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Music Review: Barrett Martin – Zenga

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The long and winding road that leads to Zenga takes its final step today.  I could turn your screen blue with the number of articles I've written about this album and its journey into the hands, ears, and hearts of music listeners.  I could point you to the interview I did with Barrett Martin where he first began to describe it.  I could point you to the article I wrote when Zenga transitioned from a double album to two separate albums.  I could remind you of the times unforeseen circumstances led to delays in the album's release.  I feel like I've been writing about Zenga for ages, and only now am I getting around to talking about it as a fully realized, readily available album of music.

I've been listening to Zenga since March when I received a pre-release, advance copy.  It has been a staple of my listening menu ever since.  I wrote a special birthday edition of my daily series Verse Chorus Verse last week, listing a favorite song for each of my 36 birthdays.  For my 23rd birthday, I chose a song from Screaming Trees' Dust

It's impossible to overstate the impact that record had on me.  I was already a fan of Screaming Trees and had begun to enjoy lead singer Mark Lanegan's solo records, but that album really marks the point where I locked in with the band.  It would be the band's last official artistic statement as a quartet.  Lanegan would turn full time to his solo career and make the best albums as a solo artist.  The rewarding experience of listening to Dust and Lanegan's solo records were the impetus to roll the dice on the first solo record from Screaming Trees drummer and multi-instrumentalist Barrett Martin.  I didn't know what kind of record The Painted Desert was going to be, but Martin's impressive number of instrumental credits and my passion for Screaming Trees inspired me to want to gamble on it.  The reverberations of that decision continue today. 

The Painted Desert is one of the most important records for me of this decade, as it opened my ears to sounds and textures in music that had previously eluded me.  The Painted Desert made the impenetrable world of jazz seem like something I could reach and experience for myself.  Desert was followed by the equally wonderful Earthspeaker.  As with all the great artists whose music inspires and entertains me, I found myself growing more and more impatient to hear more.  I hope my neighbors weren't watching as I ran/speedwalked/skipped from the mailbox to my apartment the day Zenga arrived.  I disgraced myself with the zeal with which I tore open the envelope.  I'm surprised I didn't break something putting that CD in my computer to put it on my iPod and then in my stereo to listen to it.

Sticking with the theme of a journey, that's how I like to think of Zenga.  I remember listening to it as I drove through the Smokey Mountains on my way to see Springsteen in Greensboro, melding the sounds and rhythms of the record with the scenery around me.  Without a single spoken word, Zenga takes listeners to the corners of the universe, traveling to places real and imagined. 

"Father of Skies" takes me to a place of mystery, with a long shadow that is at times foreboding.  "Firefly" is a place of tranquility with some delicate but assured piano work from John Rangel.  "Roll The Bones" is powered by Martin's exotic rhythms and vibraphone work, wonderfully accompanied by Joe Doria's piano and Kanoa Kaluwiha's saxophone.  "Alhambra" is a call-repeat with the players taking turns offering the the melodic theme of the piece and responding and repeating it.  Beyond the technical this is a sound of warmth and friendship, the sound of a smile.  "Shapeshifter" is a journey in itself, doing exactly what the title suggests.  Rangel's piano and Martin's vibes combine to introduce a spare, moody theme before being joined by Dave Carter's great trumpet work and then it turns on a dime to a Latin jazz motif.  The quick turnaround is well executed, but it's hard to say farewell to the first theme when the second is introduced.  Again, Carter's trumpet shines as does Martin's quick, slick drumming.  Rangel reintroduces echoes of the initial movement to the rhythm of the second, bringing the journey full circle before galloping off in yet another thrilling direction.  "Dragon Skin" is a journey into the nocturnal world, colored by Martin's vibes skills.

Full circle is an important element of Zenga as the circle, or Enso, is an important component in the art of Zen painting.  "Zenga" is the Japanese word for the art of spontaneous Zen painting, and the cover art of Zenga is an example of that type of art painted by Martin.  Martin is ordained in the Zen practice.

As it turns out, this really isn't the final step in the Zenga journey because this is a journey with no end.  This isn't my last word on the subject just as this won't be the last time I listen to this record.  This review is just one more step.    Each new listen creates one more opportunity to learn from it and be enriched and inspired by it.  Each listen takes me places it has taken me before, but also to new places I've never experienced.  The journey of 1,000 steps begins with one.  Since March, I've taken many, many steps with Zenga as my guide.  Begin yours today.

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