Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Leila Martial



by Ian Mann

November 06, 2017


It’s good to hear the human voice, whether electronically enhanced or not, being taken into such adventurous areas and to hear it being done with such musicality.

Leila Martial


(Laborie Jazz CD.LJ39)

Leila Martial is a remarkable vocalist, keyboard player and songwriter from the south-west of France.  Born into a musical family she studied from the age of ten at the Village Music College in Marciac (the town that is home to the famous Marciac Jazz Festival). She then studied at the Conservatoire de Toulouse and at the College Jazz de Marciac. In 2009 Martial was awarded the prize for best soloist at the Concours de la Defense, the first time that it had ever been won by a vocalist. Also an accomplished actress she decided to embark on a musical career and in 2012 released her début album “Dance Floor” on the Out Note record label.

Martial is among the most adventurous and experimental of modern vocalists, manipulating her already extraordinary voice via live looping and other electronic effects.  She is regarded as the female equivalent to the Austrian vocalist Andreas Schaerer, with whom she performed at the Sudtirol Jazz Festival in Schaerer’s homeland.

Martial’s musical influences are wide ranging and include jazz artists such as reeds player Eric Dolphy and vocalists Jeanne Lee and Bobby McFerrin. Rock influences include the influential French band Magma, led by drummer Christian Vander, and single name singers Bjork and Camille.

In November 2016 I witnessed Martial perform as part of a group led by the Italian pianist and composer Maria Chiara Argiro at that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. The performance saw Martial primarily deploying her voice as an instrument and subjecting it to a degree of judicious electronic embellishment. As the leader of her own trio she takes the process several stages further and the results are frequently astonishing.

Martial also performed in London at the 2016 Match & Fuse Festival as part of the duo FiL, a collaboration with cellist Valentin Ceccaldi.

Baabel”, Martial’s second album, finds her working closely with her regular trio, Baa Box, featuring guitarist/vocalist Pierre Tereygeol and drummer/percussionist Eric Perez, the latter also credited with ‘human bass’ and electronics. The acclaimed saxophonist Emile Parisien, who studied with Martial at Marciac, guests on two tracks, adding his distinctive sound on soprano saxophone.

Martial’s trio is a tightly knit unit with the majority of the pieces jointly written and credited to Martial/Tereygeol/Perez. The album commences with the thirty four second “Prelude” featuring the sound of cowbells as Martial intones something in French.
This segues into the extraordinary “Ombilic” featuring Martial’s extraordinary use of live looping as she sculpts and layers her wordless vocals accompanied by Tereygeol’s crunching, rock influenced guitar chording and Perez’s sturdy, hip hop influenced drum grooves. Martial’s voice ranges from breathy whispering to angelic soaring to feral growling and embraces all points in between in an extraordinarily inventive display of wordless vocalising. Incorporating a dizzying array of musical styles and a correspondingly broad range of dynamics this is an astonishing introduction to the musical world of Leila Martial.

“Baabel I” begins with Martial’s eerie, electronically enhanced vocal whisperings and incantations, Tereygeol’s spidery guitar scratchings and the shimmer of Perez’s percussion.  Parisien’s long soprano sax melody lines wrap themselves around these components before the piece springs violently to life, with Martial’s muezzin like wail and Parisien’s answering sax melodies accompanied by angular guitar riffing and powerful drum grooves. The piece mutates seamlessly into “Baabel II”, credited to Martial, Tereygeol and Alice Perez, which begins in more impressionistic fashion before gathering an impressive momentum and power then finally resolving itself with a choir of multi-tracked Martials. Again the dynamic and stylistic changes sound unforced and totally natural in a segue that embraces elements of jazz, rock, world and sacred music. Martial’s voice is an instrument of extraordinary flexibility, capable of changing style or register in the blink of an eye.

“Interlude” is another short piece, this time clocking in at forty nine seconds and this time featuring the sound of birdsong accompanying a spoken conversation, in French, between Martial and Tereygeol. 
The pair then sing, in English, the lyrics to “Hear”, a relatively conventional song, that begins quietly, almost folkily, before mutating into the kind of quirky electro pop characteristic of Scandinavia. A definite Bjork influence here I think, plus some of the Norwegian female vocalists who have followed in her wake. In the latter stages of the song the inventive looping and layering of voices and guitar frees up Perez for something of a tour of the drum kit, yet the piece never loses its air of inherent fragility.

“Le Chemin Le Plus Court” is more upbeat, with clipped, propulsive drum grooves fuelling Tereygeol’s guitar pyrotechnics as Martial’s treated voice weaves in and out in a taut and powerful, riff based piece enhanced by Perez’s inventive use of electronics. Informed by math-rock and even vintage prog it’s a piece that’s likely to appeal to adventurous rock listeners. On this evidence it’s easy to see why Martial has been invited to appear at Match & Fuse events.

“Limbes” is more abstract with Martial’s semi spoken French vocals enhanced by Perez’s electronics and Tereygeol’s guitar FX.
This segues into “Chiaroscuro”, a title that seems particularly appropriate for Martial’s multi-hewed music. This proves to be a song with an English lyric, delivered by Martial in a style that is particularly reminiscent of Bjork. The playing of Tereygeol and Perez becomes increasingly abrasive as the piece gradually accrues a dark and dramatic power with Martial finally shredding her voice and pushing it to the very limits.

The ethereal “Les Rivages D’ Ondine” is an altogether gentler affair with Martial’s wordless vocals at their most other-worldly as they soar above a rolling groove, again making effective use of multi-tracking.

At a little under two minutes “Je Bele Donc Je Suis” harks back to the cowbells and recitative of the opening “Prelude”.

“Oh Papa” finds Martial and Tereygeol live looping their voices to create a kind of ‘mini-choir’ their multi-tracked voices floating gently above a backdrop of acoustic guitars, brushed drums and ethnic percussion. Martial adds a range of vocal tics to her armoury before the music builds in momentum with the leader’s wordless singing now taking a more North African / Middle Eastern timbre.

The album concludes with an eight minute version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”, a song periodically visited by jazz artists. Martial’s Bjork like vocal sings the first verse over the ethereal twinkle of tuned percussion as Parisien’s soprano sax fills out the sound. In the hands of Martial and her colleagues the mood of the song varies from the vaguely sinister - something encouraged by the use of electronics – to the joyously anthemic, via a free jazz episode featuring Parisien’s soprano and Martial’s treated vocals.  There’s also a (relatively) conventional solo from the saxophonist whose incisive playing is underscored by the leader’s soaring vocals and the increasingly dynamic grooves laid down by Tereygeol and Perez. Having reached a peak the music fades away again and the piece resolves itself with a plaintive, imploring reprise of the opening verse in which the request to “smile” sounds like an expression of pure desperation.

Although released on the Laborie Jazz imprint “Baabel” is an album that defies categorisation. Martial takes the vocal experiments of Julie Tippetts, Maggie Nichols, Sidsel Endresen etc. and updates them for the electronic age. At times I was reminded of the vocal led electro-jazz of such bands as Eyes of a Blue Dog and Blue Eyed Hawk but, if anything, Martial is even more adventurous than either of these groups, good as they are, and I count myself as a fan of both.

I hadn’t expected to be quite so blown away by this album, even Martial’s LJF performance with Chiara Argiro’s group hadn’t prepared me for this. It’s good to hear the human voice, whether electronically enhanced or not, being taken into such adventurous areas and to hear it being done with such musicality. There’s never a sense of Martial’s extraordinary vocalising being just a ‘novelty’ or an excuse to demonstrate her (extended) technique. Instead she serves the music, for all its uniqueness this is music that never sounds self conscious or contrived.

Of course it won’t be for everybody but I can imagine Martial’s work appealing to adventurous rock listeners and to listeners of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Late Junction’ programme.

Curious readers will get the chance to witness the trio at the UK launch of the album at Brasserie Zedel in Soho, London on Friday 10th November 2017.

blog comments powered by Disqus