Hidden Track Interview: Why The Eternally Busy Billy Martin Made Time For Wil Blades

Billy Martin has enough in the hopper — enough friends, enough musical inclinations, enough artistic hobbies — that he’s not exactly starving for collaborators. Think of all the one-offs, duos, trios, big bands, labels, betaking and visual arts projects, and you’re still not even mentioning the iconic fusion trio he’s co-anchored with John Medeski and Chris Wood — now into its third decade.

But Martin craves freshness above all, he says, and it’s a new co-conspirator who’s captured most of Martin’s time and creative attention in the past year. That’s Wil Blades, a wicked young organist and keyboard improviser with whom Martin discovered deep musical chemistry in barely a year playing together.

Blades, 33, is a Chicago native but has been rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he gigs regularly with several combos, for most of his professional life. He was originally a drummer, but while studying jazz at New College of California, he took up the Hammond B-3 organ around age 19, and became a regular at San Francisco’s beloved Boom Boom Room, earning the attention of veteran players like Oscar Myers and Dr. Lonnie Smith, who’s mentored and taught Blades for some time now.

Blades and Martin earlier this spring released a potent little disc called Shimmy that sounds — in the best way — like it definitely was recorded in the let-it-all-hang-out seven hours spent in a Berkeley recording studio that Martin describes. There are standards (Down By the Riverside), an Eddie Harris (Mean Greens) and plenty of Blades’ own material, but the most interesting stuff is the Blades/Martin collaborations that, according to Martin, were forged largely on the road or through improv-led jams in the studio. It’s those moments that have gotten this album talked about as a throwback to the groove-a-licious organ-jam sounds of Groove Holmes and Brother Jack McDuff, and make it a deep and tasty listen.

Blades and Martin, as it turned out, didn’t even meet until their very first gig together, in the spring of 2011 at the Boom Boom Room. We’ll let Billy pick up the story from there, but rest assured, this is a remarkable pairing — maybe the most invigorating new organ-and-drums duo this scene’s had since guys named Marco and Joe started getting notices — and one that according to its namesakes, definitely has life beyond its current stretch of tour dates.

HIDDEN TRACK: So take me back to when you first played with Wil. The New Orleans gig from Jazz Fest 2011 is the one that gets talked about.

BILLY MARTIN: We actually met in San Francisco prior to that New Orleans gig. It was at the Boom Boom Room, and I was out there promoting my Life on Drums DVD and a promoter says, hey, you’ve got this night off, why don’t you get together with Wil, make some money? I trusted her. I checked Wil out a little bit from his record, and I thought, why not? That was the first gig.

It felt really good, we didn’t rehearse or anything, we just got up in front of everyone and went for it. It felt good and I was confident we could work on it. But at that Blue Nile gig in New Orleans, sparks were flying. The audience was riveted and dancing. I mean, this is Jazz Fest, so you’d better play good, because there’s a lot of good music going on all around you. But it just felt right and that’s when I really got passionate about the project.

Wil is a great guy, with a great sense of rhythm, and experience with blues and understanding of the history of that. You can hear it in his playing. He conjures up more of this old-time kind of feeling when he plays, but in a new way, and some people do that in a way that sounds totally ripped off, just playing the record or copying the style, not able to make it their own. He can. So that’s when it came together: New Orleans was the gig, and we said let’s book our tour and we talked about making the record and it really came together well.

HT: Jumping back real quick to that Boom Boom Room gig, you and Wil hadn’t met each other before that?

BM: Nope.

HT: So you definitely were without a net.

BM: Absolutely, and yeah, you know, I’m pretty conditioned to that. I’ve been doing it for so long coming from the downtown scene in New York that I can go anywhere. We just have a conversation, you can’t be afraid to do that. But of course, I have to have some kind of an idea of where this person is coming from. It can’t be just anybody up there because it could be someone that can’t really do it. But from listening to a little of Wil’s stuff, I knew he could handle it. He’s not focused on the avant-garde experimental stuff i do, but I knew I could speak his language.

HT: Were you sure it was going to be just you and Wil or did you look at bringing in other personnel?

BM: I love duets, so if it feels right, I definitely want to protect that. So no, but we’ve been open to people sitting in and we have had people sit in. I think one of the reasons is that Wil has the whole harmonic world at his fingertips without anyone else really needed to work something out. It leaves us free to spontaneously write together, where I can create the beats and we can both change the direction of things. We don’t have to talk much about it; he can play any tune over what I play, and that gives him the freedom to start working on little riffs or ideas. We like to let it flow.

He has a good amount of his stuff on the record and then there are also things that we developed together. But just the two of us means he has the freedom — he doesn’t have to call out changes to anybody. When you’re improvising with other tonal instruments, that can get it that way of that freedom. He has the bass pedals, so between us, we’re really wide open. He told me it’s the easiest and most natural thing he’s ever done, and not easy as in it’s simple, but easy as in, no bullshit. It’s strong, kind of in an effortless way. We’re working hard and it’s coming out in a way that we have a lot of chemistry.

HT: I was going through your discography recently, both your work with MMW and everything else, and was struck me is that for all the folks you’ve officially recorded with, there must be ten times that number of potential collaborators that you haven’t had time for. How do you know when you’re in a collaboration that’s going to go farther than a one-off or a few good gigs, and how did you know with Wil?

BM: I know because I have played with so many people. That helps; you just know. We don’t know how long the magic is going to be there, and how our relationship is going to be and how it’s going to evolve. There are always distracts and other things to do. But there are things about Wil I do know, and that he has a strong work ethic, which is really important to survive in music today, especially instrumental music and jazz. You have to have a really strong ethic, and really not complain about stuff. We’re out there, and we’re developing. But there are gigs where you get paid almost nothing and gigs where you make more. He’s got his head on right.

He’s self taught, but he watches the players that are important. Dr. Lonnie Smith is his mentor and teaches him, but he’s done a lot for himself to get to where he is now. I mean, you don’t just wake up the next morning and start playing like that. It’s something you feel. We’ve been on two tours together and it’s the two of us in a van. We talk, we play, and it’s a perfect situation. It’s also economical — again, two guys in a van, not a lot of overhead. It works from a musical perspective. Other influences we both have might leak into it, and we’re not copying anything in particular, but it’s strongly rooted in jazz and the traditional blues origin.

HT: Do you think you guys will do another record?

BM: Well, we have this record, and it’s a good record, and we’re going to tour the East Coast in the first part of July. We have other things going on, but maybe toward the end of this year I could see us talking about doing another record. I’m pretty content with where we’re at right now. People are taking us in. This is one of a few different bands I’m working with, and he’s got another one, too, so we’ll have to feel out where the energy takes us. But we’re not going to stop. I could see having a few more records in us, at least.

The last tour we just did on the West Coast, we played some different kinds of things, and I think we’d approach it with the idea of spending a few more days in the studio. [Shimmy] was recorded 7 hours in the studio, and we played everything we played on the road, improvised and edited it together to make a record. There are two improvisations on this record that turned out to be tunes: Pick Pocket and Toe Thumb. Both of those just happened in the studio — we’d never played either before. Other things, you know, Brother Bru is a Wil tune he’s had for a while and played with other bands, and Down by the Riverside is a standard we all know. Little Shimmy was another one we developed on the road. So yeah, seven hours, we were in a studio, let’s bang it out. But the next time we go into the studio, maybe we’ll write and take some more time with it.

HT: Would you liken playing with Wil to any project you’ve done before? You and Medeski play duo shows once in a while but this is obviously different.

BM: John and I have a broader range — you never know what you’re going to get and we know each other so well that we can go anywhere. With Wil and I, the world is a little bit more defined. But all the duet records offer something. My percussion duets with Calvin Weston you hear a chemistry and musicality. We have that here, that sort of balancing each other out to make a bigger whole. I see that similarity.

PAGE TWO = Billy Martin on Medeski, Martin and Wood + The Downtown Scene

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