The performance opens with the words of poet Mary Oliver from her best-selling book A Thousand Mornings:

“I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.”

Marlow draws a chuckle from the audience, setting the scene for the launch of her debut album Medicine Man. She performs with Véronique Serret as concert master, who leads a string quartet and band featuring prominent musicians Ben Hauptmann on electric guitar, Hamish Stuart on drums, Clayton Doley on organ and keys, and Jonathan Zwartz on double bass.

Martha Marlow performing Medicine Man at The Great Club, Marrickville

Marlow comes from a musical family. Zwartz, who is her father, won the 2018 ARIA award for Best Jazz Album with Animarum. Marlow’s mother, Jane Lindsay, is a singer, while her grandfather Alex Lindsay is a former New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster, who played violin on St Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is clear that Marlow herself also has innate musical talent.

The pieces with Marlow as composer and string arrangements by Zwartz show a delicate understanding of classical traditions and are carefully played out so as not to overpower the vocal cadence and clever chording in her compositions. This allows the audience to pick up the versatility and use of open tuning in her works, resulting in broad polyphonic sounds, with the strings artfully nestled into the songs, giving the works a strength of sound without dominating the lyrics and vocals.

Alongside being a performer, Marlow is also a gifted landscape painter, and was a finalist in the 2020 Paddington Art Prize. Her lyrics are deeply evocative and inherently visual, not unlike a sketch of a landscape. Opening the show with All of My Days, the audience is introduced to the rising and falling of the strings infusing the song with a gentle beauty, allowing the lyrics to shine and offering the chance to taking in the visual tableau presented in the words.

In watching the performance, it is evident that there is a deep respect between Marlow and the ensemble, which comes across in cohesive and dynamic playing. Marlow is an understated performer and a gifted narrator whose music gives reason to pause and reflect on quiet introspection and the gentle power of being in tune with one’s interior life.

Her music speaks in metaphors and clearly draws influence from a wide range of literary greats ranging from renowned poets of the interior such as Emily Dickinson to Ted Hughes, who is considered a poet of the exterior but with a great sense of interior introspection, through to Homer’s The Odyssey from which the album’s title track Medicine Man drew influence.

The concert comprised nine works, mostly from the album; most songs were introduced with a literary reference framing the work and performance.

Ben Hauptmann’s solo in Rain Man was a performance highlight and captured the moody soundscape the piece was aiming to evoke, complemented by the skilful arrangement of the strings which were woven into the fabric of the work.

Martha Marlow performs at The Jazzlab, Melbourne 4 September and City Recital Hall, Sydney as part of the Singular Voices Series with a 17-piece chamber orchestra on 25 September

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