Living in the Shadows: Drummer Warren Smith Solos at UMass Amherst

Lyn Horton By

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The centerpiece of the concert was what Smith dubbed an 'open letter' to all within earshot about war, specifically the war in Iraq.
Warren Smith
Solos and Duos Series, University of Massachusetts, Fine Arts Center
Amherst, Massachusetts
September 26, 2007

Musicians worth their salt practice their awareness of their heritage, be that ethnic or musical. Doing so gives them not only access to a wealth of precedence but also starting blocks for their own creations. The assimilation of the past stimulates the incentive to forge ahead without hindrance — whether to belief, expression, or opportunity. It was with this impetus that drummer Warren Smith came to perform at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on September 26, 2007 for the first concert in the annual Solos and Duos Series put on by the Fine Arts Center.

A pre-concert interview with the drummer on the university radio station revealed that Smith's rich background in the music grew from necessity. Starting out in Chicago, in a family environment in which his parents fostered his development as a musician (his mother played piano, harp and organ and his father was a reed specialist), Smith was eventually blocked in his pursuit of musical expression and performance by racism. For this reason, he went to New York and has been there ever since. While based in this city, his connections to the music world have mushroomed. His classical training coupled with his band work and activities as a music educator have supported his family while his personal sense of adventure and creative motivation have led him to transcend his struggles through music.

The pioneering master of solo drumming, Max Roach, whom Smith first met in 1956 at Tanglewood, in a sense became Smith's mentor. Not only did Roach put him in his innovative M'Boom ensemble but the seminal father- figure also seemed to fuel in Smith a strain of activism that seeps into both the political content of his music and the serenely powerful delivery of his playing.

Having dedicated the concert to Roach, whose drumming methods in part lent greater significance to the role of the hi-hat, Smith began the evening's music sitting at a small hi-hat setup, two hi-hats flanking three irregularly-shaped cymbal groupings stacked one on top of the other. He alternated the clapping of the hi- hats with his feet, left to right as his sticks stroked the instruments in the center vertically. Concentrating at first on the separation and mounting volume of each hit of metal, Smith soon focused on a decrescendo while maintaining a continuous sound to end this brief opening piece.

If it were not already apparent, Smith demonstrated his non-pompous personality during the second piece of the performance, which he dedicated to his new granddaughter. The composition was based on a series of photographs which, because of an unfortunate technical mishap, were not present to provide the visual backdrop to his playing- -this time of a larger-than-life marimba at the front of the stage. Compensating for the absence of the photos, his verbal introduction supplied sufficient descriptive details for the listener to paint floral pictures with the mind's eye. And the music itself transposed sound into the idea of blossoming petals unfolding one by one—two, then four mallets tapping the tone bars successively with a dampened resonance to form a delicate textural melody befitting the softness of a newborn child.

The centerpiece of the concert was what Smith dubbed an "open letter to all within earshot about war, specifically the war in Iraq. Smith used the majority of percussion instruments that were set up on the stage: all sizes of gongs were on one side, the trap set was in the middle, and three tympani filled the rest of the stage. The piece opened with an explosive stick display on the drum set. The words flowed freely from a male narrator. The music played to the narrative.

Smith was as physically animated as the passion behind the fashioning of words he had written for the piece. He moved with speed amongst the instruments, using each to speak with a controlled yet unheeded ferocity. At one moment, he was standing behind the trap set flicking the mallets around the toms; at another, he clapped a small set of gongs sharply, simulating what could have been gunshots; at another, he was standing behind the tympani causing the skins to vibrate with a hum similar to that of an airplane motor. The sibilance of the trap set cymbals stressed one of the final definitive thoughts: "We must let the world heal itself.

To complete the one-set program, Smith performed three additional pieces. In one, Smith in effect energized his drum set, as only Roach could have made the "multiple percussive instrument behave, seizing on every dynamic potential of his four-tom grouping. It was the first time the bass drum entered the sound. For another composition, what Smith articulated on the three tympani was unquestionably the blues, written by Smith for one of his former M'Boom band members. And for the last, Smith improvised using his entire entourage of instruments; the drummer dedicated the improv on this occasion to the audience.

It is easy to understand how Smith has been called upon to perform in so many different idioms and circumstances, from Broadway, to R&B, to classical to jazz. Because the percussionist has got rhythm and chops, he's an asset in virtually any musical context. His stellar versatility, however, has finally brought him to a place where he can attend to what he calls "conceptual improvisation."

This creative mode of playing allows Smith to probe the deepest recesses of his being, to reach for the tenderness and heart that hold people together... at the most apparent level it enabled him, as the tympani reverberated the tune of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing, to shape his mouth carefully in order to sing in a hushed and utterly non-pretentious manner: "Doo-wop... Doo-wop... Doo-wop."

Photo credit Lyn Horton

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