How a Chance NYC Subway Run-In Led to the 'Magic Gumbo' of John the Martyr

Patrick Dunford
John The Martyr

Check out the Harlem-meets-NOLA vibe of "Time," premiering here.

Harlem meets New Orleans with undeniably soulful results on John The Martyr's self-titled debut album -- whose video for the track "Time" is premiering exclusively below.

The 10-member troupe certainly has a unique story. It's fronted by 71-year-old New York singer Bill Hudson, who boasts a deep R&B and doo-wop pedigree. His chief collaborators are young NOLA players Kyle Ridley, Dustin DiSalvo and Chris Hines, who had moved north to make music in the melting pot. And melt they have, with a band that also includes a German saxophonist (Martin Seller), a Japanese violinist (Kiho Yutaka) and players from around North America. "I think the task was to not try to define, but let’s embrace whatever it sounds like without the label. That's the magic," Hudson tells Billboard. "It's kind of a gumbo -- just a bunch of different ingredients stirred together and the fruition of what we all sound like when it does."

JTM began during June of 2015, when Ridley heard Hudson singing with a doo-wop group in a Manhattan subway. The guitarist initially "wanted to capture their voice, somehow" but soon honed-in on Hudson in particular. "When I heard Bill sing lead, that was a whole other level," Ridley recalls. "When I heard Bill sing lead on some lyrics I wrote, I thought, 'That sounds really cool'." After a subsequent show at the Mercury Lounge with an early version of the band, "we never looked back. I don't think I ever could have predicted this set-up, or this band. If I could've planned it, I probably would have screwed it up.

"It's gone through a lot of iterations," Ridley adds, "but it's finally gotten to the point where it's a real family, a great hang. It's surprising to see so many people from different countries, different backgrounds and different styles of music being able to come together around Bill's voice and not only find a balance, musically, but be able to just have a great time -- and laugh our faces off together."

JTM -- named after an old church parish on New York's Upper East Side where Ridley once stored equipment -- has been building buzz the past few years, culminating in rave reviews at this year's South By Southwest. Ridley and Hudson consider the 11-track John The Martyr album (which will be released on vinyl for Record Store Day, April 13, and digitally on June 14) to be something of a calling card showcasing a variety of classic soul influences with an emphasis on the smooth in tracks such as "Brighter Day" and "Channeled," along with a bit of slinky muscle on "Time" (coming out as a single April 3). Plus, there's the anthemic rock dynamics of "Fury," the pulsing drive on "Working Man" and the the fluid interchange of JTM's instrumental corps on "Schmoopie."

Most exciting to Ridley, however, is what's to come. "I wrote probably six or seven of the songs on the album before I met Bill...or had the band together," he says. "Now I feel like with the whole band, together, we have all these people who are so talented we're figuring out how to harness it all, really. Other people have songs and there's things that can come from jam sessions. So if anybody digs the first album that's awesome, but wait 'til there's more than one or two people working on it. That's where it'll get exciting."

And Hudson, an unapologetic lifer with no regrets, is happy to be along for the ride. "This is the furthest point I've reached in the music," he says. "When you're chasing your passion, you don't know where it's gonna lead you. A lot of people who don't get fruition leave after a few years. I always had a secular job but always kept that fervor for my music. Four years ago I met a couple of kids, and now here we are. A lot of things unfold that are unforeseen. I don't know what the next step is going to be or what it's going to lead to; That's just part of the mystery and the excitement that comes along with it."