What is it about that milieu of musical elements floating about the jazz world of the early sixties that continues to attract young stylists, nearly forty years after its heyday? From the first measures of pianist Peter Martin’s attractive new CD, it is clear that it’s an era to which he is consistently drawn, mining that aesthetic for melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, though only occasionally moving outside of them. Whether its McCoy Tyner’s meaty, openly ringing left hand attacks, Lee Morgan-like two-tiered themes full of staccato surprises, or Bill Evans’ substitution pushes and dynamics pulls, this second release in MaxJazz’s "Piano Series" worms itself comfortably through a catalog of hard bop mannerisms. Now if only those were truly a launching pad to Something Unexpected.
For this live set, caught at St. Louis’ Jazz at the Bistro, Martin mixes and matches a lineup throughout ten tunes, drawing on a quintet of himself, Reginald Veal on bass, Adonis Rose on drums, Brice Winston on tenor sax, and firebrand Nicholas Payton on trumpet and flugelhorn. He shows off his compositional skills on five of the tracks, which range from his daring and evocative "La Pregunta" to the something fully
expected of "Attestation" - a quickly shuffle-stepping showcase for imitative soloing skills. His ballad "Lovely One" is sluggish, despite Payton’s finest and most restrained effort of the day (note the emotive flugelhorn-bass duet that closes it), while "The Queen" picks up steam throughout a round robin of slowly shifting melodic statements, a sort of restatement of Miles Davis’ "Nefertiti," without the brilliant rhythmic agitations.
Still, it is on the previously-composed material where the pianist succeeds most strongly in displaying his solid, if uninspiring, talent - most strikingly on the Antonio Carlos Jobim interlude, in which he tackles "Triste" alone, and for "Corcovado" adds only Winston on tenor. For the most part eschewing any forceful statement of Brazilian pulse, the Bill Evans in him instead comes rushing to his fingertips, perhaps with Keith Jarrett’s "Standards" sensibility providing a stealthy background push. As both these melodies are woven out of pure solid gold, Martin’s only insensitive moments come when he injects into "Triste" a twist too self-consciously bluesy, otherwise riding it with subtle variations for maximum effect. In "Corcovado," Martin’s entire first chorus is a brilliant skirting of the melody, leading by indirection until Winston enters and even manages to evoke Coleman Hawkins in a number of his phrases. The whole performance acts as a giant tease, unveiling the naked melody for only a few moments here and there, chasing it, then offering it, then darting around it.
This, however, is one of the few attention-grabbing moments of the CD, and even it is perhaps too subtle to be convincing. It shouldn’t be particularly surprising to learn that Martin has recently been touring with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, that bastion of jazz canonization. Its mode of operation, for better or for worse, seems to be working at full steam in its pianist’s first solo outing - a slick and smooth compendium of traditional licks and phrases, set at a speed that goes down easy, without agitating much before exiting the other end. While its hard to find much to complain about under such circumstances, it's also not exceedingly praiseworthy. A fine hour of hard bop, if not an essential one.