Peter Martin is one of those very competent, very capable younger jazz musicians who managed to slip under radar during the great publicity-fueled, sometimes more hype-than-substance, commotion of the 90s: aka the Young Lions movement. Despite having collaborated with any number of bona-fide jazz stars (Roy Hargrove, Josh Redman, Dianne Reeves among others) in recent years, Martin had yet never recorded an album under his own name and was not seen as a leader much outside of his New Orleans stomping grounds.
Of course, Peter Martin takes pride in being a sideman, and has certainly paid some dues here. He gained some major fine points about this role by serving under Betty Carter- who always demanded the absolute most from her sidemen, and in extensive tutelage by Wynton Marsalis, who took Mr. Martin as one of his "pupils" early on. Of course Martin is probably most well known for his work with the Josh Redman quartet; there the jazz world got its first glimpse of him, and probably saw the potential of a leader in his own right. Sure enough, people who saw this quartet live or heard the records discerned a sharp player who did not feel the need to dazzle with chops or splashy bluesiness- just play the changes, and play them well.
All of which brings us to the present day and Peter Martin's coming out party as a leader. He descends upon the scene in style with this very nice MAXJAZZ release: Something Unexpected, that features one of his former leaders- Nicholas Payton, in the sideman role along with several other bright musicians: Brice Winston on Tenor, Reginald Veal on bass, and Adonis Rose on drums.
It is fitting that the record is also a sort of homecoming for Martin, recorded in the St. Louis city he grew up in. It is a live record actually, cut at the elegant Jazz at the Bistro, downtown. The record was done as part of a weekend stint at the Bistro in November of 2000.
This recording is definitely "something unexpected" insofar as it is one of the few recent straight-ahead live dates to hit the shelves. It is a nice one at that; this is mostly hard-boppish and modal material, however played with a sense of calm assurance and intelligence that often eludes some of the younger hard-bop cats. Perhaps because Martin and his comrades, including Nick Payton, are now into their thirties we can now start reaping benefits of their maturity. Perhaps then too, players from the "Young Lion" generation haven't had justice done to them with the kind of overproduced studio records full of guest stars all-too-commonplace, and a live outing by a working band in an intimate venue, is where one might actually see the substance behind the hype.
Nicholas Payton for one has seldom sounded better. On "The Queen" he delivers a lovely, rather sentimental kind of solo on fluegelhorn. He also sounds quite sharp on some of the "up" numbers, like Martin's "La Pregunta" and the bebop head "Attestation." But onto the leader and his work, who is certainly, rightly the focus here... Peter Martin's piano playing is quite fine- there's nothing outwardly very distinctive about it but he plays with a relaxed touch and a verve for the music that is not to be taken for granted. He shines on ballads, especially his solo treatment of "Triste" and his duo rendering of "Corcovado" with Brice Winston.
His real "work" lies in his fine writing though. "La Pregunta" for one is an excellent piece, a song with a Latin undercurrent and which is composed over a beautiful rolling arpeggio. It has an incredibly hip bridge that sounds reminiscent of one of Woody Shaw's more solemn, introspective tunes in quality. That's a serious tune, and one well suited for some modal travelling; Brice Winston takes a killer solo here that also indicts him as a certifiable Trane devotee. I should mention Peter's solo on this cut too; it's probably his most crucial solo on the rec- good tunes make for good solos, don't ever doubt that.
Martin's composing prowess also shows up on the bluesy title cut and on two ballads: "The Queen" and "Lovely One"- Peter definitely has a knack for writing ballads. These are moving, wistful melodies that one does not soon forget.
"Lovely One" is a tune incidentally in which Brice Winston sounds fabulous. At first, like Joe Henderson, but then settling clearly into his own voice; he is one to watch for.
There are covers to round out the album- "Dr. Jackle" (McLean), "Lotus Blossom" (Dorham) and "I Wish" by Stevie Wonder: good reworking of a pop tune.
All in all, "Something Unexpected" is indeed a pleasant surprise and is welcome in second entry of Bruce Barth's MaxJazz Piano series. There are over 70 minutes of high quality straight-ahead jazz here. And moreover though, Peter Martin acquits himself of any charges that he is "nothing but" a very good sideman; we see quite well here he is also a fine leader.