It might be easy to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument because it is used as a solo instrument constantly and has a history that has made it untouchable as anything less than a star performance tool. Drums, on the other hand, retain a percussion classification without too much argument and become an exclusively solo instrument far less often that a piano does.
Piano and drums have the capacity together to create such abstract music that the tension can become insurmountable. A case in point is Consequences (Amulet Records, 2006) where Dave Burrell plays the piano and Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin and Wood) plays drums and percussion. The recording, on Martin's own label, documents a performance at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.
Assuming that the recording accurately portrays how the music happened from the beginning to the end of the concert, the listener can discern how programmatic the music is, despite its fervently jagged and discrete character. The tale comes across in the titles of the pieces as well.
Throughout the recording, Burrell and Martin are intimately involved in painting an intricate musical surface in which multiplicities of ironically non-sequitur-ial sounds occur. The disposition of the music is far from cacophonous; it has great integrity, held together by a disguised rhythm, which rears its head when Burrell happens to play off-beat, for instance, in "Monsoon." Burrell goes for the descriptive in "Monsoon," traveling between the bass and treble in a gradual build-up to an explosion of the treble keys in clusters, trills and runs, whose fallout settles briefly but expands again into a gesture summation that is the coda of the piece.
Martin works within Burrell assiduously to complement the scattered finger work on the piano with their percussive equivalents. The integration of dark drumming action with the brightness of the hammering of the keys brings forth a solid basis for listening to the rest of the music. "Monsoon" lays the groundwork for the equally energetic "Suspension", the slower and more gentle "New Species" or patently rhythmic, evolving into eruptive, "Moonbow" or "Kuliana".
Martin and Burrell continually interchange predominance. In "New Species," for example, Burrell imitates Martin’s fluctuating gestures for awhile. Then Martin lessens his participation so that Burrell can take the lead. Through intuition and rapt attention, Burrell can feel out the essential characteristics of Martin’s bass drum beats, cymbal hisses and elastic treatment of his drum kit, to make the music seem strangely fluid on the piano through chordal rumbling and succinctly driven note sequences alternating with disjointed phrases, as in "Suspension" or "Kuliana." Martin’s attentiveness to Burrell’s language is just as careful, characterizing Burrell’s pianistic pointillism with percussively parallel forms.
There are no melodies in Consequences. It might be difficult for the musicians to withhold the comfort zone that melodies can offer. But it is our human fate to live outside our comfort zones, if we are to survive. The music survives. Perhaps humanity can too.