There’s an adage that a player can make an instrument sing but it takes an artist to make it speak. On Mark Lomax, II’s new collaboration with four of Columbus’ finest poets – Dionne Custer Edwards, Barbara Fant, Carnell Willoughby, and Scott Woods – Drumversations (ordering link here), he takes that adage to a new literal level and a new artistic space. Continue reading below the jump for our review of this remarkable record and a trailer provided by Lomax.
Drumversations is one of the finest examples of blending the human voice and the drum in duet. The words never prop up the drums here and the drums are never solely accompaniment. Lomax again asserts himself as our finest working composer. He builds percussive soundscapes that could stand on their own while always trusting the words of the poets to stand on their own as well. These two elements tease out the best in one another, challenge, fill their spaces and explode them to reveal new spaces.
The arc of the album masterfully slips from the interior to the exterior and knows they’re never truly separate. It begins and ends with “Bless In” and “Bless Out” with Carnell Willoughby (best known as a member of pioneering Columbus hip-hop collective SPIRIT). These two incantations, opening with “Hands people. Stand people. Respond to my command, people,” build into statements of purpose. Willoughby speak-sings advice for living and the quest for collective transcendence as Lomax builds the raw elements of drumming – one stick, one cymbal – into a delicate but ferocious, loose-limbed backbeat.
“Bless In” is followed immediately by what Barbara Fant calls “A celebration of all the black and brown people,” “Magic Before.” Fant interrogates the use of “magic” to exoticize and dehumanize while asserting a humanity and a superhuman strength. Her metaphors and rich rhythm slip over and through Lomax’s sparse drumming. He creates rumbling, tectonic shifts of toms and splashing, slashing cymbals beneath Fant’s “Teaching the moon to dance and bid her dust in the shape of an eye” and unleashes a tumbling procession around and over and under her inversion of the dozens into affirmation. Fant’s other piece, “House of Dust” talks of living “in the staccato” as Lomax’s drums echo and subvert that word. Together, they peel back the raw flesh of life and find a bitterly-fought and hard-won forgiveness at the heart of living well.
Dionne Custer Edwards’ two pieces feature wider swaths of negative space for Lomax to stretch out. Lomax takes us through the history of great drumming in these lustrous solos, reminding me more of Milford Graves than I’ve heard in his playing before. Edwards has a Baraka-esque love of repetition, luxuriating in the sensuous feeling of words while exposing every facet of meaning without ever being obvious. The heartbreaking “Skyward” wrings every ounce of pain from simple phrases like “We collect ourselves” and “do something about this tangled mess.”
Scott Woods’ two pieces are the centerpiece of Drumversations. The first, “A Bad Peace” includes a “Part 1” solo track from Lomax who splinters a slow march and makes it shine like stained glass. Less of an intro and more of a thesis statement. By the time Scott’s voice appears for “Part 2,” the complicated groundwork has been laid for the interrogation of the Benjamin Franklin – “May I call you Ben?” – “truism” “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Woods’ vivisection of conventional wisdom and “good intentions,” opens with “What if your peace is a war?” and never lets the throttle down. “A ‘some of my best friends are good wars’ peace?”
The recorded-with-a-live-audience elements only assert themselves a few times on this beautifully produced (by Lomax) and mastered (Storm 9000). The exceptions are striking. My favorite is a spontaneous moment featuring one woman, clear as day, cheering Woods on and then one person clapping before falling back into silence. It’s a demonstration of loud and quiet engagement reminding the stodgier among us that both are sides of the same respect. That moment makes the listener want to throw their fists in the air because we’ve all been that person when the right poet reads.
When I interviewed Woods about his month-long Holler project he brought up the premiere of the “A Bad Peace” collaboration in the context of his renowned artistic risk-taking. “I wanted to prove I could get people in the door for a show with one composition and one poem and have them leave satisfied. But it had to be the best poem I wrote all year.” For a poet who has been making my jaw drop for about 15 years at this point, and who had a huge part in the current flowering of local poetry, Woods succeeded here in spades. His two poems, the acid “What You Smiling For?” is a more typical duet with Lomax’s most sinuous and sinister drumming on this record, might be the best documentation of his work.
There isn’t a bad track on Drumversations. It’s a brilliant introduction to Lomax’s compositions and percussion in its purest sense and a sampler of the range of poetic voices Columbus is lucky to host.