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Stephen Martin: KC & High Plains — and Beyond


Stephen Martin has a killer new album, “High Plains.” KC saxophonist, bandleader, and educator Martin spoke with JAM, revealing his influences, sound, and path as a musician as well as, for him, what comes next. Martin spoke about the need to create, even during a pandemic, and the abundance of creative projects coming out right now, including his own new album: “Honestly, I wanted to get this (album) project out some time ago…but the whole world went on pause for a little while…(Now) tons of great music will come out…people expressing…things they’ve been thinking during the past two years…” “We had plenty of time…for self-reflection… I learned feelings of appreciation and gratitude,” Martin said. “I’m now 32 years old now, and that’s about when you begin to feel a little bit of your mortality. I went through my twenties and felt a bit of invincibility…When you’re 25 and playing at clubs every other night…burning the candle at both ends, you think nothing bad can happen to me.” But the pandemic led to more reflection for Martin as well as an abundance of perspective and gratitude. “The title High Plains goes back to my roots. I’m originally a little boy from Wyoming…It also plays homage to Dale Peterson, a truckdriver from Montana. As my mother said, he was much more than that…he had this life-long jazz collection…He had hundreds and hundreds of CDs in his truck…from late-Coltrane to Andrew Hill to Miles Davis…When she told him about me, he said, ‘Well, can you box up my collection, and go give it to your grandson because I want it to go to someone who’s going to appreciate it.’ …(At) a family vacation, this was probably when I was 17, she (my grandmother) shows up with…five or six of those huge Rubbermaid tubs, filled to the brim with all this…and that’s basically been the collection I’ve listened to my whole life since then. Martin provided background and spoke highly of the players on his new album: “I’m really blessed to have Peter Schlamb…playing vibraphone and piano…I don’t think I’m really going out on a limb by saying he’s really one of the more profound musicians you’ll ever come across.” “Ben Leifer on bass. He plays acoustic and electric bass (on the album). The funny thing is I wasn’t really planning on having electric bass originally on the record. When we had a rehearsal…(Ben) was coming from a job he was working. He didn’t have his bass with him. So, at the house where we were, at Peter’s house…he had an electric bass there, and they said we’ll just rehearse on this…And I said I really think I want you to actually play electric on a couple of songs…on the title track and on Matt Otto’s original, ‘Euphony.’” “David Hawkins is on drums…a great up-and-coming drummer…in Omaha, Nebraska. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago…and I always had it on my mind that I wanted to record with him.” “What can you say about special guests…Bobby Watson and Matt Otto?...I don’t think there’s anything I can say that would really do their careers justice…They’re basically my two biggest mentors…Bobby plays on Benny Golson’s standard ‘Stablemates” with me and…(Otto plays) on Otto’s original song, ‘Euphony.’”

Martin said, “It always takes a team of people to make something like this happen.” KC jazz radio host Joe Dimino said, “I know listening to it…It’s just a wonderful album. There’s just a great feel to it. I’m a huge vibes guy, and I love Peter’s work.” Martin told about what he wanted listeners to get out of his album, including his intentions and goals. He said he wants people to “feel something” when listening to him: “I spend a lot of time just thinking about having a variety of music. I think that was accomplished on this (album)…I wanted to take people to different feelings…take the listener away from the day…whether it be Coltrane or a more modern artist, (guitarist) Kurt Rosenwinkel…Walter Smith (III, saxophonist), whoever it is…to look in the mirror and deal with your own things…I think maybe that’s at the root … I’ve always joked that if people don’t listen to my music and leave with apathy…as long as they’re feeling something, I feel like I’ve accomplished what I wanted to.” Martin looks forward to playing live again, including his release of his new album, “High Plains”: “That’s all piecing together right now…putting together another tour…close to home, being safe...We’ll definitely do some kind of KC release show…most likely at The Blue Room…one of the premier places for the music in the entire city…up to The Jewel in Omaha…Jazz Estate, up in Milwaukee,…The Bistro in St. Louis, where I grew up…It’s a great honor and privilege to play in front of live audiences, particularly attentive live audiences.” Martin’s first tune on his new album, “High Plains,” harkens to classic Coltrane. The tune’s sax solo introduction sounds a little like a mix of the iconic opening of the “A Love Supreme” album (“Acknowledgement”) and Coltrane’s revelatory tune “Alabama.” The album, overall, has a true Coltrane feel: expansive, revelatory, mystic, virtuosic, airy. “High Plains,” Martin’s second album, was released in January 2022, on the Origin Record Label. Martin studied under contemporary KC and international jazz legend and Grammy-nominated artist Bobby Watson and world-renowned classical saxophonist Tim Timmons. Martin was also heavily influenced by KC staple Matt Otto. Born in Champaign, Illinois, and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Martin began playing saxophone very early, at age 9. Martin has garnered a number of awards, including receiving second place in the 2018 Carinthian International Jazz Award in Austria.

As Martin’s website notes, his debut album was a hit: “‘Vision’ was released under the independent artist label SubtleStreet Records on July 27th, 2018. It debuted in the top 40 of iTunes Jazz Charts and as an Amazon best-seller in the first week of its release.” Martin’s sound is marked by “relentless energy and adventurous ideas,” the site notes. Martin spoke of his KC influences, the people who helped him form his sound once in our city: “Certainly Bobby (Watson)…is more than a music teacher. He’s an all-encompassing figure in my life. I met him when I was 18. He was very giving. Only the very special people in music are like that…(Also) people I went to school with…who went on to do great things…A little ahead of me (was) Harmon Mehari…in Paris…Ben Leifer, a few years ahead of me…Ryan Lee…Me, a green, wide-eyed kid from St. Louis…Kids…who could have gone anywhere, but went to UMKC…For several years, I was going to the Foundation every Friday and Sat night…to just have a place to play…and Everette DeVan was there…and made a huge impact on me in the scene…He could tell the nerves I was feeling, and he made everything comfortable for me.” Martin said he’s settled in as a teacher at UMKC, as faculty in applied jazz saxophone. Teaching for him is now as comfortable as playing out. “In my fourth year at UMKC, I’m…confident (as a teacher),” said Martin. “I have to find a dozen other ways to explain things, not just the way I understand it…. I (now) have the same confidence I have as an educator that I have as a player.”

Martin spoke of one of his enduring and prime influences, John Coltrane: “I became aware of Coltrane when I was a teenager because… (he was) an all-encompassing figure…what he brought to the table…driving around in my ‘98 Honda Civic, trying to sing it out loud…”

Martin also loves Bird—and how Bird’s legacy led to Coltrane’s: “I had such a love and appreciation for Charlie Parker, bebop…but when I was about 22 or 23, I stumbled along the Coltrane quartet…’til ’65, their whole lineage changed my life…my vibration with music…the way I thought about improvisation…dynamics…the whole thing…I’ve been listening to them the better part of a decade…Four guys revolutionizing how to play those musical instruments in time…Everything suddenly aligned once I started listening to them…I listen to them every day…Most saxophonists are influenced by him (Coltrane) in some way, and that is certainly true for me.” Martin loves teaching, and it shows. He got into the essence of teaching jazz, saying, “Feeling…teaching…you get that euphoric…sense of playing…an out of body feeling…You wouldn’t think you’d get that in teaching, but you do…You crack the code with them…understand in the moment that this is how this student understands that, the light bulb goes on…to know you’re a part of that…(and) that person is forever a part of my life…Those impacts are lifelong impacts…It’s great to be on that side of that now…Graduate students, we’re getting into very conceptual things…colors and textures…It’s really fun to see someone who wants it so bad as you did as a student…(that) euphoric feeling.” Martin plays a set of duo performances this March at Ça Va in Westport (4148 Penn.), Thursday nights, each night with a different KC pianist, including Roger Wilder, Peter Schlamb, Joe Cartwright, and others.

Martin revealed his favorite contemporary saxophonists: “My two favorite living saxophone players have to be Walter Smith and Logan Richardson…Obviously, Logan, being from KC, went to Paseo (Academy)…I try to not be such a fanboy around those guys…be cool, say hello, but I’m like a 13-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert…You can’t always keep it cool around your heroes…and I even get that way around Bobby (Watson) still.” Martin spoke again about the pandemic and its impact. “I’m in a place of reflection with the new recording,” Martin said. “The pandemic…everything got put on hold. I spent the better part…of a year and a half preparing to record…I’m kind of a perfectionist…(though) I like the music to breathe…”

Folks can get Stephen Martin’s new album, “High Plains,” at “Bandcamp” as well as through other standard music vendors and vending sites.

Many musician quotes in this review were pulled from the audio interview program “Neon Jazz” hosted by Joe Dimino: http://theneonjazz.blogspot.com/ Used with permission.

—Kevin Rabas

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