Fred Martin & The Levite Camp
“Some bridges are falling down/Some bridges are still around.”
Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne wrote the first half of this couplet to describe the erosion of support and opportunity for the underprivileged in America’s inner cites. The second part was inspired by the tireless efforts of Los Angeles music teacher, gospel-music expert and local treasure Fred Martin, who uses the power of song to offer his students a bridge to hope.
Martin selected his most gifted protégés (fronted by stellar lead vocalists Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills) – to form the Levite Camp, a fiercely dedicated group named for one of the twelve tribes of Israel—the musician priests who were allowed to dwell in the temple. They’ve backed up Browne, Ray Charles and the Neville Brothers, among others, on concert stages, Grammy performances and studio recordings including performing at a MusiCares tribute to Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson.
Now, in collaboration with Jackson Browne, Fred Martin & The Levite Camp have released their stunning debut album, Some Bridges. Six of the album’s 10 tracks were written by Browne, who also provided lead vocals on two cuts and co-produced with Martin.
True to its title, the album is a bridge between gospel and secular pop, blues, jazz, soul and rock. Spiritual and deeply humane, its songs are rooted in faith, compassion and dignity. Embracing issues both domestic and foreign (such as on Browne’s “World In Motion,” and “Lives in the Balance” to which Martin has added a powerful and soul-searching last verse), celebrating the power of truth and dedication to social change (“About My Imagination”) and hearing your own conscience (“The Next Voice You Hear”), Some Bridges is a fiery testimonial to raising the voice and the consciousness.
Guests on the album include legendary trumpeter Hugh Masakela on “The Next Voice You Hear”; esteemed bluesman Keb’ Mo’, who joins a daring fusion of Robert Johnson’s definitive blues “Crossroads” with the gospel standard “Until I Found the Lord”; and L.A.’s Grammy-winning, genre-blending alternative groove collective, Ozomatli, who lend their funky chops an activist stature to “Lives in the Balance.”
In addition to vocals, Browne contributed guitar on several tracks; Martin played piano and organ. Also among the album’s gifted roster of players are percussionist Luis Conte, bassists Kevin McCormick and Alex Al, John Bilezikjian on the Oud, Neil Seigle on the Ney and guitarist Mark Goldenberg. Sheven Morris, twin brother to Chavonne Morris, plays drums on the entire CD.
Martin and Browne have been friends for years, since Martin’s high school choir backed up Browne at benefit performances in the early ’90s. The singer-songwriter offhandedly floated the idea of an album two years ago, and Martin threw himself into developing the project. Indeed, he’d secured the interest of Concord Records before the album was finished being recorded.
These achievements are part of Martin’s relentless determination. The Compton native, one of nine siblings, grew up in the ’70s; keenly aware of the escalating violence and drugs in his community, he sought another path. He learned music on his own, devouring books on composition and theory and becoming a church organist. Martin cites his parents for raising him in church, giving him his foundation and a strong faith in God which ultimately saved his life. He also credits after-school programs sponsored by the Department of Parks and Recreation with keeping him off the streets and showing him a better way.
After graduating from high school, Martin taught at Lynwood High; he was later hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District for his musical expertise. He went on to teach music at Hamilton High and other South Los Angeles schools, always believing that music – and gospel in particular – could be a key to rescuing city kids from the perils that encircled them. It was in this role that Browne refers to his work as a precious surviving “bridge” of the social landscape. In 2002 Martin founded the Urban Entertainment Institute a nonprofit designed to teach students music, dance and multiple aspects of the music business.
“These were kids hanging out on the streets because they had nowhere to go, nothing to do,” Martin says of his young charges, “and those are the kids who end up getting shot and killed. The kids in the program are not hanging out, and in helping them develop these skills, we’re saving their lives. We’re giving them a purpose and building up their self-esteem and self-respect. We’re exposing them to a world they didn’t know exists.”
His various choirs performed with superstars like Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, at events such as the Independent Spirit Awards and Oscar after parties, in the film Under Siege II, on the series Mad TV and elsewhere. Martin’s group dominated the House of Blues’ celebrated gospel brunch for four years straight. Graduates of his program are regularly approached to sing with, play for, produce or otherwise assist top industry acts.
The institute has grown to national recognition and Martin plans to duplicate its success across the country.
Martin’s comprehensive instruction includes everything from music theory to the historical evolution of African-American song. And it’s clear from Some Bridges that these lessons have not been lost on his pupils. Indeed, the album frequently brings divergent musical traditions together. On “World in Motion,” for example, the Levite choir offers a bit of Allen Toussaint’s, “Yes We Can Can” (popularized in the ’70s by the Pointer Sisters) as a stirring culmination to Browne’s call for social justice. Elsewhere, jazz runs intertwine with funk shuffles, and delicate flute filigrees dance around scorching rock guitar.
But it’s Martin’s take on “Crossroads”—Robert Johnson’s seminal blues song, best known as a hit by Cream—that truly showcases his barrier-smashing ambition. Beginning with the slinky bottleneck guitar of Keb’ Mo’, the track switches masterfully between Robert Johnson’s signature 12-bar blues and the spiritual “Until I Found the Lord,” escalating in intensity atop a roiling, organ-spiced groove until Johnson’s fateful meeting with Satan turns into a delirious revival meeting. “What we’re saying is when we get to the crossroad, rather than choosing the Devil, we’re going to fall to our knees and ask the Lord for the right direction,” Martin declares. “I’m going to pray and I’m going to cry and I’m going to moan until I find the right way to go.”
He adds that Thomas Dorsey, hailed as the father of gospel music, first brought the sounds of jazz and blues into the church – and ruffled some feathers in the process. “What’s ironic,” he points out, “is that his music is now considered traditional gospel, but church people absolutely wouldn’t accept it back then.”
But Martin is far less concerned with what people in the church will accept than what the community can accomplish. “God gave me the gift to work with young people and inspire kids to change their lives,” he reflects. “The greatest reward is having a former student walk back through the doors of the classroom with a degree, a good job and success in their lives, the kind of success that money can't buy.”
With the ever-evolving Levite Camp, as with his other efforts, Martin continues to serve as the kind of bridge celebrated in Jackson Browne’s song – not only “still around,” but standing firm and always ready to point the way to a better destination.
The Levite Camp: Singers Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, co-lead vocalists; singers Loren Turner, Creshinda Johnson, De'Ante Duckett and Nava Dennis and musicians Sheven Morris, Luke Bucket, David Brimer, Kevin Moore Jr. and Robert Lewis