Sean Noonan

Memorable Sticks
Fortune Records 0089 (058)

By Ken Waxman

Located in a rarely explored realm where J. R. R. Tolkien-like fable-spinning is accompanied by music which veers between African-rooted groove jazz and extended psychedelic-era freak outs, there’s no disputing that Massachusetts-born percussionist Sean Noonan’s concept is an individual as a fingerprint. But on the evidence of Memorable Sticks, whether this single identifier can be transmogrified into a notable body (of work) is still up in the air.

Aiming to mix African drumming and myth-making with American punk-rock sensibility Noonan constructed a back story for the CD’s seven tracks involving the power of miners’ pick axes – represented by his drum sticks – uncovering unspecified treasure hidden in a salt mine. Liberating it along with a female apparition, she and the protagonist travel to South Africa to greet and praise the Zulu king. This melodramatic faux-epic is recounted by Noonan’s talk-sung vocalizing which vies for the tunes’ forefront with his drumming like two in-and-out figures in a cuckoo clock, with most lyrics ranging from the portentous to the puerile. Take Hidden Treasures” for instance where the singer jack-knifes from demanding “Where are my treasures” to warbling “Alley Alley Oxen Free”. When romantic sentiments are voiced, as on “Żabka”, the refrain is “I don’t care if it rains or shines/As long as you’re with me”.

Fortunately when Noonan eschews the shtick for his sticks, he’s a pretty good drummer, able to suggest shadings and percussion extensions, even if he prefers to bash a rhythm when he could merely broach it. Like a patient parent watching an overactive toddler, bassist Peter Bitenic stays out of Noonan’s way but keeps the bottom ambulatory and focused. In a purely instrumental fashion however, keyboardist Alex Marcelo is the id to Noonan’s ego. He slides syncopated slurs among the Africanized drum beats on “Shaka”; adds some tough blues-based chords to “Żabka”; and on the same tune produces the sort of heavy rhythm mixed with dynamic clustering that somehow links Cecil Taylor to Ramsey Lewis.

Noonan has created his own persona as a fabulist and is obviously comfortable with musical theatrics. In terms of jazz though, those tracks in which his exuberance is subordinated to Marcelo’s instrumental finesse produce more satisfying music.

Tracks: Miała Baba; Hidden Treasures; Memorable Stick; White Lady Wieliczka; Żabka; Nangadef; Shaka

Personnel: Alex Marcelo (piano Fender Rhodes); Peter Bitenic (bass) and Sean Noonan (drums and vocals)

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2016