Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

May 11, 2011


A remarkably mature collection of original material, immaculately recorded and superbly played by a very youthful quartet.

John Martin Quartet


(F-ire Records F-IRE CD 40)

The young saxophonist and composer John Martin seems to have emerged fully formed from the jazz course at Middlesex University (also the birthplace of Led Bib) where he studied composition with Nikki Iles and Eddie Parker. Martin recently impressed as a member of pianist and composer Laura Cole’s Metamorphic group (their album “The Rock Between is reviewed elsewhere on this site) but “Dawning” is even better, a remarkably mature collection of original material, immaculately recorded and superbly played by a very youthful quartet.

Endorsed by saxophonist Iain Ballamy and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, both acknowledged influences, Martin also draws inspiration from both American and European jazz sources. Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek are all cited as sources of reference but there’s also a very English lyricism about Martin’s writing and playing that also puts me in mind of saxophonist Julian Arguelles and Martin’s near contemporaries Kairos 4tet. This quality is in turn offset by Martin’s love of world music forms, the juxtaposition between the two is a constant source of interest throughout the album.

Martin is joined on this album by pianist Jonjo Grisdale, bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Andy Ball (all fellow Middlesex students if the liner photo is anything to go by) who all make telling contributions. Grisdale is a particularly exciting new discovery, his work throughout the album is consistently excellent, and the playing of the group as a whole is superbly captured in a superlative mix (the album was recorded at the acclaimed Artesuono Studios in Udine, Italy and mixed and mastered by Andrew Tulloch).

Although the Martin’s writing is mainly distinguished by its lyrical qualities the music manages to touch an admirable number of bases but without overly upsetting the overall mood and dynamic. There’s an ECM-ish quality about the sound, as typified by the pensive, lyrical beginning to opener “I Wish” featuring Martin’s long lined, subtly bluesy tenor, Grisdale’s mellifluous piano and Ball’s delicately detailed drums and percussion. In the second half of the tune Martin’s powerful tenor solo immediately ruffles the smooth surface, there’s more going on in his writing than first meets the ear.

Martin has worked with several bands on the world music circuit including salsa king Robert Pla. “Looking Up” is inspired by his tenure with the Afro band Zongo and features African rhythms and grooves alongside the quartet’s trademark lyricism. It’s an intriguing mix with fine solos from Martin on highly vocalised soprano, and an exuberant Grisdale at the piano.

“Moving On” is a sunny, joyful offering which Martin describes as combining “elements of gospel, afro and jazz”. It’s good, unpretentious fun with the leader’s tenor to the fore.

“Dawning” is more ambitious, a highly descriptive musical depiction of the dawning of the day broadly split into two sections. A reflective modal opening passage subtly morphs into something more outgoing by way of Grisdale’s flowing piano and Martin’s biting, vocalised soprano. There’s also something of a drum feature for Andy Ball just before the tune’s closing section.

Martin describes “Quiet Song” as a “lullaby for my sister” but there’s more bite here than the title might suggest, mainly courtesy of Martin’s hard edged soprano tone. The real lyricism comes from the solos of Grisdale and Fairhall on piano and bass respectively.

The appropriately titled “Swagger” showcases the more extrovert side of the band, a tricky blues in 11/4 powered by Fairhall’s muscular bass groove and featuring a barnstorming solo from Martin on tenor. Fairhall also solos effectively and there’s a crisply energetic drum feature from Ball, underpinned by Grisdale’s piano figures.

The gently lyrical “All Good Things” is Martin’s homage to the music of Kenny Wheeler and features Fairhall at his most fluent and dexterous. Martin’s tenor solo adds a touch of grit, contrasting well with the more lyrical approach of Grisdale. The pianist is a perfect foil for Martin, sometimes complementing the saxophonist, at others adding a welcome touch of contrast. As other observers have noted the pair seem to draw much inspiration from the interaction of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garberek in the former’s “Belonging” band. 

The folk influenced “It Is How It Is” ends the album on an elegiac, highly melodic note, the title a reference to “the compassionate acceptance of those things you can’t change”. It’s a charming way to close an exceptionally assured début album.

“Dawning” is a remarkably mature and assured statement from such a young musician. His writing is consistently interesting and already he seems to be showing signs of transcending his influences. The playing from all concerned is excellent and the quality of the recording a huge plus. The album is a worthy addition to the illustrious F-ire catalogue and represents a major statement from Martin. If he can maintain these standards he is surely destined to become a major figure on the UK jazz scene.

The quartet are currently touring the UK. The remaining dates are shown below;

12 May The Yardbird, Birmingham 9-11pm

15 May Botton Village Hall, North Yorkshire 8pm, free entry
20 May Rush Hour Blues, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 5.30 start, free
21 May Jazz Café POSK, London 8.30, £5
24 May Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 9pm start £4/5
5 June Karl Konig Hall, Delrow, Watford 8pm, free
3 Aug Lescar Jazz Club, Sheffield 8.30 £2/3

Get out and see them if you can.

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