Billy Martin: In Concert: Coconuts Feeding Birds

Doug Collette By

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Billy Martin
In Concert: Coconuts Feeding Birds
Vongole Films

In March 2008, drummer and percussionist Billy Martin was commissioned by The Houston Community College Department of Fine Arts in Texas to perform at the Heinen Theater. The school set the stage and documented what proved to be one of his best solo performances, in which the percussionist and founding member of Medeski Martin & Wood offered some of his Black Elk Speaks compositions (spontaneously composed pieces inspired by the Oglala Sioux warrior and medicine man) as well as new music for balafons, gongs, mbiras, caxixi, pandiero, congas and drum set.

If you're one of those musiclovers who find Martin's percussion breaks during Medeski Martin and Wood's shows painfully short, then In Concert: Coconuts Feeding Birds will be a combination of consolation and compensation. Available on a limited basis via DVD, it allows the visionary musician a chance not just to to stretch out on a panoply of exotic instruments, but to present a complete unified statement while doing so.

Martin touches every rhythmic base during the course of his hour on stage. He takes his audience on a tour of his collection of arcane instruments—including indiras, reco-reco and frying pan(!)—as well as his trap drums set. In addition, he makes unconventional use of more traditional devices such as congas, gongs and bells. Not surprisingly, Martin doesn't take the predictable route: he opens with concert bass drum on "Six Grandfathers" and only by the third track, appropriately titled "Whirlwind Chaser," does he sit down at his kit.

During the interactive session Martin with students (included on the bonus segment of this self-produced package), he further demonstrates that his interest in the art of percussion never descends to the merely academic. Yet he refuses to play just for effect, even when utilizing "miscellaneous metal percussion" along with gongs and bells on "Guavas Feeding Birds." As he moves from his stool around the stage on his feet, his physical effort translates directly into his beats .

In the personal commentary accompanying the 14 minute slide show included here as another bonus feature, Martin illustrates his instinctive approach in a markedly different context. He effectively communicates the philosophy behind his compositions and performance to his master class, implying ever so strongly that there is no wrong way to play, or incorrect instrument to employ, only a variety of methods and means, some of which are better than others.

The thoughtful approach to improvising Martin demonstrates in the concert footage suggests that regular practice, in a variety of contexts (of which his own career is a model), is the best method of learning.

Tracks: Six Grandfathers; The Daybreak Star Herb of Understanding; Whirlwind Chaser; Killing the Drought; Duck Pond; Starlings by Starlight; Burundi; Pahoihoi Variations; Guavas Feeding Birds; Lele-Yara.

Personnel: Billy Martin: balafons, gongs, mbiras, caxixi, pandiero, congas, drum set.

Production Notes: 74 minutes. Widescreen. Recorded March 26, 2008 at Houston Community College Department of Fine Arts, Heinen Theater, Houston, Texas. Extras: Slide show of master class with commentary. Limited edition of 500.

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