The Late John Martyn’s Blues Legacy

John Martyn - Heaven and Earth
Heaven and Earth is the title of the last album by British musical legend John Martyn, a musician that was admired by fellow musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Bob Marley. After Martyn’s passing in early 2009, producer Tullio and co-producer Gary Pollitt finalized Martyn’s last musical testament. The result is the album Heaven and Earth (Hole in the Rain). Martyn’s voice and striking songs reveal the depth and perception of a musical elder, with his signature grit and sprawling panache, transforming his most recent recordings rough-edged vocals, expansive takes, and complex guitar work

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.

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 behind 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 trip 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.

Martyn’s personal life was complex, and involved a tragic addiction to drink. Martyn lost a leg to alcohol poisoning, yet continued recording, performing, and pushing his music in new directions. An admirer of Pharaoh Sanders for decades, Martyn had a project with Sanders scheduled for early in 2009. But illness took him first.

Tullio and 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 vocals on his song “Can’t Turn Back The Years.” 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,” said 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.”

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central

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