There are those who would prefer to uncouple improv from the ties that connect it to jazz. Hearing Han Bennink play solo recently (Night of the Unexpected, Spitalfields Festival, London, 16.6.12) reminded me of a few aspects of Han’s playing:
- he hits the drums and rims hard, the biff shot as Baby Dodds called it, but as a continuously fluid opening up of acoustic space, a hail of shrapnel rather than a single gunshot accent.
- for his first solo LP – Solo, ICP 011, 1972 – he recorded two tracks called “Spooky Drums”.
The original “Spooky Drums” (also in two versions) was recorded by Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds in 1946 for Folkways Records. Three photographs on the cover of the 10” LP show the physicality of his playing, time-lapse shots that reveal the crossing of arms, the stretching of his upper body, a kinesiology that recalls the kind of photographs collected in Incunabula, the book of source materials that Francis Bacon absorbed into his paintings. Like Bennink, Baby Dodds was a showman who used his whole body to give character and flow to sound (as the film clip shows, Dodds used his foot to muffle the tom tom; Han has done the same for many years and I wonder if he has ever seen this clip). But making a show for dancers merged into involuntary action and pathology. Dodds talked of, and played, what he called “Nerve Beats”, “like a guy got the passels [palsy]”; for his shimmy beat, his stomach was said to wobble up and down in perfect time.
According to Frederic Ramsey Jr., who wrote the notes for the Folkways release, the title, “Spooky Drums” was said to be a whimsical thing, an indication of the pleasure of switching through quick contrasts. Elsewhere I’ve read that it was a reference to the eerie feeling of a drummer finding himself alone in a recording studio. Whatever, it’s clear that these are solo improvisations to be considered alongside Django Reinhardt’s “Improvisations” of 1937, Charles Ives’ “Three Improvisations No. 1” of 1938, Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso” of 1948 and Lennie Tristano’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom” of 1953. Maybe that was the spooky part, in a studio, alone with an instrument, improvising?