GRACE AND DANGER, John Martyn (Antilles 7081).
Although he enjoys modest popularity in his native England, John Martyn is hardly a household name in America. He is probably best known for two songs, May You Never (recorded by Eric Clapton) and Head and Heart (recorded by America). Grace and Danger is the latest in a long line of sometimes brilliant, sometimes slovenly albums.
Martyn's early work was basically straightforward guitar and vocal folk-styled tunes, sometimes solo and sometimes in combination with wife Beverley. Beginning as early as 1970, however, he began incorporating jazz influences into his music. Albums like Solid Air and Inside Out (both released in 1973) were almost totally jazzy, filled with highly improvisational vocals and extended instrumental work.
GRACE AND Danger continued this trend. The instrumentalists are all top notch, including Martyn. His guitar work is in the British snap-string tradition of Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and Davey Graham. Martyn's voice is best viewed as an instrument that uses vowels and consonants as vehicles for tones rather than as words. Depending on your taste this can produce an insinuating dreaminess or an irritating unintelligibility.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Johnny Too Bad, a reggae tune from The Harder They Come. The Jamaican inflections of the original made the lyrics difficult to understand, and Martyn's version solves no mysteries. Musically, the echoey mix makes this cut seem slightly draggy, but it's mostly a good, push-push version.
Grace and Danger, like most of Martyn's work, presents a special challenge to a reviewer. On the one hand, there are tunes like Lookin' On and Grace and Danger, which demand to be treated as jazz tunes. Yet on the other hand, there are swell little pop tunes like Sweet Little Mystery and Hurt in Your Heart, which deserve a more basic approach. I can't say that this is a jazz album which fails to maintain a consistent level of sophistication, and I can't say it's a pop album that is frequently inaccessible to most listeners.
GRACE AND Danger's just another John Martyn album, stubbornly personal, totally unconcerned with 'hits' and 'markets,' frequently pleasant and sometimes meandering. If you like low-key jazz/fusion like Bob James and relaxed singers like J.J. Cale, you might give this a try. But it's certainly not for everyone.
The Lawrence Journal-World is a daily newspaper published in Lawrence, Kansas by The World Company.
This American review appeared on Sunday 22 March 1981 in the music section written by Beth Scalet, on page 12B.