“A Modern Classic:” Ben Reimer’s Katana of Choice (Red Shift Records)

When I was a lad in the ’60s, one of my favorite LPs was the RCA release Jungle Drums featuring Morton Gould and his Orchestra. I played it incessantly. The album was addictive, colorful, virtuosic and, as an 11-year-old, thought it great fun. Jungle Drums LPs are collectible classics and the album is still available on CD. So when I first listened to Katana of Choice: Music for Drumset Soloist (Red Shift Records) by Canadian percussionist Ben Reimer my first reaction was “this is a 21st-century Jungle Drums:” a highly listenable, provocative, virtuoso percussion album. And dare I say, it is a lot of fun, too? There is something humanly primal about drums that moves us, and Katana of Choice explores these feelings in seven powerful and unique works all written around a solo drumset.

Right from the start Drum Dances (1993, arr. 2016 Ben Duinker) by John Psathas sets a bouncy, jazzy mood. The short first dance is chaotic as the four percussionists (drum set and mallet percussion) battle for control aiming to play together; by the end they sort of come to a conclusion. Yet, while listening, one focuses on the dynamic rhythms and touches of color, making it a most satisfying opener. “What’s next?” for these two musicians you ask; you want to hear more.

Seemingly coming out the final notes of the first dance, the second progresses slowly and stately. A mostly quiet meditation, the second dance brings the two instrumentalists into better focus, with the drum set providing a steady slow heartbeat under the chiming, glittering mallets including a glockenspiel. The third dance is a study in propulsive, syncopated movement, while the fourth finally synchronizes the duo in a prestissimo finale. Montreal-based Architek Percussion ensemble joins Reimer on the various mallets in these spirited dances.

Ben Reimer

Ringer (2009), one of two works by Canadian composer Nicole Lizée on the album, features Reimer on drumset and glockenspiel. Despite the seemingly limited resources, Ringer evolves into a dramatic, ever-shifting exploration of contrasting rhythm and melody. Frequently, the drumset provides the “melody” while the glockenspiel moves the piece forward rhythmically. The constant shifting and refraction of the material imitates electronica as if using a drum machine or sampler to create patterns and loops. Ringer is the most reflective of the works on the album, and the dialog between bass drum and glockenspiel near the end is not to be missed.

Train Set by Eliot Britton (2006) evokes the “rhythmic rumbles, clicks and apocalyptic sounds” of trains rumbling through the vast Manitoba prairie. Cymbals recall the rattle of boxcars as a long drum roll crescendo signals the approach and arrival of the engines. Train Set introduces and deftly uses electronics to further recreate the sound and feel of the passing trains, even the “woosh” of each passing car as it whizzes by–another amazing piece that draws an incredible amount of sound and color from a single drumset.

Percussionist David Cossin joins Reimer in Lukas Ligeti‘s Lakoni in Kazonnde (2013) for two drumsets. The work was written for Cossin and Reimer and premiered that year at the Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City. A wickedly complex, virtuoso showpiece, Lakoni in Kazonnde propels forward with a veritable cascade of sound. One would think a work for two drumsets would quickly careen out of control, but that is not the case here. The interplay of the performers is so tight and precise that one can imagine a huge, many armed drum machine parading grandly down a busy street. Lakoni in Kazonnde has some influences from African drum traditions, and the title, inspired by a Jules Verne novel, also has African connotations. Seven and a half minutes of pure energy and power, Lakoni in Kazonnde is the highlight of the disc, and hopefully will be heard frequently in percussion and contemporary music concerts.

Nicole Lizée–Photo by Martin Chamberland

The album’s title track Katana of Choice–Nichole Lizée’s second work on the program–literally bubbles and boils with energy. Reimer and the TorQ Percussion Quartet have a whole kitchen sink of percussion and keyboards at their disposal; everything from balloons and pop-gun to a kaossilator, stylophone, and foot stomps join Reimer with his drumset in this crazy-good work. Lizée explains in her notes that Katana of Choice evokes a “simulated duel-based ‘visual novel’ type video game in which the graphics, soundtrack, and narrative are provided exclusively by the live ensemble.” Probably the most “out-there” work on the album, Lizée completely succeeds in creating a game-like sound world that will endlessly fascinate the listener; you never know what is coming next. For the curious, a katana is a traditional Japanese samurai sword, providing a fitting title for a martial arts inspired work.

The album is available only in a digital download or limited pressing vinyl LP (two tracks are for download only) from Red Shift Records. The download was quick and easy with great sound. Helpful, readable notes by Reimer and the composer of each work is part of the download package.

As with my old favorite Jungle Drums, this program never gets tiring or repetitive. Reimer, aided by the prodigious talents of TorQ and Architek Percussion ensembles, draws a universe of sound from the dominant drum set. Interesting and brilliantly groundbreaking, I could listen to this album for hours on end–I have in fact. A modern classic in my eyes, and a winner, too.