When the late British musical icon John Martyn sat down at the keys, veteran rock producer and good friend Jim Tullio sighed. Martyn, an innovative guitarist and singer, had just finished a suite for the London National Ballet Company, which Tullio was mixing, but insisted he needed to lay down a keyboard part. Tullio prepared for hours of noodling, but Martyn made one pass and left. As Tullio incorporated the track into the mix, he was blown away.
"It worked perfectly," Tullio recalls. "I learned a lesson then, to trust his instincts. John was a genius. He made music more naturally than anyone I've met, as effortlessly as the way you and I speak."
Tullio is not alone in his assessment. Martyn, a cult-status musician's musician, was admired by everyone from Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Bob Marley. Martyn's groundbreaking guitar technique, tape delay, and recording approaches inspired Brian Eno's ambient sound and The Edge's shimmering, delay-drenched strings. He was lionized by Bristol trip-hoppers and chill-out DJs.
After Martyn's passing in early 2009, Tullio and close collaborator Gary Pollitt put Martyn's last musical testament in order, transforming rough-edged vocals, expansive takes, and complex guitar work into Heaven And Earth (Hole in the Rain Music; May 3, 2011). Martyn's voice and striking songs reveal the depth and perception of a musical elder, with his signature grit and sprawling panache.
Several close friends and long-time musical collaborators —including Phil Collins— contributed elements to Heaven And Earth. But the heart of the album —felt on tracks like Gambler and Bad Company— beats in Martyn's intuitive, idiosyncratic sense of the blues, filtered through his earthy feel for roots- and jazz-inspired songwriting and his raw voice.
Sounds like: the gritty yet sparkling last word from a neglected music legend who transformed rock, reggae, club music, and folk.
"John didn't think about much until he was there doing it. Making music was a spontaneous process, not preconceived. He had a cool vibe," reflects Tullio, a longtime fan and musical collaborator. They first met in Martyn’s native Scotland, thanks to a colleague from the band Supertramp. "We stopped in this village with a church and knocked on a cottage door," Tullio remembers. "And there was John. My friend had set it up and surprised me."
Before long, Tullio became Martyn's American connection, reuniting Martyn with old friends like Levon Helm of The Band (whom Martyn met during a late-60s sojourn in Woodstock) and working on several of Martyn's albums and composition projects. Martyn hung out for months at Tullio's home and studio in Chicago, making music and becoming practically part of the family. "The personal and musical weren't separate for John, as they aren't for most brilliant artists," Tullio notes.
The personal was complex, and involved a tragic addiction to drink. Martyn lost a leg to alcohol poisoning1, yet continued recording, performing, and pushing his music in new directions. An admirer of Pharoah Sanders for decades, Martyn had a project with Sanders scheduled for early in 2009. But illness took him first.
Tullio and Martyn's engineer, Gary Pollitt, felt they owed it to their friend to put together the pieces of his last works. Tullio had first-hand experience with weaving together the recordings of a talented musician who died before his time, having crafted a Grammy®-winning final record by Steve Goodman (of "City of New Orleans" fame).
His experience didn’t make the labor of love before him any easier emotionally, though he and Pollitt shared a sense of how Martyn approached arrangements and of how best to honor his memory.
"We didn't do any editing. A lot of the tracks are long —even rambling— but we left them that way, as John last heard them," explains Tullio. "We knew this was it, so we made a conscious decision to keep everything, every morsel."
In addition to instrumental tracks and backing vocals by some of Martyn's favorite backup singers, Phil Collins, a close friend and avid supporter of Martyn's sang background on Can't Turn Back. Martyn covered Collins's song, in part as a tribute to their bond, forged as the two men were both grappling with divorce in 1980 (Martyn crashed at Collins's home for a spell).
"John wanted to do one of Phil's songs to repay him," says Tullio. "After John passed, I spoke with Phil, and he really wanted to sing on the track. He said he had always wanted John to record one of his songs. You can hear the emotion in both their voices." It's a haunting feeling that pervades all of Heaven And Earth.
1 sitenote: John would have pointed to the bursting of a Baker's cyst instead.