Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Welcoming Complexities

Kate Gentile creates a unique sound and style within a demanding musical genre, deftly employing percussion including gongs, almglocken, Indian Noah bells, and Togo bells within highly personal electroacoustic compositions featuring intense improvisation. That she makes such dense music flow is to her credit; that she works her expanded setup to illustrate her ideas so well is a marvel.

Gentile’s debut album, Mannequins, recalls Frank Zappa’s intricate polyrhythms if performed by a programmer, a classical percussionist, and a multilimbed trap set player—peppered with unusual turns and jagged rhythms, yet friendly and inclusive. When she’s not subbing for New York monsters like Dan Weiss, Ches Smith, or Tyshawn Sorey, the drummer is working with forward-leaning jazz musicians such as trumpet great Dave Douglas’s Enact, guitarist Dustin Carlson’s Air Ceremony, pianist Matt Mitchell’s Phalanx Ambassadors, and trumpeter Davy Lazar’s trio, or her own groups Secret People, Snark Horse, and, with Lazar, the duo Pluto’s Lawyer.

The thirty-two-year-old drummer and composer is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where she pursued a double degree in jazz performance and music education. Here we discuss her creative approach to the musical complexities of the songs on Mannequins, as well as what it takes to live the life of an experimental musician in modern-day NYC.

MD: Mannequins has what sounds like through-composed compositions that recall progressive chamber music or Varèse.

Kate: Nothing is through-composed except one track. Some sounds hint at free jazz. There’s a jazz approach because we’re improvising with the material from the tunes. Frank Zappa gets mentioned a lot [in the press], which is funny, because I haven’t listened to enough Zappa that I would say he’s an influence.

MD: Did you overdub percussion on Mannequins?

Kate: “Hammergaze” had a few layers: Noah bells, different types of gongs like tiger gongs, and different metallic sounds that are resonant. Also, cowbells and agogo bells, a tiny toy drumset—the toms sound like a bongo or timbale or a cross between different hand drums. I tried to think of all the different families of sounds and have options from each of them.

MD: What are the other sounds in “Hammergaze”?

Kate: There’s vibraphone that sounds really weird because all the bars are the same width. It sounds different from a normal vibraphone; it’s more bell-like. Also, we took segments from the roughs and sent them to [pianist] Matt Mitchell, who processed them. I mixed those files, and we made certain ones go retrograde, or we put effects on them. I collaged them in a way where I can’t even say what’s what because we did so many weird things.

MD: And there are boxy sounds, like you’re playing suitcases or a treated cajon.

Kate: There’s a minute-long coda at the end of “Alchemy Melt” that’s entirely electronic. There’s a rhythmic pattern prior to that, then the tune suddenly switches to electronics. Maybe that’s what you’re hearing.

MD: On some tunes you play long phrases in unison with the melodic player; elsewhere you play more contrasting rhythmic support.

Kate: It’s definitely a mixture of unison and counterpoint. The record starts with two tunes that both have that unison thing, “Stars Covered in Clouds of Metal” and “Trapezoidal Nirvana.” Then there are ones with counterpoint, where unison playing in that environment wouldn’t make sense with the nature of the rhythms. The other option would be playing free, almost like taking a drum solo over it. There’s a nice clarity there because we’re playing free later in the track anyway, so it’s nice to hear the melody clearly.

MD: You often incorporate percussion into your drumset to where it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

Kate: I just pick it up. All the tracks have integrated drums and percussion. Everything is one take with no overdubs, except “Hammergaze” and “Sear,” where I played an extra layer of gongs. And I overdubbed bowing vibraphone harmonics in “Micronesia Parakeet.”

MD: “Xenomorphic” has straight-ahead jazz elements and a great drum solo.

Kate: There’s a drum solo in “Unreasonable Optimism” as well. Other songs I like for specific elements include “Alchemy Melt,” because it’s comprehensive, and “Cardiac Logic,” which is unusual as it’s morphing from acoustic to electronic. I haven’t heard another similar tune where it gradually morphs from acoustic to electronic within the same material.

MD: Who are your drumming heroes?

Kate: Tony Williams, Dan Weiss, Ches Smith, Jim Black, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Tyshawn Sorey. When teaching I do a variation of the Alan Dawson ritual, the Marvin “Smitty” Smith version. And I have exercises that help me approach polyrhythms. They’re really specific to the music that I’m asked to do. I played in marching band and jazz band in high school. Marching band is a great way to get your chops together really fast.

MD: What are you usually called for?

Kate: I get asked to play music that’s rhythmically involved and that has a lot of polyrhythms, unusual subdivisions, or irrational meters. Or things that are on the 8th-note/16th-note grid that are heavy on counterpoint and that require the drummer to read three staff s and play many rhythms at once. And I do jazz gigs with improvising.

MD: What do you tell musicians who want to play this music?

Kate: Have your fundamentals together on your instrument and be able to deal with complex rhythms. If five against four challenges you, you’re going to be in over your head after one tune. But being a good improviser is also important. There are people that can play complex stuff , but when it’s time to improvise it’s just not exciting. So working on improvising and making good music, all that comes from studying.

MD: How do you survive in New York playing creative, challenging, off-the-grid music?

Kate: You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot. You can’t drink a lot—alcohol costs money that you don’t have. You can’t smoke—you can’t afford cigarettes. You can’t afford to have a pet. It’s a bare minimum kind of existence. You really have to want it.

Tools of the Trade

Gentile’s setup includes a 7.5×14 Slingerland Radio King snare drum, 8×12 and 14×14 Slingerland toms, and either a 14×20 Slingerland or 14×18 Mapex bass drum. Her cymbal complement consists of 14″ hi-hats made up of a vintage A bottom cymbal and a non-branded top cymbal (which she bought for $5), a 20″ Sabian Hand- Hammered Manhattan ride, a 20″ Sabian ride, a 22″ Sabian Bosphorus ride (“Its huge bell sounds crazy on blast beats”), and a 16″ Adam crash cymbal. Gentile uses Remo Ambassador heads, Promark Elvin Jones Autograph series drumsticks, and Regal Tip brushes. She expands her set with percussion including woodblocks, a cowbell, 5″ to 20″ gongs, almglocken, Indian Noah bells, shakers, chains, and Togo bells.


Photo by Michael Yu

Manic Mannequins

Gentile Lays Out a Wild Polyrhythmic Approach

Here’s an example of a polyrhythmic groove related to one of my tunes from Mannequins, “alchemy melt [with tilt],” that starts around the 9:00 mark. The groove moves an idea—loosely, two 8th notes and a quarter note—on the bass drum through a pattern of changing subdivisions. I keep the snare on beat 3, creating a consistent halftime backbeat.

The ride cymbal plays the shifting subdivisions—varying between five-, six- (notated as quarter-note triplets), seven-, eight-, and nine-note groupings—between each bar. The bass drum plays the main theme while adjusting its placement to match each subdivision. Let’s check out the isolated ride and kick patterns.

This notation is useful conceptually, but to play those rhythms while feeling the half-note backbeat, you have to think of the fives, sevens, and nines as subdivisions of the half note rather than of the whole measure. Using a metronome and alternating single strokes, play the following groupings on the snare while playing half notes with your feet. Start with no accents at first, and then add them.

Now play only the accented notes with both hands in unison.

Finally, play the varying subdivisions on a ride cymbal with the bass drum and snare backbeat.

Be sure to try improvising within the subdivisions, and have fun!