Splasc (H) CDH 905.2

Blood Drum Spirit
Innova 580:2CD

Constant gigging in many circumstances rather than burying oneself in academe has always been touted as the best way to advance improvised music. Recent examples of dissatisfied Young Lions turning to teaching to turn out newer generations of neo-cons bear this out.

Yet if your university activity involves the initial purpose for higher education — searching, researching and studying — subsequent creations can benefit from the cerebral circumstances within which they’re created. Anthony Braxton and George Lewis have proven this theorem when they record their newest works, as has drummer Royal Hartigan with this two-CD set. Hartigan who earned his Ph.D in world music at Wesleyan University in 1986 and has since taught ethnomusicology, African drumming, and world music ensemble at Wesleyan and New York’s New School for Social Research, combines non-Western rhythms with a standard jazz quartet to create a series of impressive originals.

Contrast that with the single disc put out by veteran Italian guitarist Augusto Mancinelli. Mancinelli, best known for the period he spent in trumpeter Enrico Rava’s band, has put together a combo with the same instrumentation as Hartigan’s: reeds, guitar, bass and drums. Made up of top-flight professionals, the band’s extensive experience encompassing jazz and studio work, easily trumps that of Hartigan’s band. Yet its almost all-original program is so technically clean and note perfect that it ends up being colorlessly proficient rather than exciting.

To give the guitarist and his crew their due, they’re some of the top players in the country. Saxophonist Pietro Tonolo has recorded with Rava, Paul Motion’s Electric Bebop Band and the sax quartet Arundo Donax. Drummer Massimo Manzi and Mancinelli played with American accordionist Art Van Damme and Mancinelli himself has taught Jazz arrangements and compositions to many younger musicians.

Of Hartigan’s combo, only reedman David Bindman has related experience, having worked in a trio formation with drummer Kevin Norton and bassist Joe Fonda and in the Brooklyn Sax Quartet. Plus, the downside to BLOOD DRUM SPIRIT, is when the drummer invests his compositions with a certain non-musical academic trendiness. In the notes he insists on spelling his name in all lower case letters. He also obsessively enumerates each and every global rhythm he recreates and conspicuously copyrights nearly every composition in his name and that of the indigenous people with which the ethnic rhythm originated. Yet more happens than on RESONANCES.

On the plus side, Mancinelli is a top-flight mainstream guitarist, whose diamond-sharp, liquid tone usually combines some of the qualities of Jim Hall, Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel. On the andante, boppy “Blue Goose Blues”, for example, he snaps out phrases without ever letting the tempo upset his subtle touch or overall sense of relaxation. Before the piece ends with him trading fours with the saxist, he even pushes Tonolo to extend his angular reed biting to overblow until he pulls himself up short.

“Twist Me Love”, floating on triplets from Manzi, is another bouncy, devil-may-care melody that may reference Wardell Gray’s “Twisted”. Still, the combination of rhythm guitar licks and electric soloing seems to move it closer to a bossa nova. “Monna Lisa” on the other hand — not the Nat “King” Cole tune — finds Tonolo’s luxuriant soprano sax making the tune sound more like a traditional Celtic dirge than an Italian ballad. It also begins with Paolo Ghetti’s arco bass playing matched arpeggios with Mancinelli’s guitar.

Then there’s the title tune where the fretman adds a bit of country flat-picking to his well-shaped solo. Manzi has a low-key solo that’s all paradiddles and rim shots, while Tonolo opens up to exhibit discordant slurs, irregular vibrations and honked notes.

Most of the time, though, the reedist comes across as a foursquare modern mainstreamer like American Larry Schneider, who has often recorded with Italian sidemen. You note that on the Monkish “Round Blue” where his extended sax lines ping-pong from a Sonny Rollins-like to a Stan Getzian stance, never loosing control. Mancinelli responds with pinpointed finger picking with almost classical precision.

That sounds better than the quartet’s treatment of Monk’s own “Skippy”, the one non-original here, where all the rough edges are pared down with speedy, finger picking slurs. Nadir is reached with “The Promise”, luckily the final tune, which fairly reeks of smooth jazzisms. A resonating, simplistic sax line, repetitive guitar hook and overly polite brush work makes you wish Mancinelli would promise never to play this way again.

Hartigan’s promise is most obviously expressed in two extended suites and “Eve”, the more than 28-minute final tune.

Initially, the three-part, more than 19-minute “Pilipinas Suite” shows how traditional ethnic and improv can be meshed. On “Pilipinas” — the middle section — Bindman moves from mainstream tenor sax smoothness to a modal, Trane-like, freeform pitch. Within it, he mixes some linear note caressing plus the odd double tongued trill. Meanwhile Wes Brown produces an unvarying bass vamp that links the tradition to Afrocentric New Thing tunes, while guitarist Kevin McNeal advances the theme with slurred fingering à la George Benson.

Circumscribing this are two short tunes, both entitled “Solog”. Here Hartigan through overdubbing, turns himself into a kulintang ensemble, using the collection of suspended kettle gongs and wooden drum in turn to create a solid marimba-like beat. He even ends with a flashy vibes-like glissando.

McNeal is the chameleon at times on the “Apartheid U.S.A. Suite”. In the last section his smooth licks have a fleet-fingered blues cast as they complement the funky blues from Bindman’s alto saxophone. On the first piece, the saxman overblows and the guitarist sounds as if he’s manipulating a ngoni or African lute. Hartigan’s liberal heart is in the right place with the pointedly named “Rodney King Drums”, but his hands merely play another four-minute-plus drum solo.

Dedicated to a Ghanese master dancer the massive “Eve” is a much better showcase. Using various percussion, Hartigan brings forth a powerful Africanized beat with the cymbals and rattles creating as many cross rhythms and percussion timbres as are available from his regular drum kit. Brown’s Afrocentric vamp is the connective tissue between the introduction and a solo section on double handed cow bells, snare rim shots, bass drum and hi hat. When Bindman’s nimble tenor saxophone is added to the mix, Hartigan’s beat becomes more diffuse, adding new site-specific rhythms to his output, including moving a double cohort of hollow-sounding floor toms and snares plus an assembly line of cymbal pressure. McNeal adds a melodic string fillip, Bindman breaths some irregular trilled tones and the piece concludes with a one-minute coda of drum rhythms that that reflects the opening statement.

“Navajo Blood/Pontoosuc Waters/Springside Lands”, the composition with the most convoluted title, shows how Native Amerindian whaleskin drums and three different rattles can create the proper beat for improvisation. As the guitarist chords and skims up and down his strings, Bindman expresses the theme that comes from a Navajo song. Shaking rattles give the track an exotic undercurrent, but despite his good intentions, Hartigan’s drum pulse still sounds stereotypically like Hollywood’s idea of Indian music.

“Tala Vadyam”, a track recorded with guitarist Michele Navazio and bassist Brad Jones in place of McNeal and Brown, highlights some of Bindman’s most impressive soloing. He pumps out a light, double-timed tone on alto as well as a few arching screams. But he does so without appearing to introduce more alien sounds to a piece that is supposed to be based on South Indian music. Navazio’s shaded multi string runs approximate those of a sitar, though Hartigan’s Carnatic style approach seems to give way to a bass drum and cymbal workout that recall Max Roach not the Raj.

Putting aside the booklet rhetoric, BLOOD DRUM SPIRIT is a refutation to those who think that academics can’t provide exceptional music. The climate to appreciate it has to exist though. The discs were recorded in 1993, but just released.

We should hope that Hartigan’s teaching duties and the creation of the almost eight minute, part travelogue and part quartet performance video that’s included in this package was what slowed down its release, not more sinister musical and political conservatism.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Resonances: 1. Scrambled Eggs 2. Resonances 3. She Goes Shopping 4. Twist me Love 5. Round Blue 6. Blue Goose Blues 7. When Love Is Over 8. Monna Lisa 9. Skippy 10. The Promise

Personnel: Resonances: Pietro Tonolo (tenor and soprano saxophones) Augusto Mancinelli (guitar); Paolo Ghetti (bass); Massimo Manzi (drums)

Track Listing: Blood: CD1: 1. Wadsworth Falls 2. Epilogue 3. Dagomba Pilipinas Suite 4. Solog 5. Pilipinas 6. Solog 7. Caravan 8. Tala Vadyam CD2: Apartheid U.S.A. Suite 1. Adzohu, Juba Handclaps 2. Rodney King Drums 3. Double Trouble 4. Navajo Blood/ Pontoosuc Waters/Springside Lands 5. Tie Me Sufre 6. Papago-Saguaro Song 8. Eve

Personnel: Blood: David Bindman ( alto and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet); Kevin McNeal or Michele Navazio* (guitar); Wes Brown or Brad Jones* (bass); Royal Hartigan (drums and cymbals, Native American rattles, West African gankogui, axstatse gourd rattle, bell and dondo, Philippine kulintang, babandir, agung and debakan)