Joe Martin: Into the Luminous

The bassist finds balance on his third album as a leader

Joe Martin
Joe Martin (photo: Imre Bart)

Born to a Kansas City musical family, upright bassist Joe Martin often sees his music career through a familial lens. His third and latest album, Étoilée, was named for his young daughter.

“Étoilée was also my [Parisian-born] wife’s grandmother’s name,” Martin explains. “The word literally means starry or luminous. I have more of a personal, abstract take on it. I felt the connection of my immediate family—my children, but also my family roots, my parents and my grandparents—it all connects in a way.”

Martin also acknowledges the family represented on his latest Sunnyside release: Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Kevin Hays, piano; and Nasheet Waits, drums. “I have musical and personal relationships with these guys dating back many years,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about combinations of elements. Mark is very good at getting inside the music. And I love the combination of Mark and Nasheet together. They played together on Mark’s record, Dharma Days. [Turner and Hays performed on Martin’s 1994 debut, Passage.] Kevin has this incredible harmonic scope, and a certain degree of magic. I like all the fundamentals together of these four people. It’s a great balance.”

There’s no denying the hookup felt and heard in Étoilée’s lyrical material, whether due to shared musical bonds or the fiery kinetic energy that ensues when four of New York City’s top players—here recorded by renowned engineer James Farber at Sear Sound—merge souls and sounds.

“I’ve been playing with Joe for over 15 years and loved his playing even before then,” notes tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh, with whom Martin has often recorded. “He’ll make a point to make the band sound good, but he’s also a great soloist. His ego doesn’t get in the way of anchoring the band, yet he also has a strong, recognizable musical personality. When I have a gig, Joe is pretty much the first person I call, regardless of the project. He can do anything.”

Currently working with the groups of Chris Potter, Mark Turner, and Gilad Hekselman, Martin has been busy practically since the day he arrived in New York in 1994. His résumé includes stints with Vinicius Cantuária, Bill Charlap, Art Farmer, Aaron Goldberg, Ethan Iverson, Ivan Lins, Brad Mehldau, Ben Monder, Jane Monheit, Anat Cohen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Donald Fagen (on the Sunken Condos album), and vocalist Andy Bey, whose guidance was especially meaningful for the now 48-year-old musician when he was initially finding his way.

“Andy is one of the greatest living jazz vocalists,” Martin says. “He has his own special voice on the piano and really understands harmony. Working with him was very important when I first came to New York. When we played a ballad it was really old-school, very slow tempos. That’s not easy to do, playing time like that. His understanding of time is deep and transcends anything metronomic, it’s a connection to the earth. You learn where to lay back and where to push forward.”

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Valued for his deep tone, quick ears, harmonic elasticity, and beautifully clear solos, Martin offers sage advice for any musician hoping to develop his or her sonic signature, regardless of their instrument.

“My concept of sound came from electric bass players who also played upright bass, like Stanley Clarke and John Patitucci,” he says. “But as I got more into the sound of the bass and into acoustic music and the tradition, I became interested in Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, and Scott LaFaro—and I definitely heard a very earthy sound that was coming out of the bass that I was not getting. And Dennis Irwin: He always had this massive acoustic sound. I heard it outside a club and thought, ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’

“So all that became a question,” he continues. “‘How do you do that?’ It’s a combination of how you set your bass up and the sound you hear in your head and a lot of work and practice, but it’s also about projection and not necessarily getting the loudest sound out of your instrument. It doesn’t work to overplay. You want to be relaxed, so you can’t be pulling too hard all the time—it weighs everything down.”

Hoping to strengthen his identity as a leader and eventually work with Herbie Hancock, Martin knows why he’s one of the first-call bassists in jazz.

“I don’t come in with an agenda. I’m loyal to being the bass player in the band rather than somebody who’s waiting for their solo. I’m committed to the function of the bass and the quest for the best notes.”

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.