Hamilton's music is a unique synthesis of African and Caribbean influences, jazz, and R&B. Heavily influenced by Bobby McFerrin in a two-week workshop he attended more than a decade ago, Hamilton uses his voice as a full orchestra. (McFerrin, who will probably go down as one of the great musical innovators of this century, embodies a concept as old as humanity itself: the human voice as the primal musical instrument, capable of imitating sounds of the world around it.) Maya, one of several albums released on Hamilton's own Montenegro label, features original compositions lushly orchestrated with only vocals and percussion.
The African influence in Hamilton's work is not confined to his choices of rhythm and instrumentation; it is conceptual, as well. In Africa, music is used on a daily basis to express life experience: to celebrate, mourn, and chronicle events and passages. Music is not just a commodity, as it is so often in the West. The listener is not passive; he is also a participant, physically and emotionally drawn into the musical experience which often includes singing and dancing. Now living in New York, Hamilton musically tells the stories and imitates the sounds of the urban life around him. "Street Corner Symphony," with its cool, Beat-Generation swing feel, finger snapping on the off beat, and abrupt, percussive breaks, brings to mind the macho posturing of young urban cruisers. "Jazz and Jive" features a percussive, breathy chorus over an infectious, up-tempo hip-hop groove. The title cut is very African with its soothing, laid-back percussion, close vocal harmonies, and thoughtful lyrics:
"You pass through the world full of
hope and dreams,
as you try hard to find your own place
no one knows what's for sure,
or what place you will find,
you just learn how to live ..."
"Forces of Nature" is an energetic symphony of rich vocal timbre, full of joy and humor, which builds in intensity and rhythmic complexity and then ends abruptly. "Morning Song" (a philosophical lament on the difficulties the "small-time folk" face in getting a decent job) and "Sinnerman Skank" (which features vocal improvisation around a whistled melody with choral accompaniment) reflect the Caribbean influences in Hamilton's life; his parents are from Montserrat and Jamaica.
Born in Medford, Massachusetts, Hamilton's musical talent made itself known at an early age. His mother claims that, as a baby, he never cried; he sang instead, and the timbre of his voice conveyed to her what he needed. His interest in percussion followed close behind. "As I got older, I started to bang around on the kitchen table," he says in an interview, "and one thing led to another." He earned a degree in political science and performance studies at Middlebury College, and later studied voice and percussion at Berklee. For the most part, though, he is self-taught.
The New York Times calls him "contemporary and cutting edge." Downbeat deemed him "A substantial vocal talent." He has performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Gilberto Gil, Donald Fagan, Ottmar Liebert, Phoebe Snow, John Cage, and Special EFX; and has worked on musical projects with the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Hamilton and his group have toured, Japan, South America, and the U.S. His multi-media theater piece, Vocalscapes, featuring dance, video, percussion, piano, and voice, has been produced at Dance Theater Workshop and St. Mark's Church in New York City. The Carver Community Cultural Center is bringing his trio and his playful musical enthusiasm to Laurie Auditorium Friday. With his ability to draw the audience into the musical experience, don't expect to sit still.
PHILIP HAMILTON TRIO
Friday, January 17
(Carver box office)