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Friday, August 18, 2023

Solo Percussion

 By Stef Gijssels

This overview has been simmering here for a while, with the possibly too ambitious goal to inform our readers on all new solo percussion albums, while at the same time taking the time to listen to them all, and do some other listening in between. We recently reviewed Devin Gray's "Most Definitely", and that's the only solo percussion album we reviewed for quite a while. As can be expected, we have the full spectrum of solo percussion albums - from jazz to modern music, from drums to melodic percussion, from acoustic to electronically altered percussion. Listening to solo percussion albums requires some special attention and attention span as well. 

Andrew Cyrille - Music Delivery/Percussion (Intakt, 2023)

Master drummer Andrew Cyrille's first album as a leader was a solo record: "What About" from 1969. His second solo album "The Loop" dates from 1978. It is a real treat to listeners to now have his third solo album in his very long and successful career. Most of the eleven tracks are his own compositions, although he also presents us his percussion version of Amina Claudine Meyers' "Jumping In The Sugar Bowl" and John Carter's "Enter From The East". Cyrille offers us tracks in 7/4 and 6/8 and other odd meters, performed on a variety of instruments, presenting the level of variation that is needed to keep things interesting and refreshing. "I wanted to have a variety of percussion instruments in the compositions. So I was thinking of melodies that could be played with tambourines, bells, cymbals, crotales, gongs, and mallets," he writes in the liner notes. 

Cyrille emphasises the melodic aspect of his art. This is not always obvious to hear at first listen, but keep up the effort and keep listening. There are moments of fun, of small side-stories, with more dramatic excursions and a wonderful sense of fluidity. No wonder he's still so good after so many decades of musicianship. Magic at work!

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Hamid Drake – Dedications (Corbett vs Dempsey, 2022)

I think that no other drummer features in so many of our reviews as Hamid Drake, and possibly rightly so (I tried to count them, then gave up). We all like his technical skills, his incredible sense of rhythm - why does his drums always seems to dance? - his spirituality and especially his understanding of other musicians. Now, for the first time in his long career, he offers us a solo percussion album, with all pieces dedicated to some of his favourite artists: "A dedication in spirit to all those who have influenced, helped, opened, nurtured, shown love for, and cared for me along the way."

The liner notes mention that John Corbett "began petitioning Drake to record an unaccompanied session twenty years ago", which - as a result of the pandemic - started to get real form. A prepared studio recording did not satisfy the drummer, and in 2021 he tried again, now without any preparation, letting the music flow. 

Obviously, it can only produce what is already there, in the incredible mental track record of rhythms and techniques and loose ideas that get shape here in the creative moment of performing. At times I had to laugh out loud just because of the incredible fun of listening to his playing. And it's not that his music is 'fun': it's just so incredibly complex, intricate, compelling and played with such ease and spontaneity. I remember that Ken Vandermark mentions in the liner notes to one of their collaborative albums (I think 'Spaceways Inc - Version Soul'), that he asked Drake to play a reggae rhythm, upon which Drake replied "which one?" of the few dozen that he knew. This is what you get here too. A jubilant demonstration of percussive delight. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Sofia Borges - Trips & Findings (4DA Records, 2022)

Sofia Borges is a Portuguese percussionist residing in Berlin, who considers herself a sound artist, equally comfortable in free improvisation, jazz, modern music as in theatre and dance. 

On her first solo album - a double CD - she presents four lengthy compositions, clocking between fifteen and twenty-five minutes. She describes each track briefly in the liner notes, so I won't repeat this here. Suffice to give her summary: "It shows four sketches from my travel notebook: what I observe and forget, what I discover, lose and find again, what I listen to, what I touch, and what strikes me. Each of these pages expresses different facets of my work"

She performs on percussion, drums, amplified objects, toys, field recording and electronics. The advantage of the length of the compositions is the possibility to develop the music, to make it evolve and progress like on a musical journey, and the variety of instruments allow her to create encounters, surprises, changes and twists on the path she has taken with the composition. 

Especially on the second track, the percussive sound is so electronically altered that the main sound becomes noise, and field recordings and actual performance merge into a broader sonic landscape. 

Her art becomes even more unusual on the second CD, on which toys - sounding like chimes or little bells - are like fresh rain drops on a dark road. The music is dense, fascinating to follow and to submerge yourself in. 

This is as far away from jazz as possible - with the exception of the improvisation - but worth listening to. You could call her a creative spontaneous noisemaker. She generates her own universe, with her own musical vision and voice, and I can only recommend it. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Ramon Prats - Solot (Sirulita, 2023)

We know Ramon Prats primarily from his collaborations with Spanish free improv luminaries such as Agustí Fernández and Albert Cirera or European ones such as Axel Dörner. 

The album is rich and fully acoustic, some of the purest recordings of percussion that you can hear, without premeditation, without concepts or ideas, but spontaneous movement of transitions between beats, possibly surprising the artist himself at times, who lets his instrument take the lead.

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Vasco Trilla - A Constellation of Anomaly (Thanatosis, 2023)

The liner notes specify: "Russian flat bells bowed and played with vibrating objects, a timpani full of wind-up music boxes and spiced up by a transducer speaker, an old zither hit as a drum with two snare drums as resonators, Iranian round bells mixed with gamelan strips, styrofoam and triangles....". This intro just to give you an idea on what to expect from Vasco Trilla's creative exploration of percussive sounds and possibilities. Like no other percussionist, he understands the challenge to unleash the narrative power of his tools, instead of just being a subservient rhythmic indicator. 

"Opaque Ephiphanies" is dark like a doomsday soundtrack with many layers of dense sound, while "We Are Such Stuff The Foams Are Made Of" has a more organic and natural texture, and "The Shaking Hand That Leaves A Mark" (both 1 & 2) have a fresh chime-like quality. "Chronocycle Graph" is mysterious with its repetitive theme. Despite the variation in instruments, approaches and moods, the album is still coherent. 

Trilla is an expert musical explorer, who returns from his long journey in the broad universe of sound, to tell us the stories of everything he encountered, things we have never heard of, and which he is eager to share with us, and that we are listening to, full of wonder and anticipation for what is coming. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Taiko Saito - Tears Of A Cloud (Trouble In The East, 2023)

Taiko Saito plays marimba and vibraphone. Known from her recent collaboration with Satoko Fujii on "Futari" (2020). Both instruments allow for melodies and harmonic development, in contrast with drums. This makes the album more accessible by definition, yet Saito's playing is also excellent: technically strong, musically creative, full of variation of aesthetic beauty, yet also unassuming and humble. The music dominates, not the pyrotechnics. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Martin Daigle - Drum Machines (Ravello, 2023)

Martin Daigle is a Canadian interdisciplinary artist involved in audio-visual and electro-acoustic art creation, performance, and research. On this album he performs two compositions, one from Pierre Alexandre Tremblay and one from Sylvain Pohu. The drum sounds are all electronically changed to design sonic landscapes. The first composition, 'La Rage', is broken down into thirty small segments, each with their own character and mode of delivery, resulting in a suite-like structure, and with drums that are sometimes played in a straightforward acoustic mode, although you never know how the sounds will be altered next. The second composition is more linear, slowly developing as a more panoramic soundscape. 

This will not be to everyone's taste, but that should not deter you from giving it a try. There are lots of new things to enjoy on the album. 

Listen and download from the label

Yorgos Dimitriadis - 14 20 22 (Trouble In The East Records, 2023)

Only a few weeks ago we reviewed an album - "Being Five" - with Greek drummer Yorgos Dimitriadis, and a few years ago his other solo percussion album "Kopfkino". Next to percussion, he also uses electronics and field recordings, including voice, to generate soundscapes that go beyond what you would expect from a solo percussion album. With the exception of "Kyria Aliki", most pieces are slow and move forward in a linear, almost panoramic fashion. The overall mood is somber and full of drama. 

You can appreciate the artist for his singular vision and the coherence of the album. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Vasco Trilla & Ra Kalam Bob Moses - Singing Icons (Astral Spirits, 2023)

Not really a solo percussion album, but a duo percussion album by two master percussionists, Vasco Trilla and Ra Kalam Bob Moses. Or let me correct this too. Both musicians created a solo album - Trilla in Barcelona, Ra Kalam Bob Moses in Boston - during the pandemic, which they then polished and refined into one single album. 

Trilla plays drums, timpani, flat bells, clock chimes, vibrators, magnetic tape and assorted instruments, and Moses drums, bass, native flute, congas, dumbek, melodica, vocals and metallic instruments. 

They treat us to sixteen compositions/improvisations, more than 85 minutes long, that generate long drone-like soundscapes, dense and intense, richly ornated with percussive effects and dramatic cymbals. Luckily, some tracks have recognisable and high power drumming, such as "Universal Bounce", while others, such as "Whales Slow Dancing" are on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Not for the faint of heart, but a worthwhile journey. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Giacomo Salis & Paolo Sanna - Acoustic Studies For Sardinian Bells (Falt, 2023)

This I like. We reviewed Sardinian percussionists Giacomo Salis and Paolo Sanna only once so far, with their collaboration with Jeph Jerman on "Kio Ge". I think they must have released over a dozen albums together, as if they are inseparable. 

Both musicians collected fifteen different kinds of Sardinian cow bells, only to investigate all the possible sounds they could get out of them. This may sound like a purely experimental endeavour, but luckily they use their findings to create music that can stand on its own, with sounds that develop, intensify, become denser or more light-textured, that stretch into drone-like sounds, or otherwise crackle and sparkle. The whole albums is only twenty-four minutes long. 

It's unpretentious and fun to hear. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Denis Fournier - Je Suis Caché Sous Ma Peau (Vent du Sud, 2023)

We know French drummer Denis Fournier from his collaborations on The Brigde Session's "Escape Lane" and his collaboration with JC Jones on "Whatever It Takes To Make A Sound". His previous solo album "La Voix Des Tambours / The Voices Of The Drums" already dates from 2015. 

On this album he brings thirteen pieces, improvised and composed, of straightforward acoustic drumming.  There are pieces where he starts quite simply, but then he starts adding beats, shifting the rhythms and the accentuation, until you've lost the technicality of what he does, only to admire the sounds he produces. On some tracks he starts reading poetry, in the kind of priestly declamation that I've become allergic to, but I know some people like this, so everyone his or her choice. At other times ("Je sais que la paix n’existe pas") he sings , like a tribal incantation, which I still like more, but could also do without. He also plays piano on two short pieces. 

In all honesty, he is at his best when he's just drumming, inventive, rich, unassuming. 

The CD also comes with a DVD filmed by a crew who followed him for two years from the process of creation till the recording of the album. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Justin DeHart - Ring (Rattle Records, 2023)

On "Ring", American percussionist Justin DeHart presents the complete solo percussion works of John Bergamo, a modern classical composer and his mentor. He plays on vibraphone, marimba, timpani, drums and other percussion instruments, which leads to a great variety in the overall sound. The compositions themselves vary from the extremely short - 24 seconds - to thirteen minutes. 

Considering that this is also not my preferred genre, the music is serious, cerebral, full of drama and with little to enjoy. That is possibly more the result of the compositions than because of the quality delivery by DeHart. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Gary Chapin said...

I'm glad you did this. I was set to write about the Andrew Cyrille, but as much as I enjoyed it and still listen to it. I didn't have much to say about it. (Which happens.) Putting it in the context of these other recordings worked well.