It'd be too easy to make drummer jokes (How can you tell when a drummer's at the door? The knocking keeps getting faster.), but there might be some relevance to it. Hemingway possesses some talent many percussionists lack, some nebulous quality that keeps so many from being strong composers and bandleaders. The fact of it has long been apparent - at least since the '80s, when he played in the trio Bass Drum Bone with Ray Anderson and Mark Helias and was made inarguable by his 1999 Tzadik disc Chamber Works. But what that quality is makes a bit more sense with his release Double Blues Crossing. Not for the music so much as the two paragraphs of prose in the liner notes. Apart from being a gifted percussionist, it turns out, Hemingway has a knack for storytelling. The little scene unfolds elegantly and shines a light on what makes him a composer. It's all about pacing and using the right number of adjectives and whether it's sticks or a pen in his hand, Hemingway possesses a novelist's grace.
In that respect, he is something akin to fellow drummer Jerry Granelli. While "telling a story is a jazz cliché, many confuse that with hollering on a soapbox. Blues Crossing - recorded in Lisbon with an international band (German reed player Frank Gratkowski, Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, Swedish cellist Amit Sen and American bassist Kermit Driscoll) - is a sweeping-yet-subtle piece of storytelling. From abstract electronic segments to beautifully composed interludes and swinging horn passages, it's a long ride. As with Granelli's A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing, the titles read like chapters and the music sets scenes, like what a novel would be if there were no characters in it.
The Whimbler, released by the Portuguese label Clean Feed (Portugal seems to be doing good for Hemingway), is more of a New York tale. With Ellery Eskelin on sax, Herb Robertson on trumpet and Helias on bass, it's more anecdotal than linear, more a collection of short stories than a novel. What's most remarkable about the disc is the ground they cover. Each of the players slips in and out of solo and support with ease, creating a variety of moods and never acknowledging the constraints of a horn/rhythm lineup. Where Blues Crossing is almost epic in its scope, Whimbler rushes around but still conveys place and scale - like how Fifth Street feels different from Sixth Street, but they both feel like the Village, like an afternoon whimbling around New York.
Tracks and Personnel
Double Blues Crossing
Tracks: a. Buddy Luckett's Dream By The Dry Grass Pt.1, b. Where The Once Never Blues; Buddy Luckett's Dream By The Dry Grass Pt.2; Don't Melt Away Pt.1&2; It Ain't Slippery But Its Wet; Joe Cracklin Left This Before The River Got Him; Rallier; Night Town/Tent Slowly Rising.
Personnel: Gerry Hemingway: drums, marimba; Frank Gratkowski: reeds; Wolter Wierbos: trombone, Amit Sen c; Kermet Driscoll: bass.
Tracks: Waitin; Rallier; The Current underneath; Pumbum; The Wimbler; Spektiv; Curlycue; In the distance; KimKwella.
Personnel: Ellerry Eskelin: tenor sax; Gerry Hemingway: drums; Herb Robertson: trumpet; Mark Helias: bass.