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The Boston Phoenix Beat Poetry

Gerry Hemingway's way

By Ed Hazell

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Drummer Gerry Hemingway has been at the heart of the action in American improvised music for two decades. He came to prominence as a member of Anthony Braxton's great quartet of the 1980s, but he is more than a sideman. New releases by the cooperative trio BassDrumBone and Hemingway's own quintet showcase two outfits that helped define new music in the '80s and '90s.

Hemingway, trombonist Ray Anderson, and bassist Mark Helias called their trio Oahspe when they formed it in New Haven in the late '70s; later they changed the name to the more descriptive BassDrumBone. In the tradition of AACM trios like Air and the Revolutionary Ensemble, each member shared equal responsibility for the development and exposition of the music -- drums or bass could carry the melody, the trombone could supply the beat. Blurring the lines between composer and performer, they routinely called upon extended instrumental techniques that merged the vernacular American musics that are the roots of modern jazz with European classical music.

BassDrumBone staked out its own place within that tradition. The music overflowed with a joyful vitality that bordered on outright comedy at times and with a collective spirit that recalled the most entertaining music of the swing era. But it was utterly modern in its form and technique. Anderson would jump-cut from one idea to the next, and Helias, with his imposing technique, could function in any role. But it was Hemingway who often provided the most radical touches. He defined the beat by changing tone colors and textures rather than marking time on the cymbals. He weighted his drum strokes and used dynamics to tip the ensemble off balance. He used space and silence to shape the pulse, and when he wanted to, he could assume a melodic role in the music.

Cooked to Perfection (Auricle Records), the second CD release on Hemingway's newly revived label, captures the group at its peak on tour in Europe in 1986 and 1987. This was a trio of brainy musical gymnasts whose good humor and intrepid spirit made any surreal segue work. On "Mississippi Mud," their opening collective improvisation fades up to a reggae-ish beat. On "Elegy for Willie Vargas," a quiet introduction of abstract sound vaults into a bass vamp that goads Anderson into gales of trombone laughter and roars while Hemingway offers percussion commentary. Sometimes Hemingway's minimal approach makes the music airy and weightless; at other times he shoulders the other two ahead of him as he fills up every space with color and rhythm by rapidly rotating among the instruments in his kit. The variety of references, the kaleidoscopic compositions, and a finely attuned group sensitivity and boisterous good-time feeling made this one of the most soul-satisfying bands of the decade.

In 1990, Hemingway founded his own quintet, which at first included his mates from BassDrumBone, along with saxophone and cello. Within two years, the line-up had settled into the personnel heard on the new Waltzes, Two-Steps, and Other Matters of the Heart (GM Recordings): Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, American expatriate saxophonist Michael Moore, Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, and American bassist Mark Dresser. The overt humor of the trio gave way to a drier, more ironic wit (a Dutch specialty); the additional instruments afforded Hemingway the composer more orchestral possibilities, and they added greater depth in the group improvisations. Over the years, the Gerry Hemingway Quintet grew progressively more daring as the members got more familiar with one another and the material. They played Hemingway's most formidably complex charts with breathtaking ease, their group improvisations took on the elegance and clarity of composition, and they clearly had a ball when they performed.

The new release, which Hemingway says will be their last, is drawn from two concerts from an arduous 1995 European tour that found them playing at their very best. Hemingway gave them plenty to work with. "Waltz in Seven" sandwiches a written theme between trio and duo improvisations but still conveys formal integrity and maintains an atmosphere of bemused melancholy. "Full Off" offers a blustery theme over a shuffle beat with the hiccups, then evolves through several tempos, collective improvisations, and solos with written and improvised commentary from the rest of the group -- the kind of fully sustained performance that only a great working band can pull off. The extended "Toombow" and "Gitar" (a tune that is, in typical Hemingway fashion, by turns ethereal and funky) let Hemingway explore rhythm and rhythmic coloration and alternately push the group and allow it to float off on its own tangents.

Hemingway has disbanded the international quintet, and BassDrumBone, with each member a leader in his own right, gets together only rarely for concerts and festivals. With these two releases Hemingway seems to be closing a chapter of his career -- which means we can look forward to the beginning of the next one.

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