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Jeff Hirshfield on Rich Perry's SteepleChase Recordings

David A. Orthmann By

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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.


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