Essential New Music: Ken Vandermark & Hamid Drake’s “Eternal River”

Ever since Heraclitus so wrote 2,500 years ago, people have been saying that no one can step into the same river twice. Drummer Hamid Drake and tenor saxophonist Ken Vandermark do not contradict the philosophy of antiquity head on, but as the title Eternal River suggests, its music proposes that there is more than one way to look at the matter. The album captures the duo’s performance on Oct. 9, 2021, which was the final day of the Corbett Vs. Dempsey gallery’s Moki Cherry exhibit, Communicate, How? Paintings And Tapestries 1967-1980. The sequence of tunes they played (which were all drawn from the songbook of trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry) and their very presence in that room on that day attest to a flow of artistic and spiritual purpose that transcends mere physical change. 

The exhibit was devoted to the fabric work of Swedish artist Monika “Moki” Cherry (née Karlsson), who was Don Cherry’s partner in life and art. Don’s musical career lasted from the 1950s through the 1990s, during which time he was present at the ground zero of free jazz, pioneered the combination of American improvisational practice with the characters of indigenous musics from around the world, and played some mean licks on records by Ian Dury and Lou Reed. In the late 1960s, the Cherrys bought an old country schoolhouse in Tågarp, Sweden, and made it into a communal home base for their collective artistic practice. While Don came up with most of the music, Moki did the all the visual work, as well as a lot of the organizational and ethical orientation. If you’ve ever spent time with Don’s albums Symphony For Improvisers or Organic Music Society, you already know how effectively Moki and Don wove thread and sound together.

Drake’s appearance at the closing concert represented a moment of reunion. In 1978, he and his family spent some months in the presence of all that art on the walls. During his time in Sweden, he not only learned Don’s tunes but all the dimensions of the Cherry family’s artistic practice, which have ever since informed his own. When Vandermark initially found his footing in Chicago, the chance to learn from that first-hand knowledge was as much of a reason for him to begin working with Drake as the drummer’s dynamic musicianship.

Drake and Vandermark have now been working together for longer than Drake drummed for Cherry, mostly in the DKV Trio, but this concert was their first recording as a duo. The title Eternal River can be understood not only as a reference to the flow of creative information from one musician to the next, but also to the endless renewability of Cherry’s tunes. When the DKV Trio recorded Cherry’s music in 1998, they ran away with it, rendering the already ambitious “Complete Communion Suite” as a high-energy epic. During this set, the saxophonist states the themes to “El Corazón” and “Brown Rice” with gentle respect before digging into their rhythmic intricacies. When energetic moments emerge, like Drake’s galloping groove on “Mopti,” they’re infused with joy, like good old memories that instigate a hearty laugh.

The set finishes off with a celebratory return to “Complete Communion.” They might not be standing in exactly the same stream, but in a way, they’re back where they began, reaffirming the enduring connections forged by this great music.

—Bill Meyer