There are a number of great hand drummers out there, but Arturo Stable is different – he’s a great musician who plays hand drums. And while the signature rhythms of his native Cuba provide a starting point for the 33-year-old conguero, the depth of his talent has long ago played over those bar lines.
Don’t get us wrong: Stable loves the beats of son, guajira, and rumba – the music he grew up on – but when you’ve been away from your native country for 12 years, the pull of other cultures can begin to reroute your course. After studying in Boston, doing session work in New York, and relentlessly touring the world, Stable and the younger generation of hand drummers are more global in their musical outlook than the veteranos of the scene. “There’s already been so much music recorded with the timbal and the tumbao and whatever, that for me it’s not there any more,” he says while navigating his SUV through the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. “I try to explore different ways to incorporate those folkloric elements, which I grew up with, and played for many years, and put them into my personal vision somehow.”
Stable’s congas are central on his brand-new release, Call. But more importantly, the album bears witness to the man’s gifts as a composer. “Some great percussionists, they only have the percussion training, not necessarily writing, composing, or arranging. Sometimes they get so locked into only the rhythmic ideas they forget where the music is going melodically, dynamically – the tension. As a consequence they don’t interact the same way with the band as everyone else. In my case, that’s something I’m very, very aware of.”
Whereas 2004 debut 3rd Step was an angst-y bit of modern Latin jazz, Stable recalls his first bandleader record as “somewhat standard.” He went all high-concept with 2007’s Notes On Canvas, a collection of dense, probing excursions, each track the aural equivalent of Stable’s favorite paintings by Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Kandinsky, and even his father. Call might be the golden mean between the first two albums, if not the most accessible underground hand-drum record of the year. Having written, arranged, and produced all the music, Stable relies on saxophonist Javier Vercher and pianist Aruan Ortiz as the conduits of his primary musical ideas. Both men are buffered by bassist Edward Perez’s liquid low end and the bronze drizzlings of trap drummer Francisco Mela, the latter a perfect foil for Stable’s mercurial handwork.
Except for an overdub in the final track, Call is a completely live recording. Given the album’s tonal subtleties and layered intricacy, he had to have been supremely confident about getting it right. “Lately with the whole technology thing, people take too long to record and they do a lot of overdubbing,” he says. “I’m not against it, but when you listen to those old Miles recordings from the ’50s and ’60s, those guys just went to the studio for a few hours and did it. I have played with these guys for years,” he says, contrasting the Call process with Notes On Canvas’ 17 carefully vetted musicians, “and we went into the studio and, boom!” Whatever got lost in recording perfection is more than made up for in spontaneity. “You gain a lot from that.”
Despite Stable’s worries of being just a Latin artist, half of Call’s tracks are written in clave. “Goodbye To Eternity” is the percussive money shot, a clave in 17/8 that’s tweaked in such a way that he ended up with a new cascara pattern. From that rhythmic foundation he was able to write the bass line, harmony, and so on. “I love the work of Ornette Coleman, and so I tried to use some of the conceptual work that he did, like having a driving rhythm section with a large melody that smoothes out the complexity of the rhythm, rather than having a melody that’s really strong as well, [which is when] everything becomes too strong.”
Whether holding back or charging full bore, hand techniques abound on Call. On “Old Memories” the resounding thud on the 1 almost makes it seems like he’s playing a standard drum set kick. The inspiration came from some vintage vinyl he was checking out two or three years ago. “I was like, ’Wow, my conga playing sounds so neat [in comparison],’” he says. “How did these guys sound like that? Maybe for lack of technique or lack of practice they sounded a little dirty, but I liked it. So I started experimenting with that and realized it was how much of your hand you put into the instrument.”
Then there are the drum roll—level speeds he achieves on “Danz Sol,” a series of staccato flurries remarkable for their delicacy, a neat trick considering most guys get louder the faster they play. “Eventually you get to a slap that is tough to give a soft dynamic. It’s more for playing fortissimo, but the movement between that open tone and that slap is a slight change in your fingers. So that allows you to play [mouths a machine gun—like brrrrrrrrrrrrr]. That’s almost impossible to do with the traditional slap.”
For all the percussive pyrotechnics, Call’s melodies are the biggest selling point. The title track – bringing to mind afternoon coffee in bed as rain drums against the windows – has one of those hooks that will have to be surgically removed from your brain. Final track “Anthem” is the most bugged-out in terms of tension, layers, and overall busyness. Its Middle Eastern vibe directly channels flamenco’s gypsy influence, a subject on which Stable discourses like a PhD in ethnomusicology. “The instrument actually changed: Flamenco cajon sounds different from Peruvian cajon today. It wasn’t like that 20 or 30 years ago.”
When asked to name the track that most challenged him, Stable is baffled. Other people’s visions require interpretation, reading, and so on, he reasons, but all the musical ideas on Call are his, and thus poured out of him as naturally as exhaling. Suddenly worried he sounded arrogant, he admits “Goodbye To Eternity” kept him on his toes. “That track was pretty physical because the pattern is really long, it’s really fast, and I have a solo, so I’ll say that is the toughest, rhythmically speaking.”