Drum Duo Launches First of 3 Predawn Concerts


Drummers Hamid Drake (left) and Michael Zerang will perform at morning and night on Dec. 21–23.

(Photo: Courtesy of Constellation)

Chicago free-jazz fans are a devoted bunch. They’re so devoted, in fact, that they braved frigid temperatures and predawn darkness for a winter solstice concert that began this morning at 6 a.m..

For the past 26 years, acclaimed drum/percussion masters Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang have been playing early-morning concerts to celebrate the solstice and cap off the year. The duo will play two more early-morning concerts (on Thursday, Dec. 22, and Friday, Dec. 23). The residency is being held at Links Hall, a venue affiliated with (and located inside) Costellation at 3111 N. Western Ave.

Lit only by candlelight, two drum sets, a cluster of frame drums and various auxiliary percussion could be dimly seen by the roughly 100 fans in attendance. A mix of anticipation and communal connection brewed as the audience huddled in the chilly hall, some sitting on the floor.

Drake and Zerang launched the show by playing together—seated opposite each other, separated by several inches, with a large Pakistani frame drum across both their laps. In this first segment, the duo hypnotically eased the crowd into show, with improvisation that was dynamic yet soothing.

After about 15 minutes, the percussionists switched to other frame and hand drums, seamlessly bridging the gap with common textures and techniques. At one point, Drake delicately sang of love (in multiple languages) his voice floating over the two drums faintly rustling.

The duo created beautiful, swooping arcs with free-form sections and trancelike grooves, moving toward a subtler destination just as dawn broke. Amid the sounds of whispered vocals and hand-brushed drums, rays of sunlight penetrated the venue’s glass bricks, basking the artists in a soft light.

The arrival of sunlight seemed to signal the next section: Zerang picked up a few bells for a short feature before Drake joined him on drum set. Before long, both players were seated at their respective sets, each letting his distinct voice ring out. While Drake was more rhythmic oriented, just using his set, Zerang incorporated bells, singing bowls and other percussion.

The two musicians brought the improvisation to a close with a tranquil segment in which Zerang played a small gong and Drake offered nuanced punctuation via kick drum. As the music faded, there was very little movement or noise for a couple of minutes—everyone in the venue still and quiet—as the feeling of togetherness reached its peak.

Drake concluded the show with an articulate, inspiring speech that emphasized the importance of unity during tough times. He added that by showing up at 6 o’clock in the morning for a concert, it was apparent that a sense of community is well within reach, but that this momentum needs to continue in 2017.

At night, the two percussionists performed in settings of their own, Zerang in duo and Drake in a quartet. The sets showcased the musicians in entirely different musical atmospheres, yet the artists were as comfortable in these new settings as they were in the morning shows.

Zerang and guitarist/oudist Simon Shalabi began with a Middle Eastern-style jam on oud and metal hand drum. The two played gently, spinning out notes from their respective instruments and rendering each sound with grace. Much of the improvisation was astonishingly technical, yet it defied gratuitousness, situating itself more in the realm of meditation.

Their next improvisation, with Zerang on drum set and Shalabi on electric guitar, proved the duo was quite capable of fiery and explosive improvisation as well. The piece highlighted Shalabi’s unique guitar technique, with spidery fingers flailing across the neck. This positively brash playing was accompanied by dense, shimmering drums that refused to hold back.

The quartet consisted of Drake on set, Ari Brown on piano and tenor saxophone, Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone and Joshua Abrams on bass and guembri. With thick textures, ominous composition and plenty of free improvisation, the quartet’s members paved the way for each other, exploring deep crevasses between grooves and ideas.

For the first piece, the quartet was joined by vocalist Zahra Glenda Baker (who helped with the morning shows, welcoming guests and lighting candles) and harmonium player Lisa Alvarado. With high spirits, the six created a droning, dreamy soundscape, a well-suited jumping off point for the exponential creativity and intensity heard in the rest of the concert.

Drake and Zerang will perform in a drum quartet tonight (Dec. 22) with Avreeayl Ra and Mike Reed, as well as their final 2017 solstice show tomorrow morning (Dec. 23). Information about the shows is posted at Constellation’s website. DB

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