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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Clockwise from top left: Mark Turner, Joe Martin, Kevin Hays, & Nasheet Waits. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist, composer, and bandleader Joe Martin has been a fixture of the New York jazz community for over two decades, whether collaborating with the likes of Chris Potter, Gilad Hekselman, Anat Cohen, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, or leading his own ensemble of Mark Turner, Kevin Hays, and Nasheet Waits. Martin’s third and newest release is Étoilée. According to the liner notes, “Martin, himself a product of a musical upbringing, lives with his Parisian-born wife in Brooklyn where they have been raising their young Franco-American family of two sons and a young girl, whose middle name Étoile inspired the name of the recording… Joe Martin takes the powerful spirit instilled by his nuclear family to fuel the passion of four longstanding musical peers on his emotionally enriching release, Étoilée.” We spoke about family, distractions, and keeping things fresh in the studio.

The Jazz Gallery: Congratulations on the release of the new record! In your liner notes, I love that you cite your family as an inspiration and motivation for the record. Many musicians have families, but usually discuss their families in the context of being one of their many responsibilities, and not necessarily as a creative sources of inspiration. 

Joe Martin: Yeah. Of course, it’s a deeply personal thing, and is more the result of observation and reflection about where I was when I was writing this music. I’ve been entrenched in family life for quite a number of years. It’s not that having children changes who you are, exactly, but it certainly adds another layer to life, takes you out of your head. Especially as a musical artist, you’re always thinking about yourself and your music. It’s a beautiful thing, and has certainly lead many great musicians to creating great music, but when you have family, you’re aware that you’re responsible for other people, and their energy affects you. It brings awareness and acceptance. So, to say that my family directly inspired every song on the record wouldn’t be completely accurate. But in looking for titles and thinking about what’s been happening in my life, family is definitely a big part of who I am these days, and I wanted to acknowledge that with the album.

TJG: So when you’re listening back to the record, even though it’s not necessarily a programmatic record describing your family, when you listen back to certain things, do you hear your life reflected in your music in that way?

JM: I don’t know if I would say it’s that direct. It was largely when I was searching for titles. For example, I came up with the title “Malida” from my wife and two sons’ names–I didn’t have a daughter at that time. There was a certain intensity and energy about that song that captured a bit of their spirit and energy. But when I listen to music, I’m just thinking about the music and the other musicians, the atmosphere that’s being created, and where we arrive in these different songs. That’s the most compelling thing for me.

There’s my writing of the music and what it means to me, but then you have the other three musicians on the record playing. They all have their own stuff going on in their lives, and however they come to the music, they’re not necessarily thinking about my family when they’re playing those songs [laughs]. Unless you’re doing a completely solo project, there’s always going to be this other energy in the music. That’s what I like. It’s the essence of getting together and playing with great musicians and having a band, seeing where you arrive in the music, how you get inside it. The spirit of my family’s energy is certainly a part of me, and is certainly an inspiration in coming up with themes for the record, but when I play music, I’m usually just thinking about the music.

TJG: I hear you, absolutely. I’m not suggesting there needs to be anything beyond that.

JM: Sure, sure. It’s a good question!

TJG: So in the production of this record, was there a particular high point for you that you look back on fondly?

JM: I think the high point is finally getting into the studio and getting the music down, tracking songs. We did the recording part of it in one day with the quartet, so it was a long, intense day. We did it that way mostly for budgetary concerns, because I chose a good studio (Sear Sound) and a great engineer (James Farber). We had played as a band before, and the music was familiar, so I felt like we could probably get it in a day. Getting into the studio, finding the different spirits of each song, getting inside stuff, that’s always a highlight for me when recording. It’s a learning process, and it gets you under the microscope, which is illuminating. There was one song called “Long Winter” where there’s a coda that has an overdubbed bass quartet, which I did separately, but that was its own short recording session.

TJG: Have you done much of that kind of overdubbing of yourself?

JM: I did a little bit on my last record, a similar kind of thing as an introduction to a piece. I wouldn’t mind doing more of it. I need to write a bit more and see what I come up with. Might be a fun thing to do a few tunes like that. It’s challenging to play in tune with yourself, I must say [laughs].

TJG: When I think of you as a bassist and musician, I think of a busy professional who’s doing things on a tight schedule, working and touring with a lot of artists. It sounds like the creation of this album reflected that mindset, to a degree. Anything unexpected that arose in the making of this album?

JM: Nothing was too surprising, but there are always surprises when you’re recording something, when tunes go in a certain direction that you weren’t necessarily expecting. The fifth tune on the record, “Safe,” was most challenging in some ways. We hadn’t played it much, and it was a newer thing that I had brought in. It developed quickly in the studio, in terms of how we shaped different sections. You know, you can never be set in your ways, as a musician. You can have a big-picture idea of what something’s going to sound like, if you have a template of a song you’ve written, but you have to be open to how people will be interpreting it, and whether it goes in different directions while you’re playing. Being open to that, and not trying to force the music into your preconceived ideas, is important.

That gets into how I am as a musician or sideman most of the time: Come as prepared as possible, then be open to supporting where the music goes in the moment. That’s the most exciting thing about playing jazz. It’s the chase, the unknown. That’s why you get up and keep creating, everything can keep being fun and exciting, because as long as there’s improvisation and openness involved, you’ll hopefully get to something new every time you play, even if it’s a song you’ve played a million times.

TJG: Totally. You’ve been playing with Mark, Kevin, and Nasheet for a long while now, right?

JM: I’ve known them all since I moved to New York in the 1990s. I played a session with Nasheet at his place in the West Village in 1992 before I officially moved to New York. I was going to William Paterson in New Jersey at the time, and the first time we met was at that session with my friend, alto player Bruce Williams, who still plays in the city. I met Kevin and Mark around the same time sometime between 1994-96. We played on a John Gordon album together called Along The Way, and Kevin and Mark both play on my first record, Passage, which I recorded in 2001 along with dummer Jorge Rossy.

I’ve played a lot with Mark over the years. I’ve been playing in his quartet for the last seven or eight years with the trumpet/saxophone/bass/drums lineup. We’ve played in a lot of other people’s bands too. Mark is probably the person I’ve played with the most. Kevin and I have played on quite a few gigs and recordings together, and he’s definitely one of my favorite piano players and musicians. Nasheet is an incredible drummer and musician. I like the combination of these elements in the band. It’s an interesting group. There will always be unexpected things, which is great.

TJG: Since you’ve been playing with these guys for more than two decades, do you have ways to keep creative channels open when recording new music, especially when you’re all coming off long tours and want to cover new ground?

JM: Like I was saying before, the excitement of the chase keeps us all in it, in a way [laughs]. We’ve all been playing music for a long time, and it’s not the easiest way to make a living on a strictly professional and practical level. A lot of traveling, ups and downs, financial insecurity. But we’ve dedicated so much to this thing we love, to this element of the unknown and the unexpected, trying to get to something new. It’s part of the drive to play the music. Addiction isn’t quite the right word, but there’s a constant pull to get to something new. Sure, there are times when you’re tired, but that’s life [laughs].

TJG: I play bass as well, and I’ve found that the bass can be quite a defeating instrument, in terms of its size, the effort required to play it, hauling it around. You’re a person who’s hauling your bass around constantly. What keeps your approach to the instrument fresh?

JM: That’s a tough one. There are times when you can hit a creative wall, or be unsure about whether you’re stuck with your sound, feel like you’re playing the same things, and so on. Any time you feel like you need to freshen things up, going and listening to other people and their music is a great idea. It can be as easy as putting on a record, listening to new music, even listening to bassists outside of your normal genre. The luxury of being in New York City is that any night of the week, you can go out and hear someone great. I always feel that can get me out of ruts. That can be an inspiring way to get out of your tunnel vision, however you may be stuck in your head, and to open up your ears and check out other people. That’s a great thing.

TJG: To bring it back around to the album, I read in the liner notes that you grew up in Iowa, and now you’re raising a family in Brooklyn. Any thoughts about what it’s like to be raising a family in New York, especially since when you were your kids’ age, you were in The Midwest?

JM: [Laughs] Yeah, I think about it a lot. It’s hard to know how different it is to raise a family in a big urban setting like New York. And when I was my kids’ age, so much has changed since then anyway. I only know what it was like for myself to grow up and go to school in Iowa, but I would guess that there were a lot fewer distractions [laughs]. Growing up in a place where there was not a lot to do, we played sports, went to school. I had a musical family around me, so that was a big part of my inspiration. We had a lot of time on our hands to be outside, look at the sky, have not a lot of stuff in your head [laughs]. I think there’s something healthy about that.

All of this is leading up to say, some of my concern about raising a family in New York is that there’s so much going on all the time. It can be a bit overwhelming and distracting. But it gets into a gray area about time and place: I think if you were to grow up in The Midwest today, there would still be a lot of distractions. And at the same time, there are so many opportunities in a place like New York. They’re completely different experiences. Can’t say one is better than the other.

I do think that the absence of distractions can foster creativity.  It gives your mind a chance to develop something. But people come from all corners of the earth now and do amazing things, so it’s hard to argue that one thing is better or worse than another. Every place has its ups and downs. In terms of my family, this is where we live. We could live a few other places in the world, but it would be hard to leave New York, I must say. As a musician, access to great musicians and collaborators is incredible.

TJG: Do you find that you try to bring a little of that Iowa from the 1980s into the house?

JM: [Laughs] Not consciously, but I’m sure it’s part of who I am as a person. I’m relatively laid-back and relaxed, which is partially due to where I grew up and how I was raised. I do bring that with my persona. I just happen to live in New York now.

The Joe Martin Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, May 25, 2019. The group features Mr. Martin on bass, Mark Turner on saxophone, Kevin Hays on piano, and Nasheet Waits on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.