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Rebecca Martin: Paradox Of Continuity

By Published: December 25, 2006

A lot of times when Im working on the melody the sounds will come out and sometimes theyll suggest words that I think are maybe unusual, like "bookends." But generally I write all the music and the melody first. Then I go fishin for words.

Rebecca MartinTo assume that singer/writer Rebecca Martin's comparatively small recorded output is a reflection of her level of development as an artist would be a mistake. Her latest recording is with Paul Motian on his recently released Trio 2000 + 1 Winter & Winter recording, On Broadway Vol. 4: Or The Paradox Of Continuity. She is the first vocalist to record for the legendary drummer's On Broadway series. Upon first consideration, Motian's often elliptical style and Martin's more straightforward approach to melody could seem to make strange bedfellows. But like minds and different approaches do not have to be mutually exclusive and that's evidenced on this new record.

Martin's main focus in the past, however, has been the writing of her own material. Most of her previous records consist of material written (or co-written) by herself, and could be thought of as being in the singer/songwriter style. But labeling the music with a "style/genre is almost always limiting for an artist like Martin. She has released one record as a co-leader with the great songwriter Jesse Harris in their group Once Blue, and others on her own, including Thoroughfare (Independent, 1999), and People Behave Like Ballads (MaxJazz, 2004).

Then there's Middlehope which was released on Fresh Sound New Talent in 2002. It's the record she's probably most known for inside jazz circles and certainly her most jazz-oriented record before the Motian date. It's almost entirely standards, some well-known and some more obscure, and the band consists of some of the very best players.

Speaking with Martin at a restaurant/café in her hometown one gets an interesting mix of intensity and calm. Her energy is strong but in no way intimidating. And her ideas, while often thoroughly thought-out and well lived-in, are still open. We spoke about all of her projects to date, her writing process, and much more.

Rebecca Martin: So I want to thank you for doing [this interview] on me. I really appreciate it. And it's good to talk about Paul's thing [Motian's Paradox Of Continuity] because it didn't really get much promotion. I kind of understand. It's difficult to do a real concentrated thing in America. It's so big. Also, the market for jazz is so small. But it would've been nice to have it available on iTunes. So I'm really appreciative of people talking about it.

Plus it's an unusual record, I think, for people. It was a blast to make. One day, all first or second takes. I was eight months pregnant while I was singing. It's just an incredible opportunity to work in that context because always leading groups is limiting to a certain degree. You can learn so much by being led. Especially by someone like Paul.

All About Jazz: How did this record get off the ground?

RM: What happened was he was playing with [bassist] Larry [Grenadier] at The Village Vanguard early last year, 2005.

AAJ: With The Electric Be-Bop Band?

RM: No, it was the 2000 + 1 project—[saxophonist] Chris Potter, Larry, [pianist] Masabumi Kikuchi, and Paul. So he said to Larry, "Do you think Rebecca would do a record with me without a chordal player?

AAJ: That's the big difference, to my ear, between the other records I have by you and this one.

RM: Yeah, yeah. So I called Larry while I was on my way to a session in Brooklyn or something, and he said, "Paul wants to do a record with you. Paul is truly one of the first musicians I ever heard live in New York City with his trio with [saxophonist] Joe Lovano and [guitarist] Bill Frisell. It really touched me so much and so deeply. I have so many memories about that time period anyway, in New York. Coming to New York...

AAJ: When was that? Mid-'80s?

RM: No. Early '90s. 1990 or 1991. And then I worked with [guitarist] Kurt [Rosenwinkel] in Once Blue and Kurt was working with Paul then in The Electric Be-Bop Band. Then [guitarist] Steve Cardenas ended up in The Electric Be-Bop Band and Larry, of course, worked with Paul at different times. Actually Larry worked with Paul for the first time with [keyboardist] Larry Goldings on this great trio record he did with Paul called Awareness (Warner Bros., 1996).

AAJ: Wow. I haven't heard of that. So just the two Larrys and Paul?

RM: Yeah. It's incredible. It's Larry Goldings' compositions on piano. That was the first time I think that Larry Grenadier worked with Paul. And then in 2000 he did Trio 2000 + 1 (Winter&Winter). So, anyway, I was thrilled just to be asked as a singer for a project like this. Again, it was another great education in learning new songs; such was Middlehope. You know—the process of discovering singers and songs. I just really love interpreting songs so much.

AAJ: The Middlehope record was your date so I assume you chose the material for it?

RM: Yeah

AAJ: Who chose the tunes you sang on Paradox of Continuity? Did you pick them?

RM: Yeah. One of the great things about Paul leading is that he leads but he's very open. He lets you choose takes, he lets you choose songs. It's really incredible. In fact when I showed up to the session he said, "Okay—what arrangement do you want to do Rebecca? I said, "What do you mean? [laughs]. What arrangement?

AAJ: So, you had chosen the tunes ahead of time and told him what they were and then you just got together and he asked you how you wanted to arrange them?

RM: Yeah. Well, he threw out some ideas, which we did. He chose "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me. He chose a couple others; I forget which. But he let me bring stuff in like "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?

AAJ: That's my favorite.

RM: I love that one too. And I brought "In A Shanty In Old Shanty Town and "How Long Has This Been Going On I think, and "Tea For Two as a ballad, which I discovered through Blossom Dearie. She does an unbelievable version of that song as a ballad with Ray Brown, I think, on bass.

AAJ: Just Ray on bass and Blossom singing?

RM: No. I think it's Blossom playing piano as well and maybe Jo Jones playing drums. I can't remember. I think my favorite one on Paradox Of Continuity is "How Long Has This Been Going On. One of the issues for me working on this record was to go back and find all the verses to the songs. You know, to treat it like it was a song. Well, I shouldn't say like a song that I'd written, that's not what I mean. But to honor the actual song and maybe the songwriter's intentions.

AAJ: Yeah. Verses are left out kind of regularly, right? Which is not so great...

RM: Oh, I think it's absolutely terrible because the verses change the whole meaning of the song. It's almost as if the verses have been eliminated for the instrumentalists to just blow through or lift off or something. But without them you miss the melodic part of the tune that's so important in the lyric that changes the entire meaning of the song from that little first part of the tune. It's less understandable for me with singers because a lot of singers don't sing the tunes with all the verses either. To me, just lyrically, that's so important. But I don't know why it's been done like that for so long, for the most part.

AAJ: Maybe it's got something to do with most of these singers not being writers themselves—and you're a writer as well as a singer—so they're not coming at it from a writer's perspective.

RM: But I'm worried that it has to do with listening; not listening to enough versions of the tune to get back to the source. Because so many of the great singers sang the verses. In a way, it almost seems like a lot of singers are imitating the instrumentalists and just singing what they're hearing without doing the research. And again, that's not a fact. But it seems odd that if you listen to even just half a dozen versions that you can just get on iTunes, you don't even have to go looking that far; the verses are there: Doris Day, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald...just real common, well-known singers, not to mention the more obscure ones. So, like I said, I suspect the verses have been left out over the years because they're not really a section—they're odd measures or bars. So you can't really solo over it. If you're coming back to the top of the tune to blow...

AAJ: Maybe it's too much work to try to incorporate the verse.

RM: Yeah, I'm not sure. But that's what I suspect. It was eliminated so that it was easier to call out and play. But man, it'd be nice to get the verses in there as much as you can. That was really important to me. For Middlehope as well.

AAJ: So the tune you said was your favorite from Motian's record, "How Long Has This Been Going On, that has a verse, right?

RM: There is. It's a great verse.

AAJ: I played it for my dad and he had kind of a funny reaction to the words in the verse. He actually thought there was something relatively sinister going on, in the beginning of it. You can listen to that and make that leap.

RM: They've been changed a little bit. Actually the original lyric is creepy. I'm not quite sure what it means yet. I got together with a friend the other day and we were going through it. Louis Armstrong I think says, " a tot when I trotted in little velvet panties, which is closer to the actual lyric.

There are two verses. I'm not sure if it's done in a duet or if there are two separate verses with one written for a female and one written for a male. I haven't gone that far back to research it yet. But another thing I've noticed with verses is that the singers who have done them often change the lyric slightly to make the meaning, maybe, more clear to them, because some of the language is really old. This is what I suspect. They're trying to update the meaning somewhat, which I appreciate. For instance, there's this tune "Kentucky Babe, that I think Hoagy Carmichael wrote. It's a pretty racist tune in just the way the singer is interpreting the tune. But back in the day when it was written —I think it was in the '30s—and performed in a show or whatever, it was just pretty much accepted, you know. It's more dialect or slang. It's just the way she's singing it. It's definitely not something you can sing today.

AAJ: Who's singing this one?

RM: I think it's Maxine Sullivan. That wouldn't make sense though because I don't think she was around then. I'd have to look. I'll look and let you know, because it's a beautiful song.

AAJ: So you think she might've changed some of the language?

RM: She wouldn't have. But if you were going to sing that today you might think about updating it somewhat. But then—t's such a tricky thing.

AAJ: You mean just so that people understand it. Maybe changing the language but not necessarily the meaning so that people could understand it now?

RM: That's a really good question. Are you changing it so people can understand it more clearly or are you changing it because it's racist?

AAJ: Right. You can change the language but not necessarily change the meaning so much, so that people get the point because we're in a different time.

RM: I don't know what you would do. But it wouldn't surprise me if somebody chose to sing that song and updated the lyrics. Some of the lyrics that I'm finding that were interpreted in the '50s, say in Blossom Dearie's case, or in the '80s and early '90s, were changed to suit [the singers] and it was done beautifully. It's a delicate balance because you don't want to change the meaning of the song or go too far from the intention of the writer. It's delicate for sure. But the changes that I found I thought were really well done. It's like a person who interprets a lyric and then writes a song that's loosely based on the lyric that was originally written. Sometimes that works great and sometimes it really doesn't. If you were to translate it literally it probably would be very hard to sing in English, for example. Those words in English would be difficult to sing to the existing melody. Some translations don't have the same poetic meaning in another language as they do in their original language. So if you translate something and it's not singing well, the melody, or it just sounds off...

AAJ: There are some languages where there isn't even have one word in English to describe something that might have, say, four words to describe.

RM: Right, right. One time I worked with this Japanese singer in this big pop band in Japan. My job was to help her take the translations of her Japanese lyrics and make them work better in English. Man...we kept running up against that. All these meanings that were beautiful and rich, and when they translated into English just didn't make any sense. So to try to get that feeling of the tunes in English without changing the song was really a great challenge. Interpretation is incredible. It's endless.

AAJ: So you and Paul both brought tunes to this session; he knew that he didn't want to have a chordal player, piano or guitar, on the tunes you were singing, right?

RM: Yeah.

AAJ: For me that's the biggest difference between this and Middlehope. The vibe is real different. Even with the same bassist, same singer, mostly standards and similar style arrangements, it has a very different feeling. For me I think it's mainly because, besides Paul, there are no chords being laid down. It's much sparer.

RM: Well, also Chris and Paul. Paul creates a whole lot of space and yet finds the groove in everything. He's so spacious and open and in the moment. He's playing all the time like a kid. It's beautiful to sing to. And then you've got Chris Potter. He's so strong and has so much to say, so many ideas.

AAJ: Very different from [saxophonist] Bill McHenry's playing on your other records. Great, for sure, just very different.

RM: Bill McHenry acts more as a foil to my singing. Chris is just kind of in his own world. It's very different just in that way. I like it a lot without a chordal player. I've really enjoyed it. It gives me plenty of room to just sing the melody straight. The challenge is to do it with the band and to listen. I mean, you can do that with anything. It doesn't matter how many players you have. There was something about it that was so open, even though Chris was saying plenty and beautifully. I also thought his sound was great on the record. The engineer was phenomenal on this record. You can mention him (Adrian von Ripka). He blew my mind that guy.

AAJ: Where'd you record? Somewhere in the city [New York]?

RM: It was at Avatar. This engineer was brought in from Germany. Boy, he was amazing.

AAJ: Yeah, everything is extremely clear. It's kind of warm but there's an edge on it—more of an edge than your records as a leader, which are very warm and kind of cushy, almost soft-like, texture-wise. Maybe it's just the lack of instruments and chordal accompaniment.

RM: I think my records tend to have warmth anyway.

AAJ: Yeah, definitely. Middlehope and People Behave Like Ballads are very warm. Almost round-like, the sound. This Motian record is really different texturally.

RM: That's a really nice compliment because that's what I try to accomplish with my records. Paradox of Continuity was not my record. This was a record I was invited in to do. You have to accommodate other people's styles and ways of working and be flexible. There's a lot to learn in that context especially with these kinds of players. So all I was really trying to do was be completely in the moment with Paul and just sing the best that I could that day. I'm really proud of that. I really enjoyed it.

AAJ: Rhythmically it's very different from your other records as well. Because Paul, like you were saying earlier, he's playing all the time, but...

RM: There's still lots of space.

AAJ: Oh yeah, he leaves tons of space. He, of course, has great time and is a wonderful drummer, but for me he's not essentially a time-keeper. That doesn't always feel like his main role to me, on more than half the record or so. So it's like the time-keeping was equally distributed amongst the four of you, with you oftentimes being the main time-keeper of the pulse singing the melody relatively straight. Kind of unusual for you. And Larry isn't playing four-to-the-bar kind of stuff most of the time, you know, the "swing tune thing.

RM: That was implied. It comes in and out of the song. There's always an anchor, even with Masabumi, who's just completely out there. I hear Paul going in and out but then I knew what was happening that day. Larry and Chris were really trying to keep the melody intact with Masabumi. [But] with me, and this is what I was hearing, Larry was able play more with Paul, and Chris and I were able to have more interplay. Because the way would I sing the melody, it was clear what the song was. Masabumi takes more liberties and it's not always clear what the song or melody is with Masabumi. That's a nice contrast too. Besides the fact that not all of these songs are "Broadway songs, which is also a contrast for me.

AAJ: Yeah, I like the contrast as well. It took me a minute to get used to the difference of Chris with you as opposed to Bill playing off of you like he does on Middlehope and Ballads.

RM: So different.

AAJ: Yeah, so different. They're both fantastic players, but Chris' playing on this record was relatively "out compared to Bill. He's not holding back; not necessarily just trying to compliment what you're singing or just lead the group into the bridge with a phrase or whatever. A lot of the time he's really going for it.

RM: He's playing the harmony. It was really fun for me and that's what's remarkable about Chris.

AAJ: For me, it's also really impressive for you to do what you're doing with Chris playing what he's playing at times. There's one tune in particular where Chris ends his solo with some pretty out stuff and you come in singing straight melody right through this stuff and it's a really interesting dichotomy; or clash, almost.

RM: I think it's "The Folks Who Live On The Hill. I think that's it. What ends up happening in that tune is I don't sing the bridge the first time around, which I really liked. Chris is just blowing...playing. Blowing is the wrong word. He's playing over the bridge and that's where his solo section starts and then I come back in at the bridge. He's not playing the melody at all in that. He's just going all around, in and out of the harmonic quality of the tune.

AAJ: He does that quite a bit on this record—playing inside and then more outside.

RM: Just playing every note. One of the things that was challenging about it was trying to listen to all that he was doing and keep it straight, but also to be listening. When there's that much music going on, it's very challenging to be listening. But as we performed live, that happened more. It was a good test.

AAJ: What happened more? You guys just playing off of each other?

RM: Well I don't know if he was playing off of me or not. I'd say he was in the sense that I was singing the melody so clearly which gave him a really strong home base to work around in this context. But I know I was listening really hard to what he was doing just to, if nothing else, work phrasing-wise within what he was playing. Not so much changing the melody. Even when I'd come back in where it's traditional for singers to improvise. I don't really do that. It's not something I do. It's not my forte so I don't generally try.

I think that if there's anything similar to that in the way that I sing it's more of an emotional or communication thing. I communicate the lyric in a way that might resonate with someone. Sometimes people work so technically that you don't really have the chance to have an intimacy with whatever the person is playing. I believe that that's what I offer in these kinds of situations. Besides the fact that I'm singing things clearly, and the lyric [is clear]. So often people come up after some standard at these gigs and say, "Thank you for just singing the song. It's really nice to discover the song and to hear the melody and the lyric without any embellishment. And I think, "Well, it's my pleasure to try to do that as best as I can, to honor the writing of the song. But also, it's all I can do (laughs). It's not like they're going to get a big-ass solo out of me.

AAJ: So scatting or soloing isn't really your forte and you don't really do that but...

RM: Or just taking liberties with the melody...

AAJ: But you said you've got maybe some other kind of emotional connection to certain phrases, or parts of a melody/lyric...

RM: ...that I can communicate.

AAJ: I notice that in certain lines, parts of a tune, or a certain phrase you'll change—and this is my personal perception—you'll change the texture of your voice to impart a certain sentiment in a particular part of a phrase. It seems relatively consistent to me that it happens, so I'm assuming it can't be a coincidence that the quality or texture of your voice switches in certain phrases and that it's intentional.

RM: You know what? It happens a lot. It actually surprises me when it happens because I don't think it's the way I speak. I'm not trying to do that. But I know what you mean because it happens and it feels like the right thing. Somehow the phrase has a little extra length that's not really sound it's more texture. Maybe it has to do with really trying to connect with the lyric—in that moment that's how I'm feeling somehow. Maybe the way that I communicate through voice, through sound/song is consistent just like the way I speak is consistent. But they're very different things. I'm not really sure what that is actually and it's not like vibrato or something intentional where you just start doing it and suddenly you've got a vibrato. I'm pretty sure vibrato is intentional.

AAJ: For me, what I'm noticing isn't the same every time either. There's a couple different things that are hard to put into words, the change in your delivery. But it feels really natural and fits with the lyric.

RM: Well that's nice to hear, John. I really think that when I'm singing or speaking they're very similar. Except that when I'm singing there's something that automatically connects to some other thing in me or in something that communicates a certain specific way. Maybe this is a good way to describe it: When I'm speaking I'm more in my head thinking about what I'm going to say, how I'm going to say it. But when I'm singing there's some of that going on, but they're just two different ways of communication. It could also just have been picking up sounds and influences from musicians I've played with over the years. That's very possible. I just don't know. But it's not something that I've got the time to think about when I'm singing. I'm sure of that.

AAJ: So how was {New York club] Banjo Jim's?

RM: It was really great. I was there for a week. After playing at The Vanguard every night I realized how good that is for the music, playing two sets a night continually for the week. By the time you're halfway through your week the music is getting somewhere. In the singer-songwriter world these days, unless you're on tour, you get to play once a week at best. But not even that every month. You might choose a month and play every week and then that's it. So you have to wait six days in between each gig to make music. It's a bit constipated actually.

Part of the reason I wanted to play every night is that we're so far from the city and it's a big schlep for us to organize the baby, the animals, and the whole thing. It's easier on me to go in and do a week for a lot of reasons. So it was really fun. Every night I played [at Banjo Jim's] with a different chordal player or horn player: Peter Rende on Fender Rhodes, Ben Waltzer on Rhodes again, then Chris Speed on clarinet, who I've known for a long time. He plays in that group called Human Feel with [drummer] Jim Black. He plays with a lot of folks. Great musician, oh my god. They're all great musicians.

AAJ: So was it the two of you plus a bassist?

RM: Larry playing bass and a drummer named R.J. Miller I've been playing with lately. He's really talented. He's also from Maine just like me. We met in the city. He's a lot younger. Super talented guy. He's come to New York and he's going to be a busy cat one of these days.

AAJ: Well he was busy last week.

RM: Yup, yup. I'm going to keep him busy too for a while. He's a very supportive and understated drummer. A special musician. All of them are. And playing with Larry is heavenly. He makes everything sound so good.

AAJ: Yeah. He's a special bassist. No doubt about that. It must be great because of the relationship you two have.

RM: It's wonderful because we both want to play together. We really enjoy it and we can also be together and we can have our son with us. It's an opportunity for him to play so differently than how he normally plays, with real structured short songs, which is a challenge unto itself. And the parts he creates are amazing. So it was nice [Banjo Jim's].

AAJ: Were you playing some of your new songs there?

RM: Yeah. All of them.

AAJ: So the music for them is obviously written already as well. Are they like those on People Behave Like Ballads, where you pretty much wrote both all the music and lyrics?

RM: Yup.

AAJ: I don't remember where I read this, but I thought I read where you mentioned something, and this was surprising to me, about the melodies dictating your lyrics. Is that how you usually go about that?

RM: Every time.

AAJ: So you'll come up with the melody first for, say, an entire tune or a line or two of melody will give you an idea for something to write lyrically and then the rest will come? Or do you have the entire melody and then you fit in the words?

RM: No. I try to write the song in its entirety; both the harmony and the melody. So when I start writing the lyric, I have the context in its entirety. A lot of times when I'm working on the melody, there are things that come out just from me naturally singing and writing the melodies. Sounds will come out and sometimes they'll suggest words that I think are maybe unusual, like "bookends. Something will come out in a phrase at the end of a melody and I'll write it down. But generally I write all the music and the melody first. Then I go fishin' essentially—searching for words. Then gradually the meaning is revealed. Because I don't ever really know what the song is about a lot of times. It's very rare that a song I write is linear in its meaning for me.

AAJ: It seems to me that that's different from a lot of the tunes you've interpreted. Middlehope and this latest record with Paul are mostly older style lyrics, or old school standards. Lyrically, a lot of that stuff is more about clever turns of phrase and are more straightforward in terms of subject matter.

RM: Right. The Tin Pan Alley kind of writing or earlier—crafty. But there's that element in those songs too. Because something like, say, "The Midnight Sun, that lyric has what I feel is a perfect balance of everything. That tune, even though it has some of what you're describing—which is that very crafty, crafted songwriting—who's to know? Because I don't know what those songwriters' process really was. [Pianist] Bill Charlap probably does (laughs) because he's a knowledgeable dude with the American songbook. But that song feels so mysterious to me in its meaning.

AAJ: The music itself is sort of mysterious—that chromatic line...

RM: Yeah, I know. That's the stuff I'm really drawn too. I'd say the similarity is that there's a mysterious quality in certain tunes that I love to interpret. Even "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. When the verse is added into that tune it changes it all to me and gives me a different context. When you listen to something so many times and you get so many references with people sort of singing the lyric in the same way, over and over and over again—without it all being intact. When it finally is all intact it can totally change the meaning enough to shift how you're feeling when you're singing it. Which maybe brings you back closer to the original intent of the song.

I say all of this and I qualify it by saying I'm not sure because I don't know what other writer's intentions are or even other interpreters' intentions are. I just know when something sounds really balanced to me and has all the mystery and soulfulness that creates a feeling—and then has all of the structure in terms of the words to help move the feeling out into the world for others to interpret.

AAJ: Middlehope is mainly standards and some covers?

RM: They were all standards and two songs that were written by Jesse Harris who was my old writing partner in Once Blue—"Then A Wall Came Up Inside Me and "One Flight Down. "One Flight Down is such a classic song. A lot of singers have done it. Norah Jones did it and somebody else did it.

AAJ: The melody is just killing. Great melody.

RM: And the lyric. Geez, when he hits it he hits it out of the park. That guy is such a modern day classic song writer. He writes timeless stuff sometimes and that's one of them for sure. But there are so many songs that were intended to be recorded by Once Blue that didn't get recorded. So I gradually sneak one in here and there so they get their due because they're such good songs. But everything else on that record was either an old song from a show or maybe a little more obscure, like "How Do You Say Auf Weidersen. I'm trying to remember where I'd [found] that. I love that song. It's so poignant, and so sad. I am always really drawn to that emotion. It's a good thing too.

AAJ: I was going to talk about the difference between the lyrics on Middlehope and your new original lyrics. There's some pretty dark stuff going on in the new songs which you say you get drawn to. To be totally specific, there are a lot of references to death. Which is not everyone's favorite subject to deal with but is, of course, always out there.

RM: You know what somebody said to me the other day? (laughing) An old friend of mine, who's a documentary maker and a wonderful songwriter too, came to my gig and said, "You know what's so great Rebecca? Your voice and your vibe are so inviting. People come to hear what you're doing and they sit down and they get themselves a cocktail and they're ready take you in and then you talk about death. And that's the great thing because it catches people off guard. I don't even go in there as deep as I want to go.

AAJ: Sometimes it's kind of shrouded. There's one tune where it's way out front.

RM: Right. But it's funny. I think it's not easy to go in and speak about really truthful things. It's really not. It's also difficult because how do you do that artfully too? I don't want to be preaching about anything to anybody about anything. I would just like to try to accomplish saying something that feels meaningful to me on whatever level I can do at that time that may make someone else stop and think about that feeling, or [how] that subject makes them truly feel. To have a private intimate moment with something where nobody judges you, nobody needs to know what you're thinking. So that you have the freedom to do that if you want to, to think about things that are more important.

I think about dying all the time. To me dying is not dark. It's no darker than birthing to me. It's all part of the human experience and I'm curious about it and am curious to keep it close in my daily life so that when it comes time it's not such a foreign thing [because] I've been thinking about it. I've seen people die. I've had people close to me die. It's not a new thing. I haven't experienced it a ton. Except that in my life too I've had all sorts of mini-deaths already. Big, big shifts and changes where things ended and started again. I've had a lot of practice at trying to avoid that. To hold onto this so that it doesn't change, it doesn't change, it doesn't change. But I actually create more chaos than is already present for change. Creating more chaos for the chaos.

I think chaos is necessary for change. But you can escalate it or kind of observe it and not react to it. Reacting is the key thing really. Just to watch things before you respond or react. To me this is all part of life that is not dark. It's scary only because we have to have faith, and I don't mean religious faith. I mean we have to have faith that everything is going to be okay and to trust that everything is okay; that things aren't really good or bad. Those ideas create real friction between people and in our own experiences of things.

It's like saying, "Oh that's jazz. Well, what if it's not only jazz? What if it's also got a little pop in there? Maybe a little reggae in there? And all these things that I'm saying just diminish, maybe, the real experience of hearing something without trying to figure out what it is. Which is a control for it. We're always looking to control everything/anything. Because we think if we control it then we can understand it. It's like the simplicity of religion to me. And I'm all about religion. It's not a judgment at all. But you can't understand living and dying by believing in heaven or hell. I don't quite understand how that makes people feel more comforted.

AAJ: It seems to me you write about some of that stuff in your new songs. And in some of your songs on People Behave Like Ballads there are some references to religion. You don't specify—well, there's one tune where you specify a certain religion but you seem to be getting at it in a more general sense.

RM: Right, yeah—"If Only. I guess my question is if you can believe in heaven or hell without ever experiencing heaven or hell, [with it being] only something that's written—and I don't mean to disrespect any of that, I don't—then why is it so hard to believe in maybe something more incredible? Or maybe nothing? I don't mean to sound like an atheist either because I believe in something. But I don't think that whatever it is is something that we can totally understand.

I mean, I birthed and I enjoyed my birth and it was hard work. But there's so much of that day that I don't remember. Which is typical. A lot of women say that. But the feeling was something I'll never forget. And the things that I don't remember I almost imagine as, well, I actually touched base with something so massive. Like all the secrets I had to get in touch with in order to be open and allow my son through. But it's not meant for me to hold onto in this life day to day. I just think that the possibilities are endless and massive and fun to think about. I'm not afraid of thinking about those things.

I'm also not judging anybody for not thinking about those things by maybe simplifying the way that they live. Everybody needs different things. I do get upset about judgment. I think people judge and forget that nobody knows. Nobody knows. So anybody's beliefs really are personal and important and everybody should be able to have whatever they need to get through their days without being judged or criticized. I don't like that at all.

AAJ: The idea of nobody knowing is important for me as well. I think that comes out in your writing too. A lot of these [new] lyrics and some of the stuff on your Ballads record are open-ended.

RM: People say, "there's so much ambiguity in your lyrics. [But] it's because I don't know. Who knows? I can only try to describe to you an experience that I had, or several experiences that I've had, and more about the feeling that I had. That's the important thing to me.

AAJ: Not locking down a specific meaning or really literal thing in the writing for me is usually positive. It gives the listener more doors to enter. They can think what they want. It can mean something different to a lot of different people.

RM: To me that's really important because if I'm going to be a songwriter then my goal is to allow the meaning to go out so you can interpret it. I don't want to tell you about my day or my plane ride to the gig. I have nothing to say in that way that is of interest to anybody. I really want people to have an intimate experience that's unique for the people who are interested. Not everybody gets what I do at all; at least not yet anyway. It's not meant for everyone. But the goal is allow the meaning to go out so that you can get something from it.

AAJ: Well it's definitely not for everybody. This may sound a little rude but I think a lot of people may want to be lead by the hand, in terms of experiencing art like film, books, or music. It's not easy, for maybe even most people, to try to invest some real energy from themselves into what they're listening to or watching.

RM: But in general, and again I don't know if this is totally true, but my feeling is that if people think that way then having structure and control is how people feel comforted. If you have to get out of that comfort zone, for instance, if you have to go out and start really seeing what's happening outside of your own existence, start feeling the suffering and the unbelievable things that are going on in the world, you could really lose your mind. So I think in order to survive people keep to themselves very much within themselves. I understand that.

But eventually, that doesn't save you. That doesn't protect you from dying. Inevitably, you're going to die and you're going to experience death. So no matter what you create to keep yourself safe from it, or from seeing it, or from any sort of thing that you deem as difficult, you face it someday. So to try to cut it out of you doesn't seem to be the goal really. To incorporate everything, all of it: all your fear, letting go, having trust, and enjoying the things that you have and are faced with and are learning. I really think that your life can be incredibly fulfilled and happy if that's what you're looking for.

And again, happy is another thing, or sadness like I said earlier, you've got to be careful of these words because they represent things that are very strong. As soon as you hear something's happy then that's the way you experience it. As soon as you hear something's sad then that's the way you experience it. So you've got to be careful so that people can experience things in their own way.

There are certain Joni Mitchell records that I haven't been able to get with. Then a few years later I put them back on and just in that moment it was the right time and that music just penetrated and moved me and changed a certain way of thinking as a writer, as a fan, as a singer. Whatever the case is. So not everything that's created [comes at you at the right time]. Things can come around. You could be more ready to talk about dying, for example, or real things, at another time in your life. I like to think that if people are in the mode of control, then that's where they are now. And everybody has a level of that kind of need to control. Even the most evolved people I'm sure are dealing with that issue. So you can be Buddha and I'm sure you're dealing with a certain control thing at some point in your development.

AAJ: So, about your new songs and your next record. Do you know who else is going to be playing on it?

RM: This new record is going to be really creative and fun. Larry will [playing]. I don't know who the drummer will be yet.

AAJ: Will Peter Rende be playing? I read that you feel he's pretty integral to the stuff you've been doing.

RM: He is. He's similar to my co-producer to me in terms of how he approaches the music and creates a beautiful vibe around the songs. But I'm not sure. Right now I'm in the process of finding a deal and deciding which label to go to and getting that stuff ironed out. We're not going to record this until May. We'll probably start talking about that stuff concretely in February. Right now I'm just getting the business shit out of the way.

AAJ: I'm looking forward to your next record. I don't think I have any other records with Peter Rende on them. I hadn't heard of him before, but on Ballads his sound is great. He creates a really warm vibe. It's kind of like the vibe on Middlehope, warm and big. He uses a lot of different instruments too, like that pump organ. Very creative instrumentation.

RM: We did a similar thing that I'm going to do with [my friends] for my next record, which is [they] came up to my house and stayed with me for a week. We set up the living room with instruments: slide guitar, pump organ, piano, and everything you can imagine. It was mic'd pretty poorly and just threw everything up then took all the basic tracks and just pulled more music out. Pete is instrumental in that. To me that last record is only as good as the musicians on it.

I think a record is only as good as the sum of its parts. I've been so lucky. I've got great musicians and great engineers. It's forever. You've got to do that. You've got to go in there and do it. I'm proud of these records, even my early ones, because of the players and the choices we made. I'm proud of every one of them. I've no regrets on any of the records and the amount of time I had to do them in.

AAJ: I haven't heard Thoroughfare, but I'm assuming that one is more in the singer/songwriter vein?

RM: Thoroughfare is similar to Ballads in that they're original songs. That's the difference. And there is a difference actually the more I go along and see how I interpret my own songs versus other folks' tunes. It's very different. I think I do sing differently. I don't know what that's about. [Maybe] it's because of the guitar. Having another element that I've got to think about. I sure do like the freedom of just singing and not having to play an instrument.

But to me playing an instrument is so important because otherwise what's written harmonically, if you don't play it [the voicing of the chord] in the way that you want it... see, this is another problem with naming things. If you have a chord that sounds similar to something, like an E minor, but actually there's a sharp seven and all this other stuff in there. It's a pain in the neck to write all this stuff out but if you don't then you miss part of the chord that gives you more information to use to make choices in what you play. That's the trouble with a lot of stuff. That's why I play guitar and picked it up later in life.

AAJ: Do you play guitar on every track on Ballads?

RM: Pretty much. I got inspired because if something is written and has all this depth as a voicing and it's been left out because someone names it [or] simplifies it, then that doesn't inspire me at all.

AAJ: It works vice versa as well. If you write a tune where you want the chords to be more simplified and somebody comes in and "hippifies them all up and puts all this other stuff on them, that can change things in a negative way as well.

RM: Well, yeah, because that's not what you want. But generally that's not always the problem. For me that's what's wrong with things like The Real Book [a widely used, illegal book of jazz tunes/standards since the '60s/'70s] with those old songs. The way something's actually written, and the score is so beautiful in combination with the melody, and it's all been dumbed-down. It really has. You can't believe [it]. Go find a songbook and listen. Go find a George Gershwin songbook and check out any of his tunes in there that are common that you can find and play every note that's written in there with the melody. Then check it out next to a Real Book. So much of it is lost. It's incredible and it's a shame because it's mind-blowing what was actually written.

So playing the guitar gives me more of an opportunity to say, "No, it's not that, it's this (sings a few notes of a chord), whatever it is. Then they're like, "What? Let me hear that again. And I'll play it note by note and they'll say, "Oh my god, that's a blah blah so and so..., Then I'll say, "Ok, good. We're on the same page now so pull that music out of the song.

So, back to where we were, about Peter and how the musicians make everything what they are. Peter really made that record wonderful. His parts and ideas and his generosity to the music and giving me all that time.

AAJ: I'd be interested in the recording process for the latest record with Paul Motian. You said you went in knowing the tunes you wanted to do and he'd ask you what arrangement you wanted to do. I imagine you'd say something like, "I'll sing this and then Chris will play here and then we'll do this. What was the session like with the Ballads record? Form-wise it's more involved than the Motian record. There are more parts happening with form and with instrumentation. I'm wondering if you had parts for everyone and went and rehearsed the tunes for a few days and then recorded? Or did everybody just come in and you just hit it?

RM: The process for Ballads was years and years of live performance. Everybody really developed their own parts for the tunes. I'd been playing with everybody on this record on and off for many years and some of the songs had been written a long time ago but just hadn't been recorded yet. Over the years the guys got very familiar with the songs so that they had the freedom to create parts. That's the fun for them—to try to find the strongest part they can write for the song that has the most meaning in a short amount of time because the songs are 3:30 to 5:00 minutes long. It's really important that it has an arc. It's not as open and free as if they were just playing, you know, a standard; playing the tune and then soloing and have all the freedom.

Actually [pianist] Brad [Mehldau] just came to mind. One of the things that I love about Brad is that he's such a strong melody player. The melody is always, always in his solos. In a sense, I feel that's what these guys are doing with my music. They're improvising but they're always playing the melody I've written and always implying the harmonic intention. They're always searching for the most meaning in what they're doing in a very short form. Once they find it they just stick with it. Then, in the moment, the improvisation is truly just the freedom for everybody to interpret that day how they're feeling and it comes out in the song even if the parts are the same. There's always freedom. I don't write parts out. A lot of times the guys might forget exactly what they wrote so the part they're playing may not be exactly what they'd written initially. It's always a little different.

It was done in the same way as Paul's record in that that we went in and recorded live to get the basic tracks. Mostly within three or four takes we'd have the track that we felt, collectively, everybody played their best. The challenge was that there were so many musicians on [Ballads] and trying to choose the right instrumentation for whatever particular tune we were playing. I always have trouble cutting things out because I love all of it. It's like starving and wanting everything in the grocery store and not being discerning. It's sort of like that on this record because I play with all these great guys and I hadn't recorded in too many years which is another reason why there are so many songs and it was just great. It was very hard to cut anything out and I was encouraged not to by the label and the co-producer Brian [Bacchus], which I don't think was the right thing to do. But we did it. I think it's too many songs now, but I hadn't recorded in a long time and I wanted to get all this stuff documented before it was too late. Obviously it was the right thing in that respect and there's plenty more. But I won't do that again. I don't think that was the thing to do.

AAJ: There's a few tunes on there where the instrumentation and the arrangements create a real sense of drama—parts entering gradually as the lyric reveals itself, more instruments coming in. I like that a lot.

RM: That's beautiful, right? That's the sensitivity of the musicians. That's all at work. That's what I mean. They're listening to the lyric and the melody and reacting to it. I think [drummer] Darren Beckett is fantastic. I think I was really lucky to have worked with him at this time because I love his work here.

AAJ: Darren Beckett?

RM: Darren Beckett, with [bassist] Matt Penman, who just played perfectly on this record. Matt's heavenly to play with. He's like Larry in that way; very supportive, melodic and sensitive. He's also a terrible poker player (laughs). I'm joking. He's actually a terrific poker player. I just like to psyche him out for the next game. He's good at keeping people in as they're winning. He's a bit like Las Vegas—good at keeping you in until he's taken all your money.

AAJ: There's one last thing I wanted to talk to you about. You live here (Kingston, New York) now, right? I've spoken with other people, artists and friends, that have lived in NYC for a while and like it but for a number of reasons have wanted leave there; some wanting, or having to leave, while still needing to work there. I also know a lot of people that have a hard time getting work there trying to be artists. It can be a difficult situation in the city just in terms getting gigs and pay; real-world, crass, nitty-gritty crap like that. I'm just wondering if you have any feelings on the city in general. On living there and maybe if it affected you.

RM: I think it's really important to be in NYC if you're a musician because there's so much going on. It's a great place to go at some point in your development if you want to raise the level of how you're playing because you're in this great musical environment. There's always great stuff going on, which is really inspiring.

It's difficult for everybody. But the balancing act for me is that there's just no other place like it to really get better. I'm so grateful for my time in New York because it really kicked my ass. Without it, I don't know if I would've found this path that I'm on now that I love. I might've found something else. But who I was before New York and who I am now, it's so different. I'm more focused on the work that I do. Earlier on I loved to sing and write but it wasn't very focused. I really believe that being in New York helped me get my act together.

AAJ: Yeah. It seems there are so many people there that are very focused and at a really high level that if you're not really focused and working really hard as well, it's going to be difficult.

RM: I think that's a mistake people make though. I think if you think that way going into New York then you're probably not going to have an enjoyable time. You've got to go there because you want to learn, not because you want to be the best or compete. If you diminish the level that you're at because you're comparing yourself to whoever; Kurt [Rosenwinkel] or [guitarist] Ben Monder, or whoever, that's really not the point. Because comparisons generally tend to either diminish who you are or elevate who you are. That's what I think of comparisons.

You just go to learn and you hang as long as you feel like you can hang. I couldn't hang for more than ten years. I was done. I was fried. That it was it for me. I was cooked. I just don't like living like that. After a while living in a small space and being up in the air in an apartment and going outside and always being surrounded by people and this energy that's chaotic, after awhile I just said, "Okay that's it. No more. I'm done. But I was there for ten years and that's what I needed.

I don't think people should be discouraged if they're not part of a scene. You know, you've got to make a living. But not necessarily always at doing what you love. Not at first. I don't know how everybody finds that. It's definitely a unique thing; everybody's path [to] figuring that out. But, you've got to go in open and excited to be a part of stuff and be committed to working harder at what you love and being less interested in comparing yourself to what somebody else has or what someone else is doing. That's not productive and that's not really about the music anyway. I know that can't be helped to some degree but you've got to be conscious of that stuff in order to get to your own voice.

Everybody's got their own voice that's important. Whether you change one person's perspective or a million peoples' perspectives it's all pretty major. But if you change one person's way of thinking, just by accident, just being honest and sharing? Well, my life means everything to me so if somebody changes my thinking in any little way that's with me for my whole life, that's major. You don't have to be Gandhi to do something really good.

I hear that a lot. I hear a lot of musicians get discouraged about New York because it's too hard to get gigs or they're not being welcomed into a certain scene that they're trying to get into. That's frustrating as hell. But if that's where you need to be, you've got to figure that out. That's part of the lesson; figuring out how to be as productive as you can without losing your focus with all the other things that actually don't really matter [or] affect the music. But I don't know how people figure that out. It's definitely challenging and I [still] struggle with it too. You figure it out.

Right before I signed with MaxJazz I had three jobs after all the stuff I'd done. I was working three jobs in 2003 because I had to pay the bills and I wasn't doing it with music. Using different skills of mine to make money. That's not easy to do but that's what you've got to do sometimes. But I was always grateful that I had the drive to write songs because that's who I am.

Rebecca MartinAAJ: I was talking to a friend of mine about talent and whatever it means or if it exists. He didn't really believe in it so much. His perspective was that it was all pretty much work-oriented and that you just have to be really dedicated and work at it. So the mystery for him wasn't the talent but where does the drive come from? I think that can be something of a mystery. So you've got the drive that you mentioned you were grateful to have, but who knows where it comes from?

RM: Well, I've always been singing since as early as I can remember. You could call that a talent. Through that being a big part of who I am, I was driven to do it. Somebody once said that a lot of people that I know are [around my age], and girl friends of mine who've had children; they're just searching for their thing. That's what they call it—their thing. And I'll say, "What were you doing when you were ten? They say, "Wow, I was cooking. I was making pasta. Meanwhile, that is actually what they're trying to do. They're trying to get a business going where they're making pasta, but they're still not sure about it. But at ten they were making pasta with their grandfather and suddenly they're like, "Oh my god. That's it. That's my passion. I'm still doing it. I'm still making pasta. Well, maybe that's it. You come in maybe with something you're meant to use to do something, whatever it is. That immediacy makes people feel something. So maybe that's it. The drive then is to do it at all costs. The drive comes from really having that ability. Maybe that's it; It's an ability. Because when you say talent, it does get tricky.

[Postscript} At this point the tape unfortunately ran out. We spoke about a few more things, including Martin mentioning that she feels like she's coming up to a big creative opening. The recent birth of her son Charlie has created routine in her life that she says is good for her writing. And besides her next record of original songs she spoke about in the interview, she also mentioned another project she already has in mind beyond that. She wants to make a recording of tunes for which she'll write original lyrics to the melodies of modern jazz tunes written by Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tohnino Horta, Charles Mingus, Guillermo Klein, and the Fly trio with saxophonist Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. It's a very intriguing idea and will be fun to hear the words Martin searches out. It's a project for an artist with the right amount of drive, something that's clearly in no short supply with Rebecca Martin.

Selected Discography

Paul Motian Trio 2000+1, On Broadway Vol. 4: Or the Paradox of Continuity (Winter&Winter, 2006)
Rebecca Martin, People Behave Like Ballads (MaxJazz, 2004)
Rebecca Martin, Middlehope (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2002)
Rebecca Martin/Timothy Hill/Frank Tedesso, The Independence Project Live at The Outlook (Independent, 2002)
Sonny Probe, The World is a Stupid Place (Smasheasy, 2001)
Rebecca Martin, Thoroughfare (Independent, 1999)
Once Blue, Once Blue (EMI, 1995)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Rebecca Martin and photographer Jimmy Katz

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