Mel Martin and Bebop & Beyond
A few years back, saxophonist/composer Mel Matin's tribute album highlighting Benny Carter's writing career established a milestone in good taste. Tribute albums are often lame, lazy exercises of well meant homage... secondary or second rate executions that pale in the light of the master's original creativity. Martin's salute to Benny Carter was an exception, an album that is bracing from beginning to end.
Appropriately, Martin now turns to his own compositions -- Friends and Mentors -- with an all star cast to chase down their surging twists and turns. Starting with a front line of alto sax guru Bobby Watson and trumpeter Jack Walrath alongside Martin's tenor and soprano sax work, the album sets forth to make music "with an attitude"... in this case a successfully exploratory temper that blends cheerful improvisational force with Martin's compositional iconoclasm.
Listen to the second track, "Music Is" (in honor of Maestro Carter) and you hear Martin's canny near-parody of the back door structural thinking that characterizes Carter's approach to improvisation. Winard Harper's deft and sprightly percussion nudges the ensemble along and bassist-extraordinaire Ray Drummond steps forth with a tasty solo midway... but what separates this piece from others in a fine collection is the harmonic layering that Martin achieves. Benny Carter's writing and arranging always (inevitably and without fail) demonstrate a uniquely engaging instrumental voicing that at once recalls the glory of long ago bands such as the Blanton-Webster version of Duke Ellington's orchestra (as well as Jimmie Lunceford's enticing groups) and the lyrical freshness of time-tested harmonic layering.
Mel Martin is not afraid of stepping back a few decades to 'rediscover' ageless musical instincts. Several high points deserve recognition.
"For Duke and Mingus" summons up the haunted beauty of Charles Mingus' song, "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love"; "Hub-Trane" turns a spotlight on Walrath's agile trumpet and gives Watson's tart alto sax room to dive and dart with careening confidence; and the flag-waving opener, "Song for M" (in honor of McCoy Tyner) shows off the delicately powerful spirit of Mel Martin's compositional grasp as well as the seemingly effortless loping ease of his assembled musical friends. This is not just another blowing session. It carries a low-keyed boil from start to finish: exactly the sort of adventurous fun that musicians of this calibre create from the mix of relaxation and precise artistic purpose.