To 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 knowthe 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?
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, "Okaywhat 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 themselvesand you're a writer as well as a singerso 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 sectionthey'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, "...as 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 '30sand 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 thent's such a tricky thing.