On Friday, two masters will show Ottawa audiences just how much varied, beautiful, and ear-expanding music can be produced just using percussion instruments.

On the stage at GigSpace will be two drumsets, a frame drum, congas, various gongs, and a waterphone. And Hamid Drake from Chicago and Jesse Stewart from Ottawa will use them to play two completely improvised concerts, together for the very first time.

Hamid Drake at the Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Hamid Drake at the Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Which might be a challenge for some – but in particular not for Drake. His reputation in the world of jazz and improvised music is among the highest, and he has a packed schedule playing with small and large groups around the world in repertoires ranging from Coltrane to the freest of free jazz. He is particularly well-known for working with saxophonists like Fred Anderson, Pharoah Sanders, Ken Vandermark, David Murray, and Peter Brötzmann, bassist William Parker, pianist Marilyn Crispell, and trumpeter Don Cherry – and even with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny.

He was last here in Ottawa in 2005, and Stewart has been trying to arrange a duet concert with him for years. “I just love his playing so much. It's always a treat to hear Hamid play. so to have an opportunity to collaborate with him is going to be an especially big treat for me.”

“As far as I'm concerned, Hamid is not only a great drummer. He is one of the great drummers. So for me some of the great drummers include Baby Dodds, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Milford Graves. That list as far as I'm concerned definitely includes Hamid Drake.”

And this concert is practically a one-of-a-kind. “He hasn't been to Ottawa for many years. It's been a long time. So it's a rare opportunity to hear one of the leading figures in terms of the contemporary musical landscape. Also, we don't have that many opportunities to hear a drum duo either, so for people who are looking for something out of the ordinary, certainly I think this would fit the bill.”

Stewart still remembers a percussion duo between Drake and equally-famous drummer Gerry Hemingway at the Guelph Jazz Festival about a decade ago, which is among his top ten concerts ever. “It was spell-binding.”

What made it particularly interesting, he said, was that they were “very, very different kinds of players,” who still found ways “to engage in a meaningful kind of dialogue with one another.” Not only were both really great drummers, but the different approaches they took to drumming and their different styles made the concert more interesting to listen to. “The differences, musically speaking, enriched the exchange. It made it really, really exciting.”

Jesse Stewart  ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Jesse Stewart ©Brett Delmage, 2011

The same applies to himself and Drake, he said: different styles which will make Friday's concerts more interesting.

Drake has “just this incredible sense of fluidity in everything he does. He can be playing fast, up-tempo kind of swing feel and then, on a dime, can shift into a kind of Afro-Cuban thing and then to a funk thing. And he does it all with such fluidity and grace in the way he moves from one thing to another and to my ears, musical sophistication. I really respect that about him.

“Another thing I really like about his playing is more than anybody else I can think of, more than any other drummer that is, he can really play inside and outside at the same time. I don't really know how to describe that, but he's playing the groove in the pocket, but at the same time, he's doing more kind of abstract, experimental kind of stuff. And if you think of that as a kind of continuum – totally abstract on one and totally in the pocket on the other – he can do both of those things extraordinarily well and every kind of shade of gray in between, but he also has a real remarkable capacity to do them both at the same time. That's something I really respect about his playing, too.”

Drake has regularly played in percussion duos (even recording several on CD). For the last 22 years, he has performed percussion duo concerts every December to celebrate the Winter Solstice, along with his long-time friend and collaborator Michael Zerang.

Ottawa audiences have heard Stewart play in a few percussion duets in this area over the years. However. they've all been outdoor as part of local festivals, and with less varied instruments and not including full drumsets.

Stewart has also played a few duets with other renowned drummers and percussionists, including with Gerry Hemingway at the Guelph Jazz Festival – but never with Drake. They first met more than a decade ago, but the Friday performance will be their first time playing together.

How two drummers can find melody together

The duo format is an exciting challenge, Stewart said, “because, all of a sudden, some of the sonic territory that I would normally occupy in ensemble context, some of that's going to be occupied by another person playing the same instrument. So there's the challenge of how can I interact with this person who's playing essentially the same instrument as me in a way that is going to make sense musically, but also is not going to duplicate what he or she is contributing to the mix.”

But doesn't that mean that another part of the sonic territory – the melodic part – is now unoccupied? Stewart disagrees. He and Drake will find ways “to incorporate melodic elements. People think drums, and they think it's all rhythm. A lot of what I do is … yes it's about rhythm, but it's also about timbral exploration on percussion instruments – and in fact even melodic exploration on something like the drum set.”

The stereotype is that drumming doesn't include melodies or harmony, “but in fact I think about those things a lot. I think about harmonic and melodic considerations in terms of my approach to the instrument. As far as I'm concerned, the drum set is also a melody instrument and even a harmonic instrument, at least in terms of the way I approach it. I think that's true of Hamid as well.”

“Oftentimes I will try to pick up on the melodic contour of melody instruments that I happen to be engaging with or improvising with. So there's that, but also you can create a sense of melodic motion by virtue of, if you have multiple toms: a rack tom and a floor tom and a snare drum and a bass drum. I think there is a general sense of melody, or there can be anyway by virtue of how one plays those instruments in succession. So, even though they don't necessarily give a discrete pitch in the same way that a piano or a guitar or a saxophone does, you can, again create a kind of sense of melodic contour.”

And there are also different techniques to play the cymbals, using the sticks to evoke overtones from them. “Using other kinds of techniques to really try and explore the over tones and harmonics in a particular cymbal or set of cymbals can also create something akin to a melody.”

Hamid Drake has just this incredible sense of fluidity in everything he does. He can be playing fast, up-tempo kind of swing feel and then, on a dime, can shift into a kind of Afro-Cuban thing and then to a funk thing. And he does it all with such fluidity and grace in the way he moves from one thing to another and to my ears, musical sophistication. I really respect that about him.

Stewart expected that he and Drake would be improvising the Friday concerts, rather than playing specific compositions. “With the level of musicianship that Hamid has, I feel like there's no need to bring compositions or sketches for things, because he has such a wealth of ideas to begin with. Both Hamid and I, we've played a lot of different styles of music so I don't think there will be any shortage of musical ideas for us to explore and engage with each others' ideas.”

“We'll just go on stage and see what happens. I think a lot of it will be about responding to what the other person does and trying to complement what the other person is doing. The real challenge, I think, and the real task of facing any improviser is how do we enter into meaningful, musical dialogue with one another given our respective approaches to the music and to the instrument.”

Besides jazz and improvised music, Drake is also well-known for playing reggae, funk, and traditional West African music. He appeared at the 2004 Ottawa Jazz Festival as part of the William Parker Quintet, and at the 2005 Festival with David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters Creole Project.

Stewart is a member of the Stretch Orchestra, which won a Juno in 2012 for Best Instrumental Album. He has played with everyone from baritone saxophonist David Mott to the reclusive pianist Jandek to saxophonist Evan Parker to pianist Pauline Oliveros to artist/pianist Michael Snow. He is particularly well-known for his solo percussion improvisations, including one inspired by the famous Voice of Fire painting at the National Gallery, and for working with unusual instruments made of marble, ice, paper, water, balloons, and more. He is also a music professor at Carleton University.

Drake will give a talk and masterclass on Thursday and Friday

And that Carleton connection means that students, music professionals, and jazz fans will have the opportunity to hear Drake talking and teaching, as well as playing.

On Thursday afternoon, Drake will speak to one of Stewart's classes on improvisation in theory and practice. He'll follow that with a free public talk, which will take the form of an interview with open-ended questions, at 4:30 p.m. in room A720 of the Loeb Building at Carleton. The talk is sponsored jointly by the Department Of Sociology and Anthropology, the School for Studies in Art and Culture, and the Institute of African Studies.

Then on Friday from 3 to 5:30 p.m., Drake will hold a master class on jazz drumming with Carleton students in the Kailash Mital Theatre at the university, followed by the evening concerts at GigSpace. GigSpace has built a brand-new stage – larger and higher than their previous stage – this week for Drake and Stewart to perform on.

On the weekend the two will have recording session at the Sonic Gym in Dunrobin. Stewart wasn't sure whether that would lead to a CD, simply because very few people buy CDs anymore and “it takes time and money to get these things mixed and mastered and released. Yes, I do want to document this encounter and I hope that it'll be something that I'll be able to share with other people, but we'll see what happens down the road.”

"A legendary drummer"

Stewart said the weekend will allow him “to just celebrate percussion and drums, this instrument that's been an important part of my life for so long.”

Having Drake – “one of the legendary drummers” – here in Ottawa is a “really special event. I think he's such a terrific musician and a terrific person that I've been looking for an opportunity to bring him here, because I think that people in this community will really enjoy meeting him and hearing him play.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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