Drumming Core puts Larry Ochs‘ sax in the middle, flanked by drummers: Donald Robinson on one side and Scott Amendola on the other. It’s not a unique setup (see Ken Vandermark and Sound in Action), but it’s compelling, and Ochs has gotten good mileage out of it.
While Stone Shift is the third Drumming Core album in seven years — a decent track record for avant-garde groups — tours and shows for the group have been sporadic, probably a byproduct of busy schedules and the usual economic handicaps.
Based on Ochs compositions, Drumming Core pieces have a songlike feel. The drums get plenty of freedom, but for long stretches, they’re also responsible for keeping an overt rhythm to the pieces, creating an interweaving of rhythms and soloing that doesn’t get overwhelming.
In live shows, it’s a treat watching the contrast between Robinson and Amendola. Both play all kinds of styles, of course, but each has trademark moves that are particularly satisfying — Amendola’s traces of funk in the beat, Robinson’s deliciously intricate mallet work on the toms. Their styles overlap quite a bit, too, but the differences make a live Drumming Core show really percolate.
For the past couple of years, Drumming Core has added the team of Satoko Fujii (piano) and Natsuki Tamura (trumpet), who appear on Stone Shift. The result opens up more possibilities for interplay and new sounds, of course.
I really enjoyed the dry, stripped-down feel of the original trio, but I also can’t blame Ochs for wanting to explore new territory with the band and the compositions. Stone Shift is a good listen, built of four extended pieces that make good use of all the band’s talents.
“Across from Over” opens in a swingy, thumpy vein, Ochs buzzing on tenor sax with the drummers playing rhythms that could have fit a blues jam. After a few minutes, the trumpet makes its entrance — but then, everything condenses into a quiet improv, pocked with tiny blips of organ-sounding synth.
The final minutes get into an exciting rhythmic pulse, with heavy-handed piano and ecstatic trumpet blares over a deep drumbeat. It shows how the extra two instrument can kick up the level of drama.
Some of that drama also shows up in “Finn Veers for Venus,” which goes for an open and spacey sound accented by occasional synth flurries. (Every Drumming Core album has had a Finn/planet track: “Finn Crosses Mars,” then “Finn Passes Pluto.”)
“Abstraction Rising” shows off the compositional nature of Drumming Core, in the form of unison sax/trumpet lines, a sound that draws from the late ’60s well. The track puts Fujii’s piano up front right away, a combination of abstract splashing and ocean-deep middle-register phrases. As the sound settles down, the trumpet and sax play out a unison jazz line that draws from the ’60s well. After some brisk group improv, another composed line surfaces from a pulverizing sea of low-register piano (a Fujii trademark).
The quiet opening to “Stone Shift” shows off the subtle possibilities of the drums, including an especially tight, soft roll that could be either drummer but conjures up Robinson in my mind.
I have to admit, Fujii’s use of synthesizer on here is weird and sometimes distracting, like a gimmick. You could call that a bias on my part — here’s a new sound that my ears don’t associate with this type of music, or at least with this band, so it’s getting rejected like an organ transplant. Could be. Or maybe, just as the bagpipes or piccolo wouldn’t sound right in certain settings, the synth isn’t what’s needed here. At any rate, she uses it sparingly, and sometimes to good effect — a bubbling low-register synth backing serves well against an energetic Ochs solo on “Stone Shift,” like a menacing lava pool just under the surface. And near the end of the piece, there’s a sparse phase of muted trumpet and tiny sax sounds — it reminds me of parts of Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures — with light synth that acts as a background curtain.
All told, this is a solid album. Catch this group while you can. Like Finn passing all those planets, they don’t come around as often as you’d like.
By the way, a word about Kihnoua, which will be performing at the Oct. 4. show. It’s an improvisatory group that includes Amendola, vocalist Dohee Lee, and various guests: Okkyung Lee or Joan Jeanreneaud (cello) in the permutations I’ve seen; Fred Frith (guitar) or Liz Allbee (trumpet) on the Oct. 4 show. I wrote up a brief review of a performance last year, and Ochs is aiming for a CD release in the spring.
Here’s the rest of the Drumming Core tour itinerary, for those who aren’t in the Bay Area or NYC:
Oct 8: The Whole Music Club, University of MN, Minneapolis
Oct 9: Sheldon Concert Hall, St Louis, MO
Oct 10: Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida
Oct 11: Timicula White House, Orlando, FL
Oct 12: Hallwalls, Buffalo, NY
Oct 13: Roulette, New York City
Oct 15: Real Artways, Hartford, CT
Oct 16: Portland Conservatory of Music at Woodford¹s Church, Portland, ME