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The Turntable Sessions, vol. 1 – Billy Martin and various artistsillyB Eats, vol. 2 – Billy Martin

Amulet Records 014

Amulet Records 013

Hip-hop's legitimacy as an art form has never been less in question, but the debate over turntablism remains: are turntables an instrument?

And if they are, indeed, instruments, what is their place in improvised music? Might an agile DJ provide more than mere accompaniment? Might he step out in the same way that, say, conventional instrumentalists are able to step out inside the confines of group improvisation? Or is he forever relegated to the shadows, licensed to contribute ambient blankets of sound that wrap the music inside, afraid or disallowed to partake in the jam beneath the linen?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but one might consult Billy Martin for guidance. One third of explosive neo-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, Martin has long championed the DJ's role in improvised music. The absurdly talented drummer invited one DJ Logic to collaborate on Medeski, Martin and Wood's Combustication in 1998, exposing the world to Jambandia’s most hallowed vinyl-manipulator. And, what’s more, Martin’s new release, The Turntable Sessions, Volume 1, ushers the DJ into uncharted territory: a space on equal footing with conventional musicians.

"The initial idea," read the liner notes, "was to put the turntable front and center as a chamber ensemble instrument (as opposed to being buried in the back of a band)." Dating back to summer 2001, and continuing through summer 2003, Martin hosted a number of "turntable sessions," where the drummer would pit a DJ against, say, a pianist or percussionist, for a round of frolicsome improv. The results, captured here for one's listening pleasure, are pure and exciting.

DJ Olive, who appears on nine of the eleven tracks, is talented; he has a good ear, and knows when to drop the beat. However, the real sparks fly when Olive's sparring partners step in.

"Red Road," Olive's collaboration with bassist Chris Wood, finds a deep groove and keeps on digging. The DJ kicks into a killin' drum loop and Wood breaks out the slide; the results are, needless to say, funky.

Another standout track, "Sleeptalking," is a trio piece. Billy Martin on pandeiro, cuica and whistles is joined by Olive and John Medeski for an organic trip through atmospheric hip-hop; Medeski's manic organ playing complements Olive's sinister bass line and Martin's playful percussion.

"Marty," another of the disc's stronger cuts, lines up a quartet featuring Martin, Olive, Matt Moran on vibes and the masterful Marty Ehrlich on tenor saxophone. A moody jazz adventure steered by Ehrlich's saxophone and anchored by Martin's searching drums, "Marty" really delves into the magic that improvisation can bring.

Legendary producer Scotty Hard is also present on Sessions, lending his turntable talents to two tracks. "Giliad," a duet with vocalist Dean Bowman, is a fun romp through genre cross-pollination (and the stronger of Hard's two contributions here); Bowman belts out the old folk song atop Hard's dirty urban beat, a combination less puzzling to one's ear than it might seem on paper.

The Turntable Sessions, Volume 1 is a great disc, spilling over with triumphant improvisation and the magic of spontaneity in music. Additionally, its take on the DJ’s role in this form is incendiary but don’t forget to check out what Chris Wood, John Medeski, Dean Bowman and especially Marty Ehrlich had to say on this record. The DJ might be on equal footing with conventional musicians here, but no scratch or cut could replace the rich, warm tone of Marty Ehrlich’s tenor saxophone, and no sampled drum lick could hold a candle to Billy Martin’s relentless groove.

And speaking of relentless grooves, no self-respecting Billy Martin freak should pass up the drummer's other current release, illyB Eats, volume 2. Martin’s second compilation of beats is any DJ’s dream: nasty, nasty breaks that run the gamut of style and taste ("Sweeping Up" is a Martinesque groove not unlike his work with MMW; "Invention Necklace" is a raging Latin romp). The drummer invites musicians of all breeds and pedigrees to sample these works for inclusion on their own projects (if you thought some of Olive’s beats on the Sessions disc sounded familiar, you were right!).

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