MEL MARTIN PLAYS BENNY CARTER
Regular readers of the Saxophone Journal may recognize
Mel Martin's name from his frequent contributions to this magazine. An
articulate and knowledgeable writer, Martin demonstrates on this superb
recording that he can play as well as any saxophonist on the scene today.
He plays with a rich, gorgeous tone that stands out from the crowd. Mr.
Martin displays a dazzling technique and an awesome command of jazz harmony.
This is a recording that every jazz lover should go out and get today!
One of the most glaring inadequacies I find in many young jazz musicians
is their obvious ignorance of the playing of jazz musicians prior to the
1950s, Although the majority of jazz recordings have been made since 1950,
there are a lot of great recordings that were made during the 20s, 30s,
and 40s. One needs to dig a little to find them, but the search is definitely
worth tile effort. It's great to listen to your favorite contemporary
saxophonists, heaven knows there are certainly a lot of great players
on the scene. But if you really want to get the big picture you need to
go back and listen to the players who influenced and inspired them.
One of the great saxophonists who has influenced just about everyone is
Benny Carter. Eighty-eight years young when the cuts with him were recorded
(1994), Benny Carter's career spans the entire history of recorded jazz.
He is truly a jazz legend who continues to excite and inspire everyone
fortunate enough to hear him perform. In this CDs i-card, Met Martin says,
"I've learned a lot by playing beside him. I've learned what it's
like to phrase, to bend tones, to use vibrato, to play with a certain
pitch and tonal consistency, and certain articulations, and he's played
through all the styles-swing, Bebop, cool, west coast but he's still instantly
In addition to being a great saxophonist, as well as a trumpeter, Benny
Carter is a very important composer. All of the tunes on this recording
are Benny Carter compositions: A Kiss From You, Hello, Zanzibar,When
Lights Are Low, Summer Serenade, Souvenir, Another Time, Another Place,
Wonderland, and Only Trust Your Heart. His tunes are consistently
beautiful. They are deceptively simple sounding, but each one has a moment
of magic where the song takes a direction that you can't hear coming.
Musicians, and not just jazz musicians, have been attracted to his compositions
for many decades, and this recording shows why this is so.
Benny Carter plays on three selections (Hello, Zanzibar,
andOnly Trust Your Heart), which were recorded live at Yoshi's
Nitespot in Oakland, California. They feature Roger Kellaway on piano,
Jeff Chambers on bass, and Harold Jones on drums. The other cuts were
recorded at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios in Englewood Cliffs,
New Jersey. This "east coast" rhythm section features Kenny
Baron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. Both units
perform flawlessly and make many contributions to this superb recording.
Very few saxophonists ever get to play with even one rhythm section of
this caliber. On this recording Mel Martin gets to play with two incredible
rhythm sections. Life just isn't fair!
Mel Martin plays tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and
flute on this recording. His approach to playing each of these instruments
is unique; he doesn't sound like anyone else. This is but one reason that
I recommend this recording to all jazz lovers. It features world-class
jazz musicians playing great tunes written by, with several of them performed
by, a true jazz legend. Who could ask for anything more?
Martin and Bebop and Beyond
FRIENDS AND MENTORS -
Quixotic Records, 5006. www.me1martin.com. P.O. Box 2758, Novato,
CA 94948-1114. Phone: (415) 892-5911. Fax: (415) 893-1114. Song
for M.; Music Is (Benny Carter); Whizbang; For Duke and Mingus;
Riding with C; In Walked Diz; Longhorn; From Pops to Bop; Hub-Trane.
Mel Martin, tenor and soprano saxophone; Bobby Watson, alto sax.
Jack Walrath, trumpet. Mike Longo, piano. George Cables, piano. Ray
Drummond, bass. Winard Harper, drums. Billy Hart, drums.
By Marco Pignataro
From the eclectic mind of
the distinguished saxophonist Mel Martin, Bebop and Beyond's latest
recording stands strong as one of Mel's finest contributions to contemporary
jazz. After several acclaimed tribute albums to jazz icons such as
Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter and Thelonious Monk, the 58-year young
Bay Area band leader migrates east this time, to assemble the new line
up for his band Bebop and Beyond. With a stellar group of New York
jazz luminaries, Mel reorganizes his personal library with older and
newer material and records a burning CD of his own compositions. This
album, entitled, Friends and Mentors, has been playing in my CD player for the last four
weeks and I can still find something new that I like about it every
time I listen to it. It is just that good. I should praise Mr. Martin's
intuition first, as his choice of musicians could not have been more
suitable for this project. In particular, the soloist voices of Bobby
Watson, on alto sax, and Jack Walrath, on trumpet, seem to perfectly
fit Mel's own tenor and soprano sax, by offering alternate directions
which masterfully complement his conception. The contrast between Mel's
earthy delivery, Watson's liquid sound and phrasing and Walrath's explosive
impetuosity suggests, as a musical analogy, the perfect balance of
the natural elements of earth, water and fire. The rhythmic section
brings the typical New York sound and intensity of the best hard bop/post
bop "big-timers league," with the fabulous George Cables and Mike Longo
alternating on piano, Billy Hart and Winard Harper on drums, and the
rock solid Ray Drummond on bass. These musicians represent modern jazz
at its core.
Martin's astute musicianship
extends way beyond his instrumental ease; in fact, far from being a
platform for indulgent soloists' showcase, Friends and Mentors features a handful of composition gems, arranged to
perfection almost as a manual for the modern arranger. Martin doesn't
spare any device from his book, enriching every tune with through-composed
melodies, interludes, extended sections, shout choruses and a crafty
attention to every single little detail of dynamic, articulation and
group interaction. Check out a track like "Song for M" for instance.
Its urban, bouncing melody is shifted from the tenor to the alto saxophones
on the A sections and voiced for the three horns on the B section with
the harmony moving up in minor thirds and recapitulating on the last
A section after a clever whole tone root movement turn-around. The
tenor starts the first solo on a 16 bar transition section as the band
details a propulsive rhythmic background, which will recur after every
solo. The horns and piano take turns soloing over the form with an
impeccable gist, until an extended big band-like shout chorus engages
the band before the melody reappears. Similarly, the tune "Music Is," dedicated
to Benny Carter but loosely reminiscent of a Benny Golson like melody,
surprises the listener by dropping the rhythmic section soon after
the solos and delineating a tasty contrapuntal section between the
Generally speaking, the harmonies
of Mel's tunes are tailored after the compositional blueprints from
the finest tradition of modern jazz, ranging from hard bop to neo bop
reharmonization techniques, such as chromatic substitutions and the
use of tonal/modal interrelated textures. The whole sonority of the
group brings frequently to mind a group like the Jazz Messengers, but
radically revisited to a more contemporary taste. The songs "Whizbang," "Riding
with C" and "Longhorn" are a good example to this. "Whizbang's" melody
and arrangement in particular, seems inspired by the famous version
of "Nica's Dream" (with Hank Mobley on tenor), but with a
burning post/bop drive to it. Bobby Watson, himself a veteran of the
late Art Blakey group, takes the first solo and breezes over the changes
with his distinctively inside/outside floating approach. However, Mel
truly raises the blood pressure here, with a blasting saxophone break
into his solo, which he gradually develops with a maelstrom of interconnected
sequences and pulsating phrases of increasing tension. My other favorite
solo of Martin is on the song "Hub-Trane" where he is able
to reach an even greater intensity and drama, this time on his inspired
soprano sax. This angular tune lends itself to exploration and disquieting
delivery. Its harmonic "tessitura" intercalates a linear
vamping modality with disguised tonal cadences between sections, contrasting
bright/dark contours of emotional, brooding pathos. Gradually, the
trumpet, alto, soprano solos sequence builds up the momentum until
its climax gets so intense that you want to scream. Hart's drumming
is a poly-rhythmic explosion, allowing Martin and Watson's expressiveness
to reach its highest plateau.
Throughout the album, Mel's
edgy tenor sound is aggressive but not frantic and he purposely favors
the higher register of the instrument for his frequent acrobatic runs.
Yet, his approach doesn't come across as self-indulgently flashy because
his vocabulary is deeply rooted in the genuine jazz tradition of the
great masters of the saxophone. Then again, while the saxophonist evokes
to my ears various different influences, ranging from Johnny Griffin's
impetuosity to Wayne Shorter's introspection, his personality is strongly
defined and unique in many respects. Overall, Mel's energy is amazingly
showcased all across the album, so much so that you would think you
were listening to some fierce "young lion" of the instrument.
It is my feeling that this energy is the cohesive glue of the ensemble
as it spreads contagiously to every single member of it. Either way,
the rhythmic section swings hard and the soloists feed from each other's
drive and enthusiasm in every single tune. As a final semantical remark, "Bebop
and Beyond" it's a catchy name for this group but perhaps "Beyond
Bebop" would be more appropriate. Don't miss this one.