Brad Hammonds plays in the moment. That freshness and spontaneous vitality reverberate on Greene Street, released July 17, 2012, a beautifully textured acoustic instrumental album with rock drive. Joined at his intimate downtown studio by close friends and wildly creative collaborators, Hammonds exhibits his trademark depth and flair for thoughtfully deployed technique.
With top improvisers and interpreters Will Martina (cello; Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber), Mathias Kunzli (percussion; Regina Spektor) and Jason DiMatteo (bass; Burnt Sugar), Hammonds explores rolling Celtic lines inspired by Led Zeppelin, Middle Eastern beats, and flamenco flourishes. The band revels in modal lines, shifting time signatures, and expansive solos, without losing their musical momentum.
Hammonds’ quicksilver fingers and percussive playing range and rove, but the New York-based musician and composer never strays from the center: the grounded stillness of a calm, open mind. “I always come back to the interesting fact that all thought is elusive,” Hammonds, a trained psychologist as well as crack musician, reflects. “We just have this moment. I try to get into that space before writing.”
The drums were Hammonds’ first love and his first instrument growing up, a fact that has shaped his approach to the guitar. “A lot of the time signature shifts and techniques I use come from studying the drums,” Hammonds explains with a smile. “I’m trying to play the drums and the guitar at the same time. I break a string nine times out of ten when I play.”
But in a good-natured sibling rivalry with his guitar-wielding twin brother, Hammonds decided he would take up the instrument, too. Yet instead of learning other people’s tunes, he dove into writing his own. He listened to everything—from Ani DiFranco and Shakti to Metallica and Tool—and took it all in.
But what came out was unexpected: “It’s bizarre,” Hammonds laughs. “I don’t know where it comes from. I’m a white guy from Delaware, but I write world folk-rock.”
Hammonds put this unanticipated tendency to good use, touring the U.S. college circuit as half of the passionate Brazz Tree, playing gig after gig and perfecting his craft. But after several years, Hammonds was ready to work on his own solo material without the stress of life on the road or internal band politics.
Greene Street came about after Hammonds decided to engage more with the instrumental he loved. The pieces came easily, sometimes simply flowing out of an open tuning or snatch of melody. “It was the most seamless project I’ve ever done, in terms of getting material down,” Hammonds notes. “It wrote itself.”
The complexity of the compositions belies that ease. “If This, Then That” is a blazing, multi-part romp that moves fluidly from rootsy, upbeat grooves to pensive, open moments peppered with sharp percussion. “Ryan the Lion,” a tribute to Hammonds’ young son, is a merry mix of British Isles nimbleness and Mediterranean grit. “Stomp” pulses like a reel, but with bluesy slides and an engaging percussive wallop.
The vitality and sparkling energy of the tracks are a product not only of Hammonds’ clever composing, but also of the group’s esprit de corps. Recording live at Hammonds’ Greene Street studio, the quartet avoided overdubs and edits whenever possible. “We really didn’t want to edit too much. We wanted a nice live feel,” says Hammonds.
Though some of the pieces provided true challenges—“Further East” and “The Fly” took dozens of takes to get just right—the band came together naturally, in a spirit of genuine camaraderie. While Martina’s cello adds a lyrical richness to the music, Kunzli flew off into fanciful places, using everything from Tibetan bells to vocal percussion, as DiMatteo easily fell into the sweet, grounded pocket.
The result has both depth and whimsy, with Hammonds’ intense playing at its grounded center. Like the fleeting path of thoughts, Greene Street’s songs may run and leap, but they never lose their core focus. “It’s a good way to practice music, to step out of that regular mental space and to just have fun,” Hammonds muses, “to take a couple seconds and come back, be present, and watch my thoughts. It all flows from there.”