Who Needs Drums?

Martin & Haynes
Piano Music,
Jean Martin & Evan Shaw
Little Man on the Boat
, Jean Martin & Colin Fisher
It's Only Life!
, Blah Blah 666
I'm A Navvy,
Barnyard Drama
(all from Barnyard Records, Toronto, Canada)

These five albums feature French Canadian Jean Martin. Ostensibly a drummer and percussionist, he also plays a variety of other instruments and provides 'voice'. Saying that, on Freedman he's credited as playing 'Suitcase'. Nothing else, just that. A regular collaborator, Justin Haynes, plays ukulele on this interesting but ultimately unsatisfying disc.

It's a nice idea, this exploration of patterns made by the simplest of duets, but whether it can sustain interest over 61 minutes is debateable.

The ukulele is no doubt an underrated instrument, and ripe for exploration in the jazz and experimental fields. Here, Haynes steers well clear of George Formby territory, you'll be pleased to hear (or not), plucking rather than strumming strings. The pieces themselves are far too similar for any of them to stand out on their own, and there are no tunes as such to relate to. I can imagine the album providing ample backing tracks for old Parisian crooners in Montmartre back alleys, should the ability ever arise to send the disc back through time to the early or mid 20
th Century.

Playing through this album, I actually lost interest after five minutes and started flicking through the tracks at random. Perhaps not the way to appreciate music, but nothing I heard in these many samples made me want to go back to the beginning of the tracks and play them through. On one track, Trees Grew Out Of Their Ears,
he starts bending the strings as if trying to go all bluesy. I hated it and gave up. Where the Suitcase comes into this album I'll never know. I never heard it.

I expected Piano Music to be, well, piano music. But it was not to be. There's some fine, accomplished jazz also saxophone throughout the album, and if this is your thing, then you'll probably get something from this album. Martin gets to attack a real drum kit here and proves to be a reasonably accomplished jazz drummer. Unfortunate, this sort of straight jazz is all too common, and there's nothing here I haven't heard a thousand times before.

On the plus side, it was good to hear old-style jazz played straight, without the pair feeling the need to trade on the experimental leanings Jean Martin obviously has. As the zen saying has it, concentrate on one thing at a time.

The long track, Rattlebag Jimmy
, uses its quarter of an hour to move towards this experimental territory, however, and sees Martin making some shuffling noises that interrupt the flow of not only the track but the whole album so far.

I'm guessing, from listening to all five of these albums, that Jean Martin fancies himself as something of a mover and shaker, a Brian Eno of jazz. Wheras Eno can simply poke his head around the studio door to infuse his genius into whatever shower are in there, Martin seems to have an inflated opinion of his alchemical abilities, unless I've missed something.

I assume I've also missed the 'joke' in calling this album Piano Music
(to reiterate, there's no piano on it) but if anyone can explain it to me, I'd be grateful. Actually, no, I couldn't care less.

Little Man On The Boat is in the same vein as Piano Music, though it works much better I feel. Where the sound and feel of the album is the same, the individual pieces themselves are more interesting. They use space and rhythm more successfully, adding texture and atmosphere to the album. Jean Martin, alongside his usual drums, also plays trumpet, keyboards and loops. Colin Fisher plays sax, guitar, bass, melodica, banjo and provides voice.

I'd go as far as to say the least successful tracks are those with saxophone on them. It's such an overwhelming (is that the right word?) sound that it tends to flood the other instruments struggling for air.

There's an understated effort towards experiment and improvisation on some of the tracks, notably Folk Song
, but again this tends to deviate from the path the album started off on. Whereas there are only a couple of tracks where the listener's experience grows with the track, engaged and anticipating, there's a feel with this album more than with the other four here that something great might have come out of the sessions had circumstances, egos, time, whatever allowed.

No doubt the two musicians work well together, but they're obviously collaborators and not a unit. Neither of the two have the skills to make the most of the situation in what must have been a short preparation time. Whereas someone like Robert Fripp could walk into a studio never having heard a band before and then create genius with his first touch of the guitar, before getting the bus home in time for tea, this kind of thing seems like it'll certainly never happen where Jean Martin is concerned.

I'll listen to this one some more - it might grow on me, time and tide permitting.

The last but one of these five albums, It's Only Life, is an ensemble piece featuring half a dozen musicians including Jean Martin and Justin Haynes. It's what I'd call 'very French', having listened to the sort of music my mate in Brittany enjoys listening to on campus in Rennes.

It seems that Canadians, like the French, when even within spitting distance of anything calling itself Jazz have to take on board aspects of Frank Zappa's musical career. Nothing you could put your ear on, but it's there nonetheless.

Whether it's the fact of there being more musicians here or some other reason, this album feels much different from the other three reviewed here. Of course it is different: a different music, more Big Band though without having any of the properties of that genre. It's very French - did I mention that?

Some of the songs here are Mexican, such as a bizarre French Canadian jazz rendition of La Cucaracha
that manages to out-Zappa the man himself. If you ever wondered where these three countries meet musically, have a listen to this and take in the crazy Deep South rockabilly guitar while you're at it.

I'll bet they love this album in Parisian student bars.

Jean Martin as a musician is much more successful here than he is in sparse recordings where he has more to do. That might sound bitchy, but it isn't meant that way: by being a member of a band, and contributing to such, he blends in with the other musicians and becomes part of a unit. Rather than the unit itself. It's much more enjoyable, though this isn't music you'd want to listen to over and over like you did with, say, Bowie's Ashes to Ashes
single when it came out centuries ago. Obviously it's a completely different kettle of fish (and millennium) but - I've forgotten where I was going with this...

The title track is annoying. Full stop.

But after it there are another couple of Mexican songs, including (naturellement!) the Mexican Hat Dance. This is undoubtedly the product of drinking too much tequila in the studio at 3am. and the producer failing to break the news to the band. Who is the producer, let me see... ah, Jean Martin. He does the artwork on these album sleeves too, by the way.

You'd really have to be in the mood (or French) to enjoy this album in its entirety, but it's well made, interesting and different. The other albums here were that, but the difference with this one is that it's fun rather than an ordeal.

Well, that too.

I'm A Navvy is altogether different. For a start, it has a crap title. Hang on, they all have crap titles - scrub that last comment.

This album is a much tighter, rockier affair - I'm tempted to say 'more New York City' though I have no idea why. The opening - title - track works well, with Christine Duncan speaking a lyric rather in the way that William Burroughs has done in the past. The other three musicians (Martin on drums, loops, turntables and Haynes on guitars - not to mention another guitarist, Bernard Falaise) work together with Martin as a band and it's a useful six minutes.

However, they seem to remember who what and why they are by the next track, which is a feeble experimental jazz by numbers thing that can elicit no comment other than 'why?'. However, it does pick up and get interesting after seven minutes, though if you're still listening after a whole 420 seconds, you really need to get out more.

Actually, there's some great guitar playing on this album, which I'm guessing is coming from Bernard Falaise, with the more improv. noodlings being Haynes's work. The drums are mixed right up and I'm guessing that this is largely a live recording seeing as it was done over two days and there's no producer credited. Martin himself mixed the album though.

Sigh, Me Good
is another rockier track and works well. The two guitarists battle each other here, though it isn't like Thin Lizzy for sure. I'm actually reminded of both The Birthday Party (the Australian band, not the Harold Pinter play - though now you mention it...) and some of the projects Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth has been involved with over the years. They're pretty much unlistenable too.

It's difficult to work out what's wrong with this album - or rather, where it went wrong. There are some super ideas here and at times, working together, the band rocks
. That might not be the idea in mind, but it was a pleasant surprise after listening to almost five albums of Jean Martin's ego.

The last track, Little Girl Blue
, is a Rodgers and Hart song. No, I don't know where it's from - musicals aren't really my thing. All I know is that here, Christine Duncan forgets she's the new William Burroughs and just sings the song. It doesn't work. In fact, it's horrible, and I couldn't reach for the Eject key quick enough. Pity - there are some nice moments on this disc, though ultimately they're too few and too far between.

Altogether, how to rate these five Jean Martin albums as a body of work? There's little consistency, no coherence and what ideas there are which shine a little are soon clouded over with fluff. Heavy, annoying fluff, but fluff nonetheless.

I'm sure the man knows in his own mind what he's aiming at, but as far as this listener is concerned, he isn't achieving it. I'll play Little Man On The Boat
once more, in case I missed something, but I'm not optimistic. I'll be interested to discover what my Breton pal thinks of these, as I will be to see where Jean Martin goes in the next few years. At the moment he seems to be spreading himself around too much. One thing at a time, Jean, one thing at a time.

         John Gimblett 2009