Girl From Martinique
Robin Kenyatta flute, alto saxophone, percussion
Wolfgang Dauner Clavinet, piano
Arild Andersen bass
Fred Braceful drums
Recorded October 30, 1970 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineers: Kurt Rapp and Karl-Hermann Hinderer
Produced by Manfred Eicher
One night, after a gig in Harlem, a budding saxophonist by the name of Robin Kenyatta was approached by none other than Bill Dixon, who expressed an admiration for the young reedman’s skills and would soon introduce him to the likes of John Coltrane. Thus began a colorful and fascinating career that intersected with ECM for this one album alone. It’s a shame Kenyatta never recorded more for the label. By this I don’t mean to imply that he strayed from a more fruitful direction, but I can’t help but wonder what ECM’s advancements in recording and collaboration might have done for his sound later on. The currently out-of-print Girl From Martinique shows Kenyatta at his most experimental, and the results are a mixed bag. The title track is the weakest, laden as it is with a hackneyed “psychedelic” reverb, though Kenyatta’s flute skills are in fine form here and are a joy to listen to. So much so that I would have been happier listening to him play unaccompanied, perhaps in a more naturally resonant space. And while the piece does come into its own in the home stretch, it feels like too little too late. Thankfully, “Blues For Your Mama” is more straightforward with its heavy Clav bassline, priming us for a killer sax solo. “Thank You Jesus” sounds like a gospeller’s good dream turned bad, spicing things up with such brilliant chaos during the fadeout that one wonders where the session continued to travel after the mixing knob was turned down. The Caribbean-flavored “We’ll Be So Happy” is groovy and understated, a beautiful track that might easily have been extended to fill the entire album with no loss of interest. Kenyatta returns to the flute as an echoing Clav leads us out with a touch of mystical beauty.
Kenyatta, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 62, was a standout player in the 1970s free jazz scene, and his intuition and improvisatory chops are in full evidence here. Yet in some ways this recording leaves something to be desired. The dated electronics and paltry arrangements question the need for support in its first half. The album is overproduced and, while archivally significant, shows a label (and a musician) still trying to find its voice. That all being said, the album grows with every listen as its nuances come to the fore, and rewards the patience put into it. Anyone without access to the original vinyl may want to check out Stompin’ at the Savoy (1974) or the funk-infused Gypsy Man (1972) for a taste of Kenyatta’s more commercially successful (and thereby more readily available) projects before plunking down a few bills for this blast from the past.