John’s Karmic Journey

At the age of 20, John Martyn was struck by a bolt of karmic lightning. It’s never left him.

“When you get loaded, this album opens your head up to a different thing. I’ve chosen it because it taught me the value of sustain. My parents were big classical music fans obsessed with that belcanto, operatic sustain, regardless of the cost to the lungs or the ears. With Sanders it was different; beautiful, long notes but with breath and gurgling in between. His tone blew my mind and he gave me a glimpse through a keyhole that I didn’t even know existed.”John's Karmic Journey
“I first heard it in a village called Chilham in Kent. Chilham was appropriate, ‘cos we were all blasted. I’d be about 20. It was just after the release of Stormbringer. There was a rehearsal studio there, and I was socialising with a band called Neu Nadir, who were being produced by Joe Boyd, later famous for his stuff with Nick Drake. The horn players in Nadir were total Chicanos. Lovely people, but to them Sanders was just jazz shit. The rest of us went to another part of the building and put Karma on. Something in me just went Pop! It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning.”

“Up until then I’d listened to folk music and R&B stuff like Sonny Boy Williamson, but I hadn’t got into jazz at all. I’m basically Buddhist in belief and the record struck a chord there too. I’ve never met Sanders, so for all I know he could be a right arsehole. I’d never heard someone play so emotionally, though, with that sense of humanity. It’s an enormously spiritual record, and you have to remember that it was recorded in the days of black activism. My impression is that Sanders and Thomas shared a certain philosophy, and that they were part of that hip élite who drew a lot of their inspiration from Coltrane. At the time I was your archetypal, sandal wearing hippie, so all of that stuff appealed.”

“I’m 51 now, so it’s about 30 years since I first heard the record. I used to play it constantly, but until today I hadn’t played it in twelve years. I love the fact that, while all the bebop saxophonists were obsessed with speed, you know, Flight Of The Bumblebee with jazz inflections, Pharoah was going (makes sustained, soulful, parping noise on one note). He was the first musician to convince  me that you didn’t have to show off to be good. In his own way, he was showing off, too, of course. Nobody else can do what he does.”

“I don’t think I would have done some of the stuff on Inside Out if I hadn’t heard Karma. The only reason I bought the echoplex was to try and imitate Sanders’ sustain on my guitar. The other stuff I did with the echoplex came later, by accident. Years back, his saxplaying also influenced my vocal phrasing, but not so much now.”

“I haven’t got a clue how the record was recorded, but it sounds great. Some of it comes across as quite chaotic, as though the sound of the New York traffic was an influence. It’s very raw and bluesy, and you can hear that African tribal thing in the percussion. Even though all the musicians are jazz heavyweights, there’s nothing scholastic about it. How refreshing. How Heineken (laughs).”

“Some of my favourite bits are the intros; the sax melody at the start of Colors, for example. The jazz-yodelling that Leon Thomas does on the first track is amazing too. Later, that inspired me to go out and buy his Live In Berlin album.”

“Do I recognise the person I was when I first heard Karma? Yeah, I was very innocent and unformed when I first heard this, and I see young musicians with the same ideals everywhere. For me, hearing Pharoah condensed four or five years of adulthood into a few minutes. My daughter gave me his latest album as a present recently, so I still have a relationship with him. But I don’t want to know anything about the man’s personal life. That would spoil it for me.”

James McNair
Mojo Magazine No.81
August 2000