The Breakdown: Velvet Portraits, by Terrace Martin

Henry: There’s a distinct personality in the tone of every great horn player, a character that comes not from the instrument but from the sheer physicality of the embouchure, the strength of the lungs and the lips and the patterns that the fingers come to know. Timbre is derived in a very literal way from the body, such that when played correctly, the horn transcends its status as instrument to become voice itself.

Terrace Martin has a raspy voice. His tone is lean, his lines often simple and clear, but there’s a subtle texture at the edges of his sound that lends an understated urgency to every note. The average listener will recognize this energy as the driving current running through Kendrick’s “For Free,” one of the tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly for which Martin has production credits. The same current runs through Martin’s recently released album, Velvet Portraits, the sound of his sax tying together a collection of songs which ranges from forward-thinking jazz to R&B, G-funk and classic soul.

The range of styles on Velvet Portraits speaks to the range of players, everyone from saxophone contemporary Kamasi Washington and West Coast bass guru Thundercat, to the genre-melding keys of Robert Glasper, to Terrace’s own father, the esteemed Curly Martin on drums. It’s a journey, but rather than the odyssey of Kamasi Washington’s 2015 The Epic, Velvet Portraits sounds more like a walk through L.A., the voice of a horn cutting through spaces as they have existed across generations and time.

Micah: Couldn’t have said it better myself. I was very excited to hear that Terrace Martin was putting out a new solo record after working on other people’s projects so intensely recently. I never got into his older solo material much, but his recent output has definitely piqued my interest, so I knew we had to give this a thorough listen. Let’s do this.


1. Velvet Portraits

Henry: I like how this intro swells in, all textural percussion and long flowing lines before winding down suddenly, as if somebody cut off the record to put on something everybody can get down to. Martin’s ear as a producer keeps things fresh, never settling into one style for too long.

Micah: A nice way to start this record, this song really sets the tone. The production on this album is very open, leaving a lot of space for the musicians to play in. Even though there are a lot of elements at work in this album, it never feels claustrophobic.


2. Valdez Off Crenshaw (Valdez in the Country)

Henry: An excellent opening groove, this track is a summer day and a classic car, just ridin’. The sax lines are simple and pure and the bass and drums become the cruise control, keeping us moving at just the right speed.

Micah: The first time I heard this song it grabbed me right away. I love the skeletal drumming and bass-led feel in the first half, but the song really takes off for me just after two and a half minutes when the drums move into more cymbal work, blossoming into a wide sonic landscape. Terrace Martin wails while the rhythm section weaves around the bassline. One of my favorites on the album without a question.


3. Push (featuring Tone Trezure)

Henry: Martin and the band channel Sly Stone on this one. This song could be on a motown release from the 70’s, the perfect kind of music to listen to if you’re feeling down. Keep on pushing.

Micah: This song definitely has a Family Stone feel. While I’m not very impressed by the lead vocal performance, the instrumentation behind it is on point. However, I can’t see myself revisiting this song outside the context of the album.


4. With You

Henry: Here the album leaps forward in time, breaking from the live drums into an R&B stomp-clap and a classic west-coast synth lead that would be at home on a Warren G and Nate Dogg record. The texture of the vocoder adds enough to keep this track moving along.

Micah: Ooooweee. This is more like it. The vocals in this song reminds me of Casey Benjamin’s vocoder work with The Robert Glasper Experiment. Although I think he overuses the vocoder when he plays with Glasper’s band, I think it works really well here. The first time I heard this song I kept waiting for Snoop Dogg to start spitting. A very nice listen and serves to slow down the pace of the album with a little bit of sexy dirty funk.


5.Curly Martin (featuring Robert Glasper, Thundercat & Ronald Bruner, Jr.)

Henry: As the title suggests, this song is an ode to Terrace Martin’s father, jazz drummer Curly Martin, who gives us a little taste of his mastery here with his impossibly quick hi-hat rhythm that still somehow sounds so easy. You can hear the musical chemistry and back-and-forth improvisation as the music swells into crescendos, and I like how the song begins with a in-studio breaks, a quick check to get the groove right before going in.

Micah: Wow I love the drumming on this one. I could have sworn this was my man Chris Dave when I first heard it, but wow what a performance. The stuttering is so off-kilter falling down drunk while being perfectly in time it makes me dizzy.


6.Never Enough (featuring Tiffany Gouche)

Henry: This is baby makin’ music right here. I’m not a huge fan of the vocals on this one but I like the slow groove, especially once it moves into the instrumental section.

Micah: I love the slow syrupy vibe this song has and I actually like the singing quite a bit. Especially the “Give me your body, give me your body” part. It reminds me of an over the top BJ the Chicago Kid. I love the strange synth bits in the background and Terrace’s soulful entrance halfway through the track. While this isn’t the strongest song on the album it definitely deserves its place in the sequence.


7. Turkey Taco (featuring Wyann Vaughn & Wayne Vaughn)

Henry: The funk is too heavy. This might be my favorite track on the album. This shit will break your goddamn neck. The interplay between the squelch of the bass and Glasper’s bluesy little piano riffs is awesome, and I love it anytime anybody says “We’re gonna funk you up!”

Micah: Oh boy what a funky experience this song is. Straight out of the Funkadelic playbook, this song showcases the unique blend this album finds between jazz and funk. If you told me this was a long lost Headhunters song I would have believed you no problem.


8. Patiently Waiting (featuring Uncle Chucc & The Emotions)

Henry: I love the segue of Turkey Taco’s grimey funk into the purity of this song, which could be a Ray Charles or an Otis Redding joint. My favorite part of this album is the way in which each track acts as a kind of counterpoint to the next one. The organ and the backup vocals on this are like a beam of sunlight shining down into your soul. You can’t help but feel it.

Micah: Not gonna lie, I can’t seem to get into this track. I get the throwback vibe it’s going for, but I just can’t get into the vocals for the life of me. The seven minute length just seems to drag on and on for me. I’m sure this would be a great closer at a concert, with extended wailing from the vocalists and soloists, but it’s not doing a whole lot for me here.


9. Tribe Called West (featuring Keyon Harrold)

Henry: I love the sax line on this, the way it lags just behind the beat in true West Coast form, and the interplay between sax and trumpet is satisfying in an elementary kinda way.

Micah: Another song with great drumming. The snare rolls and syncopation grabbed me right away when I first heard this song. It’s short, it’s entrancing and I like it.


10. Oakland (featuring Lalah Hathaway)

Henry: As with Never Enough, I’m not a huge fan of the vocals here. The strength of this album is definitely in its instrumentals, and the spots like this song where they take a backseat to the R&B crooning are the weakest points, I think. This isn’t by any means a bad song, it just feels like a lull in the energy that keeps Velvet Portraits moving forward.

Micah: I agree with you 100% here. The vocals are completely overshadowed by the instrumentation on this song. I don’t know whether it’s the vocal performance or the underlying songwriting that isn’t doing it for me, but I can’t seem to find a way into this song. I skip it almost every time I listen to this album.


11. Bromali (featuring Marion Williams)

Henry: It wouldn’t be southern Cali without a little latin feel, and I love the Santana-esque guitar lead and the little textural riffs that keep this track moving. Another great song to drive to on a summer day with the windows down, one hand on the wheel, the other out the window, catching the breeze.

Micah: This song has a great feel. Not the most dynamic song on the album, but I really like how it continues to groove forward with the drumming and bass locked in tight, while the other instruments fill the song out. Not a spectacular song by any stretch, but I can appreciate it’s low-key personality.


12. Think Of You (featuring Kamasi Washington & Rose Gold)

Henry: This song feels in some ways like a continuation of Bromali, which is only notable because so often this album switches up the feel radically between songs. In terms of composition, Terrace shows a lot of restraint on this album, but he lets loose with the sax on this one, and the vocals compliment the mix nicely.

Micah: My man Kamasi Washington really snaps here. I hope Terrace and Kamasi continue to cross paths. In a time when jazz is seen by some as a dusty relic of the past, these two show that the musical spirit of Coltrane and Parker is very much alive and well. During most of this album, the rhythm section is put at the forefront, but here the rest of the band takes the spotlight. The singing here is a great counterpoint to the virtuosity of the horn players. This is certainly one of the strongest cuts off the album.


13. Reverse (featuring Robert Glasper & Candy West)

Henry: This song reminds me in a weird way of N.E.R.D.’s “Love Bomb,” although it never really drops, just keeps building in waves of synth, guitar and sax. I like it, although I kinda wish we got one more heavy funk jam in this penultimate spot to build up the energy before the meditative climax of the final song.

Micah: This song is dreamy, lush and very pretty. I always enjoy listening to it when it comes on, but I can’t say I find myself seeking it out on it’s own. The feel of it reminds me a lot of the opening track. It seems to me that this track serves to cleanse your palate before embarking on the journey that is Mortal Man. Shouts out to Mr. Glasper for his contributions here.


14. Mortal Man

Henry: Mortal Man is a kind of microcosm for this whole album, I think, a reprise of a lot of the musical themes we’ve already heard on our journey, and at 11 minutes, this track is a journey in and of itself, a recollection at the very end of lives lived and times past.

Micah: Here’s the big kahuna. I don’t know whether this version or Kendrick’s was conceived first, but it’s clear that there is a lot of overlap both in personnel and sonic landscape between this album and To Pimp a Butterfly. Unlike the version on TPAB, this “Mortal Man” breaks the 10-minute threshold with nothing but music. No lost Tupac interview, just a strung together series of instrumental sections that range from a string ensemble, to a jazz combo, to a moody, ethereal synth-soaked dreamscape. I love the range and depth this song has, but I don’t always find myself with the time or attention span to tackle a listen. This song requires a certain mindstate but when you’re in it, there’s nothing like it. A fantastic closer to an album that is a breath of fresh air when so many albums feel canned and claustrophobic. I hope we continue to hear refreshing music from Terrace Martin for years to come.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain