Eight years after he recorded it, Stephen Martin feels like he’s outgrown his first album.
“You spend so much time trying to get not only your individual sound but the band sound together,” Martin says. “And then you walk into a studio. If you’re new to it, it’s a whole new world to try and figure out. It was a big learning experience for me.”
Martin is a saxophonist who hit the Kansas City scene fourteen years ago, when he started studying with the world-renowned Bobby Watson. After pursuing his master’s degree in St. Louis for two years, Martin returned to KC in 2014, recording his first album shortly after.
It’s been a long wait between albums, but Martin has now been picked up by Origin Records, one of the leading jazz labels, which will release his second album, High Plains.
“There are a lot of lessons I’ve applied to High Plains,” Martin says. “I’m really happy about this progression.”
The hour-long album is composed of four originals, including the title track, and four standards, including a Coltrane-esque take on “Easy Living.”
While his influences and mentors have of course influenced his style, Martin isn’t trying to imitate anyone. Whether he’s soloing on Joe Henderson’s “Punjab” or one of his originals, his effortless phrasing and distinct voice always shine through. High Plains is down to earth. It’s authentic. It’s personal.
“High Plains goes back to my roots, particularly my memories as a kid living in and driving across Wyoming and studying the mountains in the distance,” Martin says.
Martin is backed up by a killer band on the album, with locals Peter Schlamb on vibraphone and piano and Ben Leifer on bass, plus Omaha-based drummer David Hawkins. But if the musicianship wasn’t already outstanding enough, add in the special guests, two of Martin’s longtime mentors, saxophonists Bobby Watson and Matt Otto. Watson is featured on the standard “Stablemates,” and Otto plays on his original tune “Euphony.” These are two of the longest tracks on the album, both roughly eight minutes in length, yet you’ll find yourself wishing they were longer.
“It’s hard to put into words what it’s like having Bobby and Matt on the album,” Martin says. “It really feels like a dream at times. They both have inspired me to continue to push for growth until the day I can’t play anymore, and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
GO: Thursday evenings, 9-11 pm, Ca Va, 4149 Pennsylvania St., KCMO
Nina Cherry is a local jazz historian, journalist, and vibraphonist. Her specific interest is in swing era women in jazz and the Kansas City jazz scene’s rich history. Nina resides in a former speakeasy from the Pendergast neighborhood with her dog, Daisy.
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