A Great Singer, A Creepy Standard And A Past Life

Rebecca Martin i i

Rebecca Martin, with Larry Grenadier (left) and Bill McHenry. Todd Chalfant/courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Todd Chalfant/courtesy of the artist
Rebecca Martin

Rebecca Martin, with Larry Grenadier (left) and Bill McHenry.

Todd Chalfant/courtesy of the artist

I've been mildly obsessed with the jazz singer Rebecca Martin for a hot minute. Some of her records show off the folky singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin, but her latest album When I Was Long Ago is all super spare standards, with Larry Grenadier on bass and Bill McHenry on economical, weirdo sax. It's one of those "everything in its right place" joints, which is crucial, because with only three people, anything awry stands out. You may have seen that I featured her disc on the radio a few months back; also, this trio was on WBGO's The Checkout (and performing in New York) this week.

I was recently reminded of this even sparer version of "Tea For Two,"1 captured live at what looks like Cornelia Street Cafe in New York.

YouTube

It sounds like she's done what the pianist Lennie Tristano once did: Practice super-slowly. Any major dude can fake it halfway decently at full tempo, but to rhythmically nail every entrance and breath-control every pitch and intone each falling motion when the pulse is crawling at a snail's pace? Not easy. And Grenadier does everything so right here.

Pause for a minute. A lot of jazz versions treat "Tea For Two" as a joyful swinger, or eschew part of the verse. And at some point early on in the song's life, this was a boy-girl duet, a sweet "imagine our future together, dear!" lyric.

YouTube

But read by a single person at a slow tempo, there are hints of creepy overtones here, no? Can you imagine if Tom Waits or Scott Walker sang this? I can easily see a jilted, psychotically deranged man or woman singing this in front of an stalkerish effigy of his/her target in a horror movie. "I'm discontented with homes that are rented / So I have invented my own." Invented what? Your own beautiful dark twisted fantasy where we build a suburban dollhouse domicile and spawn a nuclear family? Where our tea parties are just so, and the neighbors can't hear or see anything we do, and I control our every move like so many marionettes? The line between cutesy and disturbing is fine here.

I guess these domestic, somewhat patriarchal fantasies were less brow-raising back in 1925. And it's all especially weird to this urbanite with commitment phobias — Martin and Grenadier are married and have, in fact, moved out to a New York City exurb and started a family. But getting up early to bake a sugar cake just for your dude to show off to the other dudes around the office? Someone has some issues with status symbolism.

I realize this is a pretty extreme reading that runs counter to authorial intent. I know Martin thinks about the idea of authorial intent. But the meaning of a song changes with its context. And I'm only thinking about all this because Martin is one of those jazz singers who sees interpretation of lyrics as paramount, rather than just rhyming words clothing a melody line.

Less heavy: Some stray YouTubing led me to discover that Martin used to front a band with the songwriter Jesse Harris called Once Blue.

YouTube

Stray thoughts:

  1. Harris is the guy who wrote Norah Jones' breakout hits. So why wasn't Martin Norah Jones before Norah Jones? Was it a marketability thing? Was the songwriting not quite as developed yet?
  2. LOL at Ben Street "playing" upright bass here. Is that Kurt Rosenwinkel too? Is that drummer a jazz cat I don't recognize?
  3. What's with the conceit of this music video? There are people playing ping-pong and dancing awkwardly and canoodling all around the musical performance. Was this a rejected theme song for Friends?

The '90s, man.


1. A Rebecca Martin version of "Tea For Two" also appears on Paul Motian's On Broadway Vol. 4: Or The Paradox of Continuity. That record features some classic modern-era Paul Motian, on his patented drunken master stumblebum tip, with Grenadier and Chris Potter plus pianist Masabumi "Poo" Kikuchi on the non-Martin tracks. The songs that do feature Martin sound a lot like the When I Was Long Ago sessions: Fairly slow standards with acoustic bass and sax obbligato, with the addition of Motian coloring outside the lines. Ethan Iverson called this a classic. I agree.

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