Billy Martin and Socket: January 14 & 15 2005, Live at Tonic
Live cacophony ladled over a healthy dose of groove -- but perhaps pack an aspirin or two.
Amulet Records is an indie label run by Billy Martin, the drummer for the nearly-huge jazz-jam phenomenon, Medeski, Martin & Wood. In "MMW", Martin is essentially a pop musician, if not the funkiest, hippest and most N'Awlins-y awesome pop drummer you've ever heard. The band sells out rock clubs around the country, having tapped into the fumes of good will that still follow the groove-loving fans of the Grateful Dead and Phish, (may they rest in peace, dude).
When Martin isn't percolating in the pocket, however, he is an immensely creative -- even avant-garde -- percussionist informed by Afro-Cuban and other sources from around the globe. Amulet lets him get his downtown juju music out for you to hear. And with this release, a live date by a band he calls "Socket" (recorded at the lightning rod for downtown NY hipness that is Tonic), Mr. Martin indulges his taste in squealing, bubbling, tongue-talking, headache music. These tracks, my friends, are cacophony, and that is a quote from Amulet's own promo materials. The question than is, how do you feel about creative cacophony?
This cacophony is loosely organized and wild, but it also gets up on the occasional groove. MMW, after all, has recorded live at Tonic and knows how to cut atonally loose. But this present assemblage of musicians does not give the listener much comfort in its instrumentation or arrangements. "Socket" is essentially an impressive percussion section (Martin, Cyro Batista, Grant Calvin Weston, and Eddie Bobe), combined with two multi-instrumentalists (Eyvind Kang on violin, bass, guitar, or trumpet, and Shahzad Ismaily on strings and percussion) and two singers (Shelly Hirsch and Min Xiao Fen). Rarely if ever does Socket sound like a jazz group (rhythm section plus horns? Sorry!) or a rock band (guitar, bass and drums locked into 4/4 time? Uh-uh). Rather, it sounds like a bunch of creative people locked in a room with a whole bunch of instruments, setting free whatever is inside them. No particularly surprising as that's what Socket is.
Before you can get to a decent groove, Socket makes you run the gauntlet some. "Purification of Wounds (part 1)" is a grumble of guitar and a skitter of percussion, setting the scene for some kind of odd gibberish chanting-singing. It could be an Asian language or it could be the channeling of a witch's spirit, but it is an obtuse head-scratcher either way. Three minutes in, Martin goes a little Elvin Jones on you, driving his kit into a cymbal and tom-tom frenzy, with Ismaily's electric guitar appearing beneath him in scarlet sounding distortion. What this tune isn't going to give -- what this album isn't going to give -- is a cohesive melody or a well-coordinated composition. All the tunes are credited simply to "Socket", suggesting that they are all largely collective improvisations, and "Purification 1" certainly suggests spontaneous combustion. In the last minute, Kang begins blaring trumpet notes that momentarily suggest Bitches Brew or Get Up With It Miles Davis, but the tune ends suddenly. Your ears are like, what just happened?
"Purification of Wounds (part 2)" contains about the same proportion of vocal screechiness and distortion-fueled strummery, but it leads with a groove-laden bed of world music percussion. Over time, the track loses control of itself, but the transition from tinkly funk to chaos gives the tune an organizing principle. "Magic Baths" is similarly defined by the hand percussionists, but serves as more of a feature for all manner of cymbal swishing, marimba tapping and atmospheric use of a pair of melodicas. Does it resemble the soundtrack to a really intense documentary on the construction of an anthill? I will let you decide.
"Transfigured Shelly" is a straight up feature for Shelly Hirsch's singing-in-tongues. It sounds kind of cool in an angry, tribal way. The timbale groove beneath her, however, suggests a really good block party. "The Black Lamp" is a more scattered affair, with the drummers getting a more proper workout. And the set finishes up with "The Dream Answers", a gentler collage than is typical on this night -- the singing, violin playing, chanting, and percussion all building toward a sweet groove that eventually crumbles under the weight of guitar distortion. The crowd (which seemed thinned some since the beginning of the set) applauds and hoots.
Can you tell the applause and hooting from the percussion and eek-onk singing? Sure. But it remains that Socket's music is a strangely summoned affair; more a process of becoming than a carefully planned result, more emotion in the moment than distilled art. For me, the pleasure of hearing this kind of music in my living room is limited, though I bet it was a fun night at Tonic. In the meantime, I'll be reaching for my MMW records when I want a fix of Billy Martin's sweet-sweet funk.