Sounds Local: ‘Heart Centered Kirtan’ captures the essence of late Pioneer Valley musician

  • Libby Volckening, left, collaborated with the late Jeff Martell, right, on “Heart Centered Kirtan.” Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center will be celebrating the release of the album with a show on Saturday at 7 p.m. Contributed Photo


For The Recorder
Thursday, November 02, 2017

I remember the last time I spoke with Jeff Martell. It was in December of 2015, and he approached me at a Christmas party that was being hosted by Signature Sounds to talk about a new record he was working on. He stressed that it was different from his previous albums, and that it was a duo project called “Heart Centered Kirtan.” He thought I might like to write something about it in my column.

Jeff was so enthusiastic and passionate about this project, so I was interested in learning more. Besides, I always enjoyed talking to Jeff, having gotten to know him through his work as a local singer-songwriter and as the head of grounds and operations at the Green River Festival. We said “goodbye” that night with promises to connect in the New Year.

Sadly, that didn’t happen. Jeff Martell was killed in an automobile accident in January of 2016, but the album he had mentioned to me that night has lived on.

Libby Volckening, a yoga instructor from Northfield, who was his partner in “Heart Centered Kirtan,” was devastated by his loss. She managed to forge on and, spurred by his memory and aided by a group of talented musicians and producer Garrett Sawyer from Northfire Recordings, was able to complete the project that meant so much to both her and Martell.

Volckening will celebrate the release of “Heart Centered Kirtan” with a show at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield on Saturday at 7 p.m. For this show, Volckening will be joined by some of the musicians who performed on the album: James Robinson on guitar and vocals, Garrett Sawyer on bass, Dave Noonan on drums and Melissa Stevens on vocals. The event will also feature special guests Brian DiMartino on electric guitar and Andy Soles on harmonica.

Turning her back on this project was never an option for Volckening,

“At the time Jeff died, he was one of my best friends,” said Volckening, who was clearly fighting back the tears as she spoke. “We texted all the time. Jeff died on a Friday night. I knew he had a gig that night and I had sent him a text and never heard back.”

The following Saturday morning, she received the news of his death. The duo had plans to record that weekend, and she called Sawyer and talked about the record and her desire to move forward with it.

“It felt like I was drowning and if I didn’t keep going with the CD, the grief would overwhelm me,” said Volckening, who provides vocals and plays harmonium on the album.

“It was a way for me to have a reason to get up in the morning,” she said.

Martell, who lived in Northampton at the time of his death, was a well-established Pioneer Valley musician when his girlfriend, Jessica Lapinski, first introduced him to Kirtan — a devotional type of call and response singing. Being that Kirtan is rooted in India, it is often sung in Sanskrit.

After attending his first Kirtan event, Martell was hooked.

“Jeff was a serious spiritual seeker,” said Volckening. “Being a musician, he was just pulled in.”

Martell formed Heart Centered Kirtan in 2013. The project blends Sanskrit hymns, prayers and inspirational text from ancient India with original rock, blues and reggae styles. It’s very contemporary-sounding music and some of it is downright catchy. You don’t have to know Sanskrit to appreciate the hypnotic beauty of the words.

One day, Martell called Volckening’s yoga studio, Green River Yoga and Movement in Greenfield, and asked if he could play Kirtan there. She didn’t know Martell, but she agreed and he then began playing Kirtan concerts there regularly.

“I had been attending the (concerts) and was like, ‘I could do the response singing,’” recalled Volckening, when she learned that Martell’s Kirtan singing partner had left. “I had been in a choir and played piano and organ. He said ‘OK,’ and we didn’t even get to rehearse before I found myself singing with a microphone in my face for the first time.”

This was the beginning of a fruitful partnership that led Volckening on a path that she continues with today. It was her idea to make the record, and she wanted an acquaintance of hers, Garrett Sawyer (Gaslight Tinkers), to produce it. The duo was at the early stages of recording when Martell died, but fortunately they had recorded all of his vocal parts. Sawyer proved to be an emotional and musical anchor for seeing the project through.

“I thank the universe for Garrett,” Volckening said. “He was right there to catch me, and he was solid and steady and creative and fun. And, he let me cry when I needed to.”

Volckening referred to Sawyer and all the musicians and others who helped with “Heart Centered Kirtan” as her life boat.

“It would take all day to tell you all the good people who supported this project and were good friends to me, extending their thoughts of healing and prayers to this,” she said. “They kept me afloat.”

The 10 tracks on the completed album are a testament to Martell’s memory and the work that he and Volckening did together. Listeners who aren’t familiar with Kirtan will be surprised at how accessible this music is, as many of the tracks have a strong folk-rock vibe. The songs, one of which Martell’s slightly raspy voice switches off with Volckening’s sweet clear one, makes for some magical listening.

“Heart Centered Kirtan” succeeds in capturing the essence of Jeff Martell, so celebrate his memory and this music at Hawks & Reed on Saturday night. Admission is $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at: www.hawksandreed.com. CDs will be sold at the show, with 10 percent of earnings from each disc to go to a yet-to-be-determined charity.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com