Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, September 2015
OUTSIDE The Journey Within
By John Pietaro
Franklin Kiermyer’s tom-toms thunder across the room as metallic shimmers slice the air, at once rapturous, restless and uncompromising. His limbs dancing over the drumkit, Kiermyer becomes entranced in the music about him, playing a rolling, swinging free rhythm that speaks as much about the history of jazz drumming as it does the avant school he has become associated with.
“I have a big devotion to evolution”, Kiermyer explained. “As a kid, the first music that really affected me, that made me feel, were the old Fats Waller and Kid Ory records my father had. Certain discs I listened to over and over again. I would find myself hearing the tunes long after the record player was turned off. These records loomed large in every way: big energy, big phrasing and big time. Drummers like Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Minor Hall were the first that inspired me to play. They still do.”
Kiermyer, who hails from Canada but has lived around the world over the decades, began studies at age 12 with a Montreal percussionist and composer. By high school, timpani was added to his instrumental pallette. “Playing timpani brought me to the awareness that each drum has its own pitch, a natural resonance, a natural voice where the instrument speaks”.
Listening for the natural voice inside has become the guiding force for Kiermyer. As a teenager, the drummer was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. He has since been a life-long devotee. “This is a spiritual platform to open up and let me go where I want to go. I had an urgent need to find my own way”.
Searching for the musical conception he desired, the journey led Kiermyer to Woodstock NY to study improvisation with legendary bassist Dave Holland. Time spent upstate also brought him to a higher level of spirituality at the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.
“If you take away all of the isms—including jazzisms—there’s something deeper beneath. That’s what I want to experience and share”, Kiermyer stated, reflecting on the relationship between meditation and musical improvisation. A model for him has been John Coltrane. Kiermyer looked to albums such as ‘Sun Ship’ in finding that nexus. But while this level of the music made a profound impact on him, and drummers such as Elvin Jones left an indelible imprint on his playing, Kiermyer continued his search—within and without. The venture included significant struggle. ”It is one thing to have feelings for the music and another to manifest those feelings to create it. The ‘a-ha’ moment and the ‘oh shit’ moment are closely related”.
Sessions with Mick Goodrick and John Abercromie followed time spent with Holland and by the 1980s Kiermyer was living in midtown Manhattan, deeply immersed in the expansive music scene. As a result of his friendship with Don Alias, he was hired to play in an ensemble led by percussionist Daniel Ponce for a special event of the 1986 Kool-Newport Jazz Festival, ‘Night of Percussion’ which featured a wealth of brilliant drummers in different ensembles. The Ponce band was stand-out due to its hip hop and downtown grooves. Ponce was one of many musicians whose discography walked the edge of experimental and commercial sounds in that fertile period when punk culture and indie arts were part of a milieu with underground jazz and composition. With this festival gig, Kiermyer imagined a major career move. But when he got to the hall he found that he was to play not on a standard drumkit but a couple of DMX electronic drum pads, creating machine-inspired rhythms for Ponce and three bata drummers to play over. He was dismayed but, true to his concept of the journey, Kiermyer found what was needed for the music. “It was all part of the experience”, he recalled. “Opportunity is omnipresent”.
On the roads inner and outer, Kiermyer became a bandleader along the way, founding a series of ensembles that leave behind a powerful discography. Skimming through the list of albums, one is struck by the individualism of the recordings, though each retains the mark of the leader. Perhaps his best known release is ‘Solomon’s Daughter’ (1994) which features another spiritual journeyman, Pharoah Sanders. The album offers Sanders’ most profound playing in decades. Here the Coltrane aura is celebrated, yet the unique urgency Sanders conjures with Kiermyer, pianist John Esposito and bassist Drew Gress is vividly evident. The music is nothing short of stirring.
The various Kiermyer bands through the years have included such stalwarts as Sam Rivers, Azar Lawrence, Juni Booth, Dewey Redman, Joe Lovano and a long list of others who traverse the eras of free music. With such a wide spectrum of experience behind him, one may think it a challenge for Kiermyer to create new inroads, but once again he is excited about a new band. Two of them, actually:
“My new ensemble with Lawrence Cook and Davis Whitfield is the closest to what I’ve been trying to do. Our debut is in August in New York. And I am starting a new British band with Nat Birchill that will play the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival in September. These musicians have allowed me to take the music further than before—but further inside, not out. Further inside myself as it reaches forward and evolves beyond”
Franklin Kiermyer will debut his new quartet at Korzo Restaurant’s ‘Konception Music Series’, 667 5th Avenue, Brooklyn on August 4, 8PM.