especially drummers will revel in the new approaches that are presented here, yet there's sufficient variation and innovation to keep non-drummers interested.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Michael Zerang ‎– Assyrian Caesarean (Holidays, 2019)

Michael Zerang is mentioned in no less than 52 articles published on this blog, often in ensembles with Brötzmann, McPhee, Rempis, Swell and other free jazz luminaries. To my knowledge, this is his first solo album.

Zerang switches between percussive moments and sonic explorations by generating lengthened noisy sounds from his instrument, by rubbing the skins of his toms, or the sides of his cymbals with a variety of tools. His "Song for Mourners" is a good example of the latter, and it demonstrates the percussionist's skill to generate expressive sounds with varying pitches out of his drum kit, by itself already an interesting feat, yet it also has artistic value, as it offers a weird and unusual listening experience, one that you can get lost in, as in "Threnody for a Desert Storm", a multilayered piece full of tension and foreboding. On "Capitalism's Last Shred", the noise is utterly irritating, but I guess that's the point considering the track's title.

If you prefer straight drumming, the listener will definitely enjoy compositions such as "Assyrian Caesarean", a rhythmic delight full of shifting patterns played on his toms with just a few hi-hat sounds for contrast. The most complex percussive piece is "The Swift and Sordid Purification of Jimi Jihad", a rumbling improvisation full of variety and dozens of little things happening at the same time.

Zerang, himself of Assyrian descent (Iraq/Iran), creates a haunting, personal story that is both musical and political: thanks to his skills and inventiveness he transcends the natural limitations of his instrument, expanding its range and musical potential while at the same time evocating the pain and destruction in the Middle East.

Peter Orins - Happened By Accident (Circum, 2019) 

We've come across Peter Orins as the drummer of French-Japanese Kaze quartet or in some of Satoko Fujii's Orchestras, as well as being a member of th French Circum Grand Orchestra. Classically trained, he takes his music even a step beyond jazz on this solo album. He explores textures and sounds, influenced by minimalism yet at the same time - as on the first piece - creating quite a dense and warm multilayered sound that shifts in intensity. Other tracks are built around silence with the percussion instruments expressing themselves in unheard languages, chirping or twittering, scraping or whistling, or once even a deep bass resonance coming from who knows where (as on the fourth track). The title refers to the unexpected nature of his music, where things happen by chance, by accident even.

The result is mesmerising. Listen closely and you will be amazed that all these sounds are the results of percussive instruments, but even that no longer matters. The sound stands on its own, regardless of the instruments used. It's almost become ambient, the sounds of life, nature and civilisation, both equally unpredictable, captured in little sonic capsules with a high level of abstraction that is paradoxically also very physical. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Emil Karlsen - Flux (Noumenon, 2019)

Norwegian percussionist Emil Karlsen is based in Leeds at the moment, and becoming part of the avant-garde music scene. As far as I could find out, this is the third album on which he performs, and the choice to produce a solo CD is quite unusual. The album consists of twelve relative short pieces, on which he demonstrates the versatility and variety of his musical vision. The pieces are called "Waves", "Changes", "Air",  "Flow", "Rain", indicating that the music is either evocative or inspired by nature. "Air" for instance, offers a spacious soundscape of individual cymbal sounds that resonate through silence, occassionally alternated with a slight beat on a tom. "Flow" starts quietly, but gradually gathers intensity and density, with many percussive sounds adding power like a mountain river that swells with the falling rain.

His music is crisp and crystal clear.

Eric Thielemans - Bata Baba Loka (Oorwerk, 2018)

Eric Thielemans is a Belgian drummer and percussionist, whose new release "Bata Baba Loka" is already his sixth solo album. His instrument is the drum kit. His approach is exploratory but with a strong emphasis on rhythmic changes and patterns, deeply rooted in jazz and African polyrhythms, but making them branch in various new directions. It's a treat.

Eric Thielemans & Billy Hart - Talking About The Weather (Oorwerk, 2019)

And this one is even a better treat: Eric Thielemans invites his former teacher and master drummer Billy Hart for an unusual album, a collage of real conversations - about the weather to start with - and drumming, and often unusual drumming at that. It's a meeting of approaches, of inventive interaction, with different set-ups of the percussion instruments. Thielemans, no longer the student, and Hart, no longer the teacher, go for it, creative, subtle, determined, powerful, supple, not there to impress, but to enjoy the moment, to enjoy each other's technique and ideas and then to merge and co-create with a like-minded spirit, a rare moment for percussionists. You hear them smile to each other during the performance. You hear the respect and the appreciation and the admiration. Some pieces are minimal, some exuberant, but always rich.

The album comes with a 64-page booklet with all the conversations in full.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Jay Rosen & Brian Willson - The Mystery Brothers (Not Two, 2019)

Jay Rosen (Trio X, Cosmosomatics, ...) and Brian Willson (Ivo Perelman Trio, Pauline Oliveros, ...) have an equally intimate conversation between drum kits on this album. The wonderful recording puts each musician on one audio channel (Willson on the left, Rosen on the right), so you can hear how the interaction develops, often seemingly playing as one in these four lengthy improvisations.

For two artists who know their instruments so well, and who are so competent and skilled, the fact of having this opportunity to speak the same language appears to be infectious. They are not all over the place, quite to the contrary: the music is focused, and even if unplanned, it develops with its own logic and sense of direction, like stories unfolding. The long last track is called "Unity". And that's what you get.

Eventless Plot - Percussion Works (Dinzu Artefacts, 2019) 

Eventless Plot is an ensemble a little bit in its own universe. Their approach is minimalistic, with at least one or a few sustained tones that give the music a strong horizontal linearity, acting as a shifting foundation for the percussion to emphasise, contrast and disrupt. The trio, consisting of Vasilis Liolios, Yiannis Tsirikoglou and Aris Giatas, limit themselves to percussion on this album, in contrast to the use of piano and guitar on their earlier work. They are joined by Louis Portal for additional percussion. On the second track, Stefanos Papadimitriou joins with his viola, emphasising the sustained tones of bells. Evelina Krasaki sings - wordless - on the third composition. The main instruments are percussion, crotales, sound plates, singing bowls, cymbals, objects with the support of electromagnetic mics, contact mics, bows, sine tones, electronics Max/MSP.

Despite this line-up, the composed work is slow-paced, light-textured and ethereal. The collective effort of the musicians results in a sonic world of strange intensity. Despite its apparant calm, the music is rich and full of dramatic moments, and often of an eery beauty. Of all the albums reviewed in this list, it's possibly the least 'percussive' in the traditional sense, but at the same time it again reveals that with ingenuity and musical vision more can be done with less.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Tatsuya Nakatani - Yama Yaki (Self-released, 2018)

Last year, Japanese master drummer Tatsuya Nakatani released already his ninth solo percussion album. Nakatani is known to us for his collaborations with amongst others Peter Kowald, Gary Hassay, Asif Tsahar, Michel Doneda.

His approach to his instrument is a very physical one, highly energetic, even when he is using extended techniques as can be seen on the video below. On several of his previous solo albums he collected a number of different pieces, recorded at various intervals, but the approach on this album is different, as it consists of one long track of 45 minutes. And this approach works. Nakatani creates his sound art which requires time to develop, to build a sonic narrative that is full of intensity and an inherent level of violence and power.

Claire Rousay - various solo albums

To finish this list, I would like to refer to two albums already reviewed by Keith Prosk last month, but still worth mentioning in this series.

In conclusion, it's amazing that percussion only albums are proliferating. The musicians listed above have taken this unique form to a higher level, demonstrating that even in a very limited setting, many new sounds can be explored and created. I'm sure there will be something for anyone's taste.


Richard said...

I had the privilege of seeing Tatsuya Nakatani in concert just last night, in duo with cellist Mark Molnar. I can attest both to his excellence as a musician and his physical, energetic approach, as Stef describes it, to his playing. Also Yama Yaki is a fine example of his work.

MJG said...

Interesting list.
I'd like to add Eddie Prevost's 'Matching Mix' as very worthy of attention

Stef said...

Thanks! I wasn't aware of the Eddie Prévost album, or I would have included it ... next time.

Richard said...

Just writing in to add that Tatsuya Nakatani has a new solo album called Rock Garden which is also terrific.

Michael said...

I experienced a very special concert in Bern, some time ago. The musician was playing alone but on clarinet and drums simultaneously. It is still one of the most particular concerts I have ever witnessed. The guy calls himself unoduo and is a species by himself, maybe you know him already. His performance opened up my ears for challenging music and this blog is helping me to be deeper informed about such contemporary artists. Greets from Bern.