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A Gambler's Hand

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Album Review

Those expecting a direct follow-up to Sean Noonan's 2008 album Boxing Dreams are in for a surprise on A Gambler's Hand. Here he's traded punk jazz's wailing guitars, skittering beats, funked-up basses, and frenetic visceral energy for his virtuosic drumming with a string quartet. Just as he was able to cohere the various dynamic elements of Boxing Dreams into a focused series of smaller narratives, here he takes the textural, sonorous, and harmonic qualities of strings and combines them with the propulsive and dynamic possibilities of his drums to create an extended single narrative. A Gambler's Hand — based on a short story— is soon to be a film for which this recording will serve as a score. It crosses lines between jazz, third stream, and classical music even as it observes them. Noonan embraces the seams between modernist and avant music's compositional strategies from the 20th century; he finds his way to slot them into 21st century compositional notions and modern jazz's improvisational schemas. What's more, Noonan and his string quartet — Tom Swafford and Patti Kilroy, violins; Leanne Darling, viola; David West, cello — are hardly academic in their approach. The drummer is a musical terrorist at heart. That said, this is not a mess of atonal skronk and scree (though dissonance does make itself properly known in places), but a series of well-conceived and expertly arranged and performed pieces that reveal not merely an inner logic, but an external one as well. The basic story — of Pavee, a gambler who is locked behind a wall — may not tell itself literally, but the logic at work in the way these pieces interact and the logic with which they move from one to another is inescapable even in a casual listening encounter. Noonan's sense of drama is canny, but hardly obvious. His balancing act occurs on the line where conventional notions of beauty, dynamic, rhythmic shifts, and timbral explorations are sophisticated yet full of emotion. The interplay between the more formally composed aspects of these ten pieces and the improvisational ones is organic. Humor and chaos have their place in grounding the work as a whole, but it's the tension that builds and resolves as this musical story unfolds that gives it heft. A Gambler's Hand will prove a delight for anyone interested in the fine body of work Noonan has been assembling this last decade, and for those who seek more formal encounters between jazz, avant, and classical musics.

Customer Reviews

lucid culture

Scary Stuff from Sean Noonan

Menacingly surreal, often assaultive, drummer Sean Noonan’s latest album A Gambler’s Hand is a feast for fans of dark, challenging music. Part indie classical, part chamber metal and part art-rock, with the improvisational flair of free jazz at its best, it’s a category unto itself – and one of the best albums of 2012 in any style of music. Noonan is a contradiction in terms, an extrovert drummer who’s also extremely subtle and an expert colorist: think Jim White with a heavier right foot, which isn’t a completely accurate way to describe Noonan’s style, but it’ll get you on the right track. The album was recorded in a single day, Noonan playing and conducting a bristling, energetic string quartet comprising violinists Tom Swafford and Patti Kilroy (of the equally enterprising Cadillac Moon Ensemble), violist Leanne Darling (of the deliciously intense, eclectic Trio Tritticali) and cellist David West.

The album, based on a Noonan short story soon to become a film, is an instrumental suite about a chronic gambler who finds himself behind a wall which he eventually becomes part of. It’s a concept straight out of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, a style which some of the music here resembles, but through a glass, darkly. Because much of it evokes a muted, sometimes out-of-focus horror or dread, Noonan plays with vastly more care and precision than the unleashed ferocity he’s capable of, utilizing every open space on his kit along with all kinds of furtively rustling percussion to enhance the disquiet.

There are three main themes here that the quintet carries through a deft series of variations; a sad, off-center, atonal canon; a ferocious, macabre march based on a tritone chord, and a dirge. The album opens with a dramatic, cinematic overture cached in the circling and fluttering of the strings, working a tense dichotomy between steady and jittery. The devils’ chords slam in with a towering ferocity: over the course of what’s essentially an eight-minute one-chord jam, the ensemble shifts between a murderously grandiose march and quietly rhythmic interludes. With only a couple of exceptions, one of them being a free improvisation that eventually descends into chaos, the rhythm is steady throughout the suite even when it’s implied rather than played: it’s a neat touch, especially coming from a drummer.

The first of the dirge variations follows the macabre march, Darling’s viola trilling and then sailing through a particularly electric passage as the ensemble holds the suspense with a muted pizzicato. Uneasy exchanges of atonalities between the strings and artfully understated cymbal washes over a potently simple low cello riff lead into a slightly quieter, shivery, utterly creepy variation on the tritone theme, then it falls apart with the improvisation, returning with a surprisingly warm, riff-driven version of the big march. That unexpected clarity and attractive melodicism, sad as it may be, makes for a vivid and powerful contrast with all the harshness that preceded it. As you might expect, it doesn’t last. The ensemble finally reach the pummeling crescendo they’ve been hinting at all along, sliding and screaming and scraping to keep from being imprisoned forever behind that wall. For the love of God, Montressor! It ends somberly, but more quietly than you would expect after such visceral horror.

Noonan leads a double string quartet (including the Momenta String Quartet) playing the album release show for this one on Sept 24 at 8 PM at Roulette, general admission is $15 ($10 students and seniors).

A Gambler's Hand, Sean Noonan
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