Billy Martin should go down in jazz history as one of its most gifted percussionists. He had gained a fair set of credentials working around the New York City scene even before he met with his partners John Medeski and Chris Wood. The collaboration of Medeski Martin & Wood for over fifteen years has redefined modern jazz by simultaneously stretching it into the new millennium while maintaining its grand traditions.
Martin arguably set the tone of inner direction for his cohorts' side projects as he continued his solo work after their initial work together. Even as he acted as de facto manager of the trio‚ Martin branched out into projects‚ including his own Amulet Records‚ presaging MMW's own business venture‚ Indirecto. Martin continues to regularly play dates with likeminded friends around his Big Apple home base.
Martin embodies rhythm. When he walks onstage‚ his drum kit and the panoply of items he uses to create beats become an extension of him. He doesn't seem to have to think about it all too much‚ and is averse to analyzing what he and his partners do; it's almost as if he (and by extension the others too) fear that thought process would damage the spontaneous collective spirit.
Martin talks as he plays‚ with a pragmatic eloquence wherein he makes his statements clearly and succinctly. His declarations carry the stamp of his personality and he displays an innate sense of direction that he trusts implicitly. His recent conversation with Doug Collette had its own sense of logic and path from the outset.
Doug Collette: How did you three (Medeski Martin and Wood) decide to form your own record label?
Billy Martin: For a long time it was trying to get them‚ you know…get them‚ (laughter) John (Medeski) and Chris (Wood) and Liz (Penta)‚ our manager‚ to think about going independent. I started my own label‚ my own little label‚ ten years ago and that was sort of an experiment for me. I couldn't get a deal with this weird music that I have. It wasn't commercial enough. So I just ended up doing it myself‚ and I realized how the business worked‚ and‚ in a way‚ how simple it can be not so simple.
DC: Right. Yeah‚ I've heard people say that.
BM: And it was about how you see the larger record companies‚ how much money they spend‚ and how much of it goes out of the artist's pocket. That's the way the deals are written‚ and I just always wanted to be independent of it. So I've just been telling them for years and years‚ you know‚ "Let's get independent." We're already independent in some ways‚ like the way we tour: we don't rely on tour support. When you have a deal a lot of people take advantage of that‚ and then that's just more money to go to the record labels. We sort of took pride in that we didn't take tour support‚ especially because 80 percent of our income is from touring. So we already felt pretty independent.
DC: Sure.
BM: And that sort of gave us a one-up on the label that we weren't-
DC: You weren't indebted to them over time?
BM: Yeah.
DC: Well‚ you had a couple interesting benchmarks to go by having been on Ryko‚ which is fairly independent‚ and then going to Blue Note‚ which is a major jazz label‚ although not as big as‚ say‚ Warner Bros. But it must have been an interesting point of comparison for you guys as you moved from one to the other.
BM: Well‚ Blue Note is owned by Capitol.
DC: Yeah‚ right. And that's as big as it gets.
BM: Yeah‚ we're talking about people who signed the Beastie Boys‚ and those people have big egos and think really big.
DC: Yes.
BM: And‚ it's just like‚ we're just not like that. We're not like a band that's gonna conceptually come up with‚ like‚ "How are we gonna make a big show?"
DC: Right. (laughter)
BM: I love the Beastie Boys and I like the way they do everything‚ but that's just not who we are. We're not… showmen. We're about creative music‚ and I think that's obviously more of an independent spirit so‚ it eventually got to this. With us‚ Blue Note wasn't reaching their goal financially. And it wasn't really Blue Note. It's really other people who are‚ you know‚ in the background with the whole money thing. And so they were at a point where they were like‚ "Uh‚ we want to keep you guys but we can't pay you the advance that we worked out originally." We're just like‚ "Well‚ you got your lawyers to make up this whole thing‚ you know. We hassled you a little bit‚ and now we're at the point where we're gonna make a little more money. Finally‚ after five records we're gonna start to get a nice advance." And they go‚ "Oh‚ well can you take half?" (laughter)