Flanked by Drummers
1. Just because you think of something doesn’t mean you should blog it.
2. Oh, what the heck.
There is no reason to expect two bands to sound the same just because they use the same instrumentation. Rock music makes that obvious. The raw materials that go into steel girders can also be used to produce silverware.
Even so, I recently found myself contrasting the John Lurie National Orchestra with the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core. Both groups consist of one saxophone and two drummers — with the drummers being essential to the sound. But the two bands travel towards different destinations.
Lurie’s album, Men With Sticks, consists of three improvisations. I came across this one when it was released in 1993, and while I’d become a fan of the Lounge Lizards, I was scared off by the 36-minute span of the opening track, “If I Sleep the Plane Will Crash.” Loved the title, feared the scope. About a decade later, I snatched up the album and enjoyed it immensely.
Calvin Weston and Billy Martin, two huge names in adventurous mainstream jazz, flank Lurie’s sax. Their drums meld into one determined, driving groove, full of tiny details and subrhythms, while Lurie flutters and buzzes on his sax. It’s one big, joyous jam, and it doesn’t slow down for quite some time.
Eventually, Lurie sits out, and you suddenly realize just how much is going on under the surface of that beat. Lots of tiny changes and polyrhythms get spat out from the drums.
This album gives me the same impression I got with Pat Metheny’s Zero Tolerance for Silence, namely, that the first track is the project, and the rest of the album is like a B-side. Two shorter tracks round out the album, and while they do tread new ground — one starts with a quieter, relaxed attitude, for example — you get the feeling that the statement has already been made.
Sax and Drumming Core has a different purpose altogether. (Which I knew going into this exercise, and maybe that’s coloring my listening. I’ve seen this band at least twice and heard all three of their albums — and reviewed the most recent one, Stone Shift, here.)
Sax and Drumming Core is highly improvised, but it plays off of Ochs’ compositions. The band also covers a lot of ground — fast versus loud versus quiet versus slow. Men with Sticks feels like an idea put down on record. Sax and Drumming Core is more calculated, a band assembled for the creation of a body of work.
Drummers Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson are held apart, each drum in one speaker, to highlight the contrasts in their styles, and the visual experience of watching them work separately was a crucial part of their live sets.
Their first album, The Neon Truth (Black Saint, 2002), opens with “Wrong Right Wrong,” a spiky piece where the melody is intentionally off-putting; it’s aggressive and ugly, in a good way. The drums stab out at their own will, behaving as separated but symbiotic entities, composers in their own right.
They’re given a grand showcase in “Finn Crosses Mars,” an energetic, 11-minute piece that includes a spirited drum duet, nice and loud. I also love the subtle space created in “Xanic Rides Again,” where Ochs burbles relatively calmly, surrounded by ethereal cymbals played like gongs, or by the careful patter of drum brushes, applied sparely.
I guess the final analysis is that I hadn’t listened to either of these albums in a while and wanted to hear them again. I like them both. Lurie’s National Orchestra makes for simpler listening; it demands less concentration, although concentration certainly gets rewarded as you peer into the Weston/Martin groove. But Sax and Drumming Core feels to me like a richer brew, full of fresh challenges.
(For more: read the anecdote about someone calling the cops on Sax and Drumming Core.)