Third Coast Percussion Offers Empathetic 'Steve Reich' / by Doyle Armbrust

Steve Reich and Third Coast Percussion (TCP) are both celebrating birthdays this year, and if the latter’s new album is, in part, a gift to the former, all subsequent presents will likely take on a paler hue. Marking its 10th anniversary, Third Coast is surfing substantial momentum, with a residency at Notre Dame, frequent appearances on the country’s choicest music series, and this new album released by Chicago’s premiere classical label, Cedille. 

There is no shortage of Reich’s percussion oeuvre on CD, but TCP comes out swinging with a stunning capture of the now 80-year-old’s Mallet Quartet (2009). Like careening down a Teflon-coated Slip ’n Slide covered in glycerin, the flow of time in movement one, “Fast,” is frictionless, propelling the listener ever forward, unencumbered by bar lines. Movement two, “Slow,” is heartbreaking, with its catch-breath, asymmetrical beat structure and reluctant harmonies played here with absorbing empathy by the quartet.

Listeners that have seen TCP perform will attest to a certain on-stage effervescence, but seizing this element on record is no easy feat, so special mention is due engineer Dan Nichols who across the album musters a lustrous warmth from the marimbas, a lucidity from the pianos, and a detailed profile from planks of wood. Even the album’s one stumbling point, Reich’s Sextet (1985), which compositionally plays like a clumsy Broadway musical backing track, succeeds in its sonic cohesion and balance of such timbrally disparate instruments as electric organ, piano, marimba, vibes, bass drum and crotales. 

As on their 2013 album, "Resounding Earth," Third Coast’s ability to gently manipulate time here translates to a listening experience that is both buoyant and penetrating (just listen to the centrifugal force at play in the turnarounds throughout track 9, Nagoya Marimbas). Perhaps the primary achievement of "Steve Reich," though, is that these recordings are immediately recognizable as Third Coast Percussion.

- Doyle Armbrust