By Josh Weiner
“The link between rap and jazz has always been more wishful thinking on the part of critics than anything actual,” TIME once wrote. Looking to alter that impression is Terrace Martin, a multi-instrumentalist whose jazzy production has enlivened many prominent rappers’ recent output, and who also has compiled plenty of solo material in his own right, particularly 2016’s remarkable Velvet Portraits.
A native of Crenshaw, Los Angeles, Martin spent much of his early career navigating the rich music scene in his hometown of Los Angeles, CA. He joined forces with a number of celebrities out there on various occasions, such as touring with Puff Daddy and the gospel choir God’s Property, and appearing on a Power 106 radio drop with his hero Snoop Dogg (Martin cites Doggystyle as the album that has influenced him the most throughout his career).
Unsurprisingly, Martin’s career really took off after he finally managed to score a major-label contract, in this case with Warner Bros. Records in 2007. Since then, his discography has continued to swell with additional mixtapes, Eps, and full-lengths. These works have earned critical acclaim– 2013’s 3chordfold was praised for its “strong melodies, experimental textures and an array of stellar guest spots”– and many of the industry’s heavyweights have come calling.
Jazz legend Herbie Hancock, current R&B queen SZA, and respected MC’s Talib Kweli, YG and Travis Scott are among the many who’ve benefited from Martin’s willingness to reach out broadly to artists from various styles and backgrounds. Yet some of Martin’s widest recent exposure stems from his work with Kendrick Lamar.
To Pimp a Butterfly was universally praised in 2015, among many other reasons, for incorporating many subtle traces of outside musical genres, particularly jazz. One critic described the album as “a critical gateway to some of the most exciting musicians and movements currently happening in jazz.” Much of this influence can be attributed to Martin, who contributed his saxophone-laced production to a number of the album’s tracks, including “King Kunta,” “The Blacker The Berry” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love).”
The success of Kendrick’s sophomore LP set the stage for Martin’s own Velvet Portraits, his most recent solo release, the following year. “In many ways, Velvet Portraits is Butterfly’s companion piece,” Marcus J. Moore of Pitchfork observed, “harboring the same voluminous reach while conveying uplifting messages of love and inclusiveness, resting in the heart of southern California.” Also like To Pimp a Butterfly, Velvet Portraits shifts liberally between various tempos and musical styles — “Martin mixes pieces of the [jazz] genre with others, setting a vibe that’s uniquely his” — and concludes with a 12-minute track called “Mortal Man.”
After scooping up a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album for Velvet Portraits, Martin has since assembled a new group, the Pollyseeds. They released Sounds of Crenshaw, Vol. 1, last year, a record which “builds on the summery vibes of Velvet Portraits, while adding new moods and textures to the mix.” As was effectively summed up by member Rose Gold, “the band is about progression. Never being comfortable. Always growing. And always pushing the envelope.” In other words, a fine metaphor for the standards that the group’s frontman has established for himself throughout his career.
“From playing saxophone with God’s Property to playing keys for R. Kelly to playing jazz with Cedar Walton and then producing stuff with Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar — not many people have that kind of resume,” longtime collaborator Robert Glasper remarked. With his sharp ears and musical versatility, Martin is sure to fatten up that resume in the years to come.