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Published: 2006/03/15
by Jesse Jarnow

Live at Houston Hall – Billy Martin and Grant Calvin Weston

Live at Houston Hall – Billy Martin and Grant Calvin Weston,Amulet Records 19

solo live Tonic 2002 – Billy Martin, Amulet Records 18

The middle-M in perpetual avant-dance jazz favorites Medeski, Martin, and Wood, drummer Billy Martin has modestly carved himself an adjoining career as a completely accessible label head, drum teacher, and constantly collaborating percussionist. The 18th and 19th releases from his ongoing Amulet Records imprint capture Martin in his most elemental form. solo live Tonic 2002 finds Martin alone in lower Manhattan’s cozy jazz club, while Live at Houston Hall has him in Philadelphia with longtime sparring partner G. Calvin Weston.

The recording site of two Medeski, Martin, and Wood albums and two previous Amulet releases, Tonic is Martin's veritable living room. On solo live Tonic, Martin spreads out and offers a circa-2002 index of just about everything in his considerable bag of textures: straight-up trap explorations ("Max Moon"), set pieces (a new reading of the concert bass drum/nyabinghi/gong construction "Six Grandfathers"), subliminally pulsing agogo bell exercises ("The Day-Break Star Herb of Understanding"), melodic mobiles ("Coconuts Feeding Birds"), mbira dances ("Flora Aura"), duck call duets ("Duck Pond"), talking drum demos (uh, "Talking Drum"), pure groove ("Favela"), and earnest cosmic philosophizing ("Some words about Black Elk"). It’s a perfect and varied introduction to Martin’s rewarding extra-curricular work.

Martin's association with Weston, meanwhile, stretches to the pre-MMW days, when the pair shared percussion duty in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards. Houston Hall returns to them to the drum battle format of Amulet’s debut release, percussion duets, recorded in 1995. Especially in contrast to solo live Tonic, Houston Hall is almost straight-up drums. The bulk of the tracks are visceral duels, sheets of cymbals and pealing toms with Weston exerting fierce grunts from time to time that occasionally mutate into vocal improvs. The sonically complex "Agoxixi (part 1)" and "Agoxixi (part 2)" provide respites, featuring Martin’s gamelan gongs and Weston’s free trumpet. Likewise, "Tree Tops" is a thumb piano fantasy, Weston’s bells shimmering beneath Martin’s congotronic mbira.

Like all of Martin's previous Amulet releases, both provide surprising ways to think about drumming, and are each textbook examples of resourcefulness and creative adventure. That might not be your bag, but it sure is Martin's. After all, it's his living room.

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