I've spent the morning reading Robert Palmer's Blues & Chaos, a compilation of the great music journalist's works compiled by former Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis. In the book's first chapter, Palmer is discussing what makes American music American. In the discussion he relies on his vast knowledge of many forms of world music, in particular the African roots of American blues and rhythm and blues. He makes reference to the Ghanian rhythms and West African traditions.
Until recently, those concepts would have been foreign to me. Sure, I understand the blues sprang forth from Black artists, largely concentrated in the American South, and that these artists trace their lineage back to Africa having been kidnapped and brought to America as slaves. Still, the musicological concepts and roots were foreign to me.
It wasn't until I started listening to the music of Barrett Martin that some of these abstractions started to take some type of aural shape for me. Martin first came to note to music listeners as the drummer for rock band Screaming Trees. He was also the drummer in the "supergroup" Mad Season (featuring Alice in Chains' Layne Staley and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready). After Trees disbanded, Martin carved out a new musical path for himself. He traveled the world as a student and performer and studied various forms of drumming and composing. Upon returning to the United States, he took what he learned and melded these traditional styles with western jazz and created his own unique hybrid.
What I knew about jazz when I first started listening to these records — The Painted Desert, Earthspeaker, Zenga — couldn't fill a teaspoon. I still feel like a remedial student where jazz is concerned, knowing names and instruments but not understanding the traditions, structures, and motifs encompassed by jazz. I can't describe what I hear intellectually but what I hear feels different from the music with which I'm most familiar. I'm still a sucker for melody and will most likely be drawn to that more than anything else I hear, but the rhythmic structures and cadences in Martin's compositions are essential to the melodies he composes and that are executed by the players with which he surrounds himself.
I can't tell you what you call the rhythm that forms the backbone of "Father of Skies" but when I listen to it, I know that it changes the way the melody twists and moves. You could assemble these notes and phrases but you couldn't tell this story without the musical pulse that lies beneath it. What do these rhythms tell us? What is the story of "Father of Skies?" That's up to you as a listener to decide. There are no words. There is no instruction manual. You're free to see and feel and fill in your own narrative. Whatever images you conjure, it's the rhythms that make it possible.