Acclaimed singer/songwriter Rebecca Martin joins Portugal’s Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos for a stunning collection of original songs and beloved standards.
After Midnight, due out January 28 2022, also features bass great and Martin’s longtime collaborator Larry Grenadier, with lush arrangements by the OJM and pianist Guillermo Klein
Singer/songwriter Rebecca Martin has a particular gift for creating intimate, introspective moods, as if her songs are secrets whispered into the listener’s ear, or treasured memories drifting up from the subconscious.
In the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos (OJM), Martin, accompanied by her husband and frequent collaborator, bassist Larry Grenadier, has found a perfect match. On their first collaboration with Martin and Grenadier, After Midnight, the Portugal-based ensemble, conducted by Pedro Guedes, proves itself vividly sensitive to the hushed nuances and delicate impressionism of her finely crafted songs. The album, due out January 28, 2022 comprises pieces from Martin’s 30-year career alongside aptly chosen standards that spotlight her multi-hued interpretations. The release date is auspicious, landing on OJM’s 25-year anniversary.
“It’s rare as a singer to have the opportunity to work and record with an orchestra today,” Martin says. “It was a hefty challenge, with limited time together, and one that I eagerly embraced.”
Nate Chinen wrote in the New York Times that Martin “exudes the plainest sort of poise, almost radical in its utter lack of flash,” saying that her performances “seem less like songs than like articulations of her state of mind.” She began her career in the early 90s as part of the groundbreaking duo Once Blue, with Grammy-winning songwriter Jesse Harris (Norah Jones). Along with a half-dozen acclaimed solo albums, she’s recorded in collaboration with pianist Guillermo Klein and legendary drummer Paul Motian, and as part of the vocal trio Tillery with Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato.
It was through listening to Tillery that OJM co-musical director Pedro Guedes was inspired to invite Martin to collaborate. “Those three voices really got my attention,” Guedes recalls. “I knew Rebecca was not only a great singer but a great songwriter as well, and she also has a very special approach to the American Songbook. This combination of factors led me to make the call to ask her to work with us.”
Through the orchestra’s previous collaborations with a wide range of stellar jazz artists – an impressive list that includes Maria Schneider, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Carla Bley, Lee Konitz, Fred Hersch, Joshua Redman and Dee Dee Bridgewater, among many others – Martin recognized a large ensemble nimble enough to maneuver like a small group.
“Their work had the feeling of a small band to me,” Martin says. “It wasn’t grandiose, as if I had to put on a gown and walk out in front of an orchestra. It reminded me of my formative experiences in New York City, where there was deep listening and collaboration.”
“Rebecca’s original music is very intimate,” Guedes says. “It could seem like a challenge to bring out that intimacy within a big band context. But it ended up being really natural.”
A key component of that dynamic is Martin’s long personal and professional history with Larry Grenadier (Brad Mehldau, John Scofield). Over the course of 25 years together, the two have developed a stunningly attuned musical relationship, telepathic and intricate. “It’s a unique music connection,” Grenadier describes. “Because of the time spent on and off the bandstand with Rebecca over the years, we have the ultimate level of communication.”
Though the album After Midnight was recorded in the early weeks of 2020, long before anyone realized what that year had in store, the song reflects the cautious optimism that greets its release. It’s also a suggestion of the tone of the music, which seems to dwell in the twilit, liminal spaces late at night or just before dawn. Originally recorded in 2008 for Martin’s album The Growing Season, the title track After Midnight poetically depicts her brother’s wartime experience in Iraq.
“That song put me in mind of a [soldier] who comes home from a far away country, feeling at odds with being both war torn and thrust back into the comfort of their daily routine before they left and after they return,” says Guedes, who provided the song’s arrangement.
The OJM’s empathic touch can be heard from the album’s outset, as soft, shimmering colors usher in Martin’s “The Space in a Song to Think” – a title that could also serve as a guiding mantra for the album’s lush atmospheres. The Orquestra seems to weave through a path carved by Grenadier’s bass on “In the Nick of Time (State of the Union),” a tune the couple co-wrote for their 2013 collaboration Twain.
Working with the Argentine pianist/composer Guillermo Klein on 2017’s The Upstate Project was “a bucket list collaboration,” according to Martin, and Klein continues the partnership by contributing a pair of arrangements to After Midnight. Beginning simply with Martin singing over gently strummed guitar, Martin’s rueful “Don’t Mean a Thing At All” soon becomes swathed in kaleidoscopic colors; Guedes calls Klein’s bustling, metropolitan approach to Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life” a masterpiece – the arrangement reflects not the usual last-call bitterness but the heady rush of ceaseless urban living.
Sadly still relevant, the Depression-era “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” is given an achingly slow tempo, as if the narrator is muttering to herself with little hope of receiving the asked for assistance. It’s followed by the tender, swaying “Kentucky Babe,” a vintage lullaby that Martin discovered through singer Maxine Sullivan’s version. Charles Mingus’ “Portrait” feels woozy, as if overwhelmed to the point of dizziness by the subject’s elusive beauty. Accompanied by moaning baritone sax, Martin sings the rarely included opening verse of “Willow Weep for Me” before settling into a lovely rendition of the familiar classic.
“All Day Long She Wrote” is a poetic new Martin song about the creative urge, provided compassionate accompaniment via an arrangement by OJM pianist and co-director Carlos Azevedo. The album closes with a dream-like “Joey,” an early and oft-revisited song co-written by Martin’s Once Blue collaborator Jesse Harris.
The album was recorded and mixed by Mário Barreiros, whose masterful work in the studio Martin praises. “When we started the session, we had some trouble finding the right microphone for my voice with such a large group. During an early break, Mario set out into the city and returned with a ribbon mic borrowed from a friend. It made a world of difference. That effort and care made it clear to me that he was going to be a special engineer who would capture the performances perfectly – and he did!”
After Midnight is a gorgeous example of deep listening and sympathetic collaboration, illuminating profoundly emotional songs in vibrant shades. It’s a lovely reflection of the varied personalities that crafted it as well as the beautiful locale where it was recorded. “I find the city of Matosinhos, Portugal, to have a similar feeling to the orchestra,” Martin muses. “It’s familiar, earthy and approachable. I loved being able to meander from my hotel room to the studio and sit on the corner along the way with elders drinking their cappuccino and discussing their daily routines. It’s a magical place, a city that has maintained its culture and a slowless that is hard to find these days. It’s in part why I always feel so welcome there.”