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Samuel Blaser and Gerry Hemingway perform music to feed the soul

Samuel Blaser and Gerry Hemingway
IMOO (Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais) #147
House of Common, Ottawa
Monday, October 10, 2016 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Trombonist Samuel Blaser and drummer Gerry Hemingway opened their Canadian tour on Monday with a bravura performance in Ottawa, a concentrated display of deep communication and innovation.

Trombonist Samuel Blaser and percussionist Gerry Hemingway fed listeners' souls with astonishing music for thanksgiving desert  ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Thanking the audience for coming out on the Thanksgiving holiday, Hemingway noted that, “At least we know you're not hungry. Now we'll feed the other part of your souls.”

And feed them they did, with music which explored the full ranges of their instruments, and moved from the tiniest threads of sound to all-out thunderous fanfares – to the intent interest and appreciation of their listeners.

Blaser (from Switzerland and now living in Berlin) and Hemingway (from the U.S. and now living in Switzerland) are more usually found on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but are touring across Canada this week. Most of their shows on the tour are with Blaser's quartet, which also includes Russ Lossing on piano, and Masa Kamaguchi on bass. Montreal and Ottawa were the exceptions, where the two were scheduled to perform as a duo as part of local improvised music series.

Blaser and Hemingway are no less formidable as a duo. They're both well-known as free improvisers (Hemingway has been playing creative music for four decades), and have performed together in several of Blaser's groups. Over an hour-long show, they played four pieces, each freely improvised, and each using the resonance of the performance space to make the music sing. Before the show began, Hemingway sat at his drumset for an extended period listening to the small sounds from rustling his brushes and lightly touching his kit, often with his eyes closed, absorbing the room's tone.

They performed in House of Common, a small converted garage turned music space in Hintonburg. Inside, it was a plain white concrete box, with about 25 chairs set up higgledy-piggledy in a part-circle facing Hemingway's drumset (borrowed for this show from Ottawa drummer Scott Warren), and with a few more people sitting on couches at the side or standing.

There were no outside or inside distractions, which allowed the two to open very quietly, with deep, satisfying trombone lines (with Blaser fully extending his slide) over light cymbal taps. They let the melodies fill the room and echo around it, as they built up the intensity of their conversation. Blaser created everything from long, wistful lines to muted underwater sounds to roughened growls on his trombone, but kept a continued thread of melody.

Hemingway inserted an engraved bronze spacer between the two halves of his hi-hat cymbal to add extra vibrations while playing on it and the adjacent cymbal. He incorporated jagged and metallic strikes on the kit's frame and scratching sounds on his snare's surface, and then created a fantasia of light echoing raps on his snares and toms. He followed that with hard-edged drumming and then a repeated fusillade of taps – all in coordination with Blaser's trombone, before they returned to their initial quiet ambiance and let the music fade out.

Throughout the show, Hemingway was as fascinating to watch as to listen to. He switched effortlessly between different mallets, sticks and hand-drumming, and sometimes combining them, to get exactly the sound he wanted. Later in the show, he detached the top cymbal off his hi-hat and played it with a bow, creating first a light rustling sound and then an attenuated humming (coordinated with Blaser's very light blowing and fluttering muted notes on trombone). Hemingway then played the hi-hat cymbal with mallets, as Blaser kept changing the pitch and direction of his sound, making it go in and out of focus.

The attention then moved to a tiny brass cymbal sitting on the floor tom, which Hemingway played with mallets, letting it warble and create a shimmering, pitch-bending sound, with Blaser's light trombone breaths in the background. Then Hemingway alternated heavy thumps on his toms with light ringing tones from the small cymbal, as Blaser created fast, whipping sounds and groans on his trombone. And then there were just thumps and rings, and then silence – for 30 seconds or more before the audience came out of their musical reverie to applaud.

It was a very visual show, with Blaser adding and changing mutes, and bending and stretching with his trombone, while Hemingway was constantly in motion, switching among sticks and brushes and mallets and more. One could see – with a delightful frisson of surprise – how they made a sound, and then be surprised again how it was followed up.

Their final piece was the most intense, open with fast, circling trombone lines alternating with deeper grumbles. When Hemingway joined in, his drumming was equally insistent, in a strongly punctuated style which Blaser then echoed in fast pointillist trombone notes, a scintillating sound echoed back by Hemingway's cymbals, before they let the music fade.

The concert was was strictly acoustic, which, more than anything, allowed the audience to really appreciate the inherently beautiful sounds that the trombone and the drumset can produce. Blaser and Hemingway also included occasional dissonant or loud interludes as contrast and accent, but ultimately this show was a celebration of their instruments, the space they performed in, and their long-time partnership. There was an ease and naturalness to their musical excursions – and they were a joy to hear.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Samuel Blaser and Gerry Hemingway's Canadian tour:

  • Monday, October 10: Samuel Blaser and Gerry Hemingway, IMOO, House of Common, Ottawa
  • Tuesday, October 11: Samuel Blaser and Gerry Hemingway, Mardi Spaghetti, Le Cagibi, Montreal
  • Wednesday, October 12: Samuel Blaser Quartet with Gerry Hemingway, The Rex, Toronto
  • Thursday, October 13: Samuel Blaser Quartet with Gerry Hemingway, Zula Presents, Artwood Artbar, Hamilton
  • Friday, October 14: Samuel Blaser Quartet with Gerry Hemingway, The Western Front, Vancouver
  • Saturday, October 15: Samuel Blaser Quartet with Gerry Hemingway, The Yardbird Suite, Edmonton