New York, Bottom Line, 8 Sep 1993

8 Sep 1993
New York Times
Jon Pareles

Pop and Jazz in Review

John Martyn The Bottom Line

The blues is a touchstone for John Martyn. In the blues, he found music that transmutes pain into beauty, music that initiates select listeners into a secret world of loneliness and danger. But he didn't become one more blues imitator. Instead, he forged a highly individual style from British folk songs, jazz, soul and his own eccentricities: music with pinpoint syncopated vamps under hazy, free-form vocals, in songs that contemplate death and mourn lost love.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Martyn performed without his usual band, accompanied only by his own guitar and John Giblin's fretless electric bass. He joked with nervous energy between songs, but the unadorned arrangements only added to the music's intimacy. After a solo blues, finger-picked with fast, wiry triplets, he switched to almost subliminal guitar parts: chords bouncing against the beat, sometimes timed by an echo machine, or sustained chords that sketched ghostly harmonies. The vocals weren't emphatic, either; they were smoky, breathy, improvisational, slurring words to the edge of unintelligibility, tracing clear but ephemeral melodic shapes. Perhaps Mr. Martyn has learned from Brazilian bossa nova singers, like Joao Gilberto, how a murmur can be more persuasive than a shout.

Performing without a band sent Mr. Martyn back to his older material, notably from his irreplaceable 1973 album Solid Air, to the delight of the longtime fans who filled the Bottom Line. From the benevolent May You Never to the elegiac Solid Air, to a thoroughly revamped Johnny Too Bad (the Slickers' gangster ballad), Mr. Martyn turned each song into a solitary reverie of desolation and longing. Although the music was made for public performance, it sounded so private it could have been just barely overheard.

This review ran with a photo by Rahay Segev.