Rebecca Martin is known in Kingston as one of the city’s most committed and effective community activists. She was the first executive director of the Kingston Land Trust, which has become a formidable force for conservation, green spaces, and community building in the city. But she is also a nationally known jazz vocalist, and her new CD, Twain, is currently creating a buzz in the music world.
Recently Twain, which features Martin singing her original compositions to the accompaniment of her own finger-picking acoustic guitar and bass played by her husband and collaborator, Larry Grenadier, won accolades for its “cloistered intimacy” and “folksy ambience” in a feature article about Martin in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times. It has also been rated by NPR as one of the 15 best “jazz-ish” albums in 2013.
The Times article also noted the profound influence of Martin’s folk-inflected singing and songwriting on a younger generation of jazz singers. Martin will perform with two of those singers, Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato, at Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival in May. The three have been performing together in the group Tillery since 2010, wowing audiences while redefining what jazz singing can be.
Martin celebrated the launch of Twain — the title refers to her close collaboration and relationship with Grenadier — in a performance with her husband at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City on March 28.
Martin is one of those rare individuals who manages to integrate her roles as a parent, artist, spouse, friend and activist into one harmonious, fulfilling whole. While she has taken a hiatus of sorts on performing to raise her seven-and-a-half-year-old son, she has never stopped performing entirely, nor playing and composing. And far from being compartmentalized, her activism inspires her art: Martin said the subjects of many of the songs on Twain stem directly from her community work. That work evolved after the birth of her son shortly after she and Grenadier moved to Kingston in 2002, an event that “changed my perspective dramatically and really grounded me in Kingston,” she said.
“I’ve gone through a huge transition of how I present myself. In the midst of all the challenges there’s an opportunity to really see your flaws. You also get clear about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It reveals your strengths as well. You see yourself as a full human being. It’s been an amazing process of just trusting myself and allowing myself to be intuitive and to the best of my ability be smart — to just embrace that and not be too concerned about the outcome, which is tough. In music I’ve been doing the same thing.”
That intuitive process has resulted in songs that are fresh, original, and deeply felt. “When you apply that to music it’s incredible what happens,” Martin said. “It’s very much in the moment and very accepting. The question was how I was feeling that day and how to interpret that. People say there can be no mistakes or wrong notes in music, but there’s such a humanness to this work.”
Also integral to her creative process is her collaboration with Grenadier, who Martin describes as “at the top of his game,” spending much time on the road touring the U.S. and Europe. “We have always collaborated and have just gotten into such a great groove with it now,” she said. “It challenges me as a musician to be up there singing with his bass and my guitar. My intonation has to be right and my interpretation has to be pretty straight, so the listener knows what the song is and where we are. There’s nothing to hide behind.
“We’ve always played together, from the beginning,” added Martin, who met Grenadier following the breakup of her band Once Blue (former band partner Jesse Harris went on to win a Grammy for a song recorded by Norah Jones).
Her 17-year relationship with Grenadier has blessed her in other ways as well. “He’s been an incredible support and my greatest teacher. He just understands the way I am. He’s very humble, kind and expressive. I’m sort of like the wild horse in the barn. You wonder who’s going to ride this one, but he can.”
Given their years performing together, the couple doesn’t need to rehearse very much. However, Martin practices alone every day, “whether it’s voice or guitar with a metronome, so as I’m as strong as I can be.”
Twain was recorded in Brooklyn last March. Last September, Martin resigned as executive director of the Kingston Land Trust in order to devote more time to work on the new CD; the move also enabled the organization’s board “to step up and start taking all the stuff we did and strategize,” she said.