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Will Martina - The Dam Levels (2011)


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Will Martina
Erik Friedlander and Tom Cora are two legends of jazz cello, true pioneers an standouts as there are so few cellists with such an improvisational jazz bent and fewer still who regularly have gone for the jugular as those two. Out of Australia is another cello player who turned onto jazz and is creating another approach to fitting in this instrument to that music form. His name is Will Martina.

Martina arrived in NYC just five years ago and quickly made himself a part of the scene, becoming a member of large bands led by Bassam Saba, pianist Jason Lindner as well as The Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, and appeared on their latest album Making Love To The Dark Ages (2009). Martina has also made a couple of records of his own, and the second one, The Dam Levels, hits the streets tomorrow.

Unlike Cora or Friedlander, Martina doesn't do anything bizarre, but he's often just as creative. His music has a lightly dancing quality to it, and he brings his chamber music background into every track, infusing a certain measure of formality into the music that assures it never runs off the tracks and become too abrasive or off putting. He is able to move between plucking and bowing cleanly, straddling the line between a lead instrument and an accompanying with ease, because his playing is very fluid.

Martina plays within a trio for The Dam Levels doesn't pair up with a bassist like The Broken Arm Trio, but the bass is never missing. The bottom end is handled at times by Martina, or by his pianist, Lindner, hanging out in the low register. Sometimes you can catch drummer Richie Barshay striking his bass drums a little bit more than others. Think of it as playing bass by committee, and it works perfectly. Truth be told, the trio interacts well on every other level, too.

“Fade In Two Ways," a lilting tone poem, is one of those instantly likable songs. With Martina plucking away soulful notes on his cello, the tune is a little reminiscent of Eberhard Weber's Colours period. The other songs take different paths, revealing their charms more discreetly. “Snake, Monkey, Cow" is experimental, moving through three segments tied together by the same key, but delineated by Martina's own changing approach to his cello, from plucking to bowing and back again, all with subtle grace. The mood shifts around on “C For G," as well, but by starting gentle and building up to a mild frenzy.

On “Instant This," Martina scrapes the strings to create tension with Lindner, as the song settles into an insistent 9/8 groove. As the most avant-garde selection, “Casuarina Sands" is a display of timbres and tones, especially by Barshay. The collection ends with the only cover, “God Bless The Child" performed solo by Martina. It's a thoughtful, incisive and earnest read of the Billie Holiday classic, transcending classical, jazz, and any other label anyone could put on this performance.

Will Martina and The Dam Levels gives me another reason to love hearing a cello in jazz. Like those other two guys, he's figured it out, and he makes it work in his own, unique style.

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