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Marty Krystall is a genuine rarity—at once an accomplished and practicing studio musician, and a tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist who Nat Hentoff could rightly call, “one of the most passionate, powerfully swinging, and just plain unselfconsciously original players in all of jazz.”
Anonymity goes with the studio musician’s territory. That not everybody knows what Hentoff knows about Krystall’s creative dimension is because, with exceptions like four European tours with the bassist Buell Neidlinger and a period in Japan where he journeyed as a soloist, Krystall has largely confined himself to playing in the Los Angeles area where he was born and raised. Were he living and playing in New York there’s no question that Krystall would be recognized as one of the very best of the post-Coltrane reed players. Maybe the best.
Indeed, dynamic and muscular, relentlessly propulsive and endlessly inventive, Krystall’s work, interspersed where called upon with a searing lyricism and always informed by an exceptional musical intelligence, is routinely astonishing. Go directly to the title track, the theme from “Gunsmoke” (which Krystall manages to transmute into a credible, even elevated, jazz tune) or Thelonious Monk’s haunting “Ask Me Now,” for exemplary demonstrations.
Krystall says of his approach that he wants to “surprise myself as well as the listener. I want to compose in the moment, spontaneously, and to come up with different sounds. It’s about sounds for me—colors, textures—not licks or notes. I try to get the most juice I can in my tone. And I want to find things on the tenor or bass clarinet that I couldn’t get to before. I also want to utilize the full capacity of the instruments.“
Artists frequently derive inspiration from what, to others, may seem unlikely sources. Much of Krystall’s inspiration (and this would apply to both of the hats he wears) comes from television shows that he watched growing up, especially “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Twilight Zone.”
“I remember, in 1960, being obsessed with those shows. They had a deep moral compass. Especially the character of Paladin in ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’. He would hire out, but never as an assassin, more like a problem solver. And sometimes he would forego his fee for the opportunity to do something good, like finding justice.
“Paladin was the classic anti-hero, exposing his client’s lunacy or greed. I struggled as a nine-year-old to understand these morality tales, but he was my hero because he was educated, worldly, dressed to the nines, usually accompanied by beautiful women and had his pistol custom made. To me he was like the ultimate studio ‘doubler’ [multi-instrumentalist]. Show up with the finest instruments and play anything that’s put in front of you perfectly. The first time!
“For me, it’s have horns, will travel.
”But it wasn’t just the stories and the characters that captivated Krystall. The musical scores, by composers like Morty Stevens, Bernard Hermann and Leonard Rosenman, seriously impressed him as well. “That same year my dad took me to my first hi-fi and stereo show where we heard the latest recordings of those scores on state-of-the-art audio equipment. Talk about ‘mind-expanding!’ And if that music was very romantic and expressive it was also scary and filled with tension, which appealed to me a lot and still does. Sounding much like what Gil Evans was writing, it had very hip modern chords and was heavily weighted with clarinet and bass clarinet solos. So when my Dad, an amateur pianist, asked me what instrument I wanted to play, it was the clarinet.
“Of course,” Krystall adds, “when I heard Eric Dolphy on the local jazz station, and then Art Blakey and John Coltrane, I realized that this was it for me musically. Tenor sax, bass clarinet and modern jazz, here I come! Yeah, I would listen, in those early days, to people like Trane, Dolphy, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and write out their solos to see how it was done. Ben Webster, too. Buell Neidlinger turned me on to Ben Webster and also to Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor.”
In addition to fronting groups of his own, Krystall went on to play with other bands, notably Krystall Klear and the Buells, Thelonious, the Word of Mouth Orchestra and the Liberation Orchestra, that included or were led by three outstanding and innovative bassists: Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden and Neidlinger. Playing and recording with Buell, Krystall acknowledges, was a major factor in his development as an improviser and composer.
“But I also wanted to make a living,” he unabashedly admits, “and to that purpose, I was determined to become a studio musician as well. When I was fifteen, I learned that to be successful in the field one had to play at least the clarinet, saxophone and flute. I studied the flute and later the oboe and, by the early ‘70s, started to break into the studio scene while earning a reputation for sight reading the most difficult music—like Frank Zappa and Anton Webern—and also as a legit clarinetist who could rock out on tenor. One gig led to another and I became fairly busy as a freelancer. Especially gratifying has been the chance to work with three world-class pianists, Peter Serkin, Brenton Banks and Jerry Peters.”
While continuing to do studio work Krystall has of late become increasingly focused on his own musical adventures, specifically his new band “Mojave”.
Krystall checked out any number of people before he encountered the drummer Sinclair Lott and the bassist J.P. Maramba and knew right away that he’d found the combination for the band that he wanted. It should be noted that Krystall deliberately chose to omit a piano. “Unless you have the absolutely right pianist the piano can inhibit harmonic freedom and get in the way.” In any case, Maramba and Lott are uncommonly skilled and intuitive musicians and it’s hard to imagine Krystall coming up with more suitable partners or a more complete and perfect unit. “We played together,” Krystall says, “and it just happened. They are amazing.”
J.P. Maramba, who takes a justifiable pride in his ability to adapt to any musical situation, has worked with Willie Nelson, Adam Rudolph, L’Esprit d’ Afrique Pan-African Performance Ensemble, Gilbert Castellanos, Bennie Maupin and Ingrid Jenson. Not unlike many musicians he regards the organization of sound from a spiritual perspective and he’s earnest in his belief that “the vibration in the air we call music is, in the most practical sense of the word, magical. Music not only has a way of unifying people and cultures, and all of their nuances, but it can also affect the physical chemistry of your body.”
Maramba contributed the sweet and rhythmically infectious “We’ve Heard It All Before,” to the set and he can be a fascinating soloist, as witness his work on Krystall’s “Trini’s Blues” and Herbie Nichols’ boppish and challenging “Terpsichore” in particular.
Sinclair Lott, whose father, Sinclair Sr., was principal horn of the L.A. Philharmonic has played and/or recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Diane Reeves, Frank Zappa, Big Joe Turner, Dorothy Donegan, Otis Rusch, Tigran Hamasyan, Tierney Stafford, Billy Childs and Bob Sheppard. Lott sustains an extraordinary level of focus and concentration throughout the album and is especially mesmerizing on “Duo at Diablo,” on which Maramba lays out. The depth of his accord with Krystall on this number and the compelling results it yields might put you in mind of Cecil Taylor’s legendary duets with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Oxley.
And what exactly prompted Krystall to name this band “Mojave” instead of, say, “The Marty Krystall Trio”?
“Mojave is where my roots are. In the late 19th century, my grand uncle left what’s now Poland for America and, after meeting and consulting with the man who would become Barry Goldwater’s father, decided to open a general store (the first of its kind) in the southeastern California desert town of Mojave. My grandfather, the son of a rabbi, came here when he was thirteen. He stepped off the boat, ordered a ham sandwich and, journeying to California where he took a job at the store with my grand uncle, never looked back.
“That was, of course, when Mojave was still the ‘wild west’. And my grandfather would tell me about shootouts on the street and a Chinese cook that nobody messed with because of the hatchet strapped to a shoulder holster that he carried.
“Now if Mojave gives me the connotation of a hard blowing, desolate wind, and a harsh existence, it also reflects a pristine and spiritual beauty. And this is why I call the band ‘Mojave’. It’s to represent that and also to remind me of where I want to come from when I play—a windy plain where the air is clear and all of the stars come out at night.”
Whatever location Krystall may in his mind be coming from when he plays, he is also, as I’ve indicated, coming from a large musical gift. His capacity to stir and shake the emotions is unfailing. His facility on both the tenor saxophone and the bass clarinet is never on display for its own sake, but always dedicated to the service of his fertile imagination. Moreover, his statements are pithy and cogent—there’s no meandering or repetitiveness. He says what he has to say and then it’s on to the next tune. His performances on Ben Webster’s jaunty “Ben Addiction,” where his lines and tone implicitly acknowledge his debt to Webster, Jaki Byard’s “Mrs. Parker of KC,” on which, playing bass clarinet, he honors Eric Dolphy by both emulating and taking him to new places, “Blue Dunes” (“Blue Skies,” actually, but with a new melody that he came up with on the spot), and his own immediately seductive “Renovation Blues,” are, as is true of the aforementioned tunes, all revelatory of a talent that can claim an extraordinary force and singularity.
But Krystall’s brilliance and uniqueness notwithstanding, there’s another reason this group isn’t called “The Marty Krystall Trio”. Maramba and Lott function not as Krystall’s sidemen but as his collaborators. Their artistry and controlled intensity are every bit as prominent as his own—and due in large measure to a remarkable alchemy, the trio has a much bigger sound than its number would suggest. These qualities make for a single and powerful sonic entity and a set that’s loaded with heat, exquisite interplay and wonderful tensions.
Discover the marvelous with Mojave.