by Ian Mann
July 13, 2016
Overall I was very impressed with “Spirit Of Adventure” which lives up to its name as Martin and his associates attempt to navigate fresh ground and a new sound.
“The Hidden Notes – Spirit of Adventure”
(F-ire Presents F-IRE CD 92)
The saxophonist and composer John Martin made a big impression back in 2011 with “Dawning”, his début recording for the F-ire Presents imprint. The album featured Martin’s quartet including pianist Jonjo Grisdale, bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Andy Ball.
In the same year I witnessed the quartet performing their blend of melodic contemporary jazz at an excellent gig at Dempsey’s in Cardiff where I was able to speak with Martin and the other members of his band. Both the album and the live performance are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann website.
Martin is a graduate of the Jazz Course at Middlesex University, also the birthplace of Led Bib, where he studied composition with Nikki Iles and Eddie Parker. He also acknowledges Iain Ballamy and the late Kenny Wheeler as significant influences in addition to international jazz superstars Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter and Jan Garbarek. Martin has also performed various types of world music with the African band Zongo and with salsa king Roberto Pla. Closer to home he has been an important part of the band Metamorphic led by pianist and composer Laura Cole appearing on both of that group’s albums “The Rock Between” ( 2011), and the excellent “Coalescence” (2013).
Despite working with other pop and world artists, among them The Beat, Dr. Das Dubnoiz Coalition, Joyce Moholoagae Dele Sosimi and Guillemots, Martin appears to have been off the UK jazz scene for quite a while. He has now returned with this ambitious double album featuring a brand new quintet. Only long term associate Tim Fairhall remains from the “Dawning” line up with the new group being completed by rising star vibraphonist Ralph Wyld, guitarist Rob Updegraff and experienced drummer Tim Giles.
For the past four years Martin has been perfecting a saxophone technique that makes extensive use of multiphonics. These have frequently been used in the world of free jazz but Martin is one of the first saxophonists to make such wide ranging use of multiphonics and overtones in the context of through composed tonal music.
Martin has become so absorbed in this new sound world that he has set up a website http://www.thehiddennotes.com to explain something of the thinking behind the new album. The following quotes, sourced from the website offer some valuable insights into the project;
“When a musician plays a note of a certain pitch, the musical instrument vibrates or resonates, producing a complex pattern of sound waves made up of many different frequencies. The most noticeable sound wave is called the fundamental, but there are other waves with higher frequencies, called harmonics. These are the hidden notes.”
“I have spent the last four years developing and refining a tonal approach to the sonically fascinating sound-world of saxophone multiphonics and overtone patterns. Through the use of special fingerings and blowing techniques it is possible to produce several notes simultaneously, extending the sound world of the saxophone from a monophonic to a polyphonic instrument. Circular breathing then allows for the development of continuous rhythmic patterns, opening up many new exciting rhythmic and textural possibilities.”
The fruits of Martin’s labours can be heard throughout this double CD which features eleven full length compositions plus three shorter preludes. The first disc commences with the eleven minute “Pentacision Part One” of which Martin has said “the circular overtone melodies as in Pentacison are, I think, unique to this project”. Martin specialises on tenor sax throughout the album and his sound here is certainly distinctive and takes a little getting used to but this does not mean that the music is in any way inaccessible. The melodic gifts that Martin revealed on “Dawning” are still very much intact despite now being filtered through a very different prism. Updegraff also makes an impressive contribution here with a subtly probing solo that incorporates elements of jazz, blues and rock guitar. Giles, who has also appeared alongside Updegraff in the group Twelves, impresses with an imaginative and colourful drum feature before a drifting, atmospheric fade that gives full reign to Martin’s innovative saxophone techniques.
Wyld features more prominently on the shorter “Pentacision Part Two”, a pleasantly quirky piece that features the vibraphonist soloing nimbly over the choppy but supple rhythms with Updegraff’s guitar giving the music a distinct dub tinge.
Solo vibes open the atmospheric and episodic “Heptopia”, eventually blending well with Martin’s distinctive sax overtones. Languidly melodic this piece demonstrates just how well integrated this quintet is with Fairhall and Giles responding to and encouraging the soloists with total conviction - they are an integral part of the music and far more than ‘just a rhythm section’, a fact emphasised by Fairhall’s delightfully melodic bass solo. Martin’s is inevitably the main instrumental voice here but one that always remains sensitive to the overall group dynamic. As he has remarked himself; “the interest is in sonic subtleties and controlled multiphonics”.
The first “Prelude” lasts a little under two minutes and features the full quintet - at first I’d imagined that these were likely to be solo sax interludes. Instead we hear the pleasing and ever distinctive sound of Martin’s tenor alongside the rustle of Giles’ percussion, the shimmer of Wyld’s vibes and the twang of Updegraff’s guitar.
The title track opens with a tensile, subtly funky bass and drum groove that eventually forms the basis for Martin’s melodic inventions, these incorporating some fascinating exchanges with Updegraff who later emerges as the second principal soloist as his guitar spirals and soars. Wyld’s vibes weigh in towards the end of the piece as he also trades melodic lines with Martin before the leader’s tenor again takes flight. There’s a lot going on in this eight minute odyssey which more than lives up to the promise suggested by its title.
The second “Prelude” features Martin’s layered overtones, some of them almost flute like, with Giles’ delicate and tasteful cymbal embellishments serving as the only accompaniment.
It’s left to the appropriately titled “Tick Tock” to conclude the first disc. The playful rhythms draw on minimalism and African music with Updegraff’s guitar initially sounding like a kalimba. He later adopts a more orthodox guitar sound as he exchanges ideas with Martin’s tenor above Giles’ still ticking drum grooves.
Disc two commences with “The Optimistic Pessimist”, introduced by a dialogue between Martin and Fairhall. Wyld is the first featured soloist, his mallets dancing lightly across the bars backed by Giles’ gently swinging rhythms. Martin’s own solo features some of his most straightforward playing of the set as he blends effectively with Updegraff’s supportive guitar chording.
The final “Prelude” has Martin putting his tenor through its multiphonic paces once more, ably shadowed by the excellent Giles and with further input from Updegraff towards the close.
Despite the title “Folklore” actually proves to be a blues but one given a particularly unusual flavour by the distinctive timbres of Martin’s tenor. The leader’s solo is actually relatively conventional and he’s followed by Updegraff’s intelligent and imaginative guitar ruminations.
Fairhall’s bass introduces the slowly evolving “Whisper” with its coolly elegant Updegraff solo contrasting nicely with some of Martin’s most adventurous playing of the set.
“Giant’s Stomp” has a title that suggests a homage to the great John Coltrane. However the combination of saxophone and vibes is perhaps more reminiscent of the classic Eric Dolphy album “Out To Lunch”. Here Martin’s sax is teamed with Wyld’s vibes with both soloing at length intelligently supported by Fairhall and Giles with the bassist also featuring as a soloist and Giles enjoying something of a drum feature.
Like the opening “Pentacision” “Eddies” offers a further example of Martin’s “circular overtone melodies” which again suggest the influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Fairhall again appears briefly as a soloist together with the leader on tenor and the thoughtful Updegraff on guitar.
The set concludes with the aptly titled, African tinged “Unity”, which swings subtly and seductively and features engaging solos from Martin, Wyld and Updegraff as Fairhall and Giles offer wonderfully flexible support.
Overall I was very impressed with “Spirit Of Adventure” which lives up to its name as Martin and his associates attempt to navigate fresh ground and a new sound. Martin’s sax sound does require a degree of adjusting to and can be a little distracting on occasions but overall it’s highly distinctive and works very well – though I appreciate that it won’t appeal to everybody.
But the album isn’t just about Martin. As I’ve alluded previously this is a very well balanced and well integrated group with Wyld, Updegraff, Fairhall and Giles all making superb contributions both as ensemble players and as soloists. The flexibility and intelligence of the rhythm section is an important factor in the success of the music and I was particularly impressed with the detailed precision of Giles’ performance. The musicians are well served by a stellar engineering team that includes Ben Lamdin, Alex Bonney, Alex Killpartrick and Mandy Parnell.
The entire double album is probably a bit too much to take in a single sitting but this cavil is unlikely to apply to the live environment. The Martin quintet is still touring this material with four dates still to come as listed below. I suspect that seeing this music performed live will be an absorbing and rewarding experience. Catch Martin and his colleagues at;
The Hidden Notes – National Portrait Gallery – Late Shift (London)
July 29 @ 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm, Free
St. Martin’s Pl
The Hidden Notes [email protected] Hall Foyer (Bristol)
July 30 @ 6:15 pm - 7:15 pm, Free
The Hidden Notes Tour – St Laurence Chapel (Ashburton, Devon)
July 31 @ 8:00 pm - 11:00 pm, £5 to £10
St Lawrence Chapel,
St Lawrence Lane
The Hidden Notes [email protected], (London)
August 3 @ 8:00 am - 11:00 pm, £10 to £12
11 Gillett Square
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