John Martyn - Solid Air - Review
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critics' view

By 1973, John Martyn - still at the tender age of 25 - had racked up five albums (two with then wife, Beverly). At the age of 17 his jazzy folk had caught the ear of Chris Blackwell of Island records and while he was a favourite on the club circuit prevalent in those far off days, he had yet to really define his sound. Solid Air changed all that for good.

The real breakthrough in Martyn's sound had really come with the previous album, Bless The Weather. The reasons were threefold: Firstly he'd joined forces with a man with whom he'd be linked for decades to come - ex-Pentangle bass player, Danny Thompson. Danny's double bass profundities were the perfect accompaniment to John's fine finger picking. The second was the adoption of the Echoplex tape delay machine as his weapon of choice when it came to laying down the smoky, fuzzy vibe that made Martyn such a smoker's choice in years to come. The third was his voice. Maybe by this point he'd done enough smoking (and drinking) to really let the slurry, laid back delivery kick in, but suddenly the combination of the modal picking and almost horizontal attitude made perfect sense.

Above all this was folk filtered through jazz. Take the inclusion of Tony Coe on sax throughout. His own slurred delivery was second to none (his was the sax on those Henry Mancini Pink Panther themes). Martyn, himself, was a fan of artists like Pharaoh Sanders, and it was this combined with the finest in British folk rock (most of Fairport Convention, including Richard Thompson, make an appearance here) that lifted Solid Air above previous efforts.

The album kicks off with Martyn's lament for close friend Nick Drake on the vibe and sax-assisted title track. On the way we get the bluegrass jauntiness of Over The Hill (with its famously positive reference to Martyn's favourite pastimes); the voguishly pastoral Don't Want To Know, the Echoplex frenzy of his version of Skip James' Rather be The Devil, and the eerily mournful Man In The Station (showing Martyn to be a master of the autobiographical soul-bearing that was to riddle his later album Grace And Danger). Of course the one track that most remember here is May You Never - his paean to brotherly love that was to be a staple of EVERY performance he's given since.

Yes, it's a classic with not a note out of place.. And ably assisted by John Wood's late night production it's now firmly esconced in the hearts of chillers, smokers and music lovers the world over. Everyone needs a copy.

Chris Jones
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading.
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