Doug Hammond brings echoes of the '60s Detroit scene

The veteran percussionist is making a solo debut. -

Doug Hammond is an extraordinary jazz musician, composer, poet and writer who began recording on the legendary Detroit-based Tribe label in the 1970s. Since 1989, he's been living in Linz, near the Czech-Austrian border, but has never been invited to perform in Prague until now.

Hammond, a vocalist who accompanies himself on drums and percussion, will be performing solo. He'll also have an African sanza (thumb piano) on hand, as well as a sampling of his poetry. So it should be a great debut.

The Tribe collective only recently became known to a wider audience in Europe, due to the efforts of Detroit-based techno DJ/producer Carl Craig. He organized a revival of Tribe musicians, then released a series of singles and the album Rebirth (2009) on the label Community Projects/Planet E.

Tribe was founded in 1971 by a group of jazz musicians as a band, a recording label and a magazine, all operating under the same name. The founders were saxophonist Wendell Harrison and trombonist Phil Ranelin, soon joined by Marcus Belgrave (trumpet), Harold McKinney (piano) and Doug Hammond. In their music and publications, the collective had a political and social aesthetic that could be called revolutionary: anti-war, community-oriented and staunchly independent.

Hammond, born in 1942 in Tampa, Florida, began playing in the early 1960s with R&B and blues artists like Sam & Dave, Earl Hooker and Little Willie John. When he first moved to Detroit in 1965, he played with James "Blood" Ulmer, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (for Motown Records). This soon led to sessions with icons like Chet Baker, Betty Carter and Sonny Rollins. In 1967, he helped found the Detroit Creative Musicians Association, which presaged some of the ideals of Tribe.

In 1970, Hammond moved to New York City, where he lived for most of the decade, playing with the likes of Kenny Durham, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and Mal Waldron, among others. But one of his most influential works of that period was recorded in San Francisco in 1972 with keyboard player David Durrah and other musicians from the Detroit scene: Reflections in the Sea of Nurnen, released on Tribe Records in 1974. The album mixed jazz with African groove, soul melodies and a political punch. Hammond's song "Wake Up Brothers," with its sharp comments calling for black empowerment, employed an unusually slow and funky approach.

In 1984, Hammond moved to Germany, then in 1988 returned to Detroit. The next year, he was back in Europe to teach jazz percussion at the Anton Bruckner Private University in Linz. He retired from teaching in 2007 and is concentrating these days solely on his own compositions in jazz and classical music.

During a recent retreat in Karlovy Vary, Hammond talked to The Prague Post about how his gig in Prague came about.

"I had never played in Prague because there was no platform to do so," he said. "Then my friend Milan, the sax player with Milan Svoboda, suggested contacting Jazz Dock, because they bring in two bands a night. So I contacted them, and it's happening. I was in Prague for four days and fell in love with it."

He might also end up in Karlovy Vary indefinitely. "I've had a friend, Jan, for 26 years, who has a house here and invited me to visit many times. Finally, I came and fell in love with the city and made friends. I am spending most of my time practicing and composing music. The city inspires me, and it's easy to create here. And my Czech friends are beautiful people.

"When Jan asked me where I was going to retire, I said, 'Karlovy Vary.' He just laughed."

Hammond has made some compelling recent recordings. Singing Smiles (2005), with Dwight Adams on horns and Pablo Nahar on bass, has an intoxicating, slow and easy sway that is hard to place in any jazz style, past or present. New Beginning (2010) is likewise just as special as any Tribe recording.

In short, Hammond has not retreated in the least - he was and still is ahead of his time. Here's hoping his date at Jazz Dock this week is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Tony Ozuna for the Prague Post, June 23, 2010

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SO Jazz - September 2010
Timeless Jazz Music