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December 1992: Bobby Hutcherson, Mel Martin and Bobby Watson

Reprinted from Leblanc Bell - Winter 1994

By Michael Gudbaur

Contributing Editor

In accordance with current fashion, many jazz artists who have long been successful with drum machines, tried-and-true blues riffs and squeaky clean studio manipulation are now "rediscovering" their acoustic roots and clambering aboard the mainstream jazz gravy train (short as it may be), expecting to enjoy a helping of integrity along the way. Many get a disappointing ride. But veteran San Francisco Bay-area saxophonist Mel Martin is not among that breed, nor does he view his chosen style of music a "fad." Despite having played a good share of fusion, Latin, rock and experimental styles, he has been prepared all along for the current resurgence in popularity of the earthy, human sounds of modern straight ahead acoustic jazz.

"To me, it's really like coming home," Martin says. "Acoustic jazz is my foundation, and it has made a comeback that's been good for many musicians, such as my friend [saxophonist] Joe Henderson. Players like Joe are finally starting to achieve a certain amount of popularity, and that opens the door for the rest of us."

The new open-door policy has helped spur the success of Martin's group, Bebop and Beyond, an assemblage he formed in 1983 of some of the best musicians in the Bay Area. "Nobody has done what we do on this level," states Martin. "We wanted a band with horns and arrangements in the modern jazz vein, the style I started out in." Bebop and Beyond has recorded several albums under Martin's direction, including a critically lauded tribute to pianist Thelonious Monk (Bluemoon RS 79170) and a disc dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie's music (Bluemoon RS 79154) that featured Gillespie himself as guest soloist, his last studio recording. An album of all original material is now in the works.

 

As a registered nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and extending the modern American jazz heritage, Martin's group is eligible for support from the National Endowment for the Arts and other funding groups. "As a result, we've been able to keep up quality programming on a high level," Martin states. "Of course, the idea of grants is an age-old concept for artists; musicians have been getting them in one form or another for centuries." With performance opportunities diminishing, the saxophonist envisions many jazz artists using such funding as a means for survival. Martin was recently awarded funding from the NEA for a solo album of the music of Benny Carter with Benny as guest soloist.

Though his feet are firmly planted in classic bebop, Martin is by no means a purist. He holds no disdain for fusion, but laments the fate it has suffered. "Fusion, like pop music," he remarks "has been categorized to such a high degree now that it has lost it's creativity." Adding elements foreign to bebop to broaden the scope of his group's sound, however, is not out of the question. "That's why we're called Bebop and Beyond, because it takes the limits off of bebop. Suppose we wanted to do something contemporary with a string group? I don't like to categorize, but the name seemed like a good way to use a category as a springboard to do music of various sorts."

Martin's musical vision requires that he employ not only various sorts of music but a wide array of instruments as well. His arsenal includes soprano alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet, piccolo and flute. "I get bored easily with one sound," he admits, "but the main idea is really to try to incorporate all of these instruments into my own musical concepts, to broaden my spectrum of tonal colors."

Now a confirmed Yanagisawa player and clinician for Leblanc, Martin discovered Yanagisawa during his search for a curved soprano, which he prefers to straight models. "They're currently the only company that makes a curved soprano worth discussing," he declares. "I liked the Yanagisawa soprano so much, I got a tenor, too." Soon after, he began playing Yanagisawa alto and baritone saxophones as well.

Among his recent acquisitions are his Yanagisawa Silver Series tenor and alto saxophones, featuring solid sterling silver bodies. "To me, other brands of saxophones in general have an exceedingly narrow expressive range," notes Martin, "but the way the silver Yanagisawas move sound is remarkable." He marvels at the Silver Series' subtle dynamic and expressive capabilities, as well as its ability to maintain a stable tonal center regardless of volume or pitch. "I do believe that as professionals catch on to it, it will become the standard of the industry."

While enamored of the Silver Series, Martin still plays and heartily recommends Yanagisawa's brass saxophones. "I'm sold on the entire line; the brass saxes, especially with the neck options, play marvelously," he says, referring to the company's solid brass, gold-plated and solid silver neckpipe offerings.

 

Yanagisawa can thank a twist of fate for such an enthusiastic supporter, because Mel Martin might be endorsing Holton or Martin trombones today if not for his unfortunate uncle. "I started out playing piano, then tried a number of instruments. I liked the trombone, but my mother wouldn't hear of it because her brother blew a lung out while playing one - which of course was because of a congenital impairment, not the trombone!"

The deciding factor turned out to be peer pressure of a benevolent sort. "All my friends played clarinet, so I decided I'd hang with my buddies, playing third clarinet in the school band." The following summer, Martin fell under the spell of jazz, particularly enchanted by the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. Inspired to practice, the young clarinetist returned to claim the section's first chair. By graduation, he'd laid the foundation for the wide-ranging musical skills he now exhibits. "We were very fortunate to have a wonderful school music program, and I wish to this day that more schools could have programs like that."

Instead, Mel is witnessing an ever worsening situation. His native California's particularly perilous tax dilemma has driven many music programs over the precipice and leaves many others teetering. "The responsibility is falling on the communities, parents and band booster groups to keep arts and music programs alive, observes Martin. "Music education is something that people want to keep going. In fact, many of my students are adults who gave up playing for a while, went on to establish their careers, and then came back to it."

Upon graduation from Sacramento High School, Mel Martin headed to San Francisco to study music at San Francisco State. Once there, he immersed himself in that city's thriving after-hours jazz scene. "When my wife of 28 years, Catey, and I were first married and I became a working stiff trying to find gigs," he recalls, "my jazz skills and savvy carried me through all the requirements of working in big bands and dance bands. I was always able to read music from my training in high school."

Not long after Martin's arrival in 1963, San Francisco's ground shaking cultural upheaval created a fertile hotbed of pop music, Latin jazz, rock and funk, and it occurred to the young saxophonist that eclecticism offered even more viable career options. "At that time you were lucky if you could even get arrested playing mainstream jazz, let alone find a gig. You really had to scufffle." So he found himself playing diverse styles with many seminal Bay Area musicians, including Carlos Santana and Boz Scaggs. "I made a living traveling all over world with rock bands," the reedman remembers.

Time and the trend toward categorization have gradually ironed out the creases that allowed those musical textures to overlap, and Martin's creative energy is now more focused on the possibilities of the bebop genre. His playing reveals a deep knowledge of tradition, a varied palette of tonal colors and technique to spare. Like any seasoned improvisor, Martin deftly peppers his solos with succinct staccatos, 32nd-note flurries, lush vibrato and bluesy wails. Yet, his superbly constructed improvisations maintain the sense of urgent discovery that can often escape many comfortably established jazz players.

The lexicon of bebop is said to have been hammered out during the 1940s in Manhattan's 52nd Street clubs and after-hours jam sessions, and New York remains the world's jazz mecca. But Northern Californian Mel Martin is staying put. "San Francisco is a fertile place and always has been. It takes 10 years to establish yourself anywhere, and I've got solid roots where I am." Martin does not see a dichotomy between East and West Coast jazz, and he refutes the allegation that musicians native to the West Coast play a particular "laid-back" style.

Aside from his roles as arranger composer, band leader and teacher Martin occasionally dons the hat of journalist, writing interviews and record reviews for the Saxophone Journal. Suppose a friend or peer releases something less than remarkable? "Silence is better than a mediocre review," he avers. "My fellow musicians have enough people trying to tear down their work as it is." Mel also imparts his broad knowledge via a column on jazz improvisation for Jazz Player magazine.

In the end, the only thing that Mel Martin wants to tear down are some of the prejudices that limit the chances for himself and others to get their music heard. "In San Francisco, you can be as good as the people in New York, but East Coast bands tend to get more opportunities to both record and tour. So I'm hoping to open some doors." Thus, he maintains a hectic itinerary of performances and clinics, traveling to the East Coast and abroad, getting the word out about Yanagisawa saxophones and laying the groundwork for future Bebop and Beyond appearances.

Paraphrasing the great philosopher, Duke Ellington, Martin says, "There are just two kinds of music good and bad. Ultimately, musicians have to leave it to others to name it or categorize it." But categorizing Mel Martin's music may turn out to be a difficult task, for it falls into the classification that the Duke created for his own music- music he called "beyond category."


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