When cellist Will Martina left his native Australia to brave the New York music scene in 2006, the country was in the midst of a severe drought. Every day when he turned on the news, Martina found increasingly worrying reports about dam levels dropping, threatening the water supplies – and therefore, the very life – of his native land. The lessons he learned from that experience echoed when it came time to record his second album.
“I became very mindful about not wasting the resources at my disposal,” Martina says. “I didn’t want to just use all the energy I had, spilling the water over the top of the dam, so to speak. I wanted it to be more about creating forward momentum by letting our energy out in a more controlled way; through the weir rather than over it.”
Of course, the title of The Dam Levels works on the level of wordplay as well. As any cellist or string player will tell you when working with drummers or horn players, there’s a constant concern over the “damn levels.”
Martina deftly conquers both meanings of the term on The Dam Levels, crafting a trio session that balances sonic space and harmonious balance alike. Along with virtuosic peers Jason Lindner (piano) and Richie Barshay (drums), Martina blends jazz, soul, and chamber music influences into a singularly cohesive vision on a set of five distinctive originals and a stunning solo cello rendition of “God Bless the Child.”
The trio was formed, Martina says, to suggest new ways for the cello to interact with other instruments, and he designed the compositions and forms in order to showcase those possibilities, focusing on a rich group sound rather than a foundation for solos. He refers to the concept as “small room music,” offering space for the cello to breathe. “I tried to make the cello sound the way I hear it under my ear, not the way someone would hear it twenty feet away through an amplifier,” he says. “The nuances, the sound of my fingers hitting the fingerboard and the hair of the bow on the string. . .I wanted to present to people the subtle nuances that a cello can elicit, and to me are at the core of what makes it truly special.”
Born and raised in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, Martina began studying the cello at a young age and quickly started down the traditional path towards a classical music education. Following stints in London Martina was set for a permanent move to Europe, but whilst finishing his studies at grad school in Melbourne, he was bitten by the improvising bug and began to deviate from that trajectory, finally making his way to New York in 2006.
Martina threw himself into the city’s forward-thinking music scene with a convert’s zeal, studying with harmonica master Gregoire Maret, trombonist Josh Roseman, bassist Larry Grenadier, and performing with creative artists as diverse as Henry Threadgill, Dave Liebman, and iconoclastic filmmaker/author/activist Melvin Van Peebles. He’s a member of both hip-hop/jazz collective Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber and Bassam Saba’s 35-piece New York Arabic Orchestra and smaller Bassam Saba Ensemble, as well as big bands led by Jason Linder, JC Sanford, and Joe Phillips Jr.
His first recording as a leader, The Dry Spell (another play on words referring to his parched homeland), took on the challenge of recording free-wheeling duets with a drummer, inspired by John Coltrane’s classic Interstellar Space – and not just any drummer, but powerhouse improviser Nasheet Waits. The two are also joined on several tracks by singer and fellow Burnt Sugar alum Justice Dilla X.
With influences and experiences that diverse, it should come as no surprise that Martina’s sophomore release, The Dam Levels, is such a wide-ranging recording. It begins with the soulful “Fade In 2 Ways,” which may bring to mind the likes of Curtis Mayfield and was partially inspired by the unclassifiable bassist/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello. “The sphere of musicians she has touched and worked with encapsulates many of the people that I admire and am inspired by on the scene today, herself included” Martina says. “I wasn’t looking to copy her style or way with rhythm and melody, but she was certainly on my mind when I wrote it.”
Named for Martina’s assessment of the three major personality types, “Snake Monkey Cow” evolves through a series of disparate movements, from rhythmically driven group interaction to more exploratory improvised sections. “Instant This” thrives on the trio’s urgency, conjuring a tense urban landscape. The buoyant “C For G” was penned for a pair of friends and certainly conjures a communal warmth.
“Casuarina Sands” is the name of a swimming hole outside of Martina’s Aussie hometown. “For me, it was always a pretty magical place,” he explains. “And it’s hard to believe now that it ever existed”. The tune he composed in its honor, the most chamber-like piece on the album, evokes that melancholy longing in its romantic opening section before transforming into a more minimalist and abstract rumination.
Returning to the metaphorical concept of the title for a moment, Martina points out that “the thing about dams is that their presence transforms the environment that they’re placed in, both above and below their wall.” To that effect, Martina has transformed the jazz circles in which he runs not just by introducing the uncommon presence of the cello but by asserting its versatility and vitality across stylistic and generic borders.