Duoing it Up: Billy Martin and Wil Blades Discuss Their Tour
photography by Sam Balling
Showing up less than an hour before their set, Billy Martin- of Medeski Martin and Wood fame, and Wil Blades- of Amendola vs Blades, set up Wil’s massive organ and Billy’s tight drum kit. They leap into their half-improvised first set. It’s not the long, drawn out sound check some fans are stuck sitting through. It’s all music.
The duo are part of this contemporary jazz movement, one that holds true to the spirit of jazz but allows for newer spins on sounds, finding modern grooves, and basically figuring out how to entertain the modern day audience.
With the release of Shimmy (also on vinyl), the duo have embarked on a third leg of a tour, and from the look and sound of things, just having a really solid, good time.
Between sets, Billy, Wil, and I sit down to talk about how this all came together. They are incredibly relaxed backstage- maybe as if they’ve played a few gigs before… And still, they are going bare bones and all about the music. At one point, Billy says, “Someone wanted our CD and asked where the merch guy was. I was like, ‘We don’t have a merch table!’” All in good fun.
Wil, what’s that instrument you’re playing with the foot pedals?
Wil Blades: It’s a Hammond B3. With foot pedals.
Billy Martin: That’s the real Hammond B3. That’s the way it’s really done.
Wil: Jimmy Smith and all those old organ players, that’s how they played it.
Billy: It’s a portable church organ, right?
Wil: Somewhat portable. [Laughs]
Billy: No, but like something you’d see in a church. With bass pedals.
Wil: It was meant to replicate the pipe organ, so it’s got the foot pedals the same as the pipe organ. But people sell them without the pedals.
Billy: Especially for rock bands.
How long have you been playing the organ?
Wil: I’ve been playing about 12 years.
Billy: What you should know about him is he played drums first, guitar, and then organ. That’s important; he’s primarily self-taught.
You met two years ago?
Billy: I was doing this educational drum…well, I don’t like to call it a “drum clinic” because I feel like that’s too serious… but a master class. And Leslie DaHaven is someone that works with Stanton Moore, for his drum stuff, so Leslie booked this for me down the west coast, and she said, “When you’re in San Francisco and have the night off, you should really do a gig, get some extra pocket money, and I really like this guy, Wil Blades. Have you heard of him?” I said, “No. But okay, I’ll trust you.” I show up and we met.
Wil: I actually first met you at your clinic- Sorry! You’re, ah workshop. [Laughs]
Billy: We really got to know each other on the stage. We just improvised, ‘cuz that’s sort of my thing, if we can play on the spot. That’s our conversation.
It seems like you trust each other a lot.
Billy: That’s how I work it out. If we can do it in front of an audience, we can handle this. [Laughs] And then I was doing a string of gigs at the New Orleans Jazz Festival last year and Wil was down there also, so we booked a gig, and that was very special. There was something about it. We connected. The place was packed; we were moving people in more ways than one.
Wil: Will sat in, Marco Benevento sat it…