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Tumbling Through the Tone World

In the last concert of the year’s Solos and Duos Series produced by the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, two of the most celebrated creative music improvisors performed one set for about two hours. The duo: William Parker and Hamid Drake. Both musicians are known for their rhythm section acumen. This time, they acted as their own lead instrumentalists as well as their own rhythm section.

The stage was set in pre-performer-entry frozen time with so many music making objects that I could not count them all. Some were even hidden in satchels, revealed later when it was time for them to be used.

William wore an unusually high end of African tribal regalia. Beads and robes, beads and robes, and strings of shells, feathers and beads, and robes. Hamid donned an outfit less elaborate in comparison and bright in color.

Nearly nine years ago, I had tickets to hear a conventional jazz trio at a club nearby. I was talking about going to a DJ friend of mine who said that he would really be interested in knowing how the trio held together because the same leader had made his reputation with his quartet. I asked my friend what would be the difference between a trio and a quartet. I have never forgotten his answer and have applied it to my listening to a variety of groups. He said, Well, the trio would have to work harder to create musical connections without that fourth player...

Keep that in mind. And reflect on what a duo has to do. William and Hamid. There were no silences except for a split second, which would be absorbed in the raising of a drumstick, or the lifting of a finger. Even when either musician was moving physically from one section of the stage to another, an instrument was being played.

The set began slowly, each performer with a single instrument. William played the dousson ngoni and Hamid, a frame drum. The music progressed from the simple, to a more layered instrumentation to create more fullness of sound, more intense rhythm.

The playing was a conversation between the musicians who know each other well. They are truly brothers. Not only in the political sense but in the sense of their musicianship. They worked so hard to maintain a river of sound. Hamid eventually moved to the gongs and cymbals at the back of the stage. Hamid chanted. William struck a singing bowl. William started to play flutes, from small wooden ones to what could have been an entire range of shakuhachis. The music began to have a story associated with it. William spoke words that reflected the pain within the present world circumstance.

Hamid was now behind his drumset. The rhythm became pointillistic and more penetrating. Hamid was so sensitized to the mood of the total set which was assuming a formal shape. William still played the flute to speak straight forward monotone repetitions and piercing wails above the potential doubled groove. William was headed for the bass. I could feel it. And after he finally picked the bass up from the floor, he used two bows to stroke the strings with the same low phrase over and over again. The character of the phrase seemed a bit bitter. The two musicians were going in different directions. They would come together later in perfect synchronization.

In ceaseless motion, and through continual switches in timbre, William and Hamid offered out vast collections of sounds. The drums and the bass often separated themselves within the entire concert of transitions but the separations became transitions within themselves. Transitions from abstraction to rhythm to abstraction again. The cycles, the endless cycles. Cycles that moved forward. To approach the end of the music. The height of the rhythm that coagulated through the determination of the two players and the incessant changes that occurred as a result of the variety of instruments that William played began to lessen in force. With Hamid’s grand swoosh on the cymbal, he had signaled William to stop playing his slit drum. Yet another transition was about to occur. A quiet whir of a propeller-like blade brought to silence the quietly reverberant sounds of the hanging cymbals and gongs. And left only the ghosts of the spirit.

The ghosts of the healing spirit, the healing spirit which needs to descend on the planet. Not only now, but for the remainder of its existence. What we could know as forever.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: William Parker & Hamid Drake
  • Concert Date: 12/9/2004
  • Subtitle: William Parker & Hamid Drake
  • Venue: Bezanson Recital Hall, UMass Amherst
  • City State Country: Amherst, Massachusetts
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