Vinyl records piled high, and worn out diamond needles gathered in corners throughout Joe Martin’s childhood home in Pella, Iowa, where he became an active listener at a young age. Son of instrumentalist parents, the bass player/composer began developing his ear, the force behind his supportive, harmonically inquisitive, and lyrical musical style. “I’ve always liked melodies,” he says, “something that sticks in your head.”
“Melody and lyricism is something that speaks to me. At the same time, I consider myself very much a bass player, so I like incorporating that kind of sensibility, but still functioning in a band. As far choosing the notes for my basslines, the way I feel time, [etc.]—it’s sort of keeping everything ‘from the ground up.’ As I’ve gotten more into the bass and the idea of melody and lyricism, I think I’ve gotten more into the way the bass functions as this foundational instrument in any band, plus this sort of counterpoint, or the contrapuntal relationship with other instruments in the band.”
The foundational support that pervades Martin’s playing feels and sounds fluid and flexible, securing him countless opportunities to play. The relationships Martin has developed with other players over the years have invited a cross section of influences into his musical narrative, and has allowed hims to influence the artistic direction of many projects by his peers.
Most recently, Martin played on Chris Potter’s release The Dreamer is the Dream (ECM, 2017), and is gearing up to be part of the yet unconfirmed but anticipated release of Mark Turner’s upcoming quartet record, rumored to be ready in early 2018. Martin views each experience he’s had since coming to New York in the mid 90s as an opportunity for exploration and development.
“Playing with a lot of different kinds of players exposes you to all of their different influences, so you’re constantly being exposed to new points of view,” he says. “Most of the people I’ve played with since I’ve been in New York are jazz or improvisationally-oriented musicians, so there’s some sort of string that ties all of that together, but everybody has different places that they’re coming from.”
Martin, himself, comes from the groove. He always felt an attraction to rhythm and feel, even when playing cello in elementary school. And when he picked up his first electric bass at 14, Martin began seeking out players who could make it feel good, and then transcribe their basslines. Those late, and at times frustrating, nights with the bass guitar and the radio dial shaped the kind of musician Martin would become.
“That core of my playing, and a culmination of all the things—the melodicism, the lyricism, that care about groove and time—that’s kind of the foundation for a lot of the bands I play in, that I have played in over the years,” he says. “And then it’s just a matter of being flexible, of being versatile, being open about other approaches, other people’s music, being willing to learn some things that you may not be comfortable doing.”
Discomfort, to many musicians, is a fluid concept. To Martin, feeling uncomfortable is critical to meaningful development. And perhaps no musical relationship magnifies feelings of comfort and, conversely, discomfort as clearly as the bass-drums hookup. “Every drummer has a slightly different pulse, a different heartbeat,” he says.
“Most people have come from slightly different backgrounds when they were kids, but everybody—we’ve all, at some point in our development, arrived at jazz, and that medium of expression. And if you’re going to play jazz, you study the masters, you study all the people who’ve come before you, and you start to observe. Some drummers play right down the middle of the beat, some play more on top of the beat, some may play a little behind the beat, but as long as it’s in this area of a good feeling groove, then [all of it] can be cool.”
Sometimes the groove isn’t happening; that’s when, according to Martin, the push-pull dynamic begins, presenting the potential for the bandstand to turn into a battleground.
“If you’re playing with somebody whom you’re battling with, it’s not just you guys who are battling,” he says, “it’s not the bass player and the drummer; it’s the whole band that’s going to be battling, too. So you’ve got to have the perspective: What does the music need, and how can you help it? How can you make it feel as good as possible for everybody? When someone’s behind the beat, if it feels good, then you can kind of go with it; if it’s dragging, then maybe you have a bit of power to push that a little. It’s always in the service of trying to make whatever situation it is feel as good as possible and make the best music you can play.”
An artist who boasts a growing roster of associations with some of the music’s most distinctive drummers from Marcus Gilmore to Adam Cruz to Jochen Rueckert, Martin encourages young drummers struggling with the hookup to find opportunities to play with as many different bass players as possible. He considers these first, second and third situations part of the arc of learning experiences that sometimes take a while to process.
“If you’re at the beginning of [your] development, and you don’t have a lot of opportunities to play, it can be limiting, because that’s your first experience. Maybe you get lucky and play with someone you have a really good rapport with, but you have to kind of seek out and play with other people, too, just to see what that feels like so you can figure out, is it [yourself] who has a problem that you need to work on, or is it someone else?”
Those early years of development can have a lasting effect on the way a young artist processes the music. For Martin, transcribing basslines from the radio allowed his fingers to sort out his ears and his ears to strengthen and refine. In recent years, certain artists have noted a growing trend among students and young players to solicit established musicians via email or through their social channels, asking for charts of their arrangements and original compositions. While Martin notes the benefit of studying a written composition, he offers some perspective on checking out the charts before a player has really checked out the music. “The more music you can learn by ear, by transcribing directly from recordings, the better off you’re going to be,” he says.
“I’m very aware of how I got into music, and how I think most great musicians get into music, especially jazz. It’s something that has been passed along from generation to generation as an oral tradition, just like most folkloric music has. When you get into world music and folk music from other countries, most of it is not written down. Some things have been written down or documented after the fact, but most music is passed on by ear by learning from the generation before, who knows the music and has it completely internalized. And a lot of the greatest musicians ever, did not read music. It’s more of the western tradition of classical music, and the fact that that happened before there were ways to record it, so it was always something that had to be written down.
“I never believed in buying —not to say that there aren’t good jazz written materials out there. People have written method books and I’m not going to ‘poo-poo’ people’s hard work, but the real hard work has to be done by the musicians themselves, ourselves, to learn this music and develop our ears. If you’re going to learn jazz, you have to listen to the recordings. You have to transcribe by ear, assimilate, internalize, memorize and eventually develop your own vocabulary. And it’s helpful to write down what you’re doing along the way. That could be helpful to analyze. But to just look at other people’s charts, I think that’s interesting after you’ve already learned the music, as best you can, by ear.”
Another turning point in Martin’s development happened after he moved to New York. Shortly after his arrival, Martin had the opportunity to play with an artist he considers an unsung hero of the music: the legendary singer and pianist Andy Bey. Before he started playing with guys like Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Mehldau, Martin was learning complex harmonic structure from Bey, and how to make it feel good at every tempo. “When he would sing a ballad, it would be, for me, an inconceivable slow tempo—like, really old school,” says Martin.
“Nobody from my generation would play a ballad like that. But his sense of time, and the way he would float through it, was incredible. He has a very personal thing; the way he plays harmony, his feel, it’s all very connected to the roots of this music. I got a lot out of playing with him. I’m really grateful, especially now, when there’s less and less of the older generations. I think it’s significant when you have the chance to play with people like that. You gain perspective on how they absorb the music, how they play the music, what’s important and, maybe, what’s not important.”
For his upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery, Martin feels fortunate to being playing with three of the music’s most imaginative artists, Dayna Stephens, Pete Bernstein and Bill Stewart—a new combination of players for Martin’s compositions. “I’m really excited to hear the music in a slightly different context,” he says.
“Dayna I’ve known for a few years now. We’ve played on several projects of other people’s music. He’s a great musician, a great tenor player and a great guy. I heard Bill play in Scofield’s band when he was first doing that, so probably the very early 90s. I was always blown away, albeit slightly intimidated by him, but then we got to play together on a few people’s gigs and projects, and he’s one of the best—he’s one of the most personal and recognizable and great drummers around. And a very good cat, too. Pete and I have played together a little more in recent history as opposed to early on. He’s absolutely one of my favorite guitar players and musicians. He’s extremely special. Whatever band he’s in, he just makes it feel great. He gets inside everything—rhythmically, harmonically, feel-wise and taste.”
While Martin may not be an artist who grabs the mic on every hit, his presence is pervasive. A bass player whose sound offers both resonating complexity and a strong foundational feel, Martin finds himself in service to the music, at moment’s notice – no matter what moment. “I think [the bass] goes with my personality, too,” he says. “I’m a relatively behind-the-scenes kind of person. With few exceptions, [as bass players,] we’re not really screaming for the spotlight, but we’re quietly making our presence known.”
The Joe Martin Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, November 10th, 2017. The group features Mr. Martin on bass, Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and Bill Stewart 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.