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Rhythm In Every Guise

Jeff Hirshfield on Rich Perry's SteepleChase Recordings


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"Some drummers get carried away and stop listening, maybe because we are doing four or five things at the same time. You want to see if things will work out or not, but you're not paying enough attention...We think we need to make everything happen, but it's not true: Everything is already happening, all you need to do is find your place." Albert Tootie Heath. Interview by Ethan Iverson in Do The Math, the bad plus blog and webzine.

Jeff Hirshfield's solo on Thad Jones' composition "Mean What You Say" (Rich Perry Quartet, To Start Again, SteepleChase, 1993) is a counterintuitive place to begin an appreciation of the drummer's body of work with tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. It's one of the few instances in which Hirshfield steps out on his own during a dozen records he's made under Perry's leadership on the SteepleChase label.

Strange though it may seem, the thirty-two bar, forty-five second unaccompanied improvisation embodies many of Hirshfield's virtues as an accompanist and ensemble player. In contrast to the extroverted, dynamic, hell-bent drumming of many of the greats of the trap set, exertion and flashy technique are not the salient characteristics of Hirshfield's performance. There's nothing forced or particularly urgent about his approach to the solo. He tells a brief, skeletal, coherent tale without embellishment, plays nearly everything at a low dynamic level, and swings in a conventional, understated manner.

Within this minimalist landscape the play of dissimilar sounds and textures are every bit as important as structure and the articulation of ideas. Individual brush strokes to the snare drum are clearly stated, and so is each touch of the batter to the head of the bass drum. In contrast, a number of glowing, ghost-like touches to the cymbal barely register in the listener's consciousness. And somewhere in between these two polarities lies the raspy, scratching sound of the brush rubbing against the head of the snare.

Hirshfield isn't stepping away from the band or creating a stir during his time in the spotlight; rather, he's quietly but firmly making a statement while keeping things in good order until Perry and company re-enter and assume their place in the music.

The seldom played "Gone With The Wind" (Rich Perry, Gone, SteepleChase 2009) is converted into a protracted, diffuse dreamscape by Perry, pianist Harold Danko, bassist Jay Anderson, and Hirshfield. The cautious, simmering, flexible propulsion generated by the rhythm section amounts to a refined amalgam of bossa nova, Latin and funk elements, yet individually and collectively the players never stay in one place long enough for any of these influences to be clearly delineated. While numerous contemporary rhythm sections mine similar terrain, there's something special about the sensitivity in which Danko, Anderson, and Hirshfield listen, respond, and gently prod one another. It's fertile soil for Perry to cultivate protracted, melodically rich, rhythmically flexible solo lines. The music is beautiful, somewhat elusive, and filled with arresting details. And throughout eleven-and-a-half minutes, the quartet doesn't run out of interesting things to say or wear out their welcome.

Hirshfield offers a sense of continuity and stability, even while his drumming is in a constant state of flux. He's always playing in the moment, ostensibly operating without the burden of any preconceptions, listening to the others as well as acting on his own muse. Even though there's a somewhat familiar ring to the rhythms, influences from the icons of jazz and popular music drumming don't readily come to mind as he plays. While keeping time in a somewhat loose, flexible manner, beats are constantly shuffled about in no clearly discernable pattern.

He paints brisk, sketchy portraits with his ride cymbal—and to a lesser extent, hi-hat—that are filled with skips, gaps, telling accents, and brief flurries of strokes. In part because Hirshfield keeps things at a relatively low volume level, all of this activity on the cymbal sounds compatible with Anderson's equally idiosyncratic bass line, and Danko's carefully placed chords. The industrious, uncluttered character of his playing extends to accents on the snare and bass drum, some of which are offshoots of the cymbal rhythms.

Hirshfield attains a balance between the pieces of his drum kit as strokes push and pull against one another in ways that aren't messy, impatient, or particularly urgent. When something stands out— light cymbal crashes and a smattering of rim knocks in the middle of Perry's solo, or a sudden emphasis on the mounted tom-tom during Danko's turn—the impact is short-lived and doesn't break the flow.

Though the design is straight-ahead swing, a laid-back ambiance infuses "Theme For Ernie" (Rich Perry, Gone, SteepleChase, 2009). At once soothing, sensual, invigorating, and challenging in an understated way, the track is a far cry from the tension filled, cacophonous, melting pot sounds that characterize jazz in the twenty-first century. The band's way with a middling tempo requires—to paraphrase Kenny Washington's oft-quoted observation—the participation of adults to execute properly. In the hands of the young this pace tends to lose focus and quicken into something closer to a gallop. As generated by Hirshfield, Anderson, and Danko, the tempo is deep, unhurried, true to itself and, most importantly, serves as encouragement for Perry's consistently expanding and contracting lines. If the beat was any tighter—or showed signs of rigidity—it wouldn't allow for the tenor saxophonist's elastic rhythmic sensibility and subtle shifts in emphasis. If it was any looser the swing wouldn't feel so good and so natural. Perry uses the freedom inherent in a beat that is— figuratively speaking—a mile wide, to find a number of novel ways of referencing pieces of Fred Lacey's melody, and for extended flights that lift off and touch down in unexpected places.

Thinking solely in terms of the manner in which many jazz drummers play the instrument—technique for its own sake, consistently high dynamic levels, a degree of assertiveness that often crosses over to pugnacity, and a willingness to let the bassist hold the music together—imposes severe limitations in an account of Hirshfield's playing on "Theme For Ernie." Better to look at his drumming from the perspective of the things that he accomplishes in a supportive role. Working hand-in-glove with Anderson to sustain the deeply swinging groove, Hirshfield listens closely, actively plays in the moment, and doesn't feel compelled to directly respond to or comment on everything that goes on around him.

In order to appreciate the full impact of Hirshfield's drumming on the quartet, close attention must be paid, particularly during Perry's and Danko's solos. Prudent, practical, and always willing to serve, he's the last of the group to be heard. The term "keeping time" doesn't really do justice to Hirshfield's contributions. He offers an endless horizon of agreeable swing, and makes it sound as easy as breathing. It's best to experience his playing in its totality, instead of attempting to isolate and analyze individual strokes. The sounds that he draws from the drum kit are tightly knit and closely allied to one another. First among equals, the ride cymbal is, dynamically speaking, just a shade under Anderson's bass line, landing squarely in the middle of each beat, and exerting a genuine effect on the music even when the individual strokes don't clearly resonate.

Throughout Hirshfield's empathetic drumming, a few things do stand out. Individual, lightly accented cymbal strokes sometimes blossom during pauses in Perry's lines. At the onset of a repeat of the tune's "A" section, two pair of stick shots come off as witty asides. Brief, brittle hits on two cymbals at the end of Danko's solo sound like mini-collisions that make a point without breaking up or interrupting the pianist's lucid improvisation.

The brisk, clipped sound of Perry's composition "King Baby" (Rich Perry Quartet, Hearsay, SteepleChase, 2002) is tethered to a cyclical, two-bar foundation outlined by Dennis Irwin's acoustic bass. Hirshfield's take on Perry's jazz-funk isn't rigid or circumscribed; instead he offers a world of ideas in a finite framework. Throughout solos by Perry and trumpeter Steve Lampert, he plays a shell game with the various components of his drum kit, briefly foregrounding a specific drum or cymbal, and offering any number of succinct, unpretentious asides that prevent the music from being nailed down too tightly. Carefully balancing a restricted range of rhythms and an improvisational sensibility, Hirshfield gives the impression of approaching the music from multiple perspectives. While seldom straying from the strict parameters of Perry's composition, he plays off of Irwin's bass line from every conceivable angle.

Part of what makes Hirshfield's drumming fun to listen to are the small touches that add color, texture, and a hint of uncertainty to an otherwise orderly music. For example, the first minute or so of Perry's solo is filled with Hirshfield's subtle, off-kilter commentary. Among other things, there's a clipped pop to the mounted tom-tom; brief, controlled cymbal crashes; a rain of cymbal sounds that last a second or two; buzz strokes to the snare; a few hits to the closed hi-hat; a twisting fill to the snare that comes and goes in an instant; and a noticeable difference in emphasis in the ride cymbal beat. You never know what he's going to add into the mix, yet none of these things really stand out or last long enough to make a distinct, definable impression.

Throughout Lampert's, exotic, funk oriented "Gymel" (Rich Perry Quartet, Hearsay, SteepleChase, 2002), once again, Hirshfield evinces the capacity to juggle tried and true practices and quirky, idiosyncratic ingredients. While employing a conventional back beat— stick on snare—in most of the measures, he establishes a deep, precise pocket (in conjunction with Irwin's bass), but refuses to let it stand alone. An unusual thing about his presentation is the use of a brush on the snare drum, keeping time not unlike the traditional stick to the ride cymbal. Even though the brush strokes, dynamically speaking, are less prominent than the stick on snare accents and aren't always clear cut, the combination of the two interrelated sounds is part of an intriguing play of textures. As Hirshfield introduces bass drum accents that don't necessarily conform to a predictable pattern, the occasional buzz stroke, and frequent changes in emphasis in way the stick lands on the drum, the result is a kind of chugging forward momentum. It's the sort of thing that wouldn't work in a band in which he had to share sonic space or compete with the volume of an electric bass and/or keyboard.

While all of these factors add up to something that's regular, reliable and playful, Hirshfield's other gambit is sly and a little subversive. Throughout the track, beginning on the head and at irregular, less-than-predictable intervals, he executes brief flares (the word "crash" is an exaggeration) on the cymbals that hang in the air and, for a split second, sound contrary to the painstaking momentum established by the rest of his drum kit. At various times, Hirshfield uses different cymbals, executes one or two strokes, and varies the dynamic level. In one instance he offers a flare at the end of the fourth beat of a measure, as if resisting the onset of the next bar. In another instance, two hi-hat strokes pop out and wave while the music continues, undaunted, on its way.

I recently caught Perry as part of an All-Star group assembled especially for the occasion. The band's drummer sounded fine in conjunction with the rest of the band's soloists, but things took a somewhat awkward turn during Perry's extended improvisations. On the one hand, by today's standards the drummer wasn't particularly loud or busy. On the other, an insistence on relentlessly pushing the beat forward and filling up a lot of empty space didn't give Perry's lines a chance to breathe properly, and detracted from the flexibility and the subtleties of the saxophonist's style. All of which brings us back to Heath's remarks at the beginning of this essay. Hirshfield's willingness to listen and to find his place in the music, as opposed to blatantly imposing his will on the ensemble and soloists, speak to the jazz traditions of democracy and sense of play. There's grace and beauty in the fine line he walks between restraint and assertiveness. The listener has to meet Hirshfield halfway in order to appreciate his unique time feel, continuous embrace of surrounding sounds, and savvy mixture of textures. The rewards of paying close attention to his drumming are plentiful and well worth the effort.

Selected Discography

Rich Perry Quartet To Start Again SteepleChase (1993)
Rich Perry Quartet Hearsay SteepleChase (2002)
Rich Perry Quartet East Of The Sun And West Of 2nd Avenue SteepleChase (2004)
Rich Perry You're My Everything SteepleChase (2004)
Rich Perry At the Kitano 1 SteepleChase (2006)
Rich Perry e.motion SteepleChase (2007)
Rich Perry At The Kitano 2 SteepleChase (2008)
Rich Perry Gone SteepleChase (2009)
Rich Perry At The Kitano 3 SteepleChase (2010)
Rich Perry Grace SteepleChase (2011)
Rich Perry Time Was SteepleChase (2012)
Rich Perry Nocturne SteepleChase (2014)

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