The William Hooker Trio burned up the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center on April 21. They played as part of the highly-eclectic Arts for Art series, which showcases experimental and improvised art forms, and were the final act on a bill of avant-jazz-oriented outfits that ran the gamut from hard-driving post-bop to serene musings on fiddle and guitar. Hooker’s ensemble, though, was the most explosive of all. Other critics have used words like “slash-and-burn” and “maelstrom” to describe the veteran drummer’s approach, and I don’t believe any of us are complaining.
The trio’s performance was essentially one extended piece, an hour long, with discernible “movements,” dominated by each member in turn and signaled largely by discreet but authoritative hand gestures from Hooker. The thread that ran through it all was Hooker’s repeated incantation: “Let light, let love, let power restore the plan on earth.” When he first uttered it, in the near-silence at the very top of the set, he was squeezed into the corner of one of the wings of the proscenium stage, and his words were quiet and matter-of-fact enough that, for a moment, I thought he was poking his head through an unseen hatch in the wall and bidding the organizers in the hallway outside to adjust the lights.
However, as he solemnly pivoted around, the words became clearer and more urgent — and, as he settled into his drum set, they were a shouted exhortation. With that, Hooker, 67, launched into a furious solo thudding of all drums, rolling and rattling, cymbals blazing. The jagged jitters of frantic ride-and-snare dialogue hurtled forward at a speed the ear could barely keep up with.
The next musician to grab the reins was pianist Mark Hennen, bestriding the length of the keyboard, advancing his fingers across the notes with vigor. His movements had an air of dance to them: two fingers on each hand were forming little homunculi stomping the keys like a refined Punch and Judy fighting it out. Broadway, Art Tatum and Tin Pan Alley hovered faintly and knowingly in the crevices of semi-tonal, semi-discordant wash, while Hooker sat grandly in his corner of the wing, taking it all in.
Hennen and Hooker wrangled together for a time, and then came the cue for their bandmate, Matt Lavelle, to join in. He alternated among the trumpet, Flügelhorn and clarinet — and he would later genially confirm to me that that’s a rare combination indeed. Lavelle was very much in minimalist mode, blowing the shrill, clear blasts of a herald on the brass and weaving deceptively simple passages on the reed. Here and there he threw in the wail of an ecstatic klezmer goosing a hora, or a low moan from one of clarinetist Eric Dolphy’s radically reinvented spirituals.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, the leader came in with the incantation, no longer exhorting, but sagely and with assurance, à la Sun Ra. Each time he spoke, the energy shifted. Anything resembling quiet was a pause between movements; no one movement was still or hushed, and my attention was rapt the whole time. The closest the set came to balladry was a moment when the churn of the instruments suggested violent natural phenomena like volcanoes and tidal waves, and then a moment of slight, collective restraint seemed to take us soaring over the top of the smoking mountains, the roar muffled and the wind whistling in our ears.
When it was all over, and the last piano key had been pounded, the last hot breath had blasted through the brass and the last cymbal ecstatically crashed, Hooker bookended the affair with a final iteration of his watchword — which, by now, we were all keenly expecting. He emphasized each word as though hearing it for himself with new ears and sensing a deeper meaning, his new understanding hard-earned through the tumult. With his tone of voice, the drummer seemed to be saying, “My concepts of light, love, and power have shifted, but this is still my wish and I’m sticking to it.”
Tracing some of Hooker’s history, we find a fiercely eclectic and open-minded player. While he and his collaborators are clearly steeped in the great jazz traditions, as they showed during this performance, the artist has found multiple sub-niches in contemporary music, playing venues like the storied CBGB and collaborating with rock giants like Thurston Moore. Hooker has also stated in interviews that he doesn’t necessarily buy into the line, now familiar in out-jazz circles, that “you have to learn to play ‘in’ before you can play ‘out.’” Considering this, we can see this concert making the ultimate statement of pluralistic unity: we may communicate in a common language, and recognize some of our favorite words and phrases with relish, but we mustn’t forget how many ways there are to learn a language and how many different experiences a word or phrase can reflect.
For more, see williamhooker.com.