Frode Gjerstad: alto saxophone; William Parker: acoustic bass, piccolo trumpet and shakuhachi; Hamid Drake: drums and percussion
Frode Gjerstad brought his "dream" trio to Kerrytown Concert House on a cold Michigan Friday night, in January.
Having won Norway's 1997 Musician of the Year Award, he was given the opportunity to pick a pair of musicians he would most like to work and record with from the entire world-scene. This trio is the happy result and they have continued their collaboration into the new millennium. I've enjoyed the individual music of all three participants over the years but this would be my first LIVE exposure to any of them and I was UP for it.
The house was packed and READY for action when the three arrived. They quietly walked to the stage, removed their winter garb, quickly tuned up and then launched an hour-long improvisation that totally dispelled any awareness of time or the cold outside. The house was filled to near-capacity, probably as much in anticipation of the wondrous rhythm section as the leader's own formidable abilities as a reed master. William Parker has gotten more press in the last few years than almost any other figure working in "free" improvisational music. He leads the highly touted In Order To Survive as well as the much-praised Little Huey Orchestra, both with several releases under their belts. He's been an active collaborator with so many fine working and recording musicians that it would be prohibitive to attempt to list them all. (A few that must be mentioned: Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Rob Brown, Ellen Christi, Joe Morris, Other Dimensions in Music: i.e. a virtual who's-who in the creative improvised music business). Other than these well-known collaborators, Parker is the first-choice bassist on so many recording sessions that I don't believe the man does anything but play bass around the clock. With all the relative attention and critical acclaim he's gotten in the press, there has been some inevitable backlash against his popularity and seeming dominance of the NYC music scene. I've read a few reports that his technique is less than it could be (!) and that he has, on occasion, been arrogant and aloof when approached by fans and other players. Well, anyone can have a bad night but I am happy to report that these malicious accounts are misleading, if not completely inaccurate. William is easy-going and friendly on and off the bandstand and seems to be genuinely interested in what fans have to say. As to his technique, it is beyond question. He employs many unique pizzicato and arco approaches and while he is not a flashy (i.e. grand-standing) player, he is very inventive and gives everything to the group effort and the process of making meaningful art. He displayed unbelievable stamina and creativity during both sets.
Hamid Drake was a continuous thrill throughout the evening as well. I do not believe there can be a more imaginative drummer than Hamid. He seemed completely comfortable while spinning out a constant barrage of rhythmic ideas that spurred the performance to many great heights. He, too, employed a wide range of extended techniques, invoking a wide variety of infectious rhythms and fanning the flames ever higher in the process. Giving the impression of a snake charmer with his fluid movement, Hamid was mesmerizing to behold, and the aural results were thoroughly intoxicating. He logically moves from one idea to the next, gradually varying and mutating the percussive matrix and likewise the overall flow of the music. Hamid was, himself, a very relaxed and friendly person, talking to many people during the break even though the trio had just turned in an exhaustive performance. (My arms were sore just from clapping at its conclusion.)
Together, Hamid and William were an awesome rhythm section and could have successfully entertained the KCH crowd with no other instrumentalists. They were the biggest and most sonically riveting element of the wonderful evening of high art (which is in no way meant to denigrate Gjerstad's splendid contribution).
Frode kicked off the proceedings with a few plaintive acerbic tones and was then joined, first by Parker, and after a bit by Drake. The cohesiveness was there right from the start, though they rose to much greater peaks as the piece progressed. This was totally improvised music without benefit of a script and yet each player moved confidently in an intuitively coordinated effort. It's easy to see why Frode picked these two players as his "dream trio" - they must be a total blast to have in support of his free flights into the stratosphere. Gjerstad's tone has, in the past, often reminded me of Ornette Coleman's, if Coleman were still actively pushing the limits of "free" music. (It would be interesting to hear Ornette with this rhythm team.) Frode, however, is far more than a Coleman copy, with his own ideas and his own direction(s). He has great command of his axe's altissimo register and, in fact, uses the entire range of his instrument most effectively. The music is a collective one however, with no single player dominating the sound-stage for long. Frode would often lay out and let the two Americans carry the music a while. From time to time he shook his head in seeming amazement at the musical antics and energetic virtuosity of his band mates. When the first piece eventually ended, Frode said he thought they would take a short break, laughed and admitted that he had no idea how long they had been playing. As he was leaving the stage, Parker quipped in response to a fan's praise, that he was just starting to get warmed up... that it takes him a couple of tunes to limber up!!!
The second set began with Hamid out from behind his trap set and playing a conga-like hand drum. William played a little tentative shakuhachi and a dab of piccolo trumpet (on which he seemed to have pretty good technique), but mainly concentrated on the bass. It was a fine piece. Drake was a wonder; he actually showed his first signs of working up a lather as he pounded out polyrhythms on the African drum relentlessly. During Parker's bowed bass solo Hamid moved back to the traps and turned up the heat further. Parker's well-known prowess with the bow is mind-boggling: his left hand fingering fast-moving harmonics, double-stops involving the simultaneous bending of two strings in opposite directions, etc. - the extended techniques he utilizes seem to be endless and yet always serve the music well. He is a tireless warrior for creativity.
Needless to say the night ended in a lengthy standing ovation and many happy faces.
This music (and this type of music) is so much more fulfilling to experience in a LIVE setting where one can see the interactions and sheer endurance of these fine players. Albums are a modern wonder and precious indeed, but they are no replacement for the "real thing". ...And that's what we got this evening, at yet another beautiful Kerrytown Concert House performance. This is gonna be one tough act to follow.