Play That Suitcase, White Boy

Martin & Haynes — Freedman (Barnyard, 2008)

For the albums he’s done on his own Barnyard label (which also records artists like Anthony Braxton, just so you know), drummer Jean Martin has played all kinds of instruments: normal drums, turntables, tape loops — even trumpet, bass and keyboards on his duo album with Colin Fisher.

For this one, he plays a suitcase, and he’s accompanied by Justin Haynes on the ukulele. So begins the soon-to-be-famous suitcase-and-ukelele genre.

It’s a trope of avant-garde percussion — grab random object, hit it — but the reason that idea gets used so often is because of the rich variety of sounds that can be produced.  That’s why Gino Robair bows styrofoam, or Moe! Staiano bashes pots and sheet metal.

Drums, after all, are a series of sound selections.  Even in a rock band, the drummer writes his/her own parts, meaning the band needs a drummer tuned in to how the different sounds enhance or handicap a song.

The suitcase + ukulele combination turns out to have a spare, friendly aesthetic. Haynes often works in jazzy motifs, and Martin coaxes soft, padded sounds from the suitcase — it’s a lot like brush work on the toms. I think I hear the zipper only occasionally, so the camp factor is low.

The title comes from the fact that these are compositions by Myk Freedman. He’s not dead or anything; they just chose to devote the album to his songs. So, quite a few of the tracks are tuneful and neighborly.

Some songs get abstract. The opener, “Naked in the River” has a sparse touch that could be called Asian Zen jazz. Others are snappy, like the aptly titled “Zombies Love Dancin’ to This Number.”

The inevitable gypsy-jazz/Django sounds come up quite often, and of course, some songs develop a Hawaiian touch thanks to the ukelele sound (“Clock Watchers” and “Love Boat of Love”).

It’s folky music with a lot of space for experimenting, and they don’t hit you over the head with the suitcase, so to speak.

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