The San Diego Symphony’s “It’s About Time Festival” opened Thursday (January 11) with a rousing, sophisticated all-percussion concert at Barrio Logan’s trendy Bread and Salt venue. To be certain, offering a concert of percussion ensembles that will fill a house takes audacity and astute programming skills. Fortunately, Festival Curator Steven Schick possesses these traits in abundance, and I can think of no musician with more extensive connections throughout the San Diego music community.
Although Thursday’s concert was only the first of three weekly all-percussion events, in Schick’s opening salvo his choices touched on the immense range of percussion practice from classical to jazz to popular to world music in under two hours, presenting musicians of exceptional skill and, for the most part, ebullient communication skills.
Opening the program with Steve Reich’s minimalist “Drumming,” twenty-five minutes of intense, relentlessly layered patterns played on high-pitched drums, might have been interpreted as an endurance test for the audience. Yet the four members of the San Diego Symphony’s percussion section, under the skilled but understated leadership of Principal Percussion Gregory Cohen, created a mesmerizing sonic tapestry whose subtle deviations within the composer’s strictly limited sonic parameters engaged the listener with surprising power. The other drummers were Andrew Watkins, Ryan DiLisi, and Erin Douglas Downey.
From the ascetic realm of minimalism, the program turned to more popular modes, engaging Mike Holquin and Charlie Chavez in what started out as dueling drum kit solos: Chavez creating a more mellow profile playing deep, low-pitched drums with his hands and Holquin using sticks on a more conventional drum kit with all of its bells and whistles for a bright, explosive profile. I sensed that in spite of their contrasting approaches, they merged with compelling complement, especially when the recorded salsa group with its lively vocals came over the speakers and expanded the scope of their duo.
Jazz drummer Richard Sellers invited three colleagues to join him in a pair of straight ahead jazz
offerings, opening with John Coltrane’s “Song of the Underground Railroad.” At first, Sellers’ slow, insistent beat played off bassist Rob Thorsen’s terse but athletic riffs and allowed Kemau Kenyatta’s extravagant solos of liquid gold on soprano saxophone to stream eloquently over such an elegant structure. Flying solo, however, Sellers transformed into an astonishing cyclone of percussive fury. For Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” trumpeter Curtis Taylor made it a quartet, adding his polished brass voice to the group’s mild but energized calypso anthem. Taylor’s beautifully rounded sonority fused the precision of trumpet attack with the mellow center of cornet sound–the best of both worlds in my book–and his phrasing was nothing short of immaculate.
Looking to the music from the rest of the Americas, four members of the Sol e Mar ensemble offered a generous helping of this well-established local band’s Brazilian and Cuban repertory. Their ardent hand drumming on batá drums induced a benevolent, mildly hypnotic state, yet the attentive listener could easily appreciate the graceful complexity to their patterns. The double-headed batá drums came to Cuba from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and are important in the practice of Santaria. And the addition of a larger than usual African thumb piano to one of their selections added a piquant melodic layer to the ensemble. I apologize for the lack of titles for the Sol e Mar pieces, but although their performers play with gusto, they remain mute on stage.
This concert was presented on January 11, 2018, at Bread and Salt in San Diego’s Barrio Logan by the San Diego Symphony’s It’s About Time Festival in collaboration with Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series. The Symphony’s festival continues through January 28, 2018, with most of the concerts in the Jacobs Music Center in downtown San Diego. Two more percussion programs will be presented at Bread and Salt on January 18 & 25, 2018.