As a child Hamid Drake would often lie on his bed daydreaming to the sound of Fred Anderson’s saxophone. Floating up from the basement of the house that Drake’s family shared with Anderson’s, those big, warm notes couldn’t have reached a more receptive audience than the curious seven-year-old.
“I’d hear him practicing down there all the time,” Drake recalls. “Some days I wouldn’t even see him, but I’d always hear him. . . . It made quite an impression.”
Drake started drumming in fourth grade, shortly after moving out of Anderson’s house, and the legendary saxophonist has been his mentor and collaborator since 1974, when Drake joined his band straight out of high school. Last year the pair recorded their first album of duets, Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey), and though it came out in March, this Saturday they’ll play a belated release party at Anderson’s South Loop club, the Velvet Lounge.
Drake, who plays trap set and frame drums on the disc, moves easily between Western jazz and the percussion traditions of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. He’s sought after both at home and abroad, and his recordings and collaborations number in the hundreds; he’s worked with everyone from Don Cherry to Herbie Hancock, Bill Laswell to Pharoah Sanders.
Born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1955, Drake was brought to Waukegan the following year to live with his aunt and uncle. “My aunt wasn’t able to have children, so her sister, my biological mother, allowed her to raise me,” says Drake. “But I grew up with that knowledge, and went back every summer to Louisiana to visit my biological parents and my brothers and sister.” By the time he entered grade school, his aunt and uncle had moved to Evanston and were renting from the Andersons, old friends from Monroe.
As a high schooler in the early 70s, Drake was already playing funk, R & B, and jazz fusion in bars and clubs around Chicago. In ’74 he was in a blues-rock band that opened for Anderson’s quartet, and after the show, says Drake, “he told me he liked how I played.” Later that year Drake and the band’s bassist, Felix Blackman, left to join trombonist George Lewis, reedist Douglas Ewart, and pianist Soji Adebayo in a new sextet called the Fred Anderson Creative Music Ensemble.
Playing with Anderson–a charter member of the AACM–was a baptism by fire. “I had no clue, man,” Drake says. “It was a situation that was mixed with excitement and terror.” Anderson remembers things differently: “The first thing I noticed about him was that he had such a relaxed feeling on the drums,” he says. “He played with a lot of authority and confidence, like it was made for him. He already had his own style and everything.”
Drake’s style evolved in leaps and bounds during the next two years, when he and Blackman served as the regular rhythm section for all-night jam sessions at a converted Old Town church called J’s Place. “We would play at J’s every Saturday from midnight until four or five in the morning. Musicians would be lined up out the door to sit in,” says Drake. “It was an amazing training period for me, in terms of gathering endurance and learning how to accompany a wide variety of players.”
Longtime friend and percussionist Adam Rudolph had turned Drake on to what would soon be called “world music,” and in the late 70s he studied congas, tabla, djembe, and frame drums at Kendall College in Evanston, later traveling to Africa to further his education. To date he’s visited Mali, Senegal, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone. “Learning these very old, well-established styles . . . taught me to give the ultimate respect to my teachers. And fortunately, I’ve always had great teachers, whether it was Fred Anderson or someone like Don Cherry.”
Legendary trumpeter Cherry was a guiding force at Drake’s first studio session in 1978: Drake, Rudolph, and Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso had formed the Mandingo Griot Society the previous fall, and they enlisted Cherry to play on their self-titled debut. (Drake would continue working regularly with Cherry until his death in 1995, filling the shoes of his longtime drummer Ed Blackwell.)
That year Drake also played with Anderson on the first in a series of ensemble recordings that would cement the saxophonist’s reputation–including Another Place (1978), The Missing Link (1979), and The Milwaukee Tapes, Vol. 1 (1980). During this period Drake began creative relationships with Herbie Hancock and avant-garde bassist Bill Laswell; in the late 80s and into the 90s, when he was making his living with several local blues and reggae outfits, he worked frequently with Laswell, recording a live album and collaborating with him and former PiL bassist Jah Wobble.
Since then Drake has recorded in many different configurations with Anderson, local percussionist Michael Zerang, German reedist Peter Brotzmann, prolific saxophonist David Murray, and bassist William Parker; he’s also a founding member of the DKV Trio with Ken Vandermark and Kent Kessler. Touring with these groups takes him away from his Bowmanville home for at least half of every year. “I’m not able to play in Chicago as much as I’d like,” he says.
But in December Drake did make some Chicago time to record Back Together Again with Anderson. “All the years we’ve been playing together, we’ve focused it into this project,” he says. “Fred is still one of the most committed, disciplined, and persevering people I’ve ever met–not only his commitment to himself and his art, but to the music itself and to its continuing beyond all of us. In his own way he’s adopting the bodhisattva ideal. Not just to make things good for yourself, but to make them good for others.”
Drake himself is a dedicated practitioner of a form of tantric Buddhism called Vajrayana, and says he’s aligned with Sufism as well. His bookshelves are filled with religious literature, and his house and garden are decorated with Buddhist statues and prints. Perhaps closest to his heart among all his projects is the new disc Collusion With Wonder, recorded with a band called Inji and inspired by Buddhist master Traktung Rinpoche and his wife, master A’dzom Rinpoche.
“I’m very proud of that,” Drake says. “Under those type of circumstances . . . you’re playing music in the service of something that you’re a part of but also something that’s greater than you. In a way, I guess I’ve always tried to approach music from that perspective.”
Saturday’s concert begins at 9:30 PM; cover is $10. See the listings for more.
Out of the Lyons Den
This Sunday the Lyons Den ends its eight-year run as a live-music and comedy venue with a night of drinking and karaoke. Owner Joe Tozer sold the North Center club to Jamie Hale and Tony Griffin of Ginger’s Ale House, who plan on reopening it as a European-style soccer bar next month. Tozer was near the end of his lease, and his landlords wanted to raise his rent from $3,800 to $5,800. He decided to sell, he says, “mainly so I wouldn’t have to start charging six bucks a beer.” Tozer will keep the bar’s name and PA system, and he’s already scouting around town for a new location.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.