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Though Mel Martin
Though Mel Martin dons many hats, his legacy is total mastery of the sax
by Michael Gudbaur
Contributing Editor
After several recordings celebrating the music created by jazz’s most respected composers, Mel Martin decided that the time had come to celebrate the music of a lesser-known composer he has known for many years—Mel Martin.
As one of the San Francisco–area’s hottest saxophonists and bandleaders, Mel and his group, Bebop and Beyond, have recorded several critically acclaimed “tribute” albums.
“I enjoyed doing them,” Mel states, “and I was fortunate enough to have Dizzy Gillespie play on the album of his music and Benny Carter on the record of his music.” Bebop and Beyond also recorded an album of Thelonius Monk’s compositions.
“But I’m a composer, too,” Mel notes, “and since it was ultimately my decision to make, I decided to record all my own music that I felt was suitable for this particular band.”
The particular band to which Mel refers is a team of musicians who are all leaders in their own right. In another break from tradition, he chose New York–based rather than Bay-area players. With Mel on soprano and tenor saxophones, the lineup includes alto-saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Jack Walrath and bassist Ray Drummond.
“Of course,” adds Mel, “[pianist] George Cables was in the original Bebop and Beyond band. And I’ve always loved Billy Hart’s and Winard Harper’s drumming.” Mike Longo played piano on several of the tracks that Cables was not available for, including a tune dedicated to his former employer, Dizzy Gillespie.
The result of this stellar confluence is Friends and Mentors, featuring nine original Mel Martin compositions and arrangements. While not a repertoire or tribute album, Mel couldn’t help but somehow pay homage to his teachers and fellow musicians. “Most of the tunes are dedicated to my heroes, except one that was dedicated to my wife, Catey.”
As with his other recordings, Mel relied on grant money to help subsidize his latest Bebop and Beyond CD. “We received grant money from the California Arts Council (CAC), but the NEA money for that kind of project has pretty much dried up. Bebop and Beyond also receives some money from the Zellerback Foundation based in San Francisco. The rest of it was out my own pocket.”
He laments, “The record business is not in the healthiest state it’s ever been in, so those of us who want to make a recording just have to go ahead and do it.”
Friends and Mentors represents the first instance in Martin’s 40-year career when he’s recorded an album solely of his own compositions. “Some are new, some have just never been recorded, and some have been recorded before but have been revamped for this band and performance,” reports Mel. No matter when or why they were written, all the compositions have a sound that is at once contemporary yet reveals Mel’s deep knowledge of jazz history. As a result, a certain timeless quality emerges from these tunes.
But unlike many other jazz releases wherein the melody is stated and then simply followed by a string of improvised solos, each selection on Friends and Mentors is completely and painstakingly arranged by Mel to take full advantage of the instrumentation. “I was really trying to stretch myself as a writer and an arranger on this record. There are extended sections, interludes, shout choruses. In a way, I went to the limit on that.”
So it was no accident that the musicians Mel selected are not only leaders, but have solid pedigrees in ensemble playing—Watson with Art Blakey’s band, Walrath with Charles Mingus’s ensemble and Drummond with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. “It’s not just an all-star record. Sure, they are all stars, but there’s a blend and a ‘fourth voice’ that happens when the three horns play together. You hear another voice emerge from a band of highly individual voices.”
Mel has found his individual musical voice with the help of his saxophones of choice, Yanagisawa. He prefers the 9930 Silver Series models, which he’s played exclusively for nearly a decade.
“The Silver Series saxophones have an incredible range of tonal possibilities,” he remarks. “They’re my first choice for power, flexibility, brilliance in the sound and, of course, all the expression I can get out of them.”
The saxophonist added still another color to his tonal palette when he recently acquired a Yanagisawa T992 Bronze Series tenor. “I like it for different things, particularly for blending in a saxophone section.”
What about the player with an older horn who wants to upgrade yet retain the vintage tone? “I get that question a lot,” Mel notes. “I tell them that the bronze Yanagisawas are a great choice. Mechanically they’re much superior, but they have that warm sound that can easily blend into a saxophone section.” He adds, “Classical players prefer the bronze horns for the same reasons— the dark, warm tone and their blending ability.”
Mel has also had the opportunity to play the stunning new A9937 alto and T9937 tenor models. Made of solid sterling silver from neckpipe to bell, these horns mark the epitome (so far) of Yanagisawa’s efforts. “I’ve tried several of them at the factory and at the NAMM show,” says Mel. “I notice that every time I play them, heads turn—or people move back about ten feet! They’re very strong horns, with enormous power and flexibility and a huge dynamic range and tonal expressiveness.”
Whichever model, Mel is sold on the entire Yanagisawa line. “They all play great, and the quality control is very high from one horn to another. There’s almost no difference between them when they come out of the factory, and the pad work lasts a long, long time.”
Mel was fortunate enough to witness Yana-gisawa’s dedication to quality firsthand when he toured their Tokyo factory. “It’s really an amazing thing,” he describes the experience. “When some factories make a saxophone, they simply add a key as it rolls down the line. At Yanagisawa, every key is custom- fitted to each instrument, which I think is one of the secrets to their quality. The result is a instrument that is mechanically perfect.”
He notes, “I’ve tried most of the other brands, and I always come away impressed with how well Yanagisawa maintains their quality in relation to other companies. I really do believe that they make the best saxophones in the world.”
Not only are the keys mechanically perfect, but according to Mel, they are perfectly comfortable under the player’s hands. “I’ve had players of other brands admit that Yanagisawa’s key layout is most comfortable. They’ve come up with a layout that seems to work well for everyone, no matter the size of the player’s hands.”
Mel is a big proponent of the different neckpipe options offered by Yanagisawa, specifically the gold-plated models. “Gold plating often makes the sound richer, more centered, adds a certain amount of weight and resis-tance to the tone that I like.” His own horns are equipped with gold-plated solid silver neckpipes. “It makes a huge difference.”
A multi-instrumentalist, Mel has been playing Sankyo flutes for over 30
years and was pleased to learn that Leblanc now carries the entire Sankyo line. He observes, “Sankyo was, in fact, affiliated with Yanagisawa at one time, and they continue to share a similar philosophy.”
For his forays into clarinet, Mel is loving his brand-new Leblanc Pete Fountain “Big Easy” clarinet. “I chose the Big Easy because it had a big sound, and the key work felt right under by my big fingers. Plus, it has gold-plated keys.”
Just as he loves to share his knowledge of Yanagisawa with fel- low saxophonists, Mel also loves to share his knowledge of jazz with his private students and through the many clinic/performances he conducts each year.
“Education is a natural part of being a musician and should be an extension of all our musical endeavors,” states Mel. “I’ve been teaching privately since I
was a teenager, and I’ve learned that teaching, like playing, is an evolutionary process. You keep what works best and discard what doesn’t.”
Eschewing a set-in-stone teaching formula, Mel’s goal is to help each
individual student. “But there are a lot of basic principles that I try to pass along. I always start with their tonal production, helping them to get an encompassing sound that has power but that they can control and get expression from. Then I teach them the right fingerings. Saxophone has a lot of alternate fingerings that you have to know in order play the instrument well.”
Mel employs this same tailor-made approach when he is invited into middle schools, high schools and colleges. “I always ask the teacher what they want me to work on with the students. That’s their domain; they know their own situation better than I do. I don’t go in with a rogue attitude, like I’m going
to just read from some prepared script. For me, maintaining an openness to the situation works best.”
Whether at an afternoon master class, a guest-artist performance, or even a week-long artist-in-residence program, Mel feels the most direct way to reach the students is through his horn. “It always involves me playing as much as possible because I think the important part is people actually hearing the instrument.” An expert bandleader, Mel hones not only the horn sections, but also works on the rhythm section to make it a cohesive, swinging unit.
Saxophonist, bandleader, composer, arranger and educator are just a few of the hats Mel regularly dons. A veteran of the recording studio, he is also a qualified audio engineer. “Musicians have to have some ability in that area so they know what’s going on when they do go into the studio,” he explains. “I’ve been doing it professionally for many years.” Mel, in fact, did the final mix-down for Friends and Mentors as well as most of his other recorded projects with Bebop and Beyond and other artists. A seasoned jazz journalist, he currently writes a regular column in the quarterly Jazz Improv.
And there’s more: Mel is now also an accomplished Web designer. Melmartin.com is a favorite destination for fans, saxophonists and jazz musicians in general. His site is packed with current events, clinic information, exercises for saxophone, articles by and about Mel, music, photos and an extensive links page. Visitors to the site can even buy Friends and Mentors and many of Mel’s other CDs with a credit card using a secure shopping-cart system.
Mel performing at last summer’s Berkshire Jazz Festival with bassist David Dunaway and drummer Sylvia Quenca.
Mel Martin is a jack-of-all-trades, to be sure, but like any good jazz musician, he draws on all his experiences when he does the thing for which he is known as master—playing the saxophone. He is truly, in the words of his friend, jazz legend Benny Carter, “a complete musician.”