Sean Noonan – A Gambler's Hand (2012)

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photos by Dirk Eusterbrock

Experimental drummer Sean Noonan describes his latest record A Gambler’s Hand this way: “New chamber music project for String Quartet and Drums.” What? You think this might be boring? C’mon man, relax, this is Sean Noonan.

Percussion maestro, composer and bandleader Noonan truly does dance to the beat of his own drummer self. His Sean Noonan Brewed By Noon band has included kindred spirits such as Marc Ribot, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Mat Maneri, playing some twisted alloy of Afro-Celtic inclined punk-jazz. His music is not a bunch of noise, it’s, well, musical, but in an unpredictable, delightfully theatrical way. Brewed By Noon records such as Boxing Dreams and Stories To Tell with their wildly careening and vivid sounds hadn’t just turned old notions about experimental rock-jazz upside down, it’s bugstomped it, set it on fire and tossed it off a cliff.

And now, he’s poised to do the same with Third Stream music.

Say hello to A Gambler’s Hand, which could be subtitled Sean Noonan’s Chamber Music, Brewed By Noon Style. Sure, we’ve long heard chamber music put in the torture chamber, contorted into things Mozart never could have imagined. Anti-Social Music is just one example of such a ensemble we’ve covered here, and there’s many more out there. What we hadn’t really heard is a string quartet led by a drummer, and especially an unconventional drummer as Noonan. For his part, the inclusion of Mat Maneri and his viola in the Brewed By Noon band — and the way it had been used at times — had already tipped us off that Noonan isn’t a stranger to the stuff. With his flair for theatrics in his music, liberally moving back and forth from violent passages to softer ones and back again, chamber music does provide a great conduit for his temperament, come to think of it. Noonan, it would appear, arrived at this spot honestly. In assembling his string quartet, Noonan looked for musicians, who like, Maneri, are great improvisers: Tom Swafford and Patti Kilroy, violin, Leanne Darling, viola and David West, cello.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: SER’s Mark Saleski explains the awesomeness of Sean Noonan Brewed By Noon’s Boxing Dreams.]

Noonan is big on storytelling and like some of his works, there’s a story behind this one, too. The tale, of his own creation, is summarized on the album sleeve thusly: “…an original story about Pavee, a man with a gambling problem who becomes trapped inside a wall, living a life of solitude and later becoming part of the wall.” The story will soon be presented as a silent film with this music accompanying it. Soon, Sean Noonan will have “screenwriter” and “filmmaker” added to his list of titles.

With the strings, Noonan is able to extend his drum set: “One of my concepts is to treat the string quartet as an extension of the drum set. I envisioned each of my four limbs as a string quartet, the violins (arms) and viola/cello (legs),” he explains. The string players are often directed to play their instruments in a percussive style, virtually adding to the already large cache of weapons he has disposal from his trap kit and his ability to extract unusual intonations from it.

Telling a story without words is a challenge, but Noonan appears to have a handle on it. “Caught In The Act” bristles with all the surprise and tenseness of being suddenly exposed. Here he creates three or four distinct areas of agitation, from his drums, the viola, the violins and the cello. “Banshee Dance” isn’t the untethered freak-out the title suggests, but the mood ebbs and flows like a symphony and toward the end, Noonan enters into the song and coaxes the quartet into making intricate little percussive sounds with him, a game that continues right into the next track “Thank You.” “Courage Unleashed” builds up frightening momentum like a runaway train until the song careens off the tracks. “Triptych,” is actually three songs in one, and this suite of through-composed music convulses about in both structured, rigid passages and free ones, at one point moving close to the musical construction of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid.

Every track is abstract but not every track is brash; “A Gambler’s Hand,” “I Feel The Clouds” and “Monster of Solitude” are rendered in hushed tones and Noonan assumes a role of accentuating the sounds of the strings, downplaying his time keeping or forgoing keeping a pulse at all.

A Gambler’s Hand signals a bold new front for Sean Noonan, as he takes his role as a composer even more seriously than before. Always curious, he quickly attained a grasp of modern classical music and filtered it through his own musical personality. The results are in some ways a world apart from Brewed By Noon music. It’s the same, too, especially in one important aspect: it’s like nothing else out there.

The street date for A Gambler’s Hand, a Songlines Records release, is August 14. Check out Sean Noonan’s website for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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