Terrace Martin Talks New Jazz Supergroup, Producing for Herbie Hancock

Hear a track from the upcoming debut by Kendrick Lamar collaborator's diverse L.A. collective the Pollyseeds

Terrace Martin, a saxophonist/producer who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock, tells us what inspired his new band the Pollyseeds. Credit: Timothy Norris/Getty

Saxophonist Terrace Martin plays jazz, though even listeners who don't follow the genre closely have likely sampled his work. A producer on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, the L.A. artist also worked on "Loyalty," from Lamar's most recent LP, Damn. And over the course of his career, Martin has produced for Snoop Dogg, and worked with legendary improvisers from Billy Higgins to Herbie Hancock. After last year's Velvet Portraits, the saxist's jazz-fusion-oriented solo debut, Martin's Sounds of Crenshaw label is back with his latest collaborative group, the Pollyseeds.

Including vocalists like Rose Gold and Chachi (also known as the MC Problem), and star instrumentalists like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, the Pollyseeds' upcoming debut – The Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1, out July 14th – builds on the summery vibes of Velvet Portraits, while adding new moods and textures to the mix. Rolling Stone spoke with an enthusiastic Martin over the phone about his goals for the group, and how he sees jazz's current West Coast movement linking up with other traditions.

What's behind the name of this new group, the Pollyseeds?
I said to myself: "What represents unity? What represents peace?" I love the Seventies, because the Seventies was when it was about making love, and smoking weed, doing LSD and lots of other cool shit. And also: "What represents California?" And even more than that, "What represents where I come from, the Crenshaw district of South Central Los Angeles?" And I thought about flowers, because of the Seventies. And flowers brought peace. Everybody loves flowers! Then I thought about sunflowers – just the sun, out in California – and I thought of polly seeds, because that's just what we eat in the hood. That's a hood delicacy. A polly seed is like a motherfucking ... the most expensive shrimps, whatever, in France? It's a polly seed in the hood.

I don't care what you are. If you're from the hood, you probably eat polly seeds. So I was trying to think of something that would bring all of us together, but still keep it hood. … We are all together, We are all one one body – like Voltron. That's the whole concept of the Pollyseeds right there. It's like love, sisterhood, brotherhood, togetherness – like we don't discriminate on anything. If you know how to love, you a Pollyseed. Like, you probably a Pollyseed! Everybody can be a Pollyseed. This album is not ours. It's [for] everybody pushing the peace line, that's pushing love.

That's an admirably generous line to take!
Well, just recently I've been studying the L.A. riots. And I was looking at how so much hatred, from all ends, was going on. … But I love [that line] from Herbie Hancock, that you can find beauty in every problem – so even throughout all that hate, still there rose beauty, unity, between the black and the Mexican communities in Los Angeles. And that had been an ongoing war forever. That was one of the first times, people in the ghetto, we all was like: "Wait a minute, why we fighting each other? We should be fighting these other motherfuckers? But really, we don't need to be fighting nobody. We need to just be getting our shit together, all of us, and learning how to coexist. And just all fight hate." Know what I'm saying? That was a big inspiration for the Pollyseed thing, too. I'm just sick of human beings fighting.

How did all of that filter down into the composition and production for The Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1? How was that process different from putting together Velvet Portraits?
Velvet Portraits was, like, a project based on some of my personal emotions. So first of all, my approach to this record, the Polyseeds album, was I wanted to produce an album of a bunch of different people's experiences, and with different people in showcase. Everybody that I believe in, like Rose Gold, Chachi … and so on. I wanted to do an album and ask them what they were going through, and write songs about what they were gong through, instead of what I was going through. Really just sit back and be the backbone, be the producer and make a lot of their visions come to fruition.

How long have you wanted to organize your own band?
I started the idea of a band like 10, 12 years ago. But by me playing in so many different bands, in New York and L.A., and just touring, I never had a chance to refocus on my own sound, as far as a band is concerned, until I stopped going on tour with everybody. I said: I'm gonna stay home, and get a core of guys – being producers as well as musicians – and start a sound. Brandon Owens is a Pollyseed, Trevor Lawrence Jr. – who works with Dr. Dre and everybody else – he's a Pollyseed, and he is a producer and touring drummer. So we all kind of came up together. When I started doing my own scores of my own music, I loved the sound of the band. And I felt like this band was way bigger than just Terrace Martin's band ... you know, fuck that!

What new strategies did everyone bring to the table?
They all brought different things, Wyann Vaughn: Her mother is the queen, Wanda Vaughn, of the famous group the Emotions. And her father is Wayne Vaughn, a producer – he's the guy that produced "Let's Groove" with Earth, Wind & Fire. A lot of Earth, Wind & Fire hits. She grew up under Stevie Wonder and Maurice White and all these classic soulful singers. So she brings this expertise to the table. She is one of the teachers of our crew.

Rose Gold brought sassy. Strong, speaking from the heart, of the woman-have-to-do-it-alone-out-here … The woman that encourages other women. The woman that understands struggle. the woman that understands beauty. She brought to the Pollyseeds a sense of direct, harsh honesty. She brought the gangster shit to the crew. But with a delicate soft touch.

You get a guy like Chachi? He also goes by the name of Problem, a well-known songwriter in the L.A. area, for Snoop Dogg. He's also an artist who's sold tons of records on his own. But as Chachi, for this record, he brings the fly gentlemen: Open the door for your lady and his lady at the same time, you feel me? … And Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. It's a lot of us on this album!

The advance credits for the album don't list anyone on saxophone for the song "Funny How Time Flies," which also features Robert Glasper. But that's you, right?
Yeah, yeah! "Funny How Time Flies" is really the only song featuring me. I just wanted really to get into it with Robert, and talk about different things in life. … You don't understand how valuable time is, in your teens and in your twenties, because you're just living for that hour, today. I've made – I don't want to say so many mistakes, but I'll say I made a lot of left turns in my life. In my early youth, you know, getting in trouble, lightweight, with the law. With being misunderstood and then making left turns.

I didn't want to get nobody to sing lead … because we just needed the hook. The hook spoke to us; we could cover ground that we were standing on, at that particular time. You can take it how you wanna take it – but to Pollyseeds, to me and Robert Glasper – "Funny How Time Flies" is really a fucking life lesson. You can't have nobody tell you [something]. To really understand an experience, you gotta live through it.

How long have you known Glasper?
I'ma tell you how Glasper ties in to this whole Sound of Crenshaw, this whole West Coast movement. … Glasper was one of my personal friends that I met when I was 15, at a jazz camp that I didn't really want to go to. It was over the summer. My mom made me go to the jazz camp, and that was the age when I wasn't sure if I was gonna be a full time gangbanger … or if I was gonna be a musician.

The first day Glasper met me, we was in Vail, Colorado. He'll tell you, I had, like, a little aggressive thing. But he was the first young musician in my age group, that I seen, that was himself. And I was actually more like him than what I did think I was! Because in L.A. at that time, if you wasn't into a certain thing, you wasn't with the in crowd. And when you're a young black man, where I come from, being with the in crowd is an important thing. Because you wanna be accepted so much, because the world don't accept you. So you want your peers to accept you.

At that particular time in my life, the hood was accepting me. And Glasper was the first one in my life to let me know: "Nah, the hood love you, but music will take care of you, and love you forever." … He's been my friend throughout my whole career, and one of my teachers. A lot of my harmony comes from Robert Glasper – when I was 16, practicing two and three hours on the phone with him. A lot of the things that I shaped Snoop Dogg records with comes from the teachings of Robert Glasper. You know, my mixtapes to all the way to To Pimp a Butterfly.

What did Glasper teach you about harmony?
He was one of the first ones to open me up to just different ways: "We don't always have to play a turnaround chord. We don't always even have to cover that chord." When i was younger, I tried to play … all these notes. And he's the one that slowed me down, said, "Nah, why don't you think of something melodic?" … He just taught me different skills, and different ways of moving through those chords. I was just so busy trying to sound like Charlie Parker, at a certain age. So Glasper just let me know of the other shit out there.

When you're both playing together, on "Funny How Time Flies," you sound inspired. Your tone is a little harsher that what we heard on Velvet Portraits, even though it's still refined. It reminds me of what you said about Rose Gold's work on the record: gangster shit, but with a delicate touch.
All I could do was think about my life! Getting in trouble with the police, young. To me having a kid at 16. To me wanting to gangbang, but then me having a great mother. ... So it put me back in a thing where I couldn't afford to play my horn all pretty and all this other shit. … Because I wasn't growing up in a smooth lifestyle.

Since you brought up the "smooth": Do you think the discussion around so-called "smooth jazz" has changed at all, in recent years? Are people feeling it differently than they did, maybe, say a decade ago?
I don't even know what makes smooth jazz, to be honest. … When I was staying with [trumpeter] Clark Terry, and I asked him about certain musicians that we all love, in the Fifties and Sixties – he referred to them as playing smooth jazz. I'm not going to say they names. But I spent real time with Clark Terry. When he referred to some saxophone cats and piano cats, he's like: "Oh, yeah, yeah: They play that smooth stuff." So when it comes to smooth jazz, we all got different pictures.

How did you link up with Terry?
Quincy [Jones] flew me and Snoop out there for about a month. … I got a chance to spend days and days recording Snoop and Clark Terry on songs. Because Quincy had an idea where he wanted to record Terry with some modern people. And he called Snoop, Snoop called me, and he put us all together. I was going out there a couple times. ...

Did any of those sessions ever come out?
Well, that's why I'm mentioning it in this interview. Hopefully it presses the right buttons, So you can help me out, you feel me?

You can put all those names, bold if you want to. Because I want everybody to hurry up and let me figure out this record – thank you.

I know you've also been recording with Herbie Hancock. How's that going?
Actually I'm seeing Herbie tonight at seven o'clock. We're in the middle of his album. I'mma say it right now: me, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Kamasi Washington. I rounded up all the guys together, just so we can give Herbie Hancock the best possible record we can give him. That's my job as his little homeboy, to make sure he's all right. This shit is some gangster shit. This shit I'm doing with Herbie? This shit ain't no motherfucking suit-and-tie, oh-my-god-is-it-jazz – nah. This shit feel like N.W.A, just with positivity, just with saying love instead of saying "bitch."

You're gonna have to convince him to guest with the Pollyseeds.
First of all: Herbie is the Superior Pollyseed. Herbie is the Pollyseed!

Can't let you go without asking about Damn. You helped produce "Loyalty." How was that experience?
Man, you know, with Kendrick – he's a visionary. He has a vibe; he'll tell you what he likes, you know. He's open to being exposed to new things. … He tried it, and he was doin' it!