Gerry Hemingway: An American in Luzern

by Troy Collins

Gerry Hemingway                                                                                                            © Simon Zangger

Gerry Hemingway has been at the vanguard of creative music for over four decades. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, he was already working as a professional musician by the age of seventeen, playing with Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Leo Smith by the mid-1970’s. In the late ‘70s, Hemingway, Ray Anderson, and Mark Helias formed the long-running collective BassDrumBone, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017.

Hemingway’s highest profile sideman work was as a member of Anthony Braxton’s quartet from 1983-1994. Simultaneously, during the mid-‘80s he began leading a number of acclaimed international quartets and quintets. Numerous duo projects followed over the years, featuring such luminaries as John Butcher, Marilyn Crispell, Ellery Eskelin, and Thomas Lehn. Hemingway’s work can also be heard in several long-standing collaborative trios, including the GRH trio with Georg Graewe and Ernst Reijseger, the WHO trio with Michel Wintsch and Bänz Oester, and Brew with Reggie Workman and Miya Masaoka.

A significant aspect of Hemingway’s oeuvre is his work as a solo percussionist, which he began in 1974 to extend the vocabulary of the traditional trap set. As an extension of his solo percussion work, Hemingway’s ongoing collaborative efforts as a film artist with video artist Beth Warshafsky date back to the late ‘80s. Together they create electro-acoustic solo works set in theatrical frameworks that include video projection and real-time interactive animation and sound.

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hemingway has received fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation on the Arts, as well as commissions through the Parabola Arts Foundation for chamber and orchestral works. Between 2005 and 2009, Hemingway was part of the faculty of the New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music program. In 2009 Hemingway joined the faculty of the Hochshule Luzern in Switzerland, where he currently lives, teaching percussion, improvisation, composition, songwriting, and history. I interviewed Hemingway in November 2020, shortly after the release of the WHO Trio’s stunning Ellington-Strayhorn tribute album, Strell.

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Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Gerry Hemingway: In the early to mid-sixties music easily found me. This situation was certainly enabled by two older brothers who between them had wonderful records of folk, blues, r&b, rock music of that time, and in the case of my oldest brother, a collection of ‘50s and ‘60s electronic music that invited my curiosity. The radio was my other friend (and still is). I am/was attracted to discovery and what it is I don’t know. I listened to what was, at the time, a kind of free form radio, often emanating from college campus radio stations.

The drums drew me towards them in a similar way. I was attracted to them visually and sonically. When I was 9-10 years old I can even remember the smell of a drum set back while standing in our local music store in New Haven, CT. I started with only a snare and cymbal. After one year, my persistence and obsession was noted by my parents and next Christmas came a full kit. Eternal blessings for how they somehow tolerated me channeling Keith Moon and Ginger Baker for hours and hours EVERY day!

I also have no idea how I convinced my parents to let me go to rock concerts on my own when I was only 11 and 12 years old, but somehow, I did. I saw so much music from that golden era (around 1967), including Cream, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and many more. Now, in my own way, I wish to create an experience when I perform that touches listeners with the essence of what it is that so deeply resonated with me at this early stage of falling in love with music.

TC: As a lifelong seeker of new music, where and/or how do you find interesting new sounds now, in this internet age?

GH: It’s not exactly that I am interested in “new sounds” as a focus point. I seek and appreciate a musical experience that holds me in some way. I would say the majority of what has impacted me most vibrantly, is what I have encountered in live performance settings. I see a lot of concerts encompassing a large variety of music. There was, for instance, a performance of Beethoven’s Op. 131 String Quartet in a church near where I live and within seconds of the opening passage I was in tears. The musical experience in this case was on the one hand Beethoven (and maybe you know the conditions under which he wrote this piece), on another point the string quartet’s interpretation. But maybe even more, the acoustics, the afternoon light, the uncomfortable seat the church provided all conspired to possess me temporarily and give me a gift I have never forgot. It becomes a part of what I aspire to as an artist who has earned over time, the privilege to provide similar experiences for an audience.

As well, for me, something I am sometimes stimulated by are performances (or recordings) that in my perception fail, that don’t work in some way. I often sense in these moments a need for something I could create that would replace my sense of what does not work with something that could be successful.

Also, radio is still a source of unexpected inspirations and by now I have acquired so much music (cassettes, LPs, CDs, and my quite obsessive collecting and organization of my iTunes library) that my collection is an adventure of discovery and re-discovery unto itself. I listened to the LP Let it Bleed the other day, and marveled at the sound, the depth of character in the band, and appreciated in new ways what no longer exists in recordings and bands of our present time.

Where the internet plays a role is in instant access via WiKi and other library sources to the background of things that interest me. I am a teacher as well as a performing artist (which has many parts that make up my creative process as an artist) and I hope to inspire those I teach with knowledge and enrichment that informs us both (teacher and student) about what we resonate with.

TC: Your comment piques my curiosity: “... something I am sometimes stimulated by are performances (or recordings) that in my perception fail, that don’t work in some way.” Without being unkind, can you give me an example? I know, for example, that there are a few admirers of My Name Is Albert Ayler (Debut, 1964) for exactly that reason.

GH: Well, I am speaking often of performances I hear – less the recordings. The most vibrant example is a quartet (friends/colleagues of mine) I remember hearing in the early ‘90s at Washington Square Church. It was a mixture of how the compositions integrated with the improvising; it struck me in a very strong way that there was a better way to create settings for playing, the “why” of improvising, so to speak – the relation of content to invention – and from that I gained some clarity about the inner workings of my own musical direction and strategies during that time (kind of at an early point in my quintet period).

Teaching keeps me in touch with the process of discovery and identity. About not being sure and how that plays out in the performative context. And of course, I encourage risk and therefore failure. Embracing in more ways than one Samuel Beckett’s infamous quote, “the artist’s role is to fail.”

It’s not always the “failures” of course. Recently I saw a lovely solo performance of bassist Christian Weber in a tiny space in Luzern. Very specific elements in the content of the experience, which I spoke with him about after the performance got me to a vision of something I am interested to move towards as a solo performer. Again, it wasn’t exactly always things that I thought succeeded in this solo performance. There is an element of problem solving in the creation of new work; the imagination of something related that goes farther or elsewhere from the stimulus of what I experience from others.

TC: You’ve been involved in academia since at least 2005 and are currently on the faculty of the Hochshule Luzern in Switzerland, where you teach drumming, improvisation, composition, songwriting, and history. Considering the school’s graduate level program, have you ever played with any of your former students in a professional capacity, in say a live concert or recording situation?

GH: Yes, there are a number of remarkable musicians I work with now that I first interacted with as a teacher at HSLU. There are several notable projects. There is the trio “Tree Ear”, with Sebastian Strinning (reeds) and Manuel Troller (guitar) who were both students of mine when I first arrived here in 2009. Both have individually developed into notable music contributors in Switzerland and beyond, including Manuel’s key role in the band SchnellerTollerMeier. Tree Ear made the recording Witches Butter for Clean Feed that was released in 2017. In May of this year (2020) Composition O was released on Foundation Sluchaj from Poland, which is an electro-acoustic duo with percussionist Vincent Glanzmann, who was also one of my earliest students here in Luzern. There is another band called CNRG which has two former students of mine, pianist Raphael Loher and guitarist Christian Zemp, together with a Basel based visual artist Niculin Barandun. And now another band emerges just recently called Ming-Bau-Set with vocalist Vera Baumann and guitarist Florestan Berset, who are just graduating from the school.

It is generally a quite vibrant scene in Luzern, and at some point musicians who are either well established and more or less of my generation (for example Christy Doran, Urs Leimgruber, Pierre Favre) have had interaction with our school along with those who will be the future of the music continuum. And I value very highly this opportunity to interact with this younger generation.

TC: Working with students reminds me of something I recently read in the liner notes for Thor & Friends’ newest album: “We are a collective of musicians. Some of our players are classically trained. Others are punk rock musicians with no reading skills, just spirit and will. We are trying to heal ourselves and hope you find our music healing in some ways or useful.” Similarly, the new WHO Trio album, Strell, contains the following liner note detail: Pianist Michel Wintsch explains, “I’m not a jazzman in the traditional way. I never went to school, and I love too many other kinds of music – rock, prog rock, soul, contemporary music, electronics – to limit myself and become a specialist of anything.”

As a teacher who has worked with a wide variety of artists, I’m curious what benefits and/or limitations you may have witnessed or experienced yourself when traditionally schooled musicians collaborate with self-taught musicians?

GH: We seem to have arrived at a point where the definition of a self-taught musician, or an autodidactic, someone who eschews the institutional offering/system and makes their own way has changed considerably from my earlier years. Or perhaps the institution has changed to a virtual portal often guided by an algorithm. Funny thing about that is that I am skeptical in the same way I was when I dropped out of school – that is, about subscribing to a system that homogenizes individual details of crucial information into a one size fits all.

On the other hand (and I am aware I am digressing from your question) I, some time ago, became a part of schooling future musicians. I often feel my job is to keep the boat of history from sinking into a sea of well-meaning teaching methodologies, which sadly utilize unreferenced details that were crucial for me to build a personal character of expression as an artist.

My own story is of hunger, of inexhaustible curiosity for relation to and awareness of any and all possibilities of expression. That, in my own way is what I bring to the table, and nurture others finding their way, to seek.

So, your question is, for me, a little complicated. On the one hand there is a long path of attaining skills, and if, within an institution you find teachers who efficiently get your skills to a point of flexibility where you can survive as a musician, then I don’t see any difference between that and how I found my way. Essentially there are many roads to Rome. I should say that there are two kinds of students: the ones who will get to Rome with or without school (they have the inherent hunger/desire); and the others who depend on guidance because they don’t yet have a picture of who they are and why they got into music, but they like it.

OK so the scenario you described, a potential clash or meeting of well-trained versatile players with those, to put it another way, whose skills are unique ... well ... I wish it happened more often in my experience – more often than just between the generations. It does happen in my own teaching process, because there I often personally feel like the intuitive autodidactic stumbling around in an effort to access the unknown, causing general havoc to the orderly systemic ways of “getting better” at your craft. There is a revival, at least where I teach, in teaching students by ear. And that somehow equalizes the process, as it is slow, but often meaningful in getting to one of the essences of music creation, hearing and agreeing combined with applying one’s individual sound and identity and maybe most importantly, one’s limits. I did whole workshops on the topic of Ornette Coleman without any sheet music, just listening to the recordings over and over again, and slowly memorizing their completely unique nature.

Well, not sure I really answered the question ...

TC: No, you absolutely answered my question. But I’ll be more specific, in order to address the new WHO Trio album, Strell. Pianist Michel Wintsch claims to not be “schooled,” yet his playing is phenomenal, and very original, especially on material as well-known as Ellington and Strayhorn. I’m just curious if his non-traditional approach towards traditional material inspired you to make decisions that you might not have otherwise, since you have a more academic background?

GH: Actually, this is a bit of a different discussion than the differentiation of “academic” or “schooled” versus alternative skill acquisitions. It’s true that Michel is not a traditional jazz piano player, who worked his way through the jazz rule book, and learned all the hip jazz voicings and/or did what Bänz and I did in our own individual ways, which was to work deeply enough in the tradition of jazz language as to be authentic to both the tradition and one’s overall identity as a musician. I have in my background years of “straight ahead” drumming in so many contexts (none of them academic) from organ trios to years of study with Alan Dawson and so on. I first learned to swing by listening to and playing my drums with WRVR radio in NY in the early ‘70s, specifically to the regular show of Ed Beach who spun Blue Note classics night after night. Bänz as well has devoted his life to mastering the gamut of jazz and world traditions on his instrument (touring with Dewey Redman many years ago for instance) as well as keeping his mind and heart wide open to all options of musical invention. Michel came to music via classical training, and then rock and electronica of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like me, he is a pluralistic listener; he checks everything out.

What is key to the WHO trio’s current project and subtly indicated in the photos of the Strell CD is that we all learn from the deep listening of history. We each find our personal relation to the blues, so endemic to Ellington’s music in particular. The decisions of the WHO trio with this material, grew from internalizing the repertoire as a group and then bringing our own way of playing together into an interaction with these forms, these melodies, these harmonies, these colors, these resonances, and it’s poetry and narratives. The main point is that this is an ongoing collective process, shared every step of the way, with patience, laughter, and love.

TC: Getting more specific about Strell and its collective aspects, I’m curious about the track sequencing. The album has exceptional flow, and a real humanistic sensibility; i.e., more so than most piano trio records, one can really hear the vocal interactions of the group. For example: “The Mooche” opens the album with you singing wordlessly through an aluminum lampshade into your snare drum, which conjures memories of plunger muted brass from Ellington’s jungle music-era; halfway through the set, Oester vocalizes with his bass throughout “Black and Tan Fantasy,” invoking Mingus at his most bluesy and expressive; and then you close out the date singing “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” with disarming simplicity, really paring the song back to its essence. Not all piano trios feature these sort of moments; I’m curious if those elements are just part and parcel of the trio’s performing style, or if they were included deliberately to add another layer, or at the very least, sequenced throughout the record in a way to remind one that it’s real people playing instruments, not just an instrumental interpretation of notes written on a page?

GH: Maybe it’s helpful to first grasp how we perform this music. There is no set list, no pre-ordained conditions, the tunes arrive when they arrive and in whatever form they take from a fragment to utilizing the full form. This is what internalizing this music really means. We know these tunes individually and collectively and beyond that we bring into these brilliant compositions what we have been developing as a collective trio of improvisors making music together for over 20 years.

We recorded for two days in the studio, and in this situation we mostly did one tune at a time. Naturally making a CD is a different process than performing. The song I sing, “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” evolved slowly to a relatively fixed arrangement as that was clearly its nature. But we found our way to this formal rendition slowly through many performances. The other tunes were recorded with no pre-ordained arrangements. This session was preceded by another recording session some time before and although there were many good things, we were not satisfied. Hence our decision to organize recording conditions in a way that would allow us to produce the recording at the highest quality and finest detail. As well, both Michel and I do audio production work and we labored over this production for quite some time to get the sound and distill the best work to what you have on the final production. And part of that process were many debates over the sequencing. The LP will not have “Black and Tan Fantasy” as it just won’t fit but I think the recording heard in this form should work equally well as a listening experience.

All of your descriptions do capture some of the essences of the listening experience very much as we intended. We strived to make an exceptional listening experience and we hope the record won’t sit out on the periphery of current jazz history and listenership.

TC: On a personal note, I feel piano trios that convey a palpable rapport between the group’s members are one of the music’s most rewarding formats. Programs that consist of wildly creative interpretations of canonical works expand the possibilities of the tradition, bringing new life to classic repertoire. The fact that you’ve combined those two on Strell, makes it one of the best piano trios I’ve heard in years.

The inclusion of vocals on Strell brings up To Tell a Story: a collection of solo works for drums, electro-acoustic materials, spoken word and song, your recent COVID solo concert. As a combination of solo percussion, electro-acoustic accompaniment, singing, and visual art (from Beth Warshafsky), it presents a rich sampling of your various interests. What was the conceptual origin of this piece?

GH: To understand the conceptual origin of this particular and recent solo production it is important to contextualize this document as part of a continuum of work that has evolved in some respects from the very beginning of my interest in solo performance (1974), but also to understand that the majority of its content had its beginnings around 2009. As I explain in the spoken introduction there are three works woven into the frame of the whole presentation that started as electro-acoustic solo works, specifically the bowed cymbal piece that opens the program; a work with many iterations, this time presented as a mostly acoustic work (no processing involved) with a microphone placed under the cymbal to bring us close to the cymbals rich subtones. And the work “Calling You” which uses a degraded copy of Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” in combination with my improvised interactions, and finally a work first presented in 2009 called “For Rashied” in memoriam of the unexpected departure of Rashied Ali in the summer of 2009, which is an electro-acoustic work utilizing pre-recorded material interwoven with what I play on the drum set.

All three of these solo works eventually became collaborative works with the visual artist, Beth Warshafsky, who I have worked with since the 1980s. In this production, her video pieces were composed to a recorded performance of these works, and subsequently refined further over time. Our collaboration has many facets but central is an ongoing dialog about the relationship of visual art to music. We have many questions about this relationship. We both share a concern for not treating this experience casually but instead are more interested in delving into shared languages and the suggestions and potential of their combinatory power. Central to our current work is live (real-time) interaction, where my movement, musical dynamic and content is a part of what shapes the visual material. Though these video works are fixed and do not utilize live interaction they nonetheless have some previous capturings of live interactive performances as part of the visual content. We also discussed in great detail each of these three works so that what Beth developed spoke to some of the deeper suggestions of the musical material. For example, you may notice that at the beginning of the bowed cymbal piece you see a black square that eventually becomes a translucent three-dimensional cube. In the very beginning you see light escaping from around the edge of the square, which in our thinking parallels the way the bow sonically reveals harmonics from the edge of the cymbal as it is bowed.

More generally, Beth’s pieces for this production are presented sometimes in a facsimile of how we might experience her projection in a performance; that is, displayed on a screen behind where I am performing. But as the producer of this film document I also chose to interweave her content with my performance in a way that would create a dynamic experience for the listener/viewer in this streaming format (which for many viewers is a laptop and headphones).

Shortly after the bowed cymbal work arrives the first time I am seated at the drum set. It is at this point that I tell a kind of “slice of life” story that begins a variety of sonic unfoldings. My spoken text conveys a moment of an imaginary lunch break of a factory worker and his caring wife sitting by the riverside and we go temporarily inside the explorative mind of this worker. The way the text is read (the pacing, timing, sense of character) is affected by, tied to, and continually interacting musically with what I am doing with my hands. In my right hand I am using a microphone and controlled feedback of the floor tom, in my left hand what I play on the snare drum triggers samples I have created that decorate the mood and feeling of the text. What I say is affected by what I play and vice versa.

There is more that follows, mostly straight forward drumming for a while, some of which is drawn from older solo work. And finally, after a very short break at the end of “For Rashied,” I sing a song accompanying myself on a small keyboard that is triggering a sampler. I started including songs in my solo performances in 2013, out of a very straight-forward desire to sing songs which are among other things, a part of the story I am telling. My work has many challenges that ask a lot of the “friendly experiencer.” I feel the songs offer a compliment or coda to that otherwise intense experience.

TC: You’ve been collaborating with Beth Warshafsky for quite some time. How did this working relationship begin?

GH: She was somebody who was recommended through mutual friends to collaborate on a project I was developing at the time (in the ‘80s) called The Interlocutor. The other collaborator was the cinematographer Babette Mangolte (who worked with Chantal Akerman and Yvonne Rainer). In the end the project was not supported and consequently never happened. At the time Beth was working as an animator professionally for Nickelodeon and doing art projects of her own on the side. We ended up doing a few small art collaborations and I did some sound for some of her Nickelodeon spots. For many years she and I kept a dialogue about sound and image; I ended up composing a number of soundtracks for her creations. A turning point was the work “AnthroBits” also called “AnthroDance” in 1993 which derived its visual content from sensors recording data of Beth dancing in this special technical environment (Phasespace/Siggraph). The data was transformed into an abstracted 3D environment, retaining her movement phrasing.

This opened a door to deepen the exploration and slowly over time we shifted to music as a starting point and as well, co-composing works. One such example was in 2010 when Beth completed a standalone work that accompanied a live performance of the piece “The Visiting Tank” that I composed in 1999 (it was released on my CD Chamber Works on Tzadik Records).

Eventually she wished to explore live interaction and working with a programmer and the application Max/MSP Jitter she developed a unique “instrument” where she could combine a variety of processing techniques in real-time. The clearest example of this is “Klangtisch,” which has many versions.

Our collaboration is ongoing (as is the refinement of this live interactive tool), most recently including a streamed work called “Doors Between” from June of 2020.

As an aside I took an interest in cinematography and visual art when I was quite young, but the road divided in favor of music at a certain point during high school years. The work “kernelings” released in 2014 heralded a return to film, tying my solo music and visual thinking into a feature length experience.

TC: As a multi-disciplinary artist, how do you decide what to include or not include in a project? For example, do you set parameters beforehand, like self-imposed limitations as to what can be part of a piece, or is it simply whatever is necessary to convey what you’d like to express should be available? Some of the multi-media pieces seem limitless in so far as an artistic palette is concerned, whereas you have some solo drum pieces that are extremely specific, like bowing a cymbal, for example.

GH: The notion and understanding of limits is a guiding force in my work. I am, since the beginning of my musical career, as much a composer as a performer. In my experience and practice as a composer (as well as a multi-media artist) I utilize coherence and relation of elements, form/shape/structure or an intentional argument against those elements, as well as an understanding of harmony and its purpose and possibility in creating coherence and relation. Those are just some of the limits requiring my discipline and rigor to make the choices I make as both a composer and improviser.

One can find evidence of utilizing the limits for the purpose of creating a coherent listening experience in all of my work, but perhaps most clearly a turning point in my solo work is in the early ‘80s when I created “Four Studies for Single Instruments.” In this work I made four separate pieces for one part of the drum set. Each piece explored the “extended technique” language I had been expanding and organizing around the time of my first solo recording Solo Works. It is intentional, in the single instrument pieces, that our perspective of what these familiar instruments are, is altered and dimensionalized. So, on the one hand I innovated and developed a large new vocabulary for my instrument(s). But a piece that is simply a list of cool techniques is a meaningless exercise as far as I am concerned. The point is to find relation through the organization of these sounds that is supported by formal thinking, phrasing, timing, textural relation, expressive relation, dynamic form, and convincing sometimes seemingly magical transitions, which is a cornerstone of musical organization, in my opinion.

Here you find the LP Tubworks, and on it the “Studies” I am referring too. I suggest the work “Snare Drum” as a clear example.

The only other remark I would add is that some of my pieces are quite simple or reduced, others are quite complex, exploring density and speed that is often faster than we can think. Regardless, if the material is analyzed in the macro form as well as the continuum, and also experienced in the present moment, my overarching intention is that all of these states of appreciation have something to offer.

TC: One of the interesting elements of To Tell a Story, is the use of blue-collar working-class imagery – the work opens with the imagined inner thoughts of a factory worker on his lunch break and ends with a song whose sound and visuals are inspired by trains and railyards. I’m curious where the specific inspiration for these sections comes from? Did you grow up in a blue-collar working-class family?

GH: No, not at all. I am from a middle-class background. However, these locales I channel in my work arrived in my awareness when I was quite young. We lived close to a dilapidated rail line that was still active when I was kid – the Erie Canal line between New Haven and Waterbury, Connecticut. Originally an actual canal with a tow path, its engineering evidently failed as a canal and so they built a rail line on the tow path. I grew up hearing this steam train whistle every day in the distance (we lived in a rural area). I also played often on the train tracks and marveled at the train when it went by. It even had a caboose and a gas lantern hanging near the back door, always with traditionally dressed trainmen inside gathered around a woodstove, who would wave to you as the train ambled up the tracks.

“900 Miles From My Home” which I derived from Fiddlin’ John Carson’s 1927 version, deeply resonates with my own life even though its setting is the dust bowl. It speaks to me about the contradiction of the need to go away (in order to survive) with the price of alone-ness for the one you leave behind as well as the traveler. There are of course many archetypal symbols in this scenario. But there is also this dilemma at the heart of the song that has many contemporary parallels such as forced displacement, the sense that we no longer define home as a place where we live and so many other conditions we wrestle with navigating a human life in current times.

Despite the privilege of my background I sometimes spent time in the impoverished black “Dixwell” community in the company of Elray Starks, a Southern black woman my parents employed to look after me some days of the week. This part of New Haven made quite an impression on me. This was where the Olin and Winchester gun factories were very active in WWII but in the ‘50s and ‘60s left most of the workers who had made their way to New Haven in the Great Migration, unemployed and on the street. I would eventually live on the periphery of this community, and often work in its bars and social places as a musician.

The story of the factory worker just spilled out of my pen one day, it isn’t so much the setting but the fact that his mind wanders in the ways that it does to something loosely resembling quantum theory. A text in this setting, which on occasion comes out of my mouth spontaneously when I improvise, invites the listener to interpret my organization of sounds that accompany and follow the spoken text like sentences of a story. Earlier works of mine proposed this relation in similar ways, such as The Marmalade King and Double Blues Crossing.

TC: You mention that “900 Miles From My Home” resonates with your own life, speaking to you about “the contradiction of the need to go away (in order to survive) with the price of alone-ness for the one you leave behind as well as the traveler.” Can you elaborate on that? Is there any connection between that statement and your move to Switzerland?

GH: To some degree, yes. To expatriate, to be in a culture and language that is not your own, and to be separated from my then teenage son and wife, who I have since divorced, was, at its beginning, quite a handful to say the least. But the conditions of this choice were also a gift as well as a privilege and I can say now, eleven years later, that this significant change thankfully turned out in a good way for not only me, but also for my son and my former wife.

I see this chapter more clearly now as a personal challenge, a journey which I embraced, contiguous to my whole life as an artist. I am aware that I am driven in part by the contrary energies of restlessness and discipline. I am willing to be uncomfortable and to also experience varying degrees of failure as a consequence of risk. From this willingness comes an energy that helps kindle a responsibility and commitment to what you stand behind in your work as an artist. For example, I can say that pushing myself to make the film “kernelings,” and more recently returning to songwriting and with it singing songs are in some ways taking a path towards what I do not know (poetically if you will, 900 miles from my “home”). The discipline is the hard work to develop relation and articulation in this new territory. To make dreams actually happen.

TC: Reaching beyond the world of jazz and creative improvisation, do you have any particular inspirations or influences when it comes to singing?

GH: So many, in fact. Sometimes it’s the singing, sometimes it’s the song or the production of the song, sometimes it’s both. Singers are generally my chief influence and inspiration not just as a singer myself but also as an instrumentalist and composer. What I have learned from singers regarding timing, dynamic phrasing, color, breath, and the relation of content, meaning, and sound is at the heart of my love of music and my offering as a musician.

I feel I cannot possibly do justice to the many singers I feel fortunate to have heard. But I can say what comes to mind at the moment. In the history of country music (where the list of outstanding singers is seemingly endless), I favor the singing of the duet teams of Darby and Tarlton, the Dixon Brothers, and certainly the Monroe Brothers, their blending of color and harmony and where each part of the duet retains an individual identity while the composite sound exceeds the sum of its parts. In more contemporary recordings Merle Haggard is a rich influence in so many ways, particularly as his baritone qualities got richer as time went on, of course George Jones, whose elasticity, ornamentation, and timing, and especially his incredibly effective softer, close microphone technique, which I did not fully grasp until I saw him perform.

There are many singers who are less an influence and more of an inspiration to the possibility of the voice. Either their virtuosity or their unique instrument or both touch me. A few would be the Carnatic master (who I once was a driver for on one of his tours), Ramnad Krishnan (South India), Yossou N’Dour (Senegal), Jesse Norman (opera), Joseph Spence (Bahamas), Oumou Sangare (Mali), Vusi Mahlaseha (Pretoria, South Africa). These singers, other than Joseph Spence, I heard perform, sometimes more than once, their performances and/or recordings hold a special place in my life experience; their voices and their music are gifts.

Where what has influenced and encouraged my own desire to sing is mostly rooted in a mixture of blues, r&b, jazz, gospel, hip-hop, and the folk and/or rock music I grew up listening to and certainly sustains me to this day. I have spoken in the past about Prince and Ani DiFranco as having a huge impact on my first effort at songwriting back in 2000. Recently I have been spending more time with Leonard Cohen, Townes van Zandt, and Paul Simon, not just their music but also their biographies, interviews, as well as their relationship to performance. From them I could say I have learned so much of the relation of words and how they sound together (and are sequenced) and therefore how they have an enriched potential to touch us. As the long history of jazz & improvised music is so deeply embedded in my musical being, one can never say enough about the innovations of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole and the nuances they instilled in singers like Shirley Horn, who sings with such immediacy and love.

If I had to pick a few blues singers, I mean this is impossible really, they are maybe the most important to me: Lightnin Hopkins, whose unique phraseology and timing; Mississippi John Hurt, whose voice color and feeling for melodic timing; J.B. Lenoir, who has such a unique character particularly in the upper register are but a few. I also have to acknowledge gospel where again, I am blessed with so many experiences, one in particular of Inez Andrews, in a performance in Newark, NJ whose spirit was so indefatigable, so real and emotionally direct, delivering such power as a performer with next to no histrionics.

I’ve been revisiting the Small Faces and/or Faces recently. Listening to Steve Elliot and his eventual replacement Rod Stewart – in this era, which is at the beginning of my musical being, the feeling of teetering on the edge of control or in Stewart’s case, just the way he belts it out, the overdrive (which of course has its root in so many blues and gospel predecessors). Hip-Hop, all its variants and unique forms of flow are another strong influence.

Hard to finish this answer without feeling like I have left out so many voices let alone instrumentalists that have influenced my love of and desire to sing.

TC: Changing gears slightly, we’ve just received preliminary results in one of the most divisive Presidential Elections in American history, and I’m curious what your perspective is, as an American living abroad?

GH: I think we all have some collective trauma to work through. Yes, I am/was at least physically removed from the daily dread of the last four years. However, I am keenly aware how such a negative and divisive voice ate into everyone's daily lives. The incidents that rallied BLM into action started to change the focus – and helped the collective will and strength of much of the nation to find its power and renew its purpose. That and the pandemic have asked us to put our attention on each other, the planet and our individual responsibility to change our lives in order to save it, and not to be busy with racist/sexist and otherwise despicable tweets, but instead to look behind that smokescreen and pay attention to the disfunction and corruption going on in this now defeated administration.

That said, I concede that Joe Biden, for all that concerns me about his past record, may well have been the only candidate to win enough of the electorate to oust Trump. America as a whole seems to remain uncomfortable enough with the progressive policy not to embrace its desire to overhaul a clearly crippled government. I, and I am sure many of us, going forward are worried we fall into a kind of stagnation regardless of how Georgia turns out. Our seemingly endless state of emergency can’t afford that. I have some hope Kamala Harris will be pro-active in her role, we will see.

It's hard to fathom that nearly 72 million Americans voted for Trump in this election. It is deeply disturbing and I don’t think we yet understand what this means or where to go with that reality.

By contrast I now live in the functioning democracy of Switzerland. The multi-party, initiative/referendum direct democracy approach appears to be a far better system. There are for instance seven presidents elected by the equivalent of the house and the senate and none has more power than another. They certainly are handling the pandemic in a reasonable and intelligent way. Quite a contrast to what everyone in the States has been enduring and suffering from, which is truly heartbreaking.

Finally, I have to add that beyond the front end of recent events that has occupied our attention and lost us all precious time living our lives are many hard working good people who are currently saving the country from collapse. They are counting the votes, they are trying to manage teaching our children, they are picking up our trash, they are risking their lives saving the lives of others in a very precarious health system. They are people trying to do good for others and often at some level of sacrifice. They are the heart of the country and we must listen to this heart and give it the nutrition it needs to survive.

TC: I couldn’t agree more, but I’m also curious, considering the challenges of making music in a time such as this, what projects do you have coming up, whether they be recordings, performances, or the like?

GH: It certainly is frustrating that future planning is at best a slippery universe between what we wish to present and a continually changing reality that mostly thwarts presenting anything. That’s manageable for me personally, as I am more interested in reducing current output and spending more rehearsal and development time on each project. I wish to go deeper and discover more of what is possible with all that I/we have gathered as creative artists. Certainly, the previously discussed Strell project is a good example of patient inquiry into possibility. It was interesting to do what many of us did in the first round of lockdown, which was to put our (often by now out of print) discographies on BandCamp. As is my style, I was thorough about this quite detailed, labor-intensive task. I made high quality digital renditions of LPs along with compiling and reconfiguring all the artwork, liner notes and data that went with all of these productions as I recognized this may stand as the only legacy to the so far 40+ years of documentation of my work.

My BandCamp postings feature primarily my own label, Auricle Records, which I started in 1978, but it also includes some of the other labels that supported my earlier work including Sound Aspects and HatHut (or HatArt). A key thread to this discography is the evolution of BassDrumBone, which by now has survived 43 years, and speaking of future planning’s has its 45th anniversary in 2022. I hope we will manage to produce a new recording for that occasion, and I hope that we will have some chances to perform. Our 40th anniversary in 2017 was very active, and we managed almost forty performances that year as well as the release of the double CD The Long Road. We did this without any support from a more prominent label or an agency. We did our best to bring attention to this unique long-lived collaborative band. It feels however unfortunate that a wider audience is completely unaware of our contribution to jazz history.

The BandCamp page is a significant window to my work as a composer and bandleader. You will find the entire quintet and quartet recordings that began in 1985 and lasted until 2013. Recently I released an addenda to those releases – a rather special live recording from the early history of the quintet, which is only released via this BandCamp page, Outerbridge Crossing Live. Outerbridge Crossing is the first LP from the quintet recorded in 1985 and released in 1988 on Sound Aspects. The piece itself is quite significant in my repertoire as it heralds the development of my interest in creating a multilayered improvising environment where two speeds of tempo could coexist, creating a kind of double band and taking some of the suggestions of Ornette Coleman’s work on Free Jazz and also Science Fiction and finding my own language for this form of interaction. The live versions I have released reveal how this piece and its concept evolved as my group became quite active performing from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s. Perhaps we can now value more than ever what is basically not possible anymore – touring a working band for many weeks a year and finding, through the medium of live performance, a sound and a concept as a band.

The other main event on this BandCamp page is the re-release of all of my solo recordings which if understood historically do offer some of the initial proposals for what now feels lately like an explosion of solo drum recordings. We have discussed previously the film To Tell A Story I produced this past summer (2020), which provides the current exposition of my solo art. These earlier recordings went through many phases of evolution to lead to what you see and hear now. Taken as a whole, they remain central to understanding my contribution as an artist to my instrument, to my thinking as a composer, and my skill as an improviser. Not included on the BandCamp page, but available elsewhere is my sixth solo recording in collaboration with composer Sarah Weaver, called “Reality Axis.”

One other project that deserves special mention is the collective trio Graewe Reijseger Hemingway, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in December of 2019 with a performance in Berlin and the release of two remarkable complete performances from 2014 (Concertgebouw Brugge on Foundation Sluchaj) and from 2009, on my own Auricle label the release of Kammern I-V, in a hand-made single edition of only 50 recordings. Both of these recordings are a testament to the possibility of improvised music, and to the deep musical relationship which informs every performance of this trio, which regrettably are now all too rare.

Meanwhile, many projects are simmering and quietly evolving over here in Switzerland, the duo with Vincent Glanzmann I mentioned earlier is in its second wave, to use the current parlance. My work with Beth Warshafsky is also in a period of experimentation and research. WHO trio will eventually release another volume of work from its current vantage point we discussed earlier, likely focusing on early works of Ellington.

For my own work, I have been for the past several years and for the future holding my focus on singing and songwriting. The eventual production I work on practically every day now, will hopefully be finished by late 2021 or sometime in 2022. These songs will try to find a new home and a new audience outside of the realm I have produced in so far. There is a secondary related solo performance idea quite different from anything I have done to date that is also in development, but it is too early to talk about that.

© Troy Collins

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