Grace And Danger

Johnny So Good

HIGH above the ground clutter of the mainstream and well away from the gaudy, jerrybuilt homes of rock folly and fashion, there are musicians who know their own worth and who have convinced enough people of it over the years to both support themselves and retain the interest of a record company. As a result they’re not so put upon by the pressures that conspire to bring down so many of their more ‘successful’ peers, and their music tends to evolve in an unhurried, organic sort of way; it also wears very well, sounding as fresh now as it did when first conceived. John Martyn is one such musician.

Martyn began his career in the late ’60s playing folk in the clubs, but since then and through the course of some ten albums his music has seamlessly absorbed a succession of influences, yet remained immediately recognisable as his alone. Tokenism is not Martyn’s thing. He was, for example, very taken by reggae and so went to live in Jamaica for a while, playing with such producers as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Jack Ruby (on Burning Spear’s wonderful ‘Man In The Hills’). Blues and jazz have also featured long and strong in Martyn’s work, but like reggae they’ve become inseparable parts of the whole, not merely awkward, unnatural growths that soon wither and fall away.

Thelonious JohnThere’s no point in trying to box Martyn off somewhere. He won’t fit. Is he a singer songwriter? Don’t make me hoot. His songs have absolutely nothing in common with, say, the puerile would-be poeticism of a Chris De Burgh or the pained, maudlin immaturity of a James Taylor or any other representative of the American school of compulsive self-psychoanalysis.

As it happens, most of the songs on ‘Grace & Danger’ are about love lost or being lost, but they’re not the sort that those who have a taste for such things can dissect word by word in the hope of gaining precious insight into their author’s state of mind. Even though Martyn isn’t averse to a neat turn of phrase or two (of “some people draw conclusions like curtains, don’t they draw them tight?” from ‘Some People Are Crazy’ and “it’s not the letters you just don’t write… that keep me hanging on” from ‘Sweet Little Mystery’), his lyrics are plain spoken and straightforward, more emotional shorthand than anything else. On paper they’d probably read trite or banal, but then that’s taking them away out of context and ignoring the manner in which Martyn’s extraordinary voice tries and tests, savours and slurs them for their sound as much as for their sense.

Martyn’s work is a continuum, very sufficient unto itself, and so it’s hardly surprising that ‘Grace & Danger’ should hark back to earlier albums. But the overall instrumental balance and impact of the album is new, a striking move on and up from 1977’s ‘One World’. John Giblin’s electric bass style owes more than a little to Jaco Pastorius’ harmonic method and Tommy Eyre’s electric piano, which places equal emphasis on rhythm and melody, is strongly reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s ’70s playing with first his sextet and now VSOP. Genesis’ Phil Collins’ drumming is simply superb, a vital fulcrum amongst all the surrounding musical flow motion and so much more effective in this restrained sort of setting than in the hyperactive jazzrock of Brand X.

So is this jazz then? It doesn’t matter what it is. Just keep on keeping the categories at arms’ length and enjoy. That said, it does occur to me that Martyn’s rhythm guitar playing has for some time had as much in common with Thelonious Monk’s revolutionary piano phrasing of the ’50s as with reggae. Monk loved to leave “holes” in a piece of music, to work around and off a theme rather than at and over it; what he left out was often just as important as what he left in. Martyn’s clipped chords tend to punctuate and shape his songs in much the same way.

There are nine songs here, seven by Martyn and one co-written by him and his wife Beverley. ‘Some People Are Crazy’ opens and instantly enfolds you in a languid haze of sound, Martyn’s ability to create musical space and perspective is exceptional, and ‘Some People’ moves smoothly through what Martyn might well call “solid air”. Dave Lawson’s synth broods in the background, contributing to the vague sense of unease. Giblin treads softly, as if walking on gilded splinters, and Eyre scatters colour like a prism.

‘Grace & Danger’ itself moves at a brisk canter, Martyn’s big block chords, tiny rhythmic scratches and serpentine lead creating the impression of a dense, rustling undergrowth. His splintered 12-string nods in the direction of Oregon’s Ralph Towner on ‘Lookin’ On’, which preens itself like latter day Weather Report. The song is unquestionably Martyn’s though, its deceptive looseness barely concealing an inner urgency as Martyn’s insistent, assonant singing pushes it over the edge into giddy free fall.

A standard that’s been covered by musicians as diverse as Taj Majal and Jim Capaldi, The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad’ staggers abruptly into range to close the side. Collins and Giblin lean hard on the off-beat, and Martyn’s gruff, guttural vocals are at times barely distinguishable from his choppy echoplexed chords. This is the single, and well worth investigating as such for its frenzied version of a B-side.

‘Sweet Little Mystery’ suggests that mood and medium are variables here. It’s almost painfully bittersweet, another of Martyn’s master melodies. As catchy as a common cold, the song touches body and soul in a way you’d forgotten was possible; Martyn sings it with charming, aching tenderness. ‘Hurt In Your Heart’ ebbs and flows on the tide of his long reverbed chords, swells irresistibly under his curling solo. Giblin bides his time, then simply purrs in.

‘Baby Please Come Home’ and ‘Our Love’ are both suitably plangent and illustrate Martyn’s unaffected empathy with folk blues. These two songs are as ageless as their concerns are eternal; their power stems from their restraint and the musicians’ understanding that one note or phrase in the right place is worth ten or 20 in the wrong. ‘Save Some For Me’ proves a similar point; a blipping moog figure provides the song with its rhythmic base, but sounds totally natural, Eyre incidentally plays one of his best solos here, notes splashed over the coda.

It’s always been tempting to use the consistency and quiet, careful innovations of Martyn’s work as a stick with which to thrash at the monstrous dumbness of so much contemporary rock ‘n’ pop, but to do so is to render Martyn a disservice. ‘Grace & Danger’ is perfectly capable of recommending itself on its own considerable merits. It’s also the best album I’ve heard all year.

Angus MacKinnon
New Musical Express
25 October 1980