Grammy Award-winning instrumentalist and producer Terrace Martin started out on saxophone, but of late he is known best for his keyboard work with hip-hop and rap artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dog, and others. Martin’s latest solo album Velvet Portraits is up for a Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2017, and he is also co-producing the upcoming album by Herbie Hancock along with keyboardist—and January cover artist—Robert Glasper. Let’s take a closer look at some of the elements that make Martin’s music so compelling.
1 .Piano Effects
Ex. 1 is influenced by the piano part on the title track of Martin’s new album. The piano has interesting effects on it (including pitch bend), so in our example, I added some delay that I’ve synced to quarter notes so we get a little wave of sound in time after the chord plays. Our left-hand part has a gentle arpeggio of chord tones, usually containing a fifth and a seventh or third. The right-hand chords have some crunchy seconds, like the minimal Abmaj9 shape in bar 2. This example is in the C natural minor scale (C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C).
2 .Funky Keys
Ex. 2 is inspired by Martin’s funky keyboard riffs in his song “Valdez off Crenshaw.” Here’s we’re using a wahwah clav sound with a right-hand part that features a repetitive rhythmic figure with a grace note at the beginning of the phrase. The main harmonic motion here is the movement of the seventh of the sus4 chord to the third of the following 13th chord in the lowest voice of the right-hand part. (This is the movement of C to B in Bar 1). At the end of Bar 3, we have a little chromatic side-stepping borrowed from Tower of Power organist Chester Thompson. The left hand has a driving 16th-note pattern with lots of syncopation and a chromatic line that arrives on a root or third at just the right time. All of the notes, except for the chromatic embellishments in bars 1 and 3 are from the G Mixolydian mode (G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and in Bars 2 and 4 from the F Mixolydian mode (F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F).
3. All About That Bass
Martin gets funky on bass parts too, like the one on his tune “Turkey Taco.” Let’s create a bass part in a similar style in Ex. 3. Most of the interest in the sound here comes from the cutoff frequency opening and closing with the filter resonance set pretty high. When the filter gets over a certain threshold, a sweeping sound is created. In this exercise, I’m manipulating both the cutoff and res knobs. I also like to use ring modulation on Osc 2 of an analog synth to get wild overtones and distortion when trying to get a bass line with some sonic movement.
4. Mono Synths
Martin adds soulful synth fills on many of his tunes, like the one featured on his song “Oakland.” Let’s approximate his synth stylings in Ex. 4. Here we have a mono synth sound with the filter almost closed. You can also add a little portamento or LFO if you want to put a little expression in the line. All of the notes in this exercise come from the C Blues Scale (C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C). The highlight of this phrase is the gospel-influenced turn at the beginning of bar 2 that emphasizes the blue note, F#. Remember, with synth fills you just want little parts to highlight the melody, so keep it chill!
5. Drop 2 Strings
In Ex. 5, I am using the time-tested technique of Drop 2 to give some good spacing to my string chords, approximating the style of those arranged by acclaimed saxophonist Kamasi Washington on Martin’s version of the Kendrick Lamar track “Mortal Man.” In Drop 2, you take the second note from the top of a chord shape and move it to the bottom voice. Here we just have triads, so we simply move the middle note to the bottom. This is a great trick to get quick ensemble parts from piano chords for horns and strings. (When you have dense chords with quite a few notes, this is especially true.) You can also use the technique of Drop 3, which takes the third note from the top and puts it on the bottom.
“When writing your own tunes, try to experiment with different progressions of diatonic chords and keep all of the notes you play in that mode. As the voicings progress, hit a couple notes in the mode but outside the chord; fourths and tensions will naturally be created and make some interesting colors,” says keyboardist and composer Brian Charette, who won Downbeat magazine’s “Rising Star Organ” award and recently released the album Once & Future. He also has a new book out entitled 101 Hammond B-3 Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use. Find out more at briancharette.com.