John Martyn may be the greatest English musician you’ve never have heard of, certainly one of the greatest of the last forty years. I wrote the article about him in the Encyclopedia of Folk and Blues and have loved his music since my college roommate introduced me to his first album in the early 1970s.
Martyn played a N.Y. concert last week, his first in ten years (he doesn’t get around much). Here’s what the N.Y. Times music critic had to say:
In the late 1960s it was a novel, far-reaching idea when folk-rooted guitarists in the United States and England began toying with the harmonies and syncopations of jazz. (Now such hybrids are taken for granted in the music of Norah Jones.) One of the most idiosyncratic British innovators, the 60-year-old Scottish guitarist, singer and songwriter John Martyn, made his first New York appearance in more than a decade with a brief yet heartening set…
Mr. Martyn’s style…mingles the modes of traditional Celtic songs, jazz chords, rural-blues fingerpicking, the otherworldly singing of Billie Holiday and the bluesman Skip James, a fondness for electronics like the Echoplex and, from the 1970s on, a touch of reggae. In his music, steady, precise, tightly wound yet eccentric guitar vamps — with chords and single notes ricocheting from off-beats — support waywardly improvisational vocals that are crooned with honeyed introspection or burred with a rasp.
Mr. Martyn’s own songs, among them “May You Never” (which Eric Clapton also recorded), juxtapose benevolent wishes with an awareness of darkness…
Personally, I think Martyn’s experimentation with jazz is among the least successful of his musical efforts. I much prefer his work that is rooted firmly in traditional music and the blues. But whatever you do say about John Martyn, he is a bold, almost fearless innovator. Yes, he blunders musically. But in a world in which musicians find a single groove and mine it ad nauseum, Martyn isn’t satisfied with sameness. And when he is “on” there is no one like him. His sound is unique. He plays with a studied joie de vivre that simply commands admiration. But that joy is well-earned through hard living and tough choices (or “a bloggy hard slog,” as the musician himself describes his life).
Martyn’s music makes no compromises for the sake of accessibilty. What you hear is what you get. He forces you to come to the music. He never comes to you. In that sense of musical commitment, purity and fearlessness, he reminds me a great deal of Van Morrison. Their singing voices both have the same bluesy, raspy, almost slurred sound the reminds you of many of the blues greats they admire. And it may be no accident that each hails from gritty industrial cities in the north of the British Isles: Martyn from Glasgow and Morrison from Belfast.
By the by, the N.Y. Times review, entitled Smooth Scotch Blend of Folk and Jazz, seems to have confused Martyn’s Scottish ethnicity with an alcoholic beverage, unless it’s a sly reference to the problems with the bottle with which Martyn has battled. At any rate, there’s never a good editor when you need one.
If you’ve never heard of him, you owe it to yourself to listen to May You Never and buy the DVD I feature here (or a CD). The video below is from a 1978 German concert (on which the DVD is based) in which Martyn performs A Certain Surprise. Enjoy the gift that is John Martyn.