When all is said and done, maybe what we really want from a record is to witness creativity. To be led into a room where musicians take on their instruments. If you lean in and hear breathing and rustling, if you notice that the instrument – even a little uke – is fighting back, it’s a good thing. These are signs of life. And if music gets prized from old pieces of wood and string before your eyes, it’s a prize to treasure.
All you’ll hear on this recording is a ukulele and a suitcase. But amazingly, paradoxically, that confining element is its liberation, and ours. Lovely, lyrical moments are everywhere. Time gets established in subtle ways, and subtly falls away. Geographies pass. We leave the streets for the dunes. Melodies expand and contract. If there was once a wall of sound, then this disc is a window. Open it and enjoy a new view.
Usually Myk Freedman’s music can be best enjoyed when played by his large band, St. Dirt Elementary School, at the Tranzac, preferably accompanied by pints of Oatmeal Stout. Here, Justin Haynes and Jean Martin distill Freedman’s compositions to ukulele and suitcase. Haynes plays a surprisingly pretty ukulele, which suits these sweet-tempered songs well — his playing segues effortlessly from delicate and melodic to free and fractious. For his part, Martin derives a huge range of muted sounds from his cheap plastic suitcase, making it sometimes sound like a drum machine smothered by a blanket. Together they create an intimacy reminiscent of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s collaborations, while still keeping things unpredictable. DAVID DACKS
Jean Martin, Justin Hayes: Freedman (Barnyard - 2008)
Sur Freedman – disque baptisé du nom du compositeur de son répertoire –, le duo Jean Martin (percussionniste jouant ici d’une mallette) et Justin Hayes (ukulele) s’adonnent à une pop minimaliste aux expérimentations timides mais qui conviennent au propos.
Pour intervenir à l’instrument à cordes, Hayes mène la rencontre au son de mélodies effleurées à peine et d’improvisations courtes qui cherchent forcément à les fuir : sur évocations exotiques ou ébauches d’un folk essoufflé, de cordes récalcitrantes en berceuses dérangées, Hayes et Martin (plus que discret ici, vues les facultés de résonance de l’objet dont il use) osent une musique éreintée rappelant celles d’Eugene Chadbourne, David Fennech ou La Buena Vida, dans le même temps qu'ils travaillent à la reconnaissance de ce Myk Freedman de leurs compatriotes.
Martin & Haynes specialize in suitcase-sized sounds
By Alexander Varty
The cover art—two scruffy dudes in black turtlenecks, leaning up against each other and looking sensitive—pays tribute to Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 classic Bookends. The song titles include such promising numbers as “Sittin’ in a Puddle”, “Pretty Ugly”, and “She’s Not My Girlfriend, My Girlfriend Is Normal”. And the featured instruments are a $30 pawnshop-prize ukulele and a Salvation Army suitcase, the latter played with sticks and brushes like a drum.
But don’t mistake Martin & Haynes’s debut, Freedman, for a comedy record, for nothing could be further from the case.
It’s not that Jean Martin and Justin Haynes don’t have a sense of humour. They’re fully cognizant of the fact that their ukulele-suitcase duo is an inherently funny combination—after all, their other band is called Blah Blah 666. But what really attracted the two musicians to their unusual format is the surprising delicacy of its sound, and how well it suited the sketchy, enigmatic compositions of their colleague Myk Freedman, who gave the disc its name and all but one of its 17 tunes.
“It’s a small sound,” says Martin, reached at the Toronto home he shares with singer Christine Duncan, a wild assortment of instruments and recording gear, and the offices of their Barnyard Records imprint. “And sometimes the noises from the movements of our hands around the instruments are almost as loud as the actual melodic content. So it feels very frail, to me, and very honest.”
Some of Freedman’s tracks are so abstract that they sound almost disembodied; others are more conventionally structured, and more seductively melodic. Their composer, Martin explains, is a Toronto bandleader and lap-steel guitarist who had the bright idea of compiling a selection of his pieces in book form. When played by Freedman’s own eight-piece band, St. Dirt Elementary School, they apparently have a somewhat Burt Bacharach–like quality. As reinvented by Martin & Haynes, however, they’re less chamber pop than dollhouse balladry, and the ukulele-suitcase format lends itself to the material’s inherent wistfulness.
“What we’re doing is kind of an antidramatic thing,” says Martin, “and I think that’s what makes it so melancholic.”
Perhaps in an attempt to make the Martin & Haynes stage show a touch more theatrical, the two will be accompanied on their upcoming West Coast tour by multi-instrumentalist Ryan Driver, who shares a similarly unconventional musical aesthetic. His instrument? The “streetsweeper bristle bass”, a metal tine plucked from a City of Toronto road-maintenance machine and amplified by a rudimentary contact microphone. So while this band might be growing in size, its minimalist aesthetic remains intact.
In fact, Martin—who can usually be seen playing an elaborately customized drum kit, while Haynes prefers hollow-body jazz guitars—notes that one of this format’s attractions is that the whole show can be packed up into the same suitcase he plays on.
“You know, it’s amazing,” he says with evident amusement. “Everybody always takes so much equipment with them when they go on the road, but this time we’re all just laughing.”
Simply gorgeous. This new release from the Barnyard Records imprint further demonstrates how bigger isn't necessarily better.
The overriding philosophy about running your own record label is the exhilarating joy of building a project, your very own project, from scratch— and watching it evolve into something beautiful, with the hope of engaging a community of like-minded individuals. There's also the romantic idea that you'll be able to discover and release some new remarkable talent along the way. But on the flipside, the ability to release your own material, especially new creative projects which ordinarily fall before deaf ears, is probably the secret jackpot which gets a good number of musicians involved in the first place. And that's exactly what you get here, in all likelihood, from percussionist and producer Jean Martin's label Barnyard Records, through his duo with Justin Haynes.
Remarkably, all you get on Freedman, is a ukulele and a suitcase. The initial idea sounds a little rogue, a little sparse, but that's all you get. Really. For these two forward-thinking individuals, this is the vehicle to peddle the music of fellow Canuck Myk Freedman, and it works incredibly well. Haynes' plucked chords dance softly, and dangle in thoughtful directions. Martin's shuffle is a little more abstract on occasion, and provides a little weight to the feather. For all its lacking in the realm of sonic possibilities, there's a simple liberating breath, a subtlety in the melody, and just a wonderful spirit; like a dusty needle or a faint lyrical flutter from a simple, captivating landscape.
Freedman sits quite well next to two other releases from the label, namely the excellent Mexican-Parisian free-jangle of It's Only Life! from the eclectic Blah Blah 666— with its evocative flourishes of melodica, b6 defretted guitar, and plastic blow things tailor-made for slow-poke afternoons. The other is the duet recording between Toronto saxophonist Kyle Brenders and legendary saxophonist Anthony Braxton who combine twisted forces on two "ghost trance compositions" on (the poorly titled) Toronto (duets) 2007. Needless to say, there are some nice things running around the farm these days.
I don’t know much about the Toronto-based lap steel player Myk Freedman. I haven’t heard him play. And I don’t know why Jean Martin and Justin Haynes are acting out Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends cover for their album of music by Freedman, titled Freedman (though the one song the duo wrote is titled, I guess appropriately, “Bookends”).
What I do know is it’s a special album that at times might be mistaken for un-special, for its lack of drama. Sometimes it seems like they’re just messing around, or tuning even; and then the strange little melodies they’re playing will grab hold, firmly. Even when not that, the same minimalist mood that threatens to be overlooked proves to be captivating, bringing all of your attention to the sound of two simple instruments. As it states on the inside cover: “All you’ll hear on this recording is a ukulele ad a suitcase.” Remarkable.
You may feel like you’re mostly hearing the ukulele. Haynes plays it nimbly and precisely, occasionally evoking, romantically, the great jazz guitarists of yore. But the suitcase is always there too, played as light percussion, adding an intimacy and also a distant strangeness.
This is music where sometimes the pleasures seem simple – melodies played on strings – yet you continually ask yourself, “what is going on here?” That’s true when the music get especially left-field, like on a backyard jam titled “October’s Bright Blue Abortion.” But also when it doesn’t, when the music is quiet and settled-down.