Bells, gongs, cymbal trees, thick Chinese cymbals, chimes, glass bells, perspex Cona coffee globes . . . Frank Perry’s drum kit, at present, incorporates everything except drums. Frank ushers you into his practice room, puts Wagner’s “Parsifal” on the turntable and begins to explain.
These bells here, for example – beautiful thick, heavy, ornately cast instruments – are from Far Eastern temples where they are used to accompany sutra chanting. some people say that, when they’re struck, the oscillations govern the speed of the chanting.
And these ones here, called, I think Densho, are well over 300 years old. They can be played with a bow or mallets, but frank only takes them on special concerts. They’re too sacred to be brought along to say, a jazz gig in a bar. To do that would be to show disrespect.
He did play them the other day however, at a spiritualist yoga group meeting. Right now that seems to be the ultimate goal for Frank. If he can use his musical skills as a focus for religious activity, then that’s too much, he’s playing a valuable role in the community.
Frank Perry’s a representative of the religious sect called the White Eagle Lodge, an unorthodox cosmic, spin-off of Christianity (its teaching places considerable emphasis on reincarnation), is currently giving daily solo performances at the Festival of Mind And Body at London’s Olympia, which suits him fine.
To the jazz world, he’s best known as the drummer with ovary Lodge, the band he co-founded with pianist Keith Tippett, and for his work with the improvisation group Balance (you can find their fine debut album on the INCUS label).
If you ever caught either band in performance, you’ll recall that Perry was all but invisible, obscured by a bewildering circle of percussion instruments, which looked, most often, like some modernist structure, altogether too delicate, too shimmeringly pretty, to be in any way functional.
But no, it transpired that Perry was the master of every item there, drawing ravishing, melodic textures from them all, rarely playing like a drummer, in any accompanist sense.
“I’m not against rhythm, but if you want to go beyond time and the limitations of the lower line you need sounds that will sustain. That’s why I’ve got more into gongs and instruments with lots of reverb and vibration, of frequencies – although I do play cyclic patterns that might come to me.
“The drum is a very earthly instrument. . .” (Frank implies that his inspirations extend beyond this world). “Quite a few free groups just use a drummer as a battery, an energy source, a timbral source. I wanted to move away from that, and play like a horn player, or a string player, and add my voice to the overall group sound. I wanted to feel that I was not depended upon to play all the time. That I could be as free to move in and out of the group sound as any other player.
“For me, the best performance I ever did in this area was with the Derek Bailey Group, which also featured Steve Beresford on piano, and Phil Wachsman on violin. We did a thing at the Cockpit Theatre in about 1973, which I thought was really good, as far as it went.
“That whole music seemed to be being shaped by Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, and they were carrying along a few other people who could relate to what they were doing. But I challenged all that. I said to myself, ‘is this really what I want to do?’ Derek and Evan had created a language which related to a community of people aiming for certain musical ideals, and I felt I didn’t really fit in.
“And after a while I seem to be losing the purity of the sound of my instruments by playing them in free music context. You know, I’d strike a gong, which, for me, sets a very specific kind of energy going, and no one else would relate to it at all. . . “
Frank would hear the sound as a kind of “Om,” a peaceful, fulfilling, meditative force, while for the other instrumentalists it was as he puts it “. . . ah yes, that E flat thing. . . what can I play with that? Right, oscillating C, or an octave F above or something. . . what can I play with that? Right, a diminished 11th. . .”
Other musicians, perhaps not unreasonably, would hear Perry’s instruments only objectively – as sound sources, supplying notes in a scale or whatever else the music required. But Frank that was not enough.
“I just stopped playing with other musicians for a long time. I gave only rare solo performances. I felt it was necessary to get back to simplicity. I’d just got too complicated. I’d been working with polyrhythmic things, then going into multi-directionals. I’d done all the advanced time stuff, nine against 16 and all that, but I was missing the actual sound potential of the instruments.
“What I want do do now, with my work with David (Toop) and in my solo work, is to link up spontaneity with inspiration. I want to become aware of all the energies that are playing on a musical environment. I want to become aware of all the messages that are coming to us on Earth from higher forces, from other planets, Nature, everything. . . and I want to make the music a kind of focus, a point where two worlds meet. I want to make the music into a suitable medium for conveying these spiritual messages. . .”
Steve Lake – Melody Maker April 23rd 1977