Point of Departure review by Troy Collins

Gerry Hemingway Quintet – Riptide (CF 227)
From his seminal efforts in the late ‘70s, through his tenure with Anthony Braxton’s revered ‘80s Quartet, Gerry Hemingway has grown from a virtuosic percussionist into a well-rounded artist whose writing is as elaborate as his adroit improvisations. Interweaving multiple layers of pre-written material and unstructured interludes into episodic narratives, his compositions exude the sophisticated aura of chamber music buoyed by the primal immediacy of indigenous folk forms. No stranger to multi-culturalism, Hemingway has long drawn on musical traditions outside of Western hegemony; in addition to myriad ethnic rhythms, his abiding interest in the joyous grooves of South African kwela make their strongest appearance yet on Riptide, the studio debut of Hemingway’s new Quintet.

Maintaining consistency for the sake of his songbook, Hemingway has employed a two-horn front-line and a stringed instrument (usually cello) supported by bass and drums in his various quintets ever since 1985’s Outerbridge Crossing (Sound Aspects). However, it was his much admired ‘90s Quintet with multi-reedist Michael Moore, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, cellist Ernst Reijseger and bassist Mark Dresser that defined this aesthetic. Mirroring the tonal and textural range of that line-up, the newest incarnation features relative newcomers Oscar Noriega (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet) and Terrence McManus (guitars) alongside veterans Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone) and Kermit Driscoll (acoustic bass and electric bass guitar). Hemingway’s talent for framing each member’s voice within unique settings yields an array of kaleidoscopic detail, ranging from introspective impressionism to impetuous intensity.

While Hemingway’s writing is engaging in smaller configurations (like his various quartets), it is the inclusion of a fifth voice that best facilitates his flair for intricate counterpoint and contrary motion. Embracing this role, McManus fills Reijseger’s former position as the primary chord-based instrumentalist, adding an electrified patina to Hemingway’s primarily acoustic Quintet oeuvre with his heavily amplified fretwork. McManus’ capacity for wringing novel variations from overdriven pick-ups is revealed on the aptly titled “Gitar” and “Meddle Music,” where he conjures a compelling series of minimalist motifs from peals of feedback shaped by brusque, siren-like punctuations. He spearheads the inverted structural dynamic of the epic title track with scorching arpeggios, as the horns unleash staccato accents in opposition to the rhythm section’s languid countermelody, creating a labyrinthine setting for Noriega’s serpentine alto. McManus also contributes understated support on pieces like the impressionistic tone poem “Asamine” and the countrified Afro-pop hybrid “At Anytime,” which inspires a series of euphonious ruminations from Eskelin and Noriega. Eskelin’s longstanding familiarity with the intricacies of Hemingway’s concepts comes to the fore in the hypnotic funk of “Gitar,” which features one of the tenor saxophonist’s more lyrical performances. Another veteran sideman of Hemingway’s, Driscoll brings a diverse mix of austere acoustic support and jubilant electric bounce to the proceedings.

Other than a brief unaccompanied excursion on the title track, Hemingway largely eschews drum solos, preferring to imaginatively work embellishments and variations into the Quintet’s congenial interplay. His effortless modulations between time signatures and timbral dynamics prove endlessly fascinating, yet his surprisingly unorthodox arrangements and idiosyncratic reinterpretations of conventional forms are equally impressive. Time-honored genre tenets are transposed into adventurous yet accessible motifs; the rubato swing underlying the effervescent theme to “Holler Up” and the abstract blues extemporizations of “Meddle Music” subtly deconstruct hallowed traditions, while the stirring kwela rhythms of “Backabacka” evoke festive South African customs. Most of Hemingway’s quartet and quintet records since 1996’s Perfect World (Random Acoustics) end with a celebratory kwela tune. While the ebullient “Backabacka” sets the stage for such a finale, after a minute of silence between cuts the thorny syncopated funk of “Chicken Blood” materializes, with its multiple phrase lengths and polyphonic harmonies serving as the final coda; a reminder that though Hemingway’s opulent compositions cover a broad stylistic spectrum, their subtle differences are always sublimated into his singular language.

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