Dream team assemblages are fairly regular occurrences in New York City-baseed improvisatory music. With so much talent operating in such a relatively small territory, the odds of a favorite players teaming up remain strongly favorable. Such alchemy is apparent in abundance on Gerry Hemingway's new project for Clean Feed, one that builds on the standing foundation of its predecessor, Devil's Paradise, with a few perspicacious personnel changes.
Titled with whimsy, The Whimbler convenes a quartet with credentials to spare. The frontline of tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Herb Robertson alone incites all sorts of scintillating creative music fantasies, not to mention the juggernaut formed by joining Hemingway and bassist Mark Helias as a rhythm section. This is a group staunchly oriented toward the drummer's jazz and groove-based proclivities. Helias even brings along his Squier electric to cultivate an appropriately ricocheting rubber ball tonality on tracks like heavily syncopated blues "The Current Underneath, which slots a surprise space for the leader's nimble marimba, and the title piece, another funky number that perambulates on a popping pogo stick beat. The closer "Kimkwella also depends on his fibrillating fingerings in the service of a tropical-tinged island theme.
All compositions come from Hemingway's pen and are chock-full of changeups and about-faces that demand active participation on the part of the players. Fortunately, the ensemble was able to commit the basics to collective memory on a series of concert gigs leading up to a pair of studio recording dates. Hemingway largely abstains from involving the more abstract elements of his style like bowed cymbals and scraped metal and focuses instead on crafting a tight conference of accessible voices that still leaves plenty of room for spontaneous revision and individual input. "Waitin jogs along on a rims-driven rhythm, soon augmented by the colorful splash of cymbals. Helias' bulbous fills also add a propulsive push in close collusion for the ramp up to sprinting finish.
Pieces like "Pumbum and "Curlycue carry the airy melodiousness of madrigals, horns floating breezily across porous terrain charted by bass and drums, but are just as likely to turn on a hairpin into hard-charging swing. Eskelin alternates from cutting honks to velvety flutters, calibrating cannily to the mood and needs of each piece. Robertson's brass proves just as versatile. His liquid mercury tone and quick-witted phrasing daubs and darts with just the right ratio of viscosity to bite. His exchange with Helias' arco strokes on "Rallier makes for an unexpectedly agreeable match.
Throughout this piece and others, Hemingway's sticks stamp shifting rhythms that subtlety toy with and subvert their expected trajectories alongside Helias' stalwart thrum. In his closing solo he exudes the directness and drive of a rock drummer, stoking the beat with cascading rolls. It's as if the relatively conventional, but still highly feracious and engaging structures of the compositions aren't quite capable of containing him.
Personnel: Gerry Hemingway: drums; Herb Roberston: trumpet; Ellery Eskelen: tenor saxophone; Mark
Helias: acoustic & electric bass. Recorded March 2 and June 17, 2004, Brooklyn, NY.