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Bill Summers: Forward Back: Volume 1 (Ropeadope)

A review of the percussionist's album rich in tradition and spirituality

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Bill Summers: Forward Back: Volume 1 (Ropeadope)
The cover of Forward Back: Volume 1 by Bill Summers

New Orleans-born percussionist Bill Summers emerged within Herbie Hancock’s short-lived, ahead-of-its-time funk/fusion band of the early-to-mid-1970s, appearing on the keyboardist’s albums Head Hunters (1973), Thrust (1974), Man-Child (1975), and Flood (1975). Now 73 years old, Summers later ventured into a solo recording career, sessions including film and TV scores, and 1998–2003 releases by New Orleans-based Los Hombres Calientes, all of which is inadvertently recalled on his self-explanatory new disc Forward Back: Volume 1.

Summers’ emphasis here is on double-headed batá drums, a set of which comprises three different-sized wooden hourglass bodies, and the history of which can be traced back 500 years to Nigeria. With different-sized heads on each end to create different pitches, they have been associated with religious and spiritual practices. On the opening “Yellow Flowers,” Summers, multi-instrumentalist and programmer Scott Roberts, and steel drummer Jeff Narel create a rhythmic tapestry that propels the spiritually themed vocals of Simone Mosely and the duo Cruzmatic (Jason Williams, Reggie Stephens).

The African batá tradition holds that the three drums represent the father, mother, and child, a theme that runs through subsequent tracks “Elevate” and “Planets.” Yet there’s a sameness to this 22-minute, six-song EP. Even “Buttafly,” with a cameo by Parliament/Funkadelic founder George Clinton—plus keyboardist Ryan Tatarian, bassist Louis Cristopolus, and additional vocalists Belita Woods, Lawrence Harvey, and George Clinton Jr.—barely raises the excitement factor. “Rain Maker” and “Doors,” the brief closing tracks, are likewise essentially mid-tempo chants. Forward Back: Volume 1 may be rich in tradition and spirituality, yet it lacks the thrust of Summers’ most time-honored works.