Albums That Made Me - Solid Air
In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: John Martyn
Album: Solid Air
Genre: Folk Jazz (sort of...)
John Martyn – vocals, acoustic and electric guitar; keyboards on "The Easy Blues"
Richard Thompson – mandolin on "Over the Hill"
Simon Nicol – autoharp on "Over the Hill"
Sue Draheim – violin on "Over the Hill"
Tony Coe – saxophone on "Dreams by the Sea" and "Solid Air"
John "Rabbit" Bundrick – acoustic and electric piano, organ, clavinet
Tristan Fry – vibraphone on "Solid Air"
Danny Thompson – acoustic bass
Dave Pegg – bass
Dave Mattacks – drums
Neemoi "Speedy" Acquaye – congas
John Wood – engineer
Fabio Nicoli – sleeve design
John Webster – front cover photography
In my teens I was an aspiring pianist, guitarist and songwriter, but I struggled to click with popular music of the time (late 90s and early 2000s). My musical tastes were unlike any of my peers. Whilst I loved music, I struggled to find music that I considered my vessel to expression.
My parents are boomers who came of age in the 1960s and so I had a hefty amount of 1960s musical influences in the house, which I'd consumed throughout my teens. My piano teacher was a little older than my parents and deeply versed in jazz and bebop, and I would also listen to his recommendations.
I didn't know it then, but I craved something that bridged the gap between 1960s folk and blues-rock, and the spacious, understatement of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. This gap was filled when I heard Solid Air.
I was already familiar with John Martyn's earlier album London Conversation, which I'd enjoyed for its British-folk styling and intricate guitar work, and I spotted Solid Air one day in HMV (a British music store) and was taken by its interesting title and cover art (which was stylistically very different to his other albums). Knowing nothing about it, I took a punt on it, and when I heard it, it turned my world upside down.
This album utilises space in ways I hadn't heard before (at the age of 16-17). The guitar and double bass interweave like two butterflies in a mating ritual. They delicately collide, flutter around one another and drift apart with distinct individuality, whilst maintaining total coherence with each other. But this only really scratches the surface of this album's mastery.
The supporting instrumentation is typically electric piano, gentle drums and occasional saxophone. Having grown up on 1980/90s pop and 1960s rock and Motown, I'd not heard a tonal palette like this before. Not only does it contain a jazziness which I really liked, it switched me onto an aesthetic more commonly found in music of the 1970s; something I'd not had much exposure to at this point in my youth.
Martyn's voice is intriguing, curious and steeped in bluesy longing. There's a mysticism to his performance that drew me in. I'd never heard singing like it. It's less of a lead vocal and more like any other instrument in the arrangement, not given any particular priority over other instruments in the mix, yet just front and centre enough to still be in focus.
The engineering and production of the record was clean, soft, warm, and contained a dimness, as if recorded in a dimly lit room. Nevertheless it is bright and cutting when it needs to be. The reverb is light, subtle and ethereal, befitting the album title, and on the whole, the entire production aesthetic ties very closely to the mood implied by the album title.
Most of the songs drift in and drift out without overly announcing themselves or obviously ending. It's anything but formulaic, with some songs feeling little more than rough ideas that were jammed out a few times with substantial amounts of improvisation (similar to the aforementioned Kind of Blue). Nevertheless, each song stands strong on its own, with a distinct sense of identity. I've always felt this album tells a story, however, to this day, I don't know what that story is, but that's OK; I think that's probably how John would have preferred it to be perceived.
This album left a deep and lasting impression on me. It's been on regular rotation for me, for the best part of twenty years, and it still feels as fresh and inspirational today as the first time I heard it. It opened my ears to music of the 1970s. It opened my ears to the potential for melding stylistic elements from different genre. It opened my ears to different ways to approach arrangement and instrumentation. Most significantly, it taught me of the importance of tying together a body of work under a central aesthetic theme that permeates everything from the title, cover-art, song-themes, tonal colour and mood, reverb sound-scape and so on (although putting this into practice took me many years to figure out!).
In later years, I learned that John Martyn's personal life was somewhat tumultuous and he was often a difficult person to work with. It seems he burned a great many bridges in his career. He was a heavy smoker, a heavy drinker, had to have a leg amputated due to neglected medical problems and died in relative obscurity 2009 (at the age of 60).
He continued releasing music throughout his life, and whilst I've not listened to all of it, from what I have listened to, his subsequent work doesn't live up to the creative apex of Solid Air. On one hand, it's a shame he wasn't able to maintain this quality of output throughout his career, however, perhaps Solid Air's ability to capture lightning in a bottle in the way that it does, never to be repeated, is what makes it so alluring.