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Drum sets and hand drums drive the action on recent releases. “Drums” and “percussion” often get lumped together, but they signify different things. Sure, drums are percussion instruments, but that term refers to drum sets, played with drumsticks and composed of pieces that were separate instruments before the 20th century.
Percussion means hand drums like congas, bongos and djembes; stick-played timbales; cowbells and wood blocks; and hand-held shakers like tambourines and maracas. Percussionists accentuate the beat when playing with a drummer, or create the beat if they’re the lone percussion instrument. Very few musicians have historically excelled in both disciplines. Alex Acuña is an exception. The Peruvian native played percussion with Weather Report in 1975-1976, appearing on its banner album Black Market (1976). But when bassist Jaco Pastorius requested a change, Acuña took over on drums, recording Heavy Weather (1977) and helping transform the group into worldwide superstars.
Also a prolific session musician, the 77-year-old Acuña showcases his rare duality on his release Gifts (Le Coq). Kickoff tune “In Town for Bernie” features him turning a strutting, 4/4-timed beat around on drums while accenting on congas and cowbells. It’s a recurring theme on the Weather Report-inspired “Postlude,” plus covers like a soulful reading of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and a 12/8-timed take on Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap.” All feature stellar accompaniment by keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz, saxophonist Lorenzo Ferrero, guitarist Ramon Stagnaro, and bassist John Peña. Brazilian drummer Duduka Da Fonseca isn’t a percussionist, but the 71-year-old plays with the percussive accents and subtlety his native country is known for, something he’s exemplified as co-leader of Trio da Paz (with guitarist Romero Lubambo and bassist Nilson Matta) since 1986. If one wonders whether melodic drumming is a possibility, his Quarteto Universal band answers with a resounding Yes!!!, the title of Da Fonseca’s recent release on Sunnyside.
The quartet also features pianist Helio Alves, guitarist Vinicius Gomes and bassist Gili Lopes. Da Fonseca shines as a soloist on the exuberant opener “Samba Novo” and as a composer on his poignant closer “Dona Maria.” In between, the album contains memorable originals (Alves’ waltzing “Bebe,” Lopes’ New York-themed “West 83rd Street”) and covers (ballad takes of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Montreux” and Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá’s “A Correnteza”). A generation younger, Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez impressed listeners and critics with his songwriting and playing for the 2014 film Birdman, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Having recorded with Chick Corea, Michael Brecker and Pat Metheny, Sanchez has enjoyed a 15-year recording career as a leader, as well.
On his recent release, Shift (Bad Hombre Vol. II) (Arts Music/Warner), he also plays other instruments with special guests like Metheny, bassist-vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, and popular music stars Dave Matthews and Trent Reznor. The results are surprisingly experimental via Sanchez’s production nuances. “Eh Hee” features acidic verses by Matthews and Metheny’s histrionics in the choruses. On “I Think We’re Past That Now,” Reznor’s vocals and Atticus Ross’ wall of production echo Nine Inch Nails, while Ndegeocello’s harmonies simmer over Sanchez’s emphatic rimshots and furious fills on “Comet, Come to Me.” The Nok Cultural Ensemble’s Njhyi (SA) is even more percussive than the above albums. Named for one of the earliest known societies of Western Africa, the ensemble is led by Edward Wakili-Hick, who’s of Nigerian and British descent and enlists fellow Afro-diasporic percussionists like Onome Edgeworth and Joseph Deenmamode.
Expect the unexpected as indigenous instruments combine with dub culture. The title track starts out primal yet becomes more produced. The experimental “Awakening” features British tuba player Theon Cross’ breathing exercises and sound effects, and the closing “Communal Healing” adds drum machine. Yet all succeed in Wakili-Hick’s quest to update the collective’s West African influence through its own modern prism. - Bill Meredith