Great Expectations

U. City native Peter Martin releases a live album for local label MaxJazz's new piano series

Peter Martin's MaxJazz debut may be called Something Unexpected, but for anyone who has followed the musical career of the former University City resident, a more appropriate title might be Expectations Fulfilled. The 30-year-old pianist, who has established himself as one of the top sidemen in New Orleans over the past decade, has piled up a ton of impressive credits, touring and recording with Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Dianne Reeves, Mark Whitfield and others. But aside from The Answer, a CD he released himself last year, and a couple of Japanese-only trio recordings, Something Unexpected marks Martin's debut as a bandleader on a nationally distributed label.

It's not as if labels and critics have been ignoring Martin, however. As early as 1993, he attracted considerable attention for his second-place finish in that year's Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition -- an annual event that brings together top-flight talent on a specific instrument for a final showdown onstage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The eventual winner that year was Jacky Terrasson, who was immediately signed to a recording contract by Blue Note. (Historical note: This was the apogee of the "young lions" era in jazz, when labels seemed to be clamoring to give almost any promising new musician a contract.) But quite a few critics weren't pleased with the decision of the judges. A writer in the New York Times opined that Martin outplayed Terrasson and should have won. The controversy lingered in the jazz world, but for Martin himself, losing that competition proved to be the best thing in the long run.

"That whole thing was a blessing in disguise," recalls Martin, who met with the RFT during a recent visit. "Back then, I was still building my music. I was enjoying playing with other people and really wasn't ready to be thrust into the role of a leader -- plus having the pressure of an immediate record deal. And Jacky and I never had a problem with the result. We respected each other as musicians."

Martin, who had already toured with Whitfield and Carter before the Monk Competition, soon found himself earning the respect of other musicians as well. After touring with Hargrove, he was asked to replace Brad Mehldau in Redman's group in 1995 and worked with the sax player through '97. Since then, Martin has continued to tour with major jazz artists. But with a growing family (Martin and his wife now have three children), he also began to teach music on a regular basis at Tulane University, the University of New Orleans and other area arts centers. Less time on the road playing with others translated into more time for Martin to develop his own skills as a leader -- and as a composer.

When he felt the time was right to put out The Answer in 2000, Martin also found inspiration for songwriting in two very different art forms -- poetry and architecture. "Someone had given me a copy of a book of Pablo Neruda's poetry called Los Versos del Capitan," Martin says. "I really don't have a literary background, so I reacted to the sound, the intonation and the tempo of the poems. It was really interesting to read them in Spanish as well. That was a key to discovering his rhythm."

Martin named several of the compositions he wrote for The Answer after Neruda's poems. The connection with what he describes as "the organic architecture of Neruda's writing" also underscored the inspiration Martin found in the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

"That's where I first heard the term 'organic architecture,'" Martin explains. "And when I walk into one of the rooms or houses Wright designed, I can really feel that. It's the same feeling I get from a basic chord structure like A-D-A-C-A that's been passed down for years and years. There's an organic architecture in music, too. For example, what you do in the next section of a tune is a direct extension of what was played before. And if those connections all feel right and true, I think the result is great art -- whether it's a poem, a house design or a classic jazz recording."

Although Martin financed The Answer himself, he was in the process of signing with Rich McDonnell's St. Louis-based MaxJazz label. When McDonnell heard the recording Martin had been able to put together on a shoestring (including a grand total of one day's studio time), it confirmed his decision to sign Martin to record for MaxJazz's new piano series. "I had actually been watching Peter develop musically since he was in high school at U. City, playing with Jeremy Davenport, Chris Thomas and Todd Williams," McDonnell remarks. "And after hearing his self-produced recording, I knew he was musically at a very high level, playing very well but still with room to grow."

After Martin signed with MaxJazz, the next decision was when and where to record. He was booked to perform over Thanksgiving weekend at Bistro Europa as part of last year's Jazz at the Bistro series, and both Martin and McDonnell wanted to put together a live recording from the two-evening, four-set performance. "I'd say six out of my top 10 favorite jazz recordings are live," McDonnell notes. "It's a little more difficult to get high-quality sound live, but at their best, live recordings really capture what jazz is all about."

For the Bistro recording sessions, Martin was able to augment his regular group of sax player Brice Winston, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Adonis Rose with friend and ace trumpeter Payton. Martin put together the live recordings without using studio overdubs -- trying to capture the excitement of a live performance by a small jazz combo in an intimate club atmosphere. The result is Something Unexpected, almost 72 minutes of music that manage to capture the complexity, nuances and surprises of jazz improvisation happening on the fly. "I wanted the CD to sound like you were listening to an actual set," Martin explains, "both in terms of length, and the feel of sitting at a club where the sound never really stops at any point -- even between songs. In putting this recording together, it often came down to finding a balance between what my original intent was on a tune, and also capturing the intangibles -- the unexpected things that happen that are sometimes the most interesting things for the listener."

The CD has just been released, but Martin is busy these days as the pianist for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which is preparing to record a new Wynton Marsalis piece called All Rise. He's hoping to get some time off later this fall for a performance in St. Louis to celebrate the new recording. "I've developed my music to this point," Martin concludes, "and now I feel I'm really ready. I've gained the confidence to record as a leader, and now it's time to take the next steps."

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