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Gerry Hemingway: Songs

If all the tracks on Songs continued in the vein of “Anton,” Gerry Hemingway’s excursion into songwriting would represent a major transition for the instrumentalist. It features the drummer and former associate of Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell and his own many groups trading an explosive percussive effect for a metronomic strict tempo and a set of poetic lyrics inspired by the 12-tone composer Anton Webern’s death and recited in a garbled deadpan. Harmonically as static as its rhythm, “Anton” gets occasional sparks from John Butcher’s tenor saxophone growls and the drones and crashes of Hemingway’s sampler. Bassist Kermit Driscoll holds down the groove with Hemingway. The whole piece sounds intriguing, especially when compared with the rest of the drummer’s wild track record.

Hemingway, however, keeps his trap shut on the other 11 tracks, bringing in Lisa Sokolov (a vet of William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra) to voice his lyrics. Driscoll and, with one exception, guitarist James Emery play on the whole album, with saxophonists Butcher and Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Herb Robertson, trombonist Wolter Wierbos and keyboardist Thomas Lehn each appearing in various band combinations throughout.

Sokolov’s rich alto exudes strong sensuality on “Hall of Mirrors” and the haunting minor-key ballad “Rain.” On “Up in You,” the edge in her voice combines with Butcher’s sax and the samples, leading to a frenzied climax. But as a whole album, Songs’ intriguing qualities get overshadowed by nondescript tracks. A number of them are built around a repetitive, usually two-chord, groove. Midway through the album, Sokolov sounds like she’s sticking to the same melodic terrain with each song: rhythmically engaging phrases that cling to little more than a couple of notes. Her delivery often takes precedence over the words themselves, which range from an engaging abstract on romance (the aforementioned “Rain”) to the almost beatnik moon-spoon-June verbiage of the opening “Succotash,” which might stop some listeners cold. The horns primarily add color to the music rather than getting a chance to stretch out, which leads inventive soloists like Eskelin to play over the music rather than really connecting with it.

Songs fall short in places mainly because the participants prefer to hold back rather than cut loose. It occupies a weird space between jazz and art pop, never fully settling into either. That’s a noble exercise, but it ultimately shortchanges the music.

Originally Published