Gerry Hemingway’s Kwambe: A Classic of 1970s Creative Jazz
Daniel Barbiero

Although it didn’t always seem it at the time, the 1970s were years of creative ferment and the exploration of new artistic territory for music within the jazz tradition. True, the music had largely been pushed to the margins commercially by the explosion of rock music in the late 1960s. But if jazz had been eclipsed in terms of its popularity, it continued to grow artistically. Following the experiments of the 1960s, which opened jazz to the use of electric instruments, extended instrumental techniques and alternative approaches to formal construction, musicians in the 1970s further developed and refined the music’s palette of colors and range of influences to the point where those earlier innovations were more fully assimilated into the music to become constituents of a holistic, more catholic approach to improvisation. No longer novelties or the product of tentative experiments, instruments and structures brought in from rock, contemporary Western art music, and non-Western cultures became integral elements available as resources at hand for contemporary improvisers. As was clear to virtually any open-minded listener, the kind of sounds coming out of the New York lofts – the paradigmatic locus of this new outgrowth of jazz – represented some of the most exciting music of the day.

And this was true not only of New York. During this same period, regional centers for improvised music flourished in other American cities. As early as the mid-1960s, cities such as Chicago, with its Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Los Angeles, with its Underground Musicians Association, and St. Louis, with its Black Artists Group, were the scenes of creative experimentation in jazz-derived improvised music; lesser known but nevertheless vital centers for avant-garde improvisation were to be found at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock as well as in Boston and other locales. Among these places was New Haven, Connecticut.

New Haven is probably best known as the home of Yale University, and it was, unsurprisingly, in no small part due to Yale that the city attracted a good number of exceptional young musicians in the 1970s. Pianist/composer Anthony Davis was a student at Yale in the early part of the decade; trombonist George Lewis was a philosophy major there during the same period, after having taken time off to go to Chicago, where he became involved with the AACM. Saxophonist Dwight Andrews, originally from Detroit, also was at Yale, in the Divinity School’s master’s program. But other creative jazz musicians, unaffiliated with Yale, also had made their way to New Haven and spent periods of time there during the decade. Among them were Marion Brown, who was in New Haven as early as 1970; drummer Pheeroan akLaff, then still known as Paul Maddox, who had come in from Detroit; double bassists Mark Dresser, Mark Helias, and Wes Brown; vibraphonists Jay Hoggard and Bobby Naughton; and one of the scene’s major catalysts, the pre-Wadada Leo Smith, who moved to the area in 1972 after having returned to the States from Paris.

In the midst of all of these musicians from elsewhere was drummer Gerry Hemingway, a young New Haven native. Hemingway had been a professional drummer since dropping out of school at age seventeen, and by 1972 had made contact with Brown and shortly thereafter began to play in Davis’ group Advent, a quintet that included, in addition to Davis, Brown, and Hemingway, George Lewis and saxophonist Hal Lewis (who was unrelated to the trombonist). Hemingway became an active participant in New Haven’s community of improvising musicians, playing in different ensembles and going on to co-found the Creative Musicians Improvisors Forum (CMIF), New Haven’s AACM-inspired artists’ collective, with Smith, Andrews, Brown and Naughton in 1976. CMIF was officially established in March of 1977; at the beginning of the following year, Hemingway recorded his first album: Kwambe.

Hemingway has described Kwambe as providing an overview of the work he was doing in New Haven in the 1970s. There are three ensembles represented on the album, each of which was active during the period and in which Hemingway was a regular member; there also is a solo performance. Beyond documenting an important stage in Hemingway’s early development, though, the recording serves as well as an audio snapshot of New Haven’s creative music scene at a particularly fecund moment in time.

The album opens with the title track, a twenty-minute long piece that on the original LP took up all of Side One. The ensemble used on the performance, which was based on Anthony Davis’ working group of the time, includes, in addition to Davis on piano and Hemingway on drums and vibes, Wes Brown on double bass and Ghanian flute; Mark Helias on double bass; and Jay Hoggard on vibes and Tanzanian xylophone. “Kwambe” is notable for its use of multiple layerings – of rhythms, instrumental voices and motifs – and an exuberant mood afforded by upbeat tempos, bright timbres, modal themes, and a basic tonic-dominant harmonic core.

The piece is structured in several parts that together lend it a cyclical symmetry. The opening consists of a duet for Brown on Ghanian flute supported by Hoggard on vibes; the flute melody is buoyant and modally-flavored, floating over the vibes’ rubato cascades. The brief emergence and disappearance of a unison line gives a hint of how the different voices will interact during the rest of the piece. Hemingway introduces the second part with a rhythmic figure on drums and is quickly joined by Davis setting out the harmonic atmospheric core of the section: a simple, upbeat, four-chord cycle in three. Brown, still on flute, and Hoggard come in jointly playing a melody now in unison, now in harmony; the two voices spin off into independent lines, weave around each other, and then join up again. Part three is introduced with a brief vibes duet, with Hemingway playing a two-note motif and Hoggard elaborating a melody with a West Indian feel, this latter setting the tone for the section. Helias enters for the first time, along with Davis and Brown on flute; as Brown switches to bass and Hemingway returns to drums, the piece evolves into a complex essay in collective improvisation as layered rhythmic counterpoint, set over the basses’ tonic-dominant harmonic foundation. Later in the section the melody returns as a unison theme played by Hoggard, Davis and Helias, before debouching into a solo for Hemingway on drums and a brief free improvisation for the group followed by the introduction of a new melody and rhythm, with Brown once again picking up the Ghanian flute and Hoggard moving to xylophone for an unaccompanied solo. Also playing an unaccompanied solo is Helias. The closing section, like the opening section, is in free time and puts Brown’s flute at the melodic center.

With its instrumentation and reliance on improvisation “Kwambe” is in the jazz tradition, but is far from conventional jazz. In this regard it captures an important feature of the New Haven creative music scene of the time. Many of the musicians were interested in musics outside of Western traditions, and the presence of Wesleyan University in Middletown, not far from New Haven, helped them focus and realize that interest. The university had an established ethnomusicological program that had been active since the early 1960s; many of the New Haven creative music community attended classes or took part in its programs. Brown had studied there, and as for Hemingway, he audited classes at Wesleyan and studied privately with West African drummer Abraham Adzenyah and South Indian mridangamist Ramnad V. Rhagavan, both of whom were associated with the university. Hemingway has over time acquired the reputation of being a cerebral musician but, partly thanks to these influences, Kwambe shows a different side of his sensibilities. Although the track is long and includes episodes of free, collective improvisation, its rhythms are infectious and difficult not to get up and dance to.

The piece that follows “Kwambe,” “1st Landscape: A Suite in Three Parts,” is akin to contemporary chamber music in its orchestration and in its overall sound profile. The suite is for a trio of Davis on piano, George Lewis on trombone and euphonium, and Hemingway on drums, an ensemble that in the liner note to the album Hemingway describes as being active at the time. And, the three players’ confidence in each other is apparent from the beginning. The first part of the suite, titled “Watershed,” opens with Davis, Hemingway and Lewis coordinating their phrasing in alternately accelerating and decelerating parallel figures that devolve into low growls from Lewis and chord stabs from Davis. The middle, minute-long “Leaves” features Hemingway on vibes and is built around a pitch set that passes around among the trio. In the concluding, longer section, “Precipice,” the trio decomposes into fluidly changing subgroupings alternating with passages for the full trio. As with the previous two sections but even more so, “Precipice” relies on the group’s nuanced use of space and dynamics. Davis’ abstract-impressionist pianism, which maintains harmonic and textural tensions without becoming oppressive or sounding arbitrary, is particularly crucial to the suite’s success.

Hemingway’s sensitivity to space and dynamics, clearly apparent on the Landscape suite, is put on full display on “Walking Alone the Tall Trees Sang,” a four-and-one-half-minute drum solo. Beginning as a quiet, almost tentative testing of the timbres of the drum kit, it builds as an aggregation of discrete gestures of different lengths and weights, each of which is allowed to emerge and fade as needed. The essential Hemingway is already present in embryo in this early solo performance – his attention to the sonic environment as a whole and his consequent ability to construct uncluttered, unhurried textures in which open space is given an equal footing with sound.

The album’s closing piece, “Speak Brother,” is in an entirely different register from anything that came before. The performance, the first recording of what would become the long-lived trio Bass-Drum-Bone, is squarely within the swing-based language of jazz. In its structure and sound, it recalls the contemporary Sam Rivers trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul in the rhythm section. Hemingway, Helias, and trombonist Ray Anderson jump in at a crisp clip with Hemingway and Helias setting up a polyrhythm of rapid drum figures over a spare bass ostinato, while Anderson offers a solo steeped within the tradition of jazz trombone. After a brief drum solo the trio turns to a rapid swing section that gradually unspools into a collective improvisation in free time. The musical chemistry binding the group is already audible; the seeds of its longevity have already been sown.

Kwambe was not only Hemingway’s first recording, it was the first recording he issued on his own Auricle label. In this respect it also is paradigmatic of the New Haven scene at the time. Like creative jazz musicians in other regional centers, New Haven’s musicians, motivated at least in part by necessity, shaped their careers on the principle of self-determination. Many founded their own labels to distribute their recordings – in addition to Hemingway’s Auricle, which now can be found on Bandcamp, there was Naughton’s OTIC and Smith’s Kabell; CMIF, too, had its own eponymous label.

From a historical perspective, Kwambe is notable for representing not only the auspicious debut of a musician and composer who would go on to have a long and multifaceted career, but a kind of time capsule in which a living picture of a vital local music scene has been deposited. But from a purely musical point of view, it remains a rewarding listen in its own right.


© 2023 Daniel Barbiero


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