Bilcher, Hemmer, Gadd: calling time

What’s JazzJanuary?

JazzJanuary performance #8

Bilcher, Hemmer, Gadd.  Pizza Express Jazz, 8th February

JazzJanuary tester: Matt

JazzJanuary advisers: Joel, Nick

It’s 23:08.  Do you make a run for the last train home, or stay to the very end of the performance?  Tonight it’s a pointless question.  Whether you have a train to catch, work in the morning or a house fire to extinguish, to leave before this music finishes would be unthinkable.

Right in front of you is Steve Gadd, playing an ordinary-looking drum kit under ordinary-looking lights.  He’s supporting Michael Bilcher (saxophone, flute) and Dan Hemmer (Hammond organ) as they play some tunes.  This is what the world’s most influential drummer does for a living, and it’s clear that he doesn’t like to make a fuss. Unless you’ve seen this guy play before, though, the sound is like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Dr Gadd’s subtle enough to let you concentrate on the melodies, which are lilting and playful and pretty.  Bilcher explains afterwards that they’re as much inspired by folk and gospel music as jazz. Their frequent changes of pace draw you back to the drum kit.  It’s being carefully operated.  Gadd works efficiently and thoughtfully, with a real economy of movement. There’s nothing frantic or flamboyant happening.  The metal rims of drums are struck.  Sometimes the thick end of a drumstick is brought down vertically onto a cymbal which might also have been tapped horizontally, on its sharp edge, by the rubber handle of a brush. There are no great secrets being revealed – these are techniques used week in, week out by tonight’s jazz-advisers, a pair of session drummers. But it’s an unusual sound. In his workmanlike way, Gadd is making some special music.


No energy is wasted at this workstation

It’s an exciting way to end Jazz January, especially for the advisers. “The kit sounds…amazing,” says Nick, shaking his head slightly.  Pressed for a bit more detail, the advisers turn to technique.  “His placement is perfect,” offers Joel.  In what sense? The place on the drum where the stick lands, or the place in time?  “Both.  And his placement of his sound within the ensemble.  It’s perfect in every sense.” It’s this, and his acute sense of time, that has made this man not just the drummer’s drummer but every musician’s drummer.


Belcher, Hemmer, Gadd

Notes do indeed fall as delicately as raindrops.  It’s all drawn together with an unhurried solo in New Orleans. The drumkit becomes an orchestra. There are little clicks, licks and taps and sparkly shimmers from cymbals, and the drums themselves have expressive voices, clean and open-sounding.  Of course there’s swing and drive, but the aggression’s perfectly channelled into the song.  Even the missing beats – the ‘ghost notes’ – are a delight.  Patterns of sound are laid over one another in a way that pulls your view right back from this stage to your English lessons at school, where the romantic poets played with the rhythms of nature: seasons, tides, heartbeats, dusks and dawns.  This man can pull all those layers of time apart and then mesh them back together.  If you’re not a religious person, it’s like listening to nature itself.  If you are, you might use an even stronger comparison.


Joel, Nick and Dr Gadd. The advisers become the advised

Tonight’s jazz-advisers have studied Gadd’s books and videos for years, and they’ve seen him play before.  Never this close, though, and the display has made an impression. They meet the great man afterwards.  He gives them friendly advice while they stammer a bit. His half-dismantled drum kit is regarded with quiet reverence for several minutes, like a shrine.

It’s time to go home.  JazzJanuary has gone beyond January and beyond the hour when the trains stop running.  So much to listen to, so little time.


(1) The man. He’s at the top of his game, famous around the world and presumably quite wealthy.  He’s also 70.  It’s midnight.  He’s 5,000 miles from home and he has to get to Germany tomorrow.  He could have been in bed an hour ago, but he’s standing in the basement of a pizza restaurant, giving some words of encouragement to Joel and Nick.

(2) The music.  ‘Perfect’ is a big word, but who’s to argue with a jazz-adviser?


It’s a long way home when you’ve missed the train.

Next up:

Result and conclusions.


Story and photos: Matt Pannell



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