Just as the dust from Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly seemed to settle, the rapper dropped untitled unmastered., a collection of what were once called "b-sides" and are now enough to constitute a legitimate release. The songs are dated and left unnamed; the cover art is a swampy green swathe. Yet for all its incompleteness, it feels like yet another cohesive statement from a West Coast collective that just won't quit. Much of this is due to Terrace Martin, the infallible producer and alto saxophonist whose work is helping shape not just jazz, but the very fibers of music to come.
Martin's fourth proper album, Velvet Portraits (amongst a grip of EPs and mixtapes), out on April 1st via his new imprint Sounds of Crenshaw Records and Philadelphia-based Ropeadope Records, is the latest in the Pacific canon. Harmonically rich and stylistically diverse, it's a vivid vignette of one of the art form's most sought-after players.
Martin, who grew up in a South Central Los Angeles musical family, credits his musicality to a number of sources, including Watts' Locke High School teacher Reggie Andrews, whose charges include Patrice Rushen, Tyrese Gibson, and Martin collaborators Kamasi Washington and Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner.
"Most of our parents play music and none of us grew up in a purist household," Martin told me over the phone, deep in a thicket of 405 traffic. "We welcome all types of music as we welcome all types of people and all walks of life." This inclusive view of music as a vessel for life experience crystallizes with Velvet Portraits, whose title references a way to "give myself and my art to the people. This my portrait to the listener to say thank you."
Nowhere is gratitude more apparent than on "Curly Martin," the nickname for Terrace's father, Ernest, and Velvet Portraits' first song to showcase the son's alto chops in an extended improvisational setting. Elder Bruner brother Ronald's filthy shuffle plays a devilish patriarch, with Terrace's legato lines weaving a reversal of the typical family dynamic; the low end is peppered with classic Thundercat arpeggiation while Robert Glasper's bedrock Rhodes keeps calm. "You have all my childhood friends playing a song for my father," notes Martin. "That's just humbling and beautiful. That song is very special and dear to my heart."
But this is no Horace Silver archetype - here, the band behaves like pianist Vijay Iyer's, where the solos feel collaborative rather than individualized. As guitars and keys swirl, the group quotes Lamar's "The Blacker The Berry," the second single off To Pimp A Butterfly and many listeners' introduction to Martin. This circular route home is classic Terrace, and it exhibits a mastery and vision not often found in popular music, which he credits to jazz and an insatiable quest for his own genesis.
"Jazz was a huge part of my foundation," says Martin. "Studying music and grasping chord changes and learning the history of the music -- jazz to me is like my starting point. Within jazz you have everything, from gospel, blues, like hip-hop does; it allowed me to come into my zone as far as different structures. Jazz is so accepting of everything. I view jazz as a blueprint to life, not just music: expect the unexpected in life. It's the best thing, because it really displays the moment - living in the moment and cherishing that moment, but not trying to recreate that moment."
Martin's introduction to the genre and its fluidity came in 1993 with A Tribe Called Quest's seminal Midnight Marauders. "It made jazz easy to digest," he notes. "If it wasn't for [that album] I would not be interested in jazz at all."
Other Terrace touchstones include Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle, which "gave you every bit of emotion you could possibly have," John Coltrane's Blue Train, and Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. "When a record makes you want to move in a positive manner," says Martin of the latter, "that's power." Positivity, eclecticism and non-discrimination are hallmarks of his philosophy, something he learned from working with both Snoop and Quincy Jones, whom he calls a "master facilitator" and history's greatest example of the transition from jazz cat to pop royalty.
Velvet Portraits wends its way through an array of landscapes, and it's clear that the hip-hop spirit of crate-digging diversity and inventive harmonic scaffolding can exist in the same breath. The dark 90's vibes of "Never Enough" recall some netherworld between Jodeci and Bilal, while the Funkadelic stank of "Turkey Taco" never takes itself too seriously. "Push" and "Patiently Waiting" both nod to a bygone era, conjuring vinyl age daydreams of Sly & The Family Stone and Sam Cooke, respectively. Rather than #tbt homage, though, Martin's take on the classics keeps one ear firmly planted in the present, if not the future.
That comprehensive view of history makes Terrace and his cohorts truly musicians for a new era. Jazz fundamentals and a desire, if not a need, to collaborate; hip-hop decoupage; digital chops and analog principles; a robust reverence for their city both bitter and celebratory, and a hunger that keeps the work flowing - what was once a West Coast Get Down is now a worldwide movement.
The unexpected critical and commercial success of Kamasi Washington's Afrofuturist odyssey The Epic proved a leftfield successor to Lamar's Butterfly, while Thundercat continues to play with literally everyone and youngest Bruner brother Jameel's band The Internet garners Grammy nominations. Elsewhere in the city, Flying Lotus and his label Brainfeeder have continued to evolve, releasing last year's Kneedelus, an imaginative Voltron-esque effort by jazz crusaders Kneebody and L.A. beatsmith Daedelus. Suddenly, it seems "fusion" is no longer a dirty word (not that this author ever thought it was - I'll take all the Mahavishnu you got).
Los Angeles has a vibrant history of musical synthesis. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tool, Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, Dr. Dre's G-Funk to the Paisley Underground, not to mention Charles Mingus, the Beach Boys, the Doors and Beck. Terrace Martin, who turned to the saxophone and away from the gang mentality so glorified, romanticized and perpetually deadly to young South Centralites, understands this synthesis and uses it to communicate optimism in the face of adversity.
"[Velvet Portraits] is very political because I'm a product of our culture and I'm very fuckin' aware of what's going on in society. Now, I may not say to you 'this is happening!' but look at it like a soundtrack to your life - it's your album. After all the shit going on in society, you have to have something - a pillow, a glass of lemonade. Relax, regroup and think about making it to the next fuckin' day.
"I don't need to be reminded about what's going on in society; I have CNN and these social networks that say little kids have gotten killed... now that we have phones that give us all this awareness, sometimes people want to throw the phones in the fucking river no matter what good and bad is going on and lay back and just imagine earth being a better place. And that's what my record will allow you to do. If you can dream it, earth can become a better place."
While politics have always been present in L.A. music (think Mingus's "Fables of Faubus," N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police," or every Rage Against the Machine song ever), in Martin's view, "the message of family, the message of love, of trust, of honesty - the honest message can go a long fuckin' way. Sounds of Crenshaw is really rooted in that wholesome family soul thing - a heartfelt situation where the art comes first." And those roots are only going to extend.
"What I'm doing with Sounds of Crenshaw is painting the world with a sonic sculpture. I may not do the regular 10-song album, I may do a 30-minute song and make it a suite and do a short film. There are no limits, there are no rules - there's no set, old-fashioned fucking structure that they told us we had to have for music and everything else. It's all about the moment, it's all about love and it's all about putting a band-aid on hate."
With our conversation coming to a close, I asked Terrace what he's listening to these days. "Right now, these Herbie rehearsal tapes," he replied. "I work with Herbie every day. We have about a thousand ideas - we create every day, we play every day. We've been working for about 5-6 months." That's Mr. Hancock if you're not as nasty as Terrace; a living legend, one of the first jazz musicians to embrace the pillars of hip-hop and a progenitor for Martin's perpetual portraiture. The collective only keeps growing.
East Coasters can catch Terrace Martin on April 15th at National Sawdust, 80 N. 6th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn.