The (com)passion of Karuna: old friends-percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake join forces with saxophonist Dave Liebman

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Liebman, Rudolph, Drake are Karuna | photo courtesy of the artist

From its name — the Tibetan word for compassion — to its conscious interplay and improvisation (or spontaneous composition), Karuna radiate soul, intimacy and humanity. Part of this touch-sensitivity surely stems from the fact that the trio’s two percussionists, Adam Rudolph (djembe, congas, tarija, sintir, electronics) and Hamid Drake (kit, vocals, frame drum) palled around as kids in Chicago, are dear friends, and have played together in diverse bands from leaders such as Baba Fred Anderson, Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef, Pharaoh Sanders, Hassan Hakmoun and more.

After one loving recording with reeds man Ralph M. Jones, Karuna’s Rudolph and Drake are touring and making music with legendary tenor and soprano saxophonist (to say nothing of bamboo flautist) Dave Liebman for an album called Chi, due out in February. Before that release, the trio (who also go by Liebman Rudolph & Drake) make a pit stop at Boot & Saddle on Monday, January 14, under the watchful curatorial eye of Philadelphia’s Ars Nova Workshop.  I caught up with Rudolph at home in New York City, just days before the live proceedings to see what friendship and fire mean to this union.

The Key: You and Hamid have known each other since, what, age 14, and Chicago. Under what circumstances did you two meet?

Adam Rudolph: We met in downtown Chicago at a drum shop in 1969. I lived on the Southside, and he came from the northern suburbs. We started talking together immediately, and just became really good friends.  We started playing together several years after we met, and since then have played in so many different situations.

TK: So it took a minute before you played as one. What did you like about each other as people, as kids?

AR: We shared a love of music, especially an interest in world music. Also, there was a focus on the mystical traditions that are associated with a lot of non-traditional, non-Western music. We talked a lot about yoga, Daoism, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism.

TK: How do you feel as if Chicago molded who both of you became, in terms of musicianship, workmanship and that literal and figurative world view?

AR: We’ve had different and separate experiences, as well as overlapping experiences. I introduced Hamid to my conga teacher, and studied AfroCuban and AfroHaitian music together every weekend downtown. At 16, Hamid started playing with Fred Anderson and invited me after I had turned 17. This was central to our development, as this was part of the oral tradition where older musicians pass on what they play and what they know with younger musicians. We shared in that, in those experiences.

TK: How do you feel as if the two of you differ from each other sonically?

AR: Our running joke is that he’s trying to play a drum set like a hand drummer, and I’m trying to play hand drums like a trap drummer. We both studied tabla together. Though I have studied percussion across the globe, and all of their traditions, I feel as if my greatest influences are trap drummers such as Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. We’re both very research oriented, constantly growing. That vibe, I call it  ‘research and development’, transcends even our love of drumming, whether you’re playing with sticks or hands.

TK: How do you know how to stay out of each other’s way?

AR: We practice spontaneous composition, so we cultivate imagination, deep listening and sharing from which respect stems. Our philosophical approach and how we play and our long years together and how we think about drumming means we never get in each other’s way. We can play in contrast, in the pocket. We’re always orchestrating ourselves.

TK: How does Dave Liebman become part of what it is you do, and merge?

AR: He’s one of the greatest living tenor players, and Hamid and I have quite a history with those, starting with Ralph Jones Fred Anderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Sam Rivers. It’s a real pleasure doing what we do with Dave. It started with me doing a week residency with him at The Stone in NYC several years ago. We knew each other just from being about and around, and the duets between us were magical. This last May, I had another residency there, where Hamid was with me, Dave just happened to be in New York, and we came together. And even more magical. There we are.

TK: Is there any pressure doing what the three of you do?

AR: If there is anything akin to pressure, it is the desire to reach for something new and be present in the moment every concert that we do.  We don’t want to repeat each other, play clichés, but be adventurous and create in the moment. Fortunately, we have a long history together and a highly developed language. Plus, Liebman is a great rhythm-ist, so he’s got that language down.

Liebman, Rudolph & Drake play Boot and Saddle on Monday, January 14th; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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