It’s a Thursday night in February and Martin is onstage at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice, leading his six-piece band through a jazzy set of originals and covers. Throughout the evening, guests drop by to jam, including the L.A. jazz scene’s reigning hero, Kamasi Washington, and Anna Wise, who reprises the vocal hook she contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls.”
A few days later, the song, which Martin co-wrote and co-produced, wins the Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
The following week, sitting at a Fender Rhodes piano at the Compound, Snoop Dogg’s lavish recording studios in Inglewood, Martin tries to remember the blur of the Grammy Awards. His work as a producer and songwriter on Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly earned him two Grammys, but as the saxophonist and co-orchestrator for the rapper’s politically charged performance that night (that was him playing sax in a jail cell), he had other things to worry about.
“I was never around to accept any Grammy,” Martin says, smiling shyly and pausing occasionally to plunk out a melody on the Rhodes. He’s here today doing some production work for Lalah Hathaway’s new album; later, rapper YG might drop by, too. “I stayed backstage with the band, getting ready for that show the whole time. I didn’t know I won till somebody said, ‘Man, congratulations!’”
Many contributors to To Pimp a Butterfly have gained wider recognition for their efforts, particularly Washington, bassist Thundercat and producers Flying Lotus and Sounwave. But Martin, who has known Lamar since “before he put out music,” was as crucial as anyone in shaping the acclaimed album’s distinctive fusion of soul, jazz, funk and hip-hop. He contributed keys and sax throughout the project’s development, and eventually got co-writing and/or co-production credits on seven of the album’s 16 tracks, including “How Much a Dollar Cost” (“Obama’s favorite song,” he proudly notes) and the singles “The Blacker the Berry,” “These Walls” and “King Kunta.”
"We wanted to make sure that they would like it in Compton,” he says of “King Kunta,” which was the first song they recorded that found its way onto the album. “We wanted to make sure when DJ Quik heard it, he felt good about it.”
The son of a jazz-trained studio musician, Curly Martin — who plays drums in Terrace’s band, and can still bang out a solo with youthful vigor — Martin grew up in Crenshaw and Inglewood surrounded by music. “I don’t know a house without instruments,” he says. As a child, he played everything from drums to guitar to piano, but remembers being drawn early to the sax. “I was always fascinated how shiny they were. And I used to love feeling the velvet in the case.”
He broke into music professionally at a young age, playing sax with Puff Daddy at the Soul Train Awards while still in his teens. He and Washington were later part of Snoop Dogg’s touring band. They, along with other To Pimp a Butterfly contributors like Thundercat and keyboardist Robert Glasper, are part of a younger generation of L.A.-based musicians who can move fluidly between the worlds of jazz and hip-hop, reinventing both in the process.
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“I never saw it as two different things,” Martin says of the two styles of music for which he’s best known. “I grew up in a house where everything was just good or bad music. Like to everybody else, To Pimp a Butterfly is this fusion of this, that, that, that. To me, it just sounds like my living room.”