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Stephen Martin High Plains

Following on the heels of his successful Visions debut album in 2018, tenor saxophonist Stephen Martin has just released High Plains, his second album as a bandleader. Dedicated to his memories of life in the High Plains of Wyoming, the disc was recorded during the middle of the pandemic in May 2021 and was produced by saxophonist Matt Otto at Chad Meise’s Massive Sound Studio in KC over a period of three days. The album features Martin on saxophone, Peter Schlamb on vibraphone and piano, Ben Leifer on bass, and Omaha, Nebraska drummer David Hawkins.

About the album, Martin says, “I thought about my tune choices for a very long time before I decided on them—I thought about how it would flow from start to finish, as a complete album.” Indeed, his overarching concept for the album works perfectly. These eight tracks are carefully sequenced to take the listener on a joyous journey, with flawless performances throughout the sonic tour. Martin’s rich vibrato and round tone captures your attention immediately. He’s primarily a tenor player now. He started on alto but switched “when I was 15 or 16…I’m still playing on the same instrument and mouthpiece—Selmer Series II, and my metal Otto Link.”

And you can hear that vintage sound from the very first track, “Horizons,” an elegant ballad with beautiful chord changes. Martin plays a delicate tenor sax, with light stick work on snare and cymbals by drummer Hawkins. “I wanted to start with a smooth tune,” he recalled. “The last time (on the Visions album) I started with ‘all the jets firing’ so to speak, and my grandma wasn’t too pleased!” This time around, the peaceful introduction comes from Ben Leifer, who composed the song sometime before the pandemic, around March 2020. Originally titled ‘Rev Tekkton’ Ben aptly changed the name to ‘Horizons’ “to better fit the mood and atmosphere of this project,” he said.

The Void” really captures how deep the Coltrane-inspired beauty flows freely inside Martin’s veins. The mantra-like chord vamp allows Stephen and Schlamb to really stretch out and build increasingly complex harmonic, melodic and rhythmic phrases as Ben’s bass serves as the tonal anchor. Martin says this piece—along with the intense “Simone”—was constructed with a specific purpose in mind: To draw the audience’s attention away from the incessant chatter (that most jazz musicians both endure and abhor) when performing on club gigs.

During the early phase of the recording session, Martin reveals that “’Simone’ was the catalyst for the whole album, actually.” Producer Otto confirms this, describing the entire first day of recording the album as “almost a wash.” But then, Matt says, they hit their stride with “Simone,” and “the second day was just great.” Stephen’s sheets-of-sound solo is built of such beauty and fiery intensity that would surely make Coltrane proud. Indeed, Peter’s Tyner-ish quartal comping—combined with Ben’s Garrison-flavored throbs—gives Hawkins no choice but to serve up the Elvin-inspired circular drumming that provides the thrust for the entire quartet.

The jazz standard “Easy Living” is delivered with a freshness that easily wipes the dust off this timeless classic. “This song was chosen because I just love this tune.” Schlamb’s brief but resplendent solo adds just the right amount of sonic dissonance and rhythmic angularity to keep you sitting upright. The influence of pianists McCoy Tyner and Kenny Kirkland on Peter’s piano approach are evident here.

Stablemates” is included on the roster, in Martin’s words, as “a tribute to Miles and ‘Trane,” the tempo isn’t a burner, and that deliberate choice to keep things evenly paced. Martin’s mentor, the legendary Bobby Watson sits in on this one—coming fresh off a New York flight and literally right into the recording studio. “Knowing that Bobby was coming made all the guys excited,” Otto said. About his hero’s impact, Stephen, “Bobby’s contribution is so encompassing—anything I do is always gonna go back to being my primary mentor—he’s been a musical light for me since I was 18, not just for music, but, more importantly, how to relate to people.”

The title track, “High Plains,” creates aural representations of visceral emotions of Martin as he traveled between Cheyenne and Laramie during his musical career—Stephen readily admits that it’s his favorite track. Surprisingly, the composition is influenced not by a saxophone player but a guitarist—Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “The Polish Song” on the Enemies of Energy album (released in 2000.) About his ‘Plains,’ Martin says, “if I could record an entire album like this, I would…this is my take on what modern jazz is.” Schlamb’s vibe solo is ethereal, while Martin’s tenor tone is solo is airy and light as a feather. For Ben’s bass solo, it was a revealing process. “It took me a while to get used to playing over the unusual changes—we changed from acoustic to electric.”

Punjab,” the Joe Henderson standard, is included because Henderson is “one of the pillars of my inspiration”, says Martin. “I always want to do at least one tune of his.” The group’s performance here is invigorating. “The feel and the band dynamic are what really gets it for me,” Martin confesses. One of the highlights is Schlamb’s shimmering vibraphone solo. ” It’s fantastic,” says Stephen. “He’s one of the greatest living vibe players. He’s from St. Louis, where I was from before I moved here.” Ben Leifer follows with a melodic and rhythmic dance of his own—his best on the entire album. “It’s one of my favorites—it has nice form,” he says. “It’s a good tune for people to blow on.”

In one of the “harder-to-navigate” tunes on the album, the jaunty and challenging piece, “Euphony,” is trumpeter Matt Otto’s original contribution to the festivities. “I originally wrote that for another band, but Stephen needed a tune in 7/8—a tune that profiled an odd-metered tune in a major key,” he stated. Says Martin of Matt’s composition, “It’s kind of like a Warren Marsh/Lee Konitz thing,” Matt and Stephen playfully chase each other around the room with the harmonized melody before individual tenor solos are dispensed with intensity. Schlamb slams on the vibes, while Hawkins pushes that band forward throughout the piece before unleashing a cataclysmic drum solo as the climax of the tune.

About his decision to have Otto as producer, Stephen reflects, stating, “having him there, I learned so many lessons on my first album—I was my own producer, but I learned that you got to have an intermediary; another set of ears to make good judgment—that’s what Otto did for me.” Matt simply says, “I was trying to be encouraging and keep spirits high—he’s a perfectionist and I’m not—it helped keep the bigger picture intact: Don’t worry about the take—just play.”

“I was impressed with his preparation—he worked on the material for about a year before we started recording—it’s a real testament to his seriousness.” Matt says because of Martin’s focus, his role as producer was relatively effortless. “He [Stephen] has a strong vision for the album. He doesn’t need a lot of help—he’s a strong young artist.” Bassist Ben Leifer agrees, saying, “Stephen’s a natural leader—he has strong energy whenever he plays, he’s really come into his own as a bandleader. He has a real passion for the music, and a clear vision for what he wants. That’s the kind of person I like to work with—makes my job easier.”

Martin’s preparation clearly paid off—the band was incredibly efficient in the studio, which is why the proceedings sound so fresh. “Everything is live—no edits, only the mixing—no recording overdubs…I thought that was cool that we did it the old school way,” Otto exclaimed. For traditional jazz fans, it’s plain to see that Stephen Martin is riding high on this new album.

—Wayne Goins

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