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Hamid Drake at the Sons d'hiver Festival, Paris

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The ebb and flow of his masterful exhibition climaxed in a blur of hands and thunderous crashes, bringing forth tumultuous applause
Hamid Drake & Bindu
Sons d'hiver Jazz Festival
Theatre Romain Rolland, Villejuif, Paris
February 2, 2007

Good things come to those who wait, and Hamid Drake has waited longer than most. After over 30 years in creative music, Bindu is not the first band to be led by Drake, but it is the first to record under his leadership. He released Bindu in 2005 and debuted with his ensemble of the same name at the Vision Festival in 2006. Seven months later their appearance at the Sons d'hiver Festival in the Paris suburb of Villejuif was only their second outing, such are the players' busy schedules. The group unites Drake's Chicago roots with his NYC affiliations, pairing AACM's Ernest Dawkins and Greg Ward with downtown stalwarts Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen, bridging what Drake has described as the illusory gap between the two scenes.

The increasingly in-demand Drake is perhaps the leading exponent of how to integrate swinging grooves into the arc of a free jazz performance. Although he has worked with the likes of Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Pharoah Sanders, Ken Vandermark, David Murray and William Parker, Drake has a particular affinity with saxophonists. The evidence is documented in a brief glance along my shelves revealing recorded duo sessions featuring the master drummer with Fred Anderson, Peter Brötzmann, Assif Tsahar, Joe McPhee and Sabir Mateen. (What a line-up that would be!)


Bindu's four reeds were pitted against Drake's drums in extended versions of two pieces from their eponymous RogueArt album, along with another piece and an encore extemporised in the moment. The 85- minute set allowed spacious performances with lots of solo opportunities for the saxophones, either in tandem with Drake's drums or against a lush horn choir of intersecting lines or extemporized riffs.

Opener "Bindu #1," dedicated to drummer Ed Blackwell, explored what Drake termed the multi- dimensional rhythms of both percussionists' native Louisiana. The four reedmen were strung across stage left, while Drake directed proceedings from behind his drum kit stage right, cueing ensembles and setting up and inspiring the horns individually and collectively. A short introductory drum roll presaged the horns punching out a two-beat riff, while Carter flexed his shoulders and delivered an abstracted, keening solo on tenor saxophone, buoyant atop Drake's rhythmic cushion. Such open structures stand or fall on the contributions of the band members, and it was clear by the end of the evening just how well Drake had chosen his collaborators.

Each of the reedmen took their turn to solo, offering a contrast in styles. Mateen on tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute, was at one extreme, with his mellifluous serpentine roller-coaster runs pouring forth as he followed a thread, often by way of altissimo wailing, to see where it would lead. Ward, on alto saxophone throughout, was at the other extreme, measuredly working and reworking each phrase to find the inspiration for the next, in the manner of a soloist like Fred Anderson or Jimmy Lyons. In between were Carter—rarely still, crouching, stretching, swaying on tenor saxophone and flute, pursuing a stream of consciousness, then pausing to take stock before reigniting—and Dawkins—at once impassioned and within the tradition, fluent on alto and tenor saxophones, as well as percussion and whistles.

Drake took his only solo of the evening towards the conclusion of "Bindu #1 : a pattering cavalcade giving way to an exploration of the underlying two-beat motif, smoothly incorporating use of elbows to modify the sound of his snare and toms without breaking stride. The ebb and flow of his masterful exhibition climaxed in a blur of hands and thunderous crashes, bringing forth tumultuous applause, before he cued in the horns for a theme restatement, interspersed with free flurries and loose riffing.

Next Drake sat cross-legged before his tablas at the front of stage as the reeds span out the interlocking theme of the gently bittersweet "Meeting and Parting." Mateen's pensive clarinet bubbled up out of the mix, emerging from the squiggling support of Carter's flute and the twin altos of Ward and Dawkins. As Drake's skipping fingers accelerated, Mateen reciprocated—a bright, dancing focal point weaving among the quasi chamber-music filaments of the other horns. Dawkins, who has been playing with Drake since both were teenagers, then took over, laying out what might pass as a Middle Eastern blues with vocalized inflections. As the other horns aligned, playing a loose riff, Dawkins' continuous note-streams defragmented into breathy exclamations, concluding over a steady tabla rhythm from the now serene Drake.



Carter stepped up for what proved one of the evening's outstanding solos. Straightaway Drake meshed with the metre of his tenor line. Whinnying tenor outbursts combined with percussive keypad pattering, before a passage of delicate wavering multiphonics gradually became more urgent and merged into the wriggling horn ether. After a lyrical excursion from Ward, Drake returned behind his trap set and extracted a majestic reprise of the theme from the sparring horns.

The third piece featured Drake reciting a melodic Sufi declamation, accompanying himself on frame drum, with Dawkins' tenor playing a quiet obligato replete with split-tone cries in support. As the spiritually yearning chant ceased, the horn commentary became more insistent, and Drake hit a dervish rhythm, summoning the other reedmen back on stage. Dawkins essayed passionate upper-register screams over the horn chorus, before drawing to a tender conclusion.

The packed theatre exploded in approval as a delighted Drake led his brothers-in-music in an appreciative bow. The unabated applause was sufficient to call the group back for a short encore with the free-associating saxophones corralled by Drake's emphatic beats. What more could a captivated listener ask for? Well, there could have been more scope for exploring further some of the duos and trios within the line- up. But in the end this improvised, inspired music is about what is, not what could be. So, let's hope hectic schedules don't mean we have to wait too long for further uplifting experiences from Bindu.


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