Ballads & Bicycles
She's a singer with an acclaimed new CD, he's one of jazz's most sought-after bassists. But when it's time to retreat from the spotlight, Rebecca Martin and Larry Grenadier head home to Kingston.
Ballads & Bicycles
No strangers to the spotlight, Rebecca Martin and Larry Grenadier ¡ª she sings, he¡¯s a bassist ¡ª head home to Kingston to chill out and create more beautiful music
by Thomas Staudter
After the late-night gigs and long tours, all the rehearsals, recording sessions, and business-related mingling, singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin and jazz bassist Larry Grenadier leave the outward endeavors of their professional lives behind them and return home to Kingston, where there are pets to feed and new songs to work on.
The couple, married seven years ago on the anniversary of their first date, share an old Victorian house with two dogs and three cats, all adopted from area animal shelters. Two bicycles ¡ª picked up at local yard sales ¡ª stand at the ready on the front porch, next to a big, indestructible travel case for an acoustic bass. Schedules permitting, Martin and Grenadier enjoy cycling from their unpretentious side street to the city¡¯s historic Rondout District, where they order breakfast from the Alternative Baker. They eat it creek-side before huffing up the hill, back to their home. It¡¯s a substantial amount of exercise, perfect for jump-starting the creative engines, and the rhythmic pedaling is, in itself, an inspiration.
The contents of their living room ¡ª a baby grand piano, antique pump organ, and several tall shelves filled with compact discs ¡ª establish an environment of musicality, but it¡¯s upstairs, in his and her offices, where the couple actually practice, compose, and arrange (or, in the jazz parlance, ¡°woodshed¡±) their art. ¡°It¡¯s nice to be able to walk down the hall and ask each other questions, or get an opinion on something,¡± admits Martin, ¡°but we spend most of the day working by ourselves on different projects.¡± Career-wise, the couple find themselves now in ¡°a charmed moment,¡± Martin says. ¡°And we¡¯re enjoying every bit of it.¡±
Their focus and industry haven¡¯t wavered as a result of all of the recent attention. Grenadier is best known for his decade-long participation in a popular and highly-praised trio led by pianist Brad Mehldau. The 37-year-old bassist has bolstered his reputation as a brilliant improviser and tuneful accompanist in bandstand and studio settings with other jazz luminaries as well, including Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Danilo Perez. Last year, he joined forces with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Jeff Ballard (a rhythm section mate since their high school years together in northern California) to form a trio called Fly. Its eponymous CD debut earlier this year was greeted with unanimous praise.
Martin, 35, celebrated the release of her newest album, People Behave Like Ballads, with a special performance at Joe¡¯s Pub, lower Manhattan¡¯s hip music showcase, on the last night of August, during the Republican National Convention. Fortuitously, a glowing review of the album had appeared in the New York Times the previous week, and the attendant buzz produced a line of hopefuls outside the venue waiting for standing-room admission. Inside, every seat and decent vantage point were quickly occupied.
The house lights dimmed and Martin was brought onstage by Richard McDonnell, the head of MAXJAZZ, her record label, who held up a copy of People Behave Like Ballads and exclaimed, ¡°Here¡¯s what¡¯s making more headlines than the Republicans!¡± Martin introduced her five backing musicians with heartfelt words of gratitude. Then, starting with an almost imperceptible quiver, she swept her hand back and forth across the strings of her hollow-body electric guitar until her steady strumming asserted a rhythm that signaled the band to join in, and a song was set forth. Her strong, clear voice, more settled in range than on her earlier recordings, broke the surface of the music with a mesmerizing intensity that filled the songs with drama and purpose.
Martin seeks the imponderables of love and compassion in her work, and the 13 originals and one cover (a jazzy rendition of ¡°Willow Weep for Me¡±) she offered to the audience at Joe¡¯s Pub were transfixing and even stilled the wait staff. Toward the end of Martin¡¯s set, though, a curly-haired chap with a bashful smile sneaked as quietly as possible past the bar with a big bouquet of lilies. That was Grenadier, of course.
The couple originally moved to Middlehope (the title of Martin¡¯s second solo album, not so coincidentally), in the town of Newburgh, four years ago. They¡¯d been living on Manhattan¡¯s Upper West Side, and although their immediate presence in the vortex of the music scene provided them with countless contacts and opportunities, Grenadier was on tour several months out of every year, and Martin, who grew up on a farm in Rumford Point, Maine, began to wish for ¡°a place that wasn¡¯t so bustling, and where we could become more grounded.¡±
They found a farmhouse built in the 1860s, which they spiffed up with great enthusiasm, but relocated to Kingston a year ago after the 200-plus acres of land adjacent to their home was sold to a developer. The experience, Martin said, left them with a lot of conflicting emotions about the economic plight of farm families in the Hudson Valley, the need for more housing, and the protective stewardship of open spaces for future generations. Since then, the two musicians have become more interested in environmental issues, especially the use of renewable energy sources.
Martin is hardly a stranger to the Hudson Valley. She studied filmmaking at SUNY New Paltz for a few years but left without a degree to take a job as a production coordinator at MTV Networks in New York City. Her real passion, though, was singing, learned from her mother, a multitalented pianist, vocalist, and published historian. Despite her long hours at work, Martin continued to nurture her songcraft, and in 1991 she met Jesse Harris (the talented songwriter now famous for penning the colossal hit ¡°Don¡¯t Know Why¡± on Norah Jones¡¯s Come Away with Me). The two formed the group Once Blue, which helped establish the now-ubiquitous urban folk-pop sound. Although Harris and Martin parted ways in 1997, her pride in their work together is still strong. (EMI/Japan has just re-released the group¡¯s first album, simply titled Once Blue.)
Introduced by mutual friends, Martin says she fell for her husband immediately and even lugged his amplifier and gear at a gig the day they first met in order to impress him. An English lit major at Stanford University, Grenadier is the kind of knowing and sympathetic spouse that every songwriter should have. He helped Martin cut her first solo album, Thoroughfare, in 1998, and was on hand for Middlehope, too, along with Martin¡¯s other regular cohorts, saxophonist Bill McHenry and guitarist Steve Cardenas. His rigorous touring schedule dictated that Martin find a different bassist for her regular rhythm section in the years since.
Not too long ago, on a rare afternoon off from their offices and travel, the two musical artists headed to the Rondout, lunching at the Downtown Caf¨¦ before ambling along for a while in the sunshine. A kayaker drifted by on the water and the facing hillside glowed in the afternoon light. ¡°We¡¯re grateful to live so near the Hudson River, which is this mysterious, beautiful presence that makes the whole Valley special,¡± said Martin. Added Grenadier: ¡°From the city we gather a lot of things up, but here is where we can process it all.¡±
Two weeks later, down in Manhattan, Grenadier was thumping his bass on the bandstand at the Village Vanguard, the venerable jazz mecca, as Fly finished a weeklong stretch that packed the club each night. The wavy-haired woman in the big knit sweater, sitting at a table near the back of the club drinking a martini and humming along with the music, was Martin, of course. She¡¯d found a parking space for their VW right in front of the club and was now in relax mode, waiting for her husband to finish work so they could head back home. ¡ö