By John J. Puccio
First, a word about the group. From their Web site we learn that Third Coast Percussion was founded in 2005 and “has performed hundreds of concerts across the country, presents an annual concert season at home in Chicago, teaches musicians of all ages and experience levels, and has commissioned dozens of new works by composers including Glenn Kotche, Philip Glass, Devonté Hynes, Chris Cerrone, Augusta Read Thomas, Donnacha Dennehy, and David T. Little.
“The mission of Third Coast Percussion is to inspire and educate through the creation of exciting and unexpected musical experiences. Third Coast Percussion's vision is a worldwide audience that embraces creativity, curiosity, and community through music. The ensemble has forged a unique path in the musical landscape with virtuosic, energetic performances that celebrate the extraordinary depth and breadth of musical possibilities in the world of percussion. The ensemble has been praised for “commandingly elegant” (New York Times) performances, the ‘rare power’ (Washington Post) of their recordings, and ‘an inspirational sense of fun and curiosity’ (Minnesota Star-Tribune). The four members of Third Coast are also accomplished teachers, and currently serve as ensemble-in-residence at Denison University.”
Robert Dillon is an Ensemble Member and Development Director of the group. He has performed with the Chicago, Boston, and San Diego Symphony Orchestras, and served as principal percussionist in the Madison Symphony Orchestra from 2007-2008. He previously served as chair of percussion studies at Merit School of Music and a percussion instructor at Loyola University Chicago.
Peter Martin is an Ensemble Member and Finance Director of the group. As a chamber musician, he has performed with many leading new music ensembles including the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Eighth Blackbird, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, and many more. In addition to his work with Third Coast Percussion, Peter is a member of the award-winning contemporary music group Ensemble Dal Niente.
The fourth member of the group, Sean Connors, is an Ensemble Member and their Technical Director. He has performed with Amphion Percussion, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Signal, and Metropolis Ensemble, and he was the percussionist for two summers with the prestigious Aspen Music Festival Contemporary Ensemble. As an educator, Sean served for two years as assistant professor of percussion at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.
Yes, they are good. Very, very good.
So, the first selection on the program is the Percussion Quartet by American composer Danny Elfman (b. 1953). Although Elfman is primarily known these days as a film composer (Batman, Darkman, Spider-Man, Men in Black, and the like), he has also written a number of concert and stage pieces. But he’s done only one percussion work so far, and it’s surprisingly traditional, written in four fairly symphonic movements. It’s also among the more accessible works on the disc, which is probably why the producers chose to put it first. The fusion of instruments in the music is such that one quickly forgets there are only four people involved and that they are playing solely in the percussion medium. I quipped earlier that one can hardly wax lyrical on a drum, but in the second, slow movement, that’s exactly what the players do. The whole piece is really quite beautiful and expertly handled.
The next piece is by the well-known American composer and pianist Philip Glass (b. 1937). It’s the briefest selection on the album at about nine minutes, and it is Metamorphosis No. 1. He based it on his original solo piano version, and Third Coast Percusssion perform it on marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and melodica. Frankly, it sounds to me much richer and mellower on the percussion instruments than it does on the piano. I found it far more attractive in its new trappings than ever before, more varied, more mellifluous, more rhythmically dynamic, simply more appealing. And I can’t imagine it being done any better than by Third Coast Percussion.
Next on the agenda is the longest work, Perspective, in seven movements by American electronic musician Jlin (Jerrilyn Patton, b. 1987). It is remarkably varied in its rhythms and nuances and provides endless opportunities for the percussive instruments to express themselves. It’s also perhaps closer to what most of us would expect to hear from a percussion group. It has a certain exotic quality to it, some of it sounding like music of the South Seas or Asian Pacific, while other parts demonstrate a quiet dissonance. All of it, however, is rather Romantic in nature, with nothing discordant enough to jar our senses. Remarkably, too, this is the first recording I can remember that produced musical notes a good three feet or more outside the main speakers. It was as though I had additional speakers on the side walls, given the surround sound I heard. It was a little eerie, actually, but quite pleasant.
The final item is called Rubix, a collaboration by Third Coast Percussion and Flutronix (Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, both of whom are reaching out from their classical roots). The music is elegant and colorful, and the precision of the players contributes to an overall sense of tasteful grace. It makes a fitting conclusion to an album of perfectly harmonious charm. What I thought might be a cacophonous disc of tumultuous noise turned out to be a calming and relaxing respite, I loved it.
Producers Elain Martone, Colin Campbell, and Danny Elfman and engineers Bill Maylone, Dan Nichols, and Jonathan Lackey recorded the music at Chicago Recording Company in October 2020. As we would expect from Cedille, who always produce good-sounding discs, this one, with its small ensemble of percussion instruments, sounds terrific. It’s done fairly close up, so each instrument is clearly delineated, and with the addition of some mild room resonance, the result is both realistic and satisfying.