Ross Hammond

Humanity Suite
Prescott Recordings 2LMHSAS

By Ken Waxman

When is a program of music, specifically composed to be performed alongside visual art not a soundtrack? It’s when the suite is composed by a musician who admires the artist’s work, but doesn’t know which individual pieces will be on display. That’s the genesis of the sensitively descriptive Humanity Suite, recorded live at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum.

When Sacramento guitarist Ross Hammond found out that his gig coincided with an exhibition of works by Kara Walker, who uses fantastical but realistic imagery to comment on race, gender, sexuality and violence, he was inspired to create this two-part suite that bustles with vitality. Like Walker’s black cut-paper silhouettes it mixes harshness and delicacy. On top of the churning rhythms of bassist Kerry Kashiwagi and drummer Dax Compise, Hammond’s suite leaves plenty of room for improvisations from himself, Clifford Childers on trumpet, trombone, euphonium and harmonica; Vinny Golia on soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, singing bowl and other reeds, plus tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora.

At variance only in that “Part 1” is more temperate than the slightly lengthier “Part 2”; both narratives evolve in a similar fashion. Rugged callousness is expressed by corrosive slurs from Sikora, often underscored by vamping slurps from Childers low-pitched brass. Vocalized fluidity comes from soprano saxophone trills or other murmurs from Golia’s miscellaneous reed collection. Meanwhile Hammond cements both strategies. One moment he uses spiky flanges to contribute to the looming violence propelled by the rhythm section and low-pitched instruments; elsewhere his spindly plucks slice through the cascading polyphony to add triumphant notes to the exposition, contributing to the palpable forward-moving swing.

Flowing and conclusive “Part 2” eventually reaches a climax of visceral excitement. Here, following scene-setting slurred fingering from Hammond, matched with supple backbeat intensification from Compise, the sheer power of stacked horn parts confirm the passion of the project. Subsequently dividing into tone-swallowing tenor saxophone buzzes, alp-horn-like lows from the euphonium and drawling puffs from the soprano saxophone, snapping guitar runs shepherd the ensemble towards a reprise of various themes. With the opposing elements of aggression and autonomy now resolved or at least exposed, Childers lonesome-cowboy-like harmonica wheezes end the suite with a positive yet ambiguous line.

No rote commissioned soundtrack, Hammond’s suite easily stands on its own, and would likely impress Walker with its incisiveness.

Tracks: Humanity Suite Part 1; Humanity Suite Part 2

Personnel: Clifford Childers: trumpet, trombone, euphonium, harmonica; bass; Vinny Golia: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, singing bowl, shakuhachi, M’Buot; Catherine Sikora: tenor saxophone; Ross Hammond: guitar; Kerry Kashiwagi: bass; Dax Compise: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record October 2014