Friday, March 05, 2021

CD Reviews: Scott Clark - This Darkness / Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver - 27 Licks

Ah, the solo album, where one improvisor- or instrument as you shall see in a moment - takes center stage all by themselves. This type of recital holds a special fascination for me. It requires that a listener check their preconceptions at the door and surrender to one person's approach. What are they hearing in their mind? The same thing you hear, or their music accompanied by other musicians? 

A solo piano album might not be too much of a stretch due the amount of harmonic possibilities that the keyboard offers. A solo saxophone or trumpet album ups the ante. But a solo drum album is a whole other exercise altogether. The melodic palette doesn't really come into play here, just the rhythmic and visceral sounds it offers. 

It's not completely out of the ordinary. The great Milford Graves - who we just lost a few weeks ago - recorded at least one solo album (and probably more). He also played with other drummers like Andrew Cyrille. Papa Jo Jones and modern drummer Chris Corsano both sat alone at the kit in a recording studio. Andrew Drury recorded an album with just a floor tom and a few accoutrements, pushing the sonic limits of such a performance. (Go here for a review of it.) 

The second album in today's selection is not actually a solo record, but a duet record. However it is a duet of two drummers, therefore it felt appropriate to group it thematically with an album by a solo drummer.
Scott Clark
This Darkness

Scott Clark is a fixture on the jazz and improvised music scene in Richmond, Virginia and co-curates the Out Of Your Head imprint with Adam Hopkins. At the same time, The Darkness could almost be heard as a distant strain of ambient music. As much as the sustained percussives recall spare sections of an Art Ensemble of Chicago album, the album's determined, gentle pace evokes thoughts of Fripp & Eno albums, or post-rockers Stars of the Lid. You might want it to move faster but Clark, in a sense, is saying, "No. Just listen."

This becomes obvious as the opener "Quiet Friend," takes over the room. A sustained harmonica slowly fades in, blowing a chord that begins with the upper harmonics and reverberates down to its lower notes, languidly. (So it's not actually just a drum album.) The drone continues unaccompanied for seven minutes, with at least two harmonicas keeping it flowing without a pause for air. Around the eight-minute mark the sound of brushes on the drums enter, eventually give way to mallets. After all those sustained harp notes, the drums offer a contrast that's almost melodic since one of the skins adds a  tuned pitch as the harmonicas continue unabated. It is moves slowly and continues in this manner for 15 minutes, with Clark alternating rhythms of 4/4, 5/8 and 6/8. But once adjusted to the tranquility, it's hard to get away.

The remaining five tracks, with one exception, are significantly shorter. Each finds Clark digging into one aspect of his kit. "Who" features cymbals and other percussion that produces resonating sounds. It never gets very busy and in fact features as much open space as space filled with rings. "Be a Bell Tower" adds some cymbal scrapes to a slightly more rapid strikes to these same chimes. The repetition can try the patience but just as it seems to be too much, Clark moves back to the drum heads, getting a primal but dynamic beat going, in waves of volume. 

"And You The Bell" acts as the album's climax, to which Clark has been building for the last 40-plus minutes. It feels like a drum solo, not in the flashy sense or the type that's based on a structure, but a free flowing one that seems to incorporate everything that came before it. Considering that he recorded the one album in one continuous piece, this final passage adds a little more sense to everything that came before. 

The Rainer Maria Rilke poem "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" inspired this performance, and the track titles came from its first stanza. Perhaps that might explain why the album ends almost as enigmatically as it began, not with a crashing finale but a fade. It might not be an easy listen and might be a performance best enjoyed in person, but it comes with a Zen-like clarity that lingers after it ends. 

Devin Gray & Gerald Cleaver
27 Licks

By contrast, drummer Devin Gray and Gerald Cleaver begin 27 Licks with a groove that remains constant while each of them varies their attack, playing on rims, heads, a woodblock or two and a cowbell. A ride cymbal early on depicts the sound of the street, adding an earthy quality to the sound. "F Train Ride" evokes that subway journey, beginning with percussion clatter, moving into press rolls and thunderous crashes. These are the kind of breaks that bring exciting contrast to free improvisation sessions with a band, using the dynamics to ramp up music that's already at a high level of intensity. Hearing them removed from a band, they still maintain that fire.

Drummers are often maligned for playing in a manner that prefers to lead rather than follow. Gray and Cleaver of course disprove that in their other projects, where communication between band members is paramount. Likewise, "Headed to Barb├Ęs" comes off like a conversation where one drummer throws out a roll or a movement across the kit which the other (it's hard to tell who's who) answers and expands upon. Other tracks get a little more minimal, with shakers and cymbal noise, and titles like "Love Conquers Hate," "The Long Roll Ahead" and "One for Bernie" hint at the political climate that was going on while this was recorded. 

"Headbangers" presents the entire recital in one 20-minute piece but I almost prefer the bite-sized chunks, which put each one in an independent light. While this might make the entire album seem a little slim, it shows that Gray and Cleaver know that brevity can make a percussion recital. Always leave them wanting more.

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