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Jeff Hirshfield on Rich Perry's SteepleChase Recordings

David A. Orthmann By

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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.


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