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The New Cool: Barrett Martin shifts the rhythms on his new album

Abe Beeson
This just in: Barrett Martin Group releases 20 song double album...on one CD.

Drummer, composer, band leader Barrett Martin returns with a new CD this spring. The worldwide release date for Songs of the Firebird is May 10. The official release show, in conjunction with the release of Martin's new book of short stories, "The Way of the Zen Cowboy," is June 1 at the Royal Room. You'll hear the world broadcast premier — of the CD, not the book — coming up Saturday on The New Cool.

This is an expansive double album that stretches the limits of a compact disc running time, but the 79 minutes fly by with pulsing rhythms and punchy melodies. Designed, in part, as a musical companion to the book, I recommend creating your own tales on the first listen. The music stands on its own.

Martin has developed into a terrific songwriter. Through all 20 pieces on Songs of the Firebird, the rhythm section is a central, but not overwhelming, focus. Catchy ensemble horn riffs, echoed or answered or supported by a team of bass, keys and vibes make sure that this is not simply an album for drummers.

I took a fellow drummer to see the Barrett Martin Group about a year ago and told him to expect "busy" drumming. After the show, he turned to me and said, "he wasn't busy at all, he was all about the groove." My friend was exactly right.

You won't hear drum solos on Songs of the Firebird, though there are some marvelous breakdowns with percussionists Thione Diop and Lisette Garcia on much of the album. Rather, Martin creates complex rhythms (not busy) and decorates them with equally rhythmic melodies from his crew of talented musicians.

Immediate favorites for me are the rock beats and soulful horns of "Dark Wing" and "Down in the Streets." Both remind me of the dirty downtown Seattle of the late '80s/early '90s pre-boom musical heyday that Barrett Martin spent playing in rock groups like Screaming Trees and Skin Yard.

And yet, there's Hans Teuber burning up a skyscraping sax solo, or Dave Carter blowing a sharp trumpet solo through a wah-wah pedal that reminds me of Trees guitarist Gary Lee Conner. Seattle's improvisational "favorite uncle," Wayne Horvitz, adds solos to a pair of songs, with keyboard sounds from retro-dub to extraterrestrial.

I was excited to see Kim Thayil's name listed on three songs. The riff-genius Soundgarden guitarist solos on the title song, and "A Magnificent Seven," while saxophone takes most of the spotlight on both. He shines briefly but most brightly on "Requiem," also a nice feature for Carter's trumpet. That piece also includes R.E.M.'s Peter Buck strumming an acoustic guitar, but even the guest stars are obviously playing in service of the songs.

Martin's compositions feel at home with one another throughout the listen, despite some charming departures from the heavily rhythmic. "Cascadia" is another favorite, with repetitive layers building into a beautiful soundscape that could be film score material. "Spooky Action at a Distance" is similarly subtle, with exotic percussion (that's a gamelan!) and Martin's drums building the energy without losing the song's meditative nature.

The Barrett Martin Group is creating new instrumental music that's all their own. In a post-genre era when music fans are most interested in what's interesting, there's a lot (literally) to love on Songs of the Firebird.

Don't miss the world broadcast debut of "Dark Wing" on The New Cool this weekend, featuring stellar performances from core band members Andy Coe and Ryan Burns at the guitar and keys, with that wonderful Dave Carter wah-wah trumpet. Don't miss the release show at the Royal Room on June 1, and think about getting your tickets early. It's sure to be a packed house.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.