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Billy Martin: Beyond MMW

The celebrated drummer unleashes his artistic vision via several new projects

Wil Blades (l.) and Billy Martin, Sullivan Hall, NYC, 7-12
Billy Martin at home in New Jersey, 2012
John Scofield, Billy Martin, Chris Wood, NYC, 8-11

Drummer, percussionist and composer Billy Martin passed the early afternoon of Sept. 7 in SiriusXM Radio’s midtown studios with John Medeski and Chris Wood, his cohorts since 1991 in their eponymously named trio. There, they sat for an interview and performed covers of PJ Harvey’s “Pocket Knife” and the Elvis Presley vehicle “Suspicious Minds” for future broadcast, supporting a new live acoustic album, Free Magic (Indirecto), and an 11-gigs-in-12-nights tour in early October. When they were finished, Martin subwayed downtown to MMW manager Liz Penta’s compact corner office on the second floor of an un-gentrified 19th-century Tribeca building. Wearing a gray T-shirt with a red Jajouka logo and pinstriped gray slacks, iced coffee in hand, he described MMW’s first meeting in a month.

“Everything fell into place,” Martin said, noting that, in response to the pull of family (he’s 49, with two children, 11 and 8) and the current economic landscape, not to mention the increasing tour schedule of Wood’s Americana-oriented Wood Brothers group, MMW has downscaled its once herculean road-warrior itinerary. “Over the past five years, we’ve had to learn to cut down. It’s like the less we get together, the better we play, and the more precious it is. We’re mid-career as a band, and I feel there’s a lot more to be done together, but I also feel it’s a moment to explore other parts of ourselves. When we reconvene, we’ll bring all of it back in and use it to create more music collectively.”


Since 1997, when he launched his imprint, Amulet, Martin has been anything but shy about putting forth his own artistic vision. Over the last decade he’s released several solo drum recitals, an album of breakbeats, and collaborations with drummer G. Calvin Weston, with turntablists DJ Logic and DJ Spooky, and with outcat pianist Dave Burrell, as well as a CD for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Starlings, comprising his music for a string quartet, a chamber nonet and a 12-piece percussion group. In 2006 he published Riddim: Claves of African Origin, a book that offers plainspoken rudiments for attaining the coordination necessary to execute and improvise on grooves from the various branches of the African diaspora. These exercises are notated using the same self-invented system of X’s and dots Martin used in the 2011 folio Stridulations for the Good Luck Feast, a collection of 13 percussion miniatures.

Then there are Martin’s films. The drummer directed last year’s Fly in a Bottle, a feature-length, “you are there” documentary on the making of MMW’s Radiolarians opus. A year prior came Martin’s Life on Drums, which juxtaposes conversational segments between the director and Allen Herman, his first drum teacher, with pungent vignettes showcasing Martin’s instrumental and compositional voice.

Before turning to his current docket, Martin consulted his smart-phone. “I had to write a list,” he said with a wry laugh. “I’ll easily forget to tell you about something important.”

To begin, he observed that he is artistic-directing a project, commissioned by Master Musicians of Jajouka leader Bachir Attar and composer Howard Shore, in which Ornette Coleman, Mickey Hart, Flea, Lee Ranaldo and MMW, among others, will remix material from the 1996 recording Jajouka Between the Mountains. He also blends production and musical chops on Loops From the Underground (DrumCore), an mp3 package that contains 13 no-royalty beats, variations and fills with titles like “BeOunce” (“a swung, bouncy, syncopated urgent groove”), “Cookarocka” (“Frantic Drum and Bass inspired groove”), “Ellingtone” (“A hip snares-off interpretation of Jazzier days gone by”) and “Snaked” (“Slinky hat/sidestick groove with Billy’s unique, 16th pulse”).

One of Martin’s two new band projects is a brass and drums quartet called Wicked Knee with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and tubist Marcus Rojas, which he debuted in 2011 on Wicked Knee. “I’ve been talking to Steven about drum and brass since we played in the Lounge Lizards,” Martin said. “I love the combination-not just in the New Orleans traditional style, but in African, experimental and contemporary modern, too.” The other fresh group is a duo with organist-clavinetist Wil Blades, whom he met in 2011 in San Francisco. They’ve subsequently toured three times. Shimmy, released this year on the Royal Potato Family, distills their meta-conversation with 10 pithy, kinetic pieces.

On the composition tip, Martin was preparing a series of scores that the Fang Percussion Ensemble, comprising primarily his students, would perform in November, before making what he describes as his first “serious recording with a percussion group.” Furthermore, he had recently scored his first film, a “psychological drama” titled 7E, for which he wrote various cues for string quartet.

Finally, Martin revealed that he was starting to conceptualize a movie portraying some of the “uncompromising artists” who populated New York’s Downtown music world he fell into during the latter ’80s, after coming off the road with Chuck Mangione. “That scene is where I started to feel like I was really expressing myself,” Martin said, citing associations with Samm Bennett’s Chunk, Ned Rothenberg’s Double Band and John Zorn that predate his joining John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards in 1989. “Playing with all these bands quickly defined what it was that I had. I was combining different things-punk rock with classical and folk art-that I couldn’t imagine combining until then. Cross-pollinating. Intense experimentation. Everybody had an opportunity to bring their ideas, whether they were high concepts or really raw, down and dirty. That’s New York City to me. Not too many places where you can do that.”

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Originally Published