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Guelph 2013: Hamid Drake & Jesse Stewart share a creative imagination (review)

Jesse Stewart (l) and Hamid Drake (r) brought hundreds of listeners to total silence by their playing ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Hamid Drake and Jesse Stewart
St. George's Church (Mitchell Hall)
Guelph Jazz Festival
Friday, September 6, 2013 - 11:30 p.m.

View photos of this concert

Hamid Drake and Jesse Stewart share a creative imagination which allows them to hear rhythms and create interesting sounds from unexpected sources – which became clear at their late night duo concert at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival.

The two percussionists, Drake from Chicago, Stewart from Ottawa (and formerly Guelph), played in a basement church hall to an almost-capacity audience. Their two drumsets sat closely beside each other on a low stage, surrounded by a wide range of other percussion instruments within easy reach.

Drake and Stewart first met at the Guelph Jazz Festival a decade ago, but their first concerts together didn't happen until last March in Ottawa. Those shows were so successful – standing ovations and the two drummers grinning at each other at the end in perfect happiness – that they decided to repeat the experience in Guelph.

Guelph also provided an opportunity to release the album they recorded immediately after the Ottawa concerts – in fact, it arrived at the festival just that afternoon. Recorded over a weekend at the Dunrobin Sonic Gym just outside Ottawa, it's called Timelines [Art Stew Records].

Both Drake and Stewart had multiple commitments at Guelph. Drake barely had a half-hour break from his previous concert, a highly-energetic and inventive trio appearance with Marianne Trudel and William Parker. As he said at the start of this concert, “Who needs a break? One day I'll take a very long break.”

As in Ottawa, it was an evening of free improv. Their first piece was quiet, resonant, and solemn. Light drumming contrasted with ringing gongs, and the sound created by a small rubber-tipped mallet being pressed around a brass bowl. While Drake chanted slowly, Stewart breathed into a bass harmonica, adding variations to the background texture. The piece ended with Stewart ringing his cymbals and the brass bowl, as Drake continued to chant and play slowly on frame drum.

The second piece started subtly and sparsely, Drake hand-drumming on his drumset, while Stewart played the side of his snare and used his feet to move rattles. Each was highly attuned to the other: changing rhythms and starting and stopping frequently. They began hand drumming in unison, creating an intense yet danceable beat, and then moved apart, staying coordinated but with slightly different rhythms.

Then they became faster and louder – there was a huge dynamic range in this concert – with hard sticks drumming that reminded me of a 35mm camera rapidly clicking away. Cymbals added texture to the intense beat, before they finally slowed to a walking pace. Stewart started clicking his drumsticks against each other, while Drake made cymbals echo and then used his hands to jointly play his drumset and conga. Stewart pulled out his waterphone, and played a fast, repeated, metallic pattern on its bottom with a drumstick; Drake used mallets to play more softly on a hanging gong and at the same time on congas. Despite there being several hundred listeners in the hall, it was so quiet that subtle details could be clearly heard.

The one constant in this piece was change: both musicians moved between instruments and techniques with amazing rapidity, but without losing their thread of interaction. Stewart created eerie tones with his bow, first on the hard edges of his drums and cymbals, then on the spines of the waterphone. They both slowed to near-silence, and then both speeded up again, ending in an intense drumming storm. But even in that you could hear their different styles: Stewart's drumming was harder and sharper than Drake's. They slowed and the music became more abstract, with Stewart again playing rattles and shaking his snare drum, before slowly fading out.

There were a few times in this extended piece where the music felt saturated, so strong it was almost clipping in volume and intensity, and didn't need to continue at that level for quite so long. But the whole was undoubtedly exciting.

After strong applause, the duo played a short piece to close the night, only a few minutes long. Stewart had brought a tongue drum with him from Dunrobin – a rectangular wooden drum, more than a metre in length, which looked like a flat chest. Played with small mallets, it had a hollow, echoing sound which counterpointed the warmer tone from Drake's congas. Together, they produced a cheerful, coordinated rhythm which filled the hall and provided a bright end to the concert.

The entire show was very much a “joyful noise”, allowing both the audience and the two drummers to enjoy the explorations in sound. While fully improvised, it remained accessible, and kept everyone's attention throughout more than an hour of enjoyable and highly varied music.

    – Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: Jesse Stewart licensed images of his March 2013 performances with Drake made by publisher/photojournalist Brett Delmage for OttawaJazzScene.ca's use; one was used inTimelines.

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Click any thumbnail to view a larger image.

See also:

Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival: