Barrett Martin had come a long way since he debuted as
Skin Yard's drummer on
Fist Sized Chunks (1990) and joined the
Screaming Trees on
Sweet Oblivion (1992) and
Mad Season on
Tuatara with REM's Peter Buck,
Luna's bassist Justin Harwood,
and jazz saxophonist Skerik (Nalgas Sin Carne).
Martin and Harwood were the brains and
theirs was a personal take on world-music.
The all-instrumental Breaking The Ethers (Epic, 1997)
is a collection of free-form jams that employ
didgeridoo, steel drums, African percussions, vibes, mandolin and dulcimer.
Breaking The Ethers is a masterpiece of layering: it opens with an
ethereal ethnic Trance Mission motif,
then quickly develops a harder texture thanks to
a multitude of pounding drums and to shining jazz horns with a latin feel
a` la Gato Barbieri. Martin and Skeric are protagonists of a fantastic
duet even if each seems to hardly acknowledge the steps of the other.
The fusion between latin, jazz and Indian music is even more prominent in
The Desert Sky, which is mainly a spiritual duet of Martin's sitar and
Harwood's steel drum on a backdrop of dulcimer and tablas.
Saturday Night Church comes from a completely different angle, but
exhibits the same fusion prowess. The Duan Eddy's twang and cocktail-lounge
steel drum are used to build a dark atmosphere, borrowed from spy thriller
soundtracks, until Skerik steals Roland Kirk's flute phrasing and
engages in a demonic dance.
Burning The Keys proceeds backwards: first the foursome frolics
through a wild afro-jazz jam and then the music glides into a moody
Eastern Star is classical Indian music for dulcimer, sax, steel drum,
bass and marimbas, a hypnotic concerto of droning strings and delicate
A monster saxophone riff and some pow-wow drumming propel the double-guitar
jamming of The Getaway.
The melodic jazz themes of A Dark State Of Mind and
Goodnight La Habana crown an intellectual carousel of quotations.
Trading With The Enemy (Epic, 1998) is less fresh and a little
too sophisticated, self-indulgent to say the least. It displays the same
style of hyper-fusion, but in a much more "crowded" setting.
The arrangements lean towards an "orchestral" dimension, as
the serene theme of Smuggler's Cove, punctuated by the
vibraphone, is repeatedly challenged by fiery horns solos,
The caribbean tide of Night In The Emerald City
and the tropical carnival of Fela The Conqueror
are pretexts for collective and solo improvisation.
The display of musical brilliance is impressive, but the net result is an
affectionate revision of kitsch, easy-listening, muzak stereotypes.
Luckily, a neurotic undercurrent adds a more interesting psychological
dimension to a few songs.
The Streets Of New Delhi borrows from Tuatara's favorite
soundtracks of urban thrillers and unleashes a feast of
punchy horns, fatalistic twang, suspenseful organ and hyperkinetic drums.
The loud, polyphonic fanfare of L'Espionnage Pomme De Terre
turns almost cacophonous. Afterburner pounds like hard-rock.
But the album's standout is the one piece that does not sound like the others
The Bender, stretched like a rubberband by
didjeridoo drones and tribal drumming, springs into a
feverish bolero propelled by percussive piano and funky guitar.
For a few minutes, the competent, diligent, impeccable nine-piece ensemble
turns into a rowdy rock and roll band.
Tuatara has taken a life of its own and it is now a full-fledged instrumental
jazz combo with its own program of total immersion in exotica, cocktail lounge
and assorted 1960s sonic paraphernalia.
Very little of what we hear, though, conveys anything beyond
the delight of playing with high-caliber musicians.
Meanwhile, Barrett Martin also scored the soundtracks for
Jonas and Josh Pate's Deceiver (1998) and Mark Gibson's Lush (1999).
In 2000 Martin was ordained as a Zen monk.
Cinemathique (Fast Horse, 2002) sounds like it was
improvised during a weekend, rummaging whatever the band super-members could
dust off from their drawers.
The Loading Program (2003) contains remixes from the first three albums.
Meanwhile, Barrett Martin recorded two albums of Latin jazz with his own combo:
The Painted Desert (2004), with A Rumor of Rain and Favela Song,
Earthspeaker (2006), with Mandala.
Martin also scored the soundtracks for two ethnographic documentaries:
Woven Songs of the Amazon (2006), about a rainforest shaman,
Ausangate (2006), about the Quechua people of Peru,
and in 2010 started teaching ethnomusicology at a Seattle university.
Tuatara's twin albums East of the Sun (2007) and West of the Moon (2007) were recorded by a lineup that consisted of
Buck, Martin, Dave Carter on trumpet,
Jessy Greene on violin and cello,
Kevin Hudson on electric and upright bass,
Elizabeth Pupo-Walker on percussion,
and Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 on guitars and keyboards.
After The Here and the Gone (2008), a collaboration with poet Coleman Barks,
Tuatara went on a hiatus and Barrett Martin focused on his Latin jazz band
with the albums
Zenga (2009), with the ten-minute Dragon Skin,
Atlas (2011) and
Martin's next band after Tuatara was the Walking Papers, a group formed with singer and guitarist Jeff Angell of The Missionary Position, a Seattle band that had released Diamonds in a Dead Sky (2009) and Consequences (2012). They were joined by Guns N' Roses' bassist Duff McKagan and Missionary Position's keyboardist Benjamin Anderson for Walking Papers (2013), WP2 (2018) and The Light Below (2021), three albums of classic bluesy pub-rock.
In between, Tuatara reunited for the 20-song double album Underworld (2014), which boasts
sax-driven noir-jazz themes like Ghosts of the City and Gremlin Chain Gang, the Afro-tribal feasts The Creeper and El Brujo,
and the Bo Diddley-ian blues-rock The Hard Swing. But mostly it is just
forgettable background muzak.
Shamanic Nights (2016) is Tuatara's live album.
After a six-year hiatus, Martin's Latin-jazz combo
(Evan Flory-Barnes on upright bass, Andy Coe on guitar, Ryan Burns on piano, keyboards, Hans Teuber on saxophones, Dave Carter on trumpet, Thione Diop on African drums, and his wife Lisette Garcia on Latin percussion)
turned to jazz-rock on Transcendence (2018), with Moonfish.
The 20-song double album Songs of the Firebird (2019), performed by roughly the same lineup, was perhaps the
best manifestation yet of Martin's world-jazz with a spiritual spin, a descendant
of Paul Winter's original world-jazz
(Peruvian Dancer and especially the gamelan-tinged
The Greatest Smile In The City). It also contains one of Martin's most
sinister songs, Spooky Action At A Distance.
The problem remains that this is mostly background music, no matter how
impeccable the execution.
Martin also published the books "The Singing Earth" (2017) and "The Way of the Zen Cowboy" (2019).
Indwell (2019) is a 25-song anthology of his solo career.
Scattered Diamonds (2020) is another anthology.
Stillpoint (2020), performed only with Garcia and Carter, was conceived as a soundtrack for Barrett's third book "Stillpoint".