Will Martina has distinguished himself as a cellist, composer and leader with his second album The Dam Levels (2011). Modular Living By Design, out next week, consolidates and propels forward his signature sound. That “signature sound” is one that’s informed by a lifetime of classical training coupled with the relatively recent discovery in his life to the joys of improvisation.
Modular is, like that prior album, performed mostly as a trio that includes Jason Lindner and keyboards and Richie Barshay on drums and percussion. And except for the initial track (more on that in a bit) it’s a quiet, meditative record, not really jazz, at least, not in the swinging sense. Melodies are for the most part simple folk strains made interesting by contrapuntal arrangements or ruminative flow, and Barshay’s delicate drumming enhances that feel. Martina’s gift is to make this a successful strategy for compelling listening.
Consider for instance “Michicant,” a pretty melody communicated first by bowed cello before the piano and drums enter. Martina switches over the plucked cello to groove with Barshay, as Linder offers up his own lithe reading of the opening theme. Lindner displays that same sensitive touch for “Little Meow,” a folk like strain that’s highlighted first by an immensely close coordination between Lindner and Barshay, followed by an exquisite bowed cello solo by Martina. Sometimes the economy of notes is the central feature of a song, such as what is found on “Thanks, Henry,” which is defined by sparse piano progressions over plucked cello and brushed drums. The beauty is in the notes not played as much as the notes that are present. Martina’s plucked cello, meanwhile, has a frail, singing quality to it.
For a couple of songs, Martina steps outside the trio format and expands the sound with additional performers, showing a willingness to wander from known comfort zones. The first track *Strung Out Night Light” is a forward moving piece, beginning with Martina and Jorge Continentino on soprano sax harmonizing over a short figure. A chugging rhythm from Barshay and electric bassist Mark Kelley emerges as Continentino sax solos among building tension and tempo quickening. The end comes in with several blasts from Continentino and Martina of the last chord. “Miiko’s Favo[u]rite Mobile” adds only Gregoire Maret’s Toots Thielemans style harmonica to the trio, who leads the three through a mysterious but graceful melody.
Like the managing of daily life, Modular Living By Design fits together smaller pieces in a way that makes up a greater whole, a purposeful existence. And like a life lived ideally, it succeeds in a lot of little ways not a few big, bombastic ones. Will Martina doesn’t make a lot of noise but he does make a bunch of harmonious sounds.
Modular Living By Design goes on sale April 16. Visit Will Martina’s website for more info.
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