Booker Stardrum doesn’t know if he chose his musical approach or if some invisible hand guided him to it.
The New York-reared, Los Angeles-based percussionist got his first drum kit when he was 4, after begging his parents to get him one for Christmas. His parents were musicians: His mother was a flautist; his dad a composer who was keenly interested in microtonality. Both played in the eclectic new music ensemble led by master microtonal composer Harry Partch. Stardrum’s dad eventually became the director of the Harry Partch Ensemble at Montclair State University and the custodian of the maestro’s unique instruments.
“I was at every rehearsal from a young age, just kinda in the background,” Stardrum laughs. “I was probably a total nuisance.”
His dad was also a big jazz fan. He loved bebop and post-bop — in particular Eric Dolphy (especially the trumpeter’s classic record Out to Lunch), Miles Davis’s second quintet and pianist Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. The throughline in each of those combos: the drummer Tony Williams, who was revered for plying the emotional implications of elastic tempos.
“Tony Williams was a revelation for me,” Stardrum says. “The way he plays with time, it’s very exact. But there’s this liquidity to the way he’s doing it. And it’s not always perfect: If he’s taking a drum solo, for instance, he’s really flexible with time. And I was drawn to that.”
Stardrum studied percussion in the storied jazz program at SUNY Purchase, and he’s plied his propulsive stickwork across multiple platforms, having recorded and performed with the avant-leaning rock groups Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Landlady, and Weyes Blood, with the absurdist post-everything polymaths VaVatican, and in free-improv collaborations with Nels Cline and Lee Ranaldo. But his eponymous free-drumming solo project, which he kick-started in 2012, doesn’t settle in any one terrain for long.
As Williams did, Stardrum develops structural improvisations that make form seem peripheral to music. In his hands, tempos are pliable. Pulses half and double, beetling abruptly between light and cluttered textures. Velocity and motion yield to caliginous drones unmoored from rhythm and bathed in uneasy stillness. Outside the confines of a larger ensemble, Stardrum follows his intuitions, to explore the manifold possibilities of splicing percussive melodies and melodic figures with electronic manipulation.
“There’s a lot of flexibility and freeness in playing solo,” he continues. “I can be as groovy as I want, and I can be as scattered as I want. And it’s dictated by what I’m feeling like playing.”
Consider two pieces from last October’s Temporary Etc. “Drim Dram II” and “Drim Dram III” are variants on a theme established on “Drim Dram,” a cut from Stardrum’s debut, Dance And. Stardrum focuses his fulgurant attack on the rims and heads, fluctuating between throttling grooves and fluttering flams. Gurgling electronic bloops — culled from sampled saxophones and synthesizers — offer an effervescent, pointillist counterpoint to Stardrum’s squirrely skitterings, as though some android partner were responding to the force of his flexible timekeeping.
Outwardly, it sounds like madness. But there’s method to Stardrum’s gnomic process.
“What I do is I set up a structure to improvise through,” he explains. “And the structure’s pretty specific because these days I’m using Sensory Percussion, which is this kind of newish sampler technology, and I’m going through these sets of sounds that I’ve created. So it’s kind of like I’m playing these little pieces, but I’m always playing straight through in kind of one composition. And what I do within those sets is up to me. I’m improvising through a set form, but it’s not the same every time.”
Though innately structured, Stardrum’s sculptural works don’t rely on a complex calculus to produce their fractal latticework. Rather, they’re built on an intentional flexibility that allows for intuition, for Stardrum to stretch or ignore time and timbre as his music dictates. At times on Temporary Etc., Stardrum abandons percussion entirely: “A Passage or Time in a Hanging Truth,” the record’s beatless centerpiece, is carried by frictionless momentum, stacked saxophone swells softly smushing together until they vibrate in a microtonal thrum. The seven-minute “Trash Island” opens with a fusillade of frenetic percussion that abruptly falls out at about the two-minute mark, yielding to coruscating synth pads undercut by swaths of thundering sub-bass. It’s like the eerie eye of a violent storm; when the drums return two minutes later, they’re refracted and spectral, like a ghostly landmass emerging through a dense fog.
Elsewhere, overlapping patterns create polyrhythms almost by accident. Stardrum and John Dietrich, the Deerhoof bassist who engineered Temporary Etc., stacked asynchronous loops to create the warped, stumbling groove that drives “Five Finger Cloud.” “Swimming” develops deep tension by overlapping sinking melodies, ticking metronomes and humid hazes of clustered tones. These structures — mélanges of deep grooves, resonant frequencies, eldritch overtones and amniotic atmospheres — are difficult to parse, but their effect is effectively disorienting. Their irrepressible rhythms are the happy accident of the commingling of natural cadences, a lagniappe from their first-thought-best-thought approach to abstract sonic collage.
“I just don’t think about it that much,” Stardrum demurs. “I don’t find myself thinking about how I’m going to manipulate the rhythm to coax out some sort of emotional endpoint. It’s all pretty intuitive. I’m just sort of improvising, in my way. It’s kind of hard to intellectualize because it’s not really about that. It all feels very natural.”
What: Booker Stardrum
Where: if ART Gallery, 1223 Lincoln St.
When: Wednesday, Sept. 4, 8 p.m.
With: Nic Jenkins & Michael Crawford
More: 803-238-2351, ifartgallery.blogspot.com