October 20, 2010

She's OK

by Jim Newsom

It’s been fascinating to watch Barbara Martin’s artistic growth over the last seventeen years. The Staunton-based singer’s first album, A Matter of Time, revealed an intelligent songwriter whose voice was infused with a touch of the blues, juicing up the folksinger idiom with a refreshingly eclectic mix of styles and arrangements. Her second release, Between Black and White in 1996, borrowed its style from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s successful country-folk approach.

But A Different View, released in 1999, signaled a tilt in a more jazz-inflected direction, one that enabled Martin to find a satisfying niche of her own over the next decade, occasionally mixing standards with her own ever-more-mature compositions. With her eighth CD, Eyes on the Horizon, she moves a notch higher in the pantheon of jazz vocalists. Her voice has become lilting and uplifting, giving off an aura of happiness, similar in register and tone to that of Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a joy to hear.

The ten-song setlist is all originals, filled with a lyrical sophistication and playfulness that continues to unfold with each listening. The band includes some of the best players from the DC/Annapolis/Baltimore jazz scene, including veteran Charlie Byrd sideman Chuck Redd on drums and vibes, and his brother Robert on piano. Martin’s regular bassist Steve Wolf anchors the core trio but longtime collaborator Mac Walter, whose magnificent acoustic guitarwork is always a marvel to hear, appears in only a few places. This time out, Martin has chosen a more traditional piano trio motif with occasional horn accents.

“Since You’ve Been Here” kicks things off with a blissfully light-hearted celebration of the myriad ways that life changes when you let another person into your life. “Too Late to Die Young” takes a bluesy ride over Wolf’s walking bassline: “I want to be James Dean with insolent lips,” the singer intones, “but it’s too late to die young.” John Jensen’s boogie-woogie trombone solo accentuates Robert Redd’s muscular piano comping.

The title track is pure cocktail lounge—you can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting up from the back. The mood shifts to a playfully swinging samba on “Same Old World,” followed by “Taking a Chance,” a tune that starts off like a Vince Guaraldi theme for Charlie Brown before bouncing along on a smoothly melodic carpet of swing.

Martin gets slow and sultry on “The Fire Burning in Me.” Chuck Redd then picks up his mallets for some sweet vibraphonics on “I’m OK,” setting up Walter’s first appearance. The lyrics here define the tone of this record: “When life doesn’t follow my wish-it-would-be’s…I’m OK.” “One for Me” is a jaunty stroll through loneliness tempered with an optimistically hopeful tinge.

The last two cuts on the album accentuate Walter’s gorgeous guitar playing, reminding a longtime listener of previous Barbara Martin outings. In fact, “Blue Storm” originally appeared on Different View, and the arrangements are similar though this version feels gentler, reflecting the subtle shift that Martin’s vocal delivery has undergone in the intervening years.

The disc closes with its most beautiful song, “Painting a Picture,” a voice and guitar duet the two cowrote, built on James Taylor-esque chording and a wistfully yearning from-the-road lyric. It’s the perfect denouement to a pleasurable outing from one of Virginia’s finest.

copyright © 2010 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.


”The Joy of Making Music”
PortFolio Weekly
April 27, 2004
Barbara Martin comes to town for a concert with Mac Walter.

"A True Original"
PortFolio Weekly
February 25, 2003
A preview of Barbara Martin's concert with Mac Walter at Blues Alley.