By Andrew Gilbert
In January of 2011, Wil Blades and Billy Martin performed together for the first time, getting acquainted on stage at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room, a Fillmore District nightclub owned by the late blues legend John Lee Hooker.
They’ve been partners in funk ever since, honing an uproariously grooving duo that serves as a forum for both musicians’ strengths. Their new album “Shimmy” offers a case study in the organ’s earthy pleasures, particularly when its propelled by an inventive beat master like drummer Billy Martin.
Martin is best-known for his role in the popular, long-running avant-groove trio Medeski Martin and Wood, a band renowned for its sonic experimentation. Blades practically grew up on that volatile sound. He was first drawn to jazz organ by discovering Medeski Martin and Wood as a teenager in Chicago.
Since moving to the Bay Area in 1998, he’s pursued an informal musical education by studying directly with veteran masters, most importantly the singular Hammond B3 stylist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Some of the good Doctor’s sonic eccentricity rubbed off on Blades, like on the strange, oozing slow jam “Deep In A Fried Pickle.”
Martin has said he was drawn to Blades by the organist’s strict avoidance of organ combo clichés. When they do explore the durable and inviting forms that have defined R&B-infused jazz since the late 1950s, their sideways perspective makes the sound their own. On Blades’ “Les and Eddie,” the duo offers a sauntering tribute to the hugely popular partnership of keyboardist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris.
In many ways Harris is a useful signpost for Martin and Blades. A brilliant musician too often overlooked because of the perverse habit of discounting jazz artists who score crossover success, the saxophonist combined a dauntingly creative flow of ideas with a knack for ear-catching lines. One of the highlights of "Shimmy" is the duo digging into the saxophonist’s swaggering soul jazz tune “Mean Greens."
Harris’ original recording from 1966 featured a quartet. Blades and Martin do it more than justice as a duo. But then, Blades is no stranger to stripped down settings. He and drummer Scott Amendola have performed extensively as Amendola Vs. Blades, perfecting a lush orchestral approach they’ve applied to ambitious fare, most impressively “The Far East Suite,” a late masterpiece by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. With Martin, Blades tends to keep things more elemental.
What comes through clearly on every track is that Blades and Martin enjoy each other’s company. “Shimmy” is essentially a snapshot of a project in process, a relationship still in the early glow of discovery.