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Jeff Hirshfield on Rich Perry's SteepleChase Recordings

David A. Orthmann By

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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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