Drummer Mickey Hart has proven the most interesting of the former Grateful Dead band members since the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. He refused to be constrained by membership in the seminal San Francisco “jam band,” as evidenced by Planet Drum, perhaps Hart’s most visible side project in a career spanning music, literature, science, and visual art. A global percussion ensemble, Planet Drum was introduced both aurally and conceptually in 1991 by the band’s debut CD and Hart’s book of the same name. There were follow-ups in 1998 and 2007, but Hart wanted the unit’s new In the Groove release to live up to its name by being more danceable.
Mission accomplished. In the Groove features the Brooklyn-born Hart, ever-present Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, Nigerian talking-drum sensation Sikiru Adepoju, and Puerto Rican conga star Giovanni Hidalgo. West African sibling singers Melissa and Ophelia Hie also contribute, plus there are previously recorded vocals by original Planet Drum member Babatunde Olatunji (1927-2003). And what a percussive web they all weave. The opening “King Clave” approximates a thunderous marching line of tablas, congas, and various other drums, or as Hart puts it, “jazz with a backbeat.” “Storm Drum” features Adepoju’s expertise on the talking drum, on which the tuning is consistently changed by applied pressure, as well as the angelic harmonies of the Hie sisters.
Digital processing accentuates Hussain’s melodic tabla work even further, as evidenced on “Tides,” and Hart’s all-purpose percussion shows up in the backbeat of “Drops,” along with neurological studies linking rhythm and brain function. But perhaps the most remarkable performances within these rhythmic tapestries are those of Hidalgo. When the great conguero’s battle with diabetes threatened his career through finger amputations, he crafted the new stick-and-hand technique that makes the closing “Gadago Gadago” dance.