Terrace Martin's Jazz Family

The saxophonist on his heartfelt new album and working with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock

Terrace Martin's latest album is a family affair. Last year, the Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist and producer headed to Omaha to recruit his father and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame member, Ernest "Curly" Martin, to drum on Velvet Portraits. They recorded about half of the record there before Terrace Martin headed to New York City, where his fiancée was living, and holed up in a hotel room that he converted into a temporary studio. The completed album oscillates between smooth jazz (“Think of You”) and R&B that doesn’t forget its gospel roots (“Patiently Waiting”), all while retaining a familial warmth.

Martin came to national prominence about a decade ago with a string of high-profile production credits for Snoop Dogg. Today, he's best known for playing saxophone on Kendrick Lamar's last two albums — together with bassist Thundercat and keyboardist Robert Glasper, he's a key architect of the jazz-infused sound of To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, and Kendrick shouted Martin out as such during his instantly memorable performance on The Colbert Report in December 2014. It was in between work on those projects that he found time to make Velvet Portraits. "I started getting ideas a couple of years ago — I would sing into my phone — and I started [the album]," he says. "But I was in the middle of doing To Pimp a Butterfly, so I had to not finish it. Toward the end of To Pimp a Butterfly, I started getting back into it."

MTV News chatted with Martin about Velvet Portraits, his current work with Herbie Hancock, and why he hopes to one day work with J. Cole.

You're in the middle of producing an album for Herbie Hancock right now — what's that been like?

Terrace Martin: He is one of the most valuable musical influencers of my life, since I can remember as a kid. It’s weird working with someone that you’ve admired for so long. He asked me to produce his record, but then you’re like, “What am I supposed to do? You’re the giant. You’re my superhero.” I’ve learned how to let the music come in, and I'm learning something that’s very vital: patience. In hip-hop, it sounds good for people to say “I produced 10 records a day!” Herbie Hancock doesn’t work like that. He believes in taking his time and getting it done properly, so the record could last forever. I’m learning to take my time. You want the records to stick, and you want them to feel good. I want to work with J. Cole — I see him, Herbie Hancock, and me in one room.

How do you see J. Cole fitting into that picture?

Martin: I look at all these guys like jazz musicians. I look at Kendrick like John Coltrane. J. Cole reminds me of Dexter Gordon. Gordon had a style of playing saxophone where he was very smooth, but very potent. Cole’s delivery is very smooth, but the words he says really stick to my heart. Just like Kendrick. Kendrick has a way of saying things that’s just like a laser. Cole has a way of saying things that will creep up on you. I feel J. Cole is important for the culture, he’s important for the movement of love and peace. He really is a superhero.

How did you end up recording Velvet Portraits in Omaha?

Martin: After I was working on the Kendrick album, I needed a break from Los Angeles. I just needed different scenery. Me and a couple of amazing other producers and musicians all flew down to Omaha, Nebraska, to meet my father. He’s one of my favorite drummers in the world. We all got a giant loft in downtown Omaha. We lived there and wrote songs every day and just ate good food and talked. Just lived life in Nebraska where it was clean, where it was quiet. I got a chance to think about life. One of the reasons I wanted to be with my father was because I almost lost him to pneumonia. It took that [situation] to remind me how great he was as a musician.

Had you spent a lot of time in Nebraska before that?

Martin: My father always lived in and out of Nebraska. He teaches and plays there, so I remember a lot of different summers and winters — going out there to Nebraska, spending time in Minneapolis, spending time in New York. Wherever he went, I always followed. There’s a lot of soulful cats in the Midwest, and Omaha was one of those places that when you go, you can just focus.

What about the rest of your family? Did they influence your direction on the album at all?

Martin: A lot of my melodies come from my mother — I remember a lot of the melodies she always sang in my ear as a kid. My mother always tells me a beautiful melody will outlive a solo. So my mother’s spirit is all through the album. Then, my children. I love my children. I love other musicians. We have these great musicians that all came together, and that’s what I hope the message of Velvet Portraits is: to be inspired by love to love each other to teach each other to not hate everybody. We just got to love and make it through this shit before Trump becomes president.

I hope that does not occur, though!

Martin: No, that’s what I’m saying. We want to make sure, if he does become president, we gon’ have to love each other a lot harder.

Did you have any advance notice that Kendrick was going to surprise the world with Untitled Unmastered last month?

Martin: I woke up to that on Twitter and I said, "Oh my god, Kendrick let the secrets out! He let our secrets out!" No, I’m playing. It was beautiful that he did that, man. It was beautiful that people got a chance to see a lot of the blueprint of where we were going to go and where we ended up going.

What got you going on the name Velvet Portraits?

Martin: I love portraits and I love velvet. I read that if an artist gave you a velvet portrait back in the day — like in Spain, before it got to America — that was one of the highest forms of flattery. This album is a reflection of what love is to me, and what caring is, and what soul is, and what beauty through the art is. I look at it like a portrait, and I wanted to put my portrait on velvet to present to the people something special. I'm saying, "I’m honored that people listen to my music. Thank you. This is a velvet portrait for you all.”

Latest News