★★★★“Gabriela Martin’s Swiss roots offer an incredible range…stunningly sung.” – John Ephland, DownBeat
“The songwriting and the singing both recall Joni Mitchell.” – Mark Sullivan, All About Jazz
Bidding goodbye to a childhood home is often a difficult process, but for Swiss vocalist and composer Gabriela Martina the family homestead was far more than a place to live. It represented a centuries-old way of life that connected her family directly to the soil and community that surrounded the farmland. On her new album, Homage to Grämlis, Martina has created a striking musical tapestry evoking a pastoral upbringing on her family’s dairy farm. The album’s 11 original compositions meld blues, gospel, pop, American Songbook craft, funk and Alpine roots music in a cauldron forged from Martina’s deep training as a jazz artist. Slated for release on July 14, 2023, Homage to Grämlis is an exquisite musical dedication by an artist with a cutting-edge cosmopolitan ethos.
The vividly bittersweet song cycle captures her love of nature, family and the farm her parents maintained, but it’s also a far-ranging reflection on the inevitable losses inflicted by time and circumstance. The opening track, “This Country, That Country” — which features Martina’s original theme surrounding an excerpt of a piece by Swiss composer Hans Aregger — explores the great cultural differences between Switzerland, where Martina was born, and the United States, where, while living in Boston for more than a dozen years, she established herself as a creative force on the New York City and Boston jazz scenes. In similar fashion, via a swirling array of musical idioms, the remainder of the album oscillates between Martina’s thrumming inner world and sharply sketched portraits of the people and landscapes that molded her. “I’ve never been a fan of genres,” Martina says. “I liked and sang all kinds of music, from classical, musicals to funk, pop, soul, R&B, electronic music, avant garde and, of course, jazz. As I was writing these songs, I thought maybe I could find a way to combine these worlds I’m moving in and make something that resonates more with my inner voice.”
Martina is joined by a stellar group of musicians who, like her, are accomplished improvisers steeped in jazz and versed in a variety of kindred styles. Ukrainian pianist Maxim Lubarsky has worked with heavyweight jazz artists such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Greg Osby, E.J. Strickland and Dave Liebman, while bassist Kyle Miles is a highly versatile player who’s accompanied Angelique Kidjo, Meshell Ndegeocello, Roy Hargrove and many others. Drummer Vancil Cooper spent years on the road in the touring Broadway production of Hamilton, while Finnish guitarist Jussi Reijonen has worked with drummer Jack DeJohnette, flamenco legend Pepe de Lucia (legendary Paco’s brother) and Palestinian oud/violin master Simon Shaheen. The newest member of the group, accordionist Ben Rosenblum, has shared the stage with Curtis Lundy, Winard Harper, Deborah Davis and Chris Washburne, Sean Jones, TS Monk, Warren Wolf, Eliot Zigmund, and many others.
Martina sets the scene and introduces her cast of characters on the first third of the album as her liquid-mercury voice wends through the carnivalesque melody of “The Song for My Father,” a tribute to his passion for running a small dairy farm and the tireless labor it required. “I grew up extremely connected to nature,” she says. Through watching her father work on the farm day in and day out, Martina developed a deep understanding of what it means to be human as part of nature, not just surrounded by nature. “My father is a philosopher who lives always lives in the moment. He is an optimist who knows that after a heavy storm destroys all of his harvest, spring always comes back. He was so incredibly passionate about his profession that it seemed much more than ‘just a job,’ but rather a higher calling.”
Opening with the metallic sound of cowbells, the multi-part “Mother Mary” traces Martina’s spiritual journey from the staunch Catholic faith of her youth to what she describes as her liberation from religious belief. Her lyrics are intended as a letter for the holy Mother Mary. The song references traditional Swiss yodeling and builds to a glorious Beatles-ish coda. “Four Siblings” celebrates her two sisters and one younger brother with all the details of a Broadway show opener, offering a telling anecdote about each of her siblings with a longing and loving chorus about the physical distance between them.
Her arrangement of “Heaven” from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert reimagines the languid ballad to evoke a bucolic past rather than a promised destination. The moving “Gone Tree” documents Martina’s connection to the apple tree that her parents planted when she was born as they did for each of their children. In 2018, her parents had to stop farming and the tree had to be taken down for the renovation of the farmhouse and the new family to move in. This is a composition that moves Martina deeply as she talks about the connection between herself and her tree, and as the soul sings in the background of her solo: “I haven’t forgotten about you.” The album closes with the elegiac “Narcissus,” a reprise of a piece on Martina’s critically acclaimed album No White Shoes that garnered a four-star review in DownBeat.
The entire album celebrates the idyllic life Martina once knew on the family farm. “We helped out when the fields were full of hay and the gray clouds over Mount Pilatus threatened, but my parents did all the hard work. They got a subsidy from the state just to be above poverty. It was 24/7 non-stop. There were always cows waiting to be milked.”
Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, Martina discovered her passion for singing as a child while yodeling with her family’s traditional Swiss group. Drawn to African-American music, she studied at the Jazz School in Lucerne for several years, all the while saving money to get to the music’s source in the United States. Arriving at Berklee College of Music in 2008, she thrived in Boston, performing and collaborating with stars like Meshell Ndegeocello, Jack DeJohnette and Angelique Kidjo. While in Boston she also earned her master’s degree from New England Conservatory. She has recorded with veteran drummer J.R. Robinson and performed at the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival with guitarist Lee Ritenour’s band as a semi-finalist in the Shure Voice Competition.
In 2010, Martina released a critically hailed EP, Curiosity, which included her original song “Ain’t Nobody,” a finalist in the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards. She’s contributed to more than a dozen recordings and released a series of EPs and albums, including Steve Bailey’s album Caroline, which featured Martina alongside legends like Ron Carter, Mike Stern, Anthony Jackson, Ian Anderson, Dennis Chambers, Howard Lewy, Bakithi Kumalo, Becca Stevens, Victor Wooten and the legendary Willie Nelson.
After 13 years in Boston, she relocated to Amsterdam in the fall of 2021. At the same time she was honored by her hometown, Horw, with the arts and culture award from the city’s arts and culture commission. She also received the Diplôme de Médaille de Vermeil from the lauréats Arts-Sciences-Lettres in Paris. The changes wrought by the pandemic have led to new musical directions for Martina, who’s already recorded her next album, STATES. The title refers both to the United States of America and to a state of mind or state of being.
Before moving so boldly forward, Martina first had to confront her past. Getting too old to keep up the farm, her parents had to eventually give up the land and move on. The state wanted to sell the land and either build a golf club or amusement park on it, “but neighbors collected signatures to keep it going as farmland for the community, and my parents won,” Martina says. “Once my parents retired and left, another family with three girls and one boy moved in and they are keeping the farm up to this day. The cycle continues as it does so often with nature.” Maybe she can’t go home again, but Martina can visit Grämlis, a place that will always live on in her extraordinary music.