Rhythmic storyteller Sean Noonan brings together his eclectic drumming with a Sardinian a cappella choir on his adventurous and mesmerizing new album
Drumavox finds the “sonic griot” melding ancient traditions and folk tales with experimental techniques and irreverent songwriting in a whirlwind of folk and avant-jazz, offbeat rock and vocal harmonies
Drummer and composer Sean Noonan has long preferred the term “Rhythmic Storyteller” to describe his audacious, genre-defiant artistry. As a modern-day sonic griot he combines the most ancient of traditions with forward-seeking experimentation, gathering folk tales and traditional songs from various cultures and translating them through his own irreverent and thoroughly modern worldview. With his latest project, Drumavox, Noonan once again bridges past and future with his trademark combination of musical exploration, offbeat humor, and eclectic vision. Bringing together Noonan’s drumset wizardry with a virtuosic and fearless Sardinian vocal quartet, Drumavox comprises the earliest musical instruments in the human arsenal – voice and percussion – in ways that our evolutionary ancestors could never have anticipated – and that will even surprise the most open-eared of contemporary listeners.
Out April 23 via the composer’s own Sean Noonan Music imprint, Drumavox features a gifted a cappella choir from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia: soprano Alice Madeddu, mezzo-soprano Eva Pagella, tenor Matteo Siddi, and bass Manuel Cossu. The relationship began in 2016 at the Sant’Anna Arresi Jazz Festival in Sardinia, as part of the premiere of “Zappanation,” Noonan’s outrageous rock opera dedicated to the spirit of Frank Zappa and Edgard Varèse. Noonan had never met the members of the choir prior to the festival, so he was thrilled when he discovered their vocal abilities and willingness to experiment. Each brought novel elements of their own to the mix. Siddi in particular boasted a rock-star falsetto to rival Axl Rose, coupled with viral fame as the “Gesù di Cagliari” – an irreverent Jesus Christ impersonation that he’s performed in a variety of jaw-dropping contexts, including a send-up of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
“It’s fun to work with musicians that come from a different place and tradition,” Noonan raves. “These singers have done everything from opera to musical theater to rock music and folk singing. As a drummer it gave me absolute freedom to express myself, and as a composer I could take different kinds of risks and they enjoyed the challenge and never complained.”
Excited by the possibilities glimpsed during the “Zappanation” performances, Noonan culled pieces from throughout his diverse catalogue that could be adapted to the unusual format of drums and vocal quartet. While he has often narrated the stories behind his songs from behind the drumkit, Noonan found the collaboration opened up stunning new opportunities to exercise his gifts as a Rhythmic Storyteller and a collector of tales from any number of traditions. “I’ve embraced what I call the wandering folk theory,” he explains. “I take stories and songs from different parts of the world and different places in history and I adapt them from my perspective as a drummer. I redevelop them as someone who comes from my specific musical background and allow them to evolve on their own so that I can present them through my own voice.”
The characters that populate Noonan’s madcap songs range from mythological dwarves that populate the salt mines of Eastern Europe to shape-shifting sea creatures to a beloved character actor imprinted on his brain from the popular TV shows of his childhood. All of these influences get tumbled together along with provocative humor and classic lullabies to create a singular and compelling sound that defies categorization, kaleidoscopically juggling elements of punk rock, avant-garde jazz, mutated folk traditions, contemporary classical music and off-kilter show tunes. The four voices whirl dizzyingly around Noonan’s frenetic drumming to open “As the World Spins,” a tune that reflects on our tumultuous global crises from the perspective of the Sun speaking to a troubled Earth. (As this is written, that encompasses perennial worries like climate change along with pressing concerns like a contentious election cycle and a spreading pandemic, but the song is open-ended enough to deal with whatever troubles face us as you read these words.)
The whimsical “He Skarbnik He,” originally penned for “Zappanation” and recorded on Noonan’s 2017 album Man No Longer Me, pays homage to the mythical creatures that dwell in the salt mines of Poland, protecting the miners from danger. Intended to depict a descent into the claustrophobic mines, the piece gradually takes on a tribal, ritualistic tone. “Krasnoludki’s On My Mind” draws inspiration from another diminutive being from Poland mythology, showcasing the Sardinians’ brilliant ability to transform into fantastical characters. “Silkie From the Sea,” named for the shape-shifting “seal people” of Scottish mythology, finds the vocalists conjuring whale sounds as the tune sinks us deep under the ocean’s wave, Noonan’s light tough on the drums suggesting the shimmer of sunlight on water. A more realistic but no less legendary character is the subject of “Don Knotts,” a challenging yet celebratory piece based on a 12-tone row and inspired by the iconic comedian.
Noonan’s sly sense of humor comes to the fore on “Pussy Cat’s Gone Wild,” written for “Zappanation” and sharing the titular composer’s love of eyebrow-raising innuendo. “Where Could I Go,” meanwhile, showcases a more tender and heartfelt side, as the choir’s rich harmonies evoke the folk tune “Wayfaring Stranger” as well as medieval vocal arrangements. Finally, the haunting “Bia” is based on a Russian lullaby for the wintertime, Noonan’s crashing percussion and soaring harmonies summoning a crystalline, frost-covered landscape. Gorgeous and playful, provocative and soulful, traditional and adventurous: Drumavox pairs contrasts as startlingly and harmoniously as it pairs percussion and voice. Despite its limited palette, Noonan has discovered a rich and versatile vocabulary that he utilizes to weave vivid and striking tales.
Modern Drummer Magazine "Independence might be the ruling concept of Sean Noonan drummer/leader’s career. It defines a common relationship not only among his hands, feet, and voice, but between his art and almost everything else in drumland".
The New York Times “The drummer and composer Sean Noonan approaches postmodern jazz and world music from the same angle of self-discovery ....he manages to make his pieces speak coherently, and in a unified voice."