Humanity Suite: Ross Hammond, Inspired by History and Art

Ross HammondHumanity Suite (Prescott Recordings, 2014)

Ross Hammond: Humanity SuiteWith Humanity Suite, guitarist Ross Hammond has created an extended piece that’s certainly free and aggressive but exudes a sense of serenity. It’s a free-jazz statement based on rhythms that become the foundations for individual solos — an uncluttered, free sound with lots of chances for soloists to soar.

We got tastes of this on Hammond’s quartet albums. The heart of the music is the same: Hammond’s fuzzed-out guitar, spinning bright and bluesy forms in a mostly contented spirit. I think of it as sunny, with an African influence, but Hammond can also pour it on. Early on Side 2, he turns up the electricity, egged on by Dax Compise’s splashy snare-and-cymbal playing for a tough-shredding solo. Eventually, he steps aside for another horn free-for-all that ends with a slowly fading triplet rhythm in 15/8.

Kara Walker's “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life),” It measures 12 feet high by 85 feet long. Source: walkerart.org; click to go there.
Kara Walker’s “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life).” It measures 12 feet high by 85 feet long. Source: walkerart.org; click to go there.

The occasion for the Suite was a commissioned concert at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum in October. It coincicded with an exhibition of works by Kara Walker, an artist who draws from African-American history for her works. She’s best known for silhouetted pieces set in the Civil War era, and she recently made headlines with an installation for the condemned Domino sugar refinery, a set of works crowned by a 40-ton sugar sculpture in the shape of a sphinx.

Inspired, Hammond decided to use the same sense of history, injustice, and truth-telling as the backdrop for the instrumental suite. It’s not tied to particular pieces of Walkers; it’s more about the spirit, especially when it comes to her detailed silhouettes that tell complete stories. That’s the sense he wanted to convey.

For all its bustling freedom, the suite carries a calm demeanor, a contented wisdom. The early mood is patient, set by open-air guitar lines and slow trombone melody, but around that, the horns calmly trace their own paths. Throughout the piece, the horns command most of the attention, not only in the high-energy solos by Catherine Sikora and Vinny Golia on sax, or Clifford Childers on trombone, but for their adept free-improvsed interludes between composed sections. A fairly long, busy improvisation for the horns in the middle of Side 1 is the perfect break to set up a new phase with somber tones against Clifford Hilders’ trombone solo.

Even during Hammond’s high-energy solo early in Part 2, which includes some high-voltage free jazz from the entire group, a sense of reverence pervades. Humanity Suite is meant to be weighty, and it pulls that off without becoming stiff or heavy-handed.

Humanity Suite is a vinyl release, but you can also buy it digitally at Bandcamp.

Ross Hammond’s African Dance

Ross Hammond's Revival Trio. Source: Bandcamp; click to go there.When we last left Ross Hammond, he was in a psychedelic sunburst with top-notch L.A. free-jazzers.

This time, he’s taken a rootsy approach, using African music as an influence and a slow-burning blues/rock guitar sound as his paintbrush.

It starts with a stripped-down take on Afropop — a lot of that quick-clicking playing that’s familiar in African music — usually leading into a generous soloing space with a bluesy flavor.  A superficial comparison to Charlie Hunter is really tempting.

The intro to “Time to Wake Up” is a pretty good example:

Vanessa Cruz’s drumming shapes the sound with the energy and light I’ve come to associate with Afropop and African jazz. She fills the beat with tumbling clacks that don’t so much define the rhythm as outline it. I suppose that’s a common idea in jazz and in African music, but she makes it sound especially bright, as in this excerpt of “The Lion and the Bell.”

The foundational rhythm tends to be more the job of Shawn Hale, who plays acoustic bass instead of the bubbly electric bass that’s so common in Afropop. That helps define the trio on its own terms, giving its grooves more of a relaxed pace even when Hammond’s soloing goes for the gut. “All Our Dogs,” the closing track, gets into that kind of extended jam, replacing African funk with touches of cowboy hoedown in the guitar twang and a healthy, insistent pace set down by Hale.

A sucker as I am for odd time signatures, I can’t resist “Strikebreaker,” played out in a snappy 5/8, like a ball that keeps bouncing back just a little too soon. Hammond delivers a fiery solo later on.

Cruz has left California for New York, so the Revival Trio is on hiatus, as Hammond puts it. How much more the trio had to say anyway, we might never know; I have to admit, the Afropop ingredients make a lot of the tracks blend together for me on repeated listens. What I love, though, is that the band has a distinctive sound and fleshed out its concept well.

Hear the album, and read all about it, at Bandcamp. This is one instance where buying the CD, instead of the digital download might be really interesting (the Bandcamp page explains why).

Saturday Swarm

Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia of Grex are debuting a new, poppy band tonight (Sat. Feb. 25) called Swarm Intelligence.

Appropriately, they’re playing at the Swarm Gallery in downtown Oakland. (Details of my one visit are posted here.)

The band includes the Grex duo (guitar, vocals, keyboards, violin?) along with Jordan Glenn and Cory Wright of Wiener Kids and Phillip Greenlief and Dan Seamans of The Lost Trio. Evangelista describes it as:

… part weird, poppy song structures and part improvising ensemble… Rei says it sounds like the Drive soundtrack, and I dug into my recent absorption of ambient free jazz (Marion Brown, Bennie Maupin) and out fusion (Selim Sivad-era Miles & Herbie’s Mwandishi) for inspiration. Trust me–hearing this killer front line solo over Jordan and Dan’s unbelievable hookup (oddly Motian/Hadenesque), mixed up with these impressionist piano interludes and rubber band guitar parts–it’s terra nova for everyone involved.

I particularly liked this part:

I’ve been writing my hand off trying to come up with the imaginary music that’s missing from my record collection, and this looks like it’s in the right ballpark.

The opening act sounds awesome, too. It’s guitarist Ross Hammond in a quartet populated by some longtime L.A. free-jazzers: Vinny Golia (sax), Steuart Liebig (bass), and Alex Cline (drums). They’ve got a new album that you can sample by clicking on the Hammond link or by going to Bandcamp.

It’s all being broadcast on KALX, too. But if you can make it out to be part of the live experience, I’m sure the bands would love to see you.

(More about Wiener Kids here and Lost Trio here.)