John Martyn, the British singer-songwriter-guitarist who came of age in the British folk scene in the 1960s and later developed a unique marriage of jazz and folk, died Thursday at age 60. No cause was given.
A contemporary of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, Martyn employed jazz elements to give his music a free-flowing ambient effect. Like Drake and, in America, Tim Hardin, he pushed the boundaries of pop-oriented acoustic folk music by emphasizing a hushed stillness in his songs augmented by saxophone, acoustic bass and electric piano. His music influenced the likes of U2, Portishead and Eric Clapton.
His most famous work was 1973’s “Solid Air,” the title track of which is an ode to Drake, who died a year after that album’s release. It established Martyn’s trademarks — slurred vocals pushed to the bottom end of his tenor, prominent acoustic bass lines that prop up his acoustic guitar that crackled like a dying fire, the electric piano sprinkling in notes here and there. He employed a slapping technique on both sides of the guitar that added an eerie sustain on chords and ascribed a prominence to notes that pierced the blur of his vocals.
A Glaswegian born Ian David McGeachy on Sept. 11, 1948, he moved to London at 18 and started working folk clubs, where he was signed to Island Records, the first white solo artist on a label known for its reggae records. He made a couple of straight-ahead folk albums before meeting Beverly Kutner, who would become his wife and performance partner. After a couple of albums by the duo, he turned toward a sound that would become his signature on the albums “Bless the Weather,” “Solid Air,” “Inside Out,” “Sunday’s Child” and “One World.”
Concurrently, he was an early adapter of technological advances, adding the fuzz box, phase shifter, Echoplex and tape loops to his arsenal, elements more closely associated with progressive rock at the time than folk music.
In the 1970s, he toured the U.S. opening for Yes, Eric Clapton, Traffic and others but never received the attention he got back home. Clapton covered his “May You Never,” and guest appearances on Martyn’s ’80s albums included Phil Collins and David Gilmour.
For much of his career, Martyn struggled with alcohol abuse that caused a few breaks in his career. He resumed his career in 1990 with “The Apprentice” and 1992 with “Cooltide” before taking another sabbatical. In the late 1990s when the trip-hop movement connected with groundbreaking artists such as Martyn and Terry Collier, he returned to recording in a style that echoed the down-tempo electronic acts.
In 2003 his right leg was partially amputated after a large cyst under his knee burst, leading him to spend his latter years in a wheelchair.
In 2006, Martyn played the album in its entirety at the All Tomorrow’s Parties fest. His final studio album, 2004’s “On the Cobbles,” featured contributions from Paul Weller and Mavis Staples.
Martyn received the Order of the British Empire in the 2009 New Year honors list.