The average listener is not likely to respond with enthusiasm to an all-percussion recording. While ardent lovers of drum-based music will surely appreciate the sonic breadth of A Sarah Hommel Drum All, those less rhythmically inclined may find their patience tested. Truth be told, Hommel is a first-rate composer, and a charitable attention span will be rewarded with an engaging auditory experience.
The live recording is a cross-cultural stew, a contemporary spin on ancestral traditions. Hommel herself provides drums and percussion, along with some tentative vocals; she is assisted by a sure-handed cast of musicians, consisting of Mino Cinelu, Victor Jones, Victor Lewis, Bill Ware and Richard Zukor. Each asserts his identity on the leadoff track, "Should I Be I Prefer Not To." Cinelu seasons the blend with African percussion, and Ware takes the listener by surprise with electronically distorted vibraphone. One doesn't know quite what to expect next, a feeling that persists for the album's duration.
There are shades of Harry Partch in the mallet-driven ostinatos of "It's Not Supposed to Be Any Way"; a shifting dynamic structure gives way to a succession of drum kit improvisations on "Dance One for Honi"; and "A Tribute Arrangement" opens with a rhythmic pattern that evokes the theme from Shaft, an apparent coincidence that nonetheless forecasts the irresistible jazz-funk throb that follows.
Based on a passage from the Bible that locates God not in elemental chaos but in a "still small voice," "Little Luke Early" is an aggressive confrontation between bass drum, cymbal and hi-hat, mediated by the xylophone's persistent plea for reconciliation. When a snare drum arrives with a martial rhythm, the xylophone begins to follow its pulseif you can't beat 'em, join 'embut ultimately the "small voice" of peace emerges victorious. Ware's xylophone line approximates the music from a Merrie Melodies cartoon, another presumably unintentional likeness that lends the piece a comic dimension.
The arguable centerpiece of the disc is "Victor's Lesson," an exhilarating seventeen-minute workout that climaxes in a pounding tribal jam. The rolling tympani, contributed by Jones, raises the music to symphonic heights. "Victor's Lesson" alone fully justifies the applause that greets the musicians as they are introduced over the parting song, a bouncy Caribbean number called "This Is What My Friends Tell Me."
In the liner notes, Hommel emphatically acknowledges her teachers and influences, and her lyrics stress the importance of camaraderie. While the extended drum improvisations on the album will fail to ignite the interest of many listeners, the positive aura that informs A Sarah Hommel Drum All comes through loud and clear.
Personnel: Sarah Hommel: drums, percussion; Bill Ware: mallets, percussion; Rich Zukor, Victor Lewis, Victor Jones: drums, percussion; Mino Cinelu: percussion.