The sometimes dialectical and sometimes no so dialectical relationship between composition and improvisation has long been an issue of much thought for aficionados and performers of jazz. And yet while watching Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang
perform their June 21 summer solstice concert I was struck by just how irrelevant the two made the issue seem.
Drake and Zerang are Chicago based percussionists who are probably best known for collaborating together as members of the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tenet, a group that finished a tour of the United States with three shows in Chicago the weekend previous to the solstice.
The two have also long worked as duo. In September 1995 they recorded a series of tracks that, combined with a slightly longer than 13 minute live performance from May 1991, came out on the Okka Disk label as Ask the Sun
Additionally, over the last few years Drake and Zerang have performed a series of concerts in Chicago centered around the winter solstice. The playing has generally begun before the sun has risen and in an unlit room and ended an hour or so later with the first rays of the sun providing light. If the performance I saw on December 22 is any indication, the music has been a mix of abstract strikings and meditative rhythms very suitable for the morning.
Appropriately, the summer solstice concert occurred in the evening and at the Candlestick Maker, a performance space on the northwest side of Chicago owned and operated by Zerang and which opened in July of last year.
Nearly every game worth playing needs rules and in this case the rules were the instruments used. Drake has a kick drum, hi-hat and various hand drums while Zerang had a kick drum and an assortment of percussion instruments, only some of which he played with a stick. The lack of a full kit kept both players from venturing into the exciting yet somewhat predictable patterns that each regularly utilizes in other contexts. It also reduced the amount of noise heard at any moment thereby forcing the audience for most of the concert to focus intently on one or two instruments.
The duo performed for just slightly over an hour with no breaks or pauses, yet also with three distinct segments of roughly equal length. The first section consisted on heavy repetitive rhythms, the second abstract droppings of sound including solo section for each player while the final section was, for lack of a better term, "spiritual." Drake and Zerang beat out steady patterns while Drake chanted phrases such as "Many ways to praise the one" and "peace, love and perfection." Eventually the music slowed at what seemed like a decelerating rate before ending. For the spiritually inclined, this was a tribute to God. For those not so inclined, it was still moving.
The weather outside was hot and humid and the main area of the Candlestick Maker has only a modest ceiling fan for cooling. Yet this proved to be a useful addition to overall experience. As Drake and Zerang sweated while playing, the audience sweated while observing. Speaking only for myself, this made me feel much more an integral part of the sounds being created than I usually do at performances of improvised music. As the music progressed and beads of sweat fell, audience members reached for water bottles, often without taking their eyes off the musicians or, if their eyes were closed, opening their peepers. The wall between the audience and performers was hardly broken down but there was a significant crack in it.
Drake and Zerang had done even more damage to the division between composition and improvisation. They had performed a suite of music with a beginning, middle and end and nonetheless filled it with the type of performances so improvised and of the moment that they couldn't be replicated. Such a product -and perhaps that is an inappropriate term- seemed to me as a listener to be beyond skill and rather the result of art calling the shots. Maybe this is accurate and maybe it isn't but the impression was real that the improvisation of the duo bled into the composition being created by the duo and that any division between the two didn't deserver demarcation.
This performance was significant to me because it came near the end of my nearly year and a half living in Chicago and seeing live improvised music on a nightly basis. Soon I will be returning to my native state of Michigan to further my career in journalism. At times during my stay in Chicago I became dulled to what I was hearing as the music of one night blended into what I had heard the week before or would hear the next week. I felt quite differently on this night and sense of wonder and joy I felt two years when I attended the first performances of improvised music that I really understood, that is concerts by Frode Gjerstad
, had returned. I heard more of the emotions I feel on a regular basis reflected in the music of Drake and Zerang than I had heard in any music in a long time. I felt a little less isolated from myself, the people I know and people I will never meet as a result. And that is the greatest statement I can make about any piece of art.