What is it? A skilled and inventive veteran, known for his work with the Anthony Braxton Quartet, Gerry Hemingway performs original compositions on a battery of acoustic and electric percussion. He's been at the forefront of improvised music for years, and his solitary performance at the Simons Center could be one of the most memorable highlights of the entire Spoleto Festival.
Why see it? Rarely do local jazz and instrumental music fans get the chance to catch such a unique American artist. Although he's collaborated with numerous musicians and ensembles from the U.S. and Europe over the last three decades, he'll present an entirely solo program this evening. In addition to his own projects, Hemingway has been a member of ensembles (with bassist Reggie Workman and pianist Anthony Davis) and the collaborative group BassDrumBone (with Ray Anderson and bassist Mark Helias). Cymbals, snares, toms, bass drums, odd-looking metallic contraptions — he'll strike them all.
Who should go? Those fascinated by percussion, improvisation, complex rhythmic patterns, and the avant-garde.
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $25 • 1 hour • June 6 at 6 p.m. • Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • (843) 579-3100
Wall of Harmonic Percussion: Experimental drummer Gerry Hemingway plays a mean solo
Gerry Hemingway "Trance 2" from the album Acoustic Solo Works (1983-1994)
"I figured out and developed a very strong relationship to jazz music entirely by research, radio, and records," says drummer/composer Gerry Hemingway on his earliest musical experiences. "I had zero guidance and it was just simple curiosity."
Hemingway started playing drums in New Haven, Conn., when he was 10 years old. "I was drawn as much to the look of the drums as the sound of them," he remembers. "The sparkle and the feel and the mystery — it all just drew me in."
An avid album collector and a self-confessed radio freak, he listened continuously to N.Y.C. jazz stations WRVR and WAIB, bought armfuls of discounted vinyl at Caldor's department stores, and dug deep into the more conventional Blue Note-era jazz of the 1950s and '60s.
"I practiced to it and played the rhythms I was hearing," he says. "Other than my parents exposing me to Dave Brubeck, I knew nothing about it at first. I liked the blues a lot at that time. My level of self-motivation was pretty strong from the start. My parents only gave me a snare and a cymbal when I started, and I pounded away at that for years before I added anything, showing I was pretty serious about it [laughs]."
After a brief stint at the Berklee School of Music, Hemingway started freelancing with various jazz/fusion acts around New Haven and New York. He credits the rich diversity of jazz artists and the camaraderie and alliances that developed between them during the 1970s — much of which continues today — for sparking his creative side.
"The commercial pressures in New Haven weren't so deep," he says. "You could get gigs, but didn't have to size up the competition. You had opportunities to be experimental and creative, so you could frequent other elements of music with no judgement about it. Whereas, in New York, the level of conformity — and the level of technique — was another thing altogether. There wasn't a whole lot of variability."
Hemingway landed in Charleston a few weeks ago (his first time) to rehearse as a percussionist with the pit orchestra for the featured opera Amistad, composed by one of his old cohorts, Anthony Davis. The pair have collaborated on various jazz, world, and chamber musical projects over the years.
Davis' and Hemingway's proximity to Wesleyan and Yale universities — and the schools' specialized world music classes and events — inspired them to explore unusual, international rhythms and arrangements. Hemingway developed relationships with professors and musicians. Then he started reading Faulkner, Mishima, and other "heavy stuff."
"It deepened my feelings about composition a lot," he says of his literary perusals. "I really changed my way of thinking. I started thinking particularly about layers of meaning and how they follow the same theme. One of the things about reading Faulkner that particularly struck me was how the parable on the surface and the sort of basic story had so many layers. The way you tease these thoughts out and put them together later — I was fascinated and into it. I wanted to make solo work that, on one hand, appeared to give a certain impression, but would go somewhere unexpected."
Although he's perhaps known best for his work with the Anthony Braxton Quartet and other collaborations over the last three decades, Hemingway is an excellent and adventurous soloist. Performances and recordings of solo percussion and electronic music have been part of Hemingway's career for over 20 years. His recent albums Electro-Acoustic Solo Works (1984-1995) and Acoustic Solo Works (1983-1994) document his strongest pieces.
He presents an entirely solo program this Friday. For this Wachovia Jazz performance, his first piece will be entirely open and improvised, while the second piece is based on an original composition titled "Trance Tracks." For both, he'll certainly play some of his world music concepts.
Along with a firm grasp of arranging complex rhythmic patterns across a battery of sound sources, Hemingway's fascination with creating new sounds with percussion instruments prompted him to switch directions from a more conventional drum role into something more expansive and deep.
"It's a different type of virtuosity than a lot of the work typical of the [popular] drummer world, which is based primarily still on the model of speed," he explains.
"Harmony started driving my thinking," he adds. "What is it that makes a solo piano thing so engaging and digestible? I came to the conclusion that the thing that pulls it all together is the harmony in the work. I realized that if I was to make a solo drum repertoire that's going to sustain people's interest for an entire program, it would have to use harmony. The way that we relate to harmony is what brings the sense of wholeness to the procedure."