There are many ways to celebrate the progressive-folk invention and improvising sorcery of the British singer-guitarist John Martyn, who died on January 29th at age 60: the moving, precocious detail of his playing on 1967’s London Conversation and 1968’s The Tumbler; Martyn’s growling despair and echo-laden folk-jazz fusion on the 1973 masterpieces Solid Air and Inside Out; the frank heartbreak in his melodies and smoky vocal performances on the 1980 divorce-songs album >Grace & Danger. Released shortly before his passing, the 2008 four-CD retrospective Ain’t No Saint: 40 Years of John Martyn (Island U.K.) is a peculiar overview: divided into two studio and two live discs, with more than half of the 61 tracks originally unreleased. The studio half of the set touches on every essential era, although the emphasis on rarities may flummox beginners. The version here of “Solid Air” — Martyn’s greatest song, written for his troubled friend Nick Drake — is not the perfect haunting from the original album but an early uncompelling sketch.
Yet there are revelations. The 10-minute instrumental outtake of “Small Hours,” from the 1977 album One World, is magnificent suspense: Martyn playing elegant soft-exhale phrases on electric guitar in deep reverb. And the Seventies concert recordings on Disc Three capture Martyn in his youthful, exploring prime (a stark acoustic extension of “Bless the Weather” from 1973, the spaced-jazz charge and effects-pedal mayhem of “Outside In” in 1975). Also from that era and recommended: On Air (T&M), a 1975 solo concert taped for German radio. Martyn opens with a randy Jelly Roll Morton number, plays “Solid Air” as naked goodbye (Drake died the previous year) and ends with an epic dance with his Echoplex in “I’d Rather Be the Devil,” Martyn’s adaptation of a Skip James blues, played with the fury of Jimi Hendrix, at a hellhound gait.