Hamid Drake / Michael Zerang Duo

Chicago Sun-Times
August 3, 2001
Lloyd Sachs, entertainment critic

As far as I know, Michael Zerang isn’t celebrating his birthday, but the percussionist has been throwing himself a swell party just the same. Since July 21, he’s been performing with a different artist or artists every night at the Candlestick Maker, his studio space at 4432 N. Kedzie. The unusual series, which concludes Saturday, is certainly a feather in his cap. More notably, it reflects the breadth and communal spirit of Chicago’s free-improvising scene, which keeps finding new ways to outdo itself. On Wednesday, Zerang was joined by a familiar face: percussionist Hamid Drake, with whom he has played in a duo for many moons (their Winter Solstice shows are an increasingly well-attended annual event) and shared tandem drumming duties in bands such as Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet. It’s rare in their field for two drummers to put in as much time together as they do. Through their dual efforts, they have gone beyond conventional notions of give-and-take to merge into one powerful and compelling voice. Can intensity be casual? Starting out on hand instruments–Drake on African frame drum, Zerang on dumbeks, Middle Eastern cousins of Indian tablas–the partners slipped into high gear with the ease of close friends resuming a discussion. Turning up the heat on their speedy encircling patterns, they didn’t concern themselves with shape or structure as much as dynamics. The tempo and forward drive of the music largely remained constant while allowing for plenty of ebb and flow. The playing would rise to what proved to be a false climax and settle back into its flight path. The sound deepened when Drake shifted to the conga-sized djimbe, which he attacked with drumstick and hand, and Zerang switched to a pair of smaller, hourglass-shaped, flatter-sounding dumbeks. There are as many ways to swing a tune as there are to skin a cat. Massaging and mashing their drum skins, the duo shook the music from side to side while holding the center. Drake added texture by reaching behind him to scrape a cymbal or swipe a snare. He also sang, showing off both an attractive voice and the ability to slide caressing figures under it. The second half of the performance found the duo at their drum kits, where their intensity was not so casual. Turning things up, they filled the room with waves of sound, achieving a density that was downright orchestral. But Drake was as musical as he was muscular, providing shimmying touches even as he nailed the groove. Zerang was a sideways threat, splintering the beat and thriving on off-accents. At one point, using a single stick each, they combined to simulate a single drummer, leaving you to wonder what drummer wouldn’t give anything to be able to combine their singular abilities. The Zerangathon continues at 8 tonight with keyboardist and ARP synthesizer whiz Jim Baker and oboist Kyle Bruckman and concludes at 8 p.m. Saturday with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and saxophonist Mars Williams. Note: One of the greatest of all jazz drummers, Roy Haynes, is at the Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand, through Sunday. To mark the club’s annual August is Charlie Parker Month–and to stay as young as ever, he has brought a spanking new band with him.