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Peter Martin brings his jazz to Sheldon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 31, 2010 - Friday, Feb. 5, pianist Peter Martin, accompanied by world-renowned jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, will perform at the Sheldon Concert Hall at 8 pm. The fact that Martin and Reeves are playing together certainly isn’t unusual; Martin has been Reeves’ pianist and musical director since 2001.

The unique elements about this event are twofold. Not only are Martin and Reeves playing a very rare concert as a duo; the event marks the debut of a new concert series created and produced by Martin.

It’s called (appropriately and simply enough) Peter Martin Music; and according to the pianist, it’s going to be a concert series that reflects the in-the-moment improvisational style of the music he plays – jazz.

“What I want to try and do is bring some of the great artists I’ve had a chance to work with over the years back to St. Louis to perform with me,” states Martin as we talk in a coffeehouse in the Delmar Loop, not far from his University City home. “And I also want to present the music in a more informal, spontaneous way as well.”

Martin certainly has played with plenty of world-class musicians in addition to Reeves during his impressive career. After growing up in University City, where he played and studied classical music and played jazz with classmates such as trumpeter Jeremy Davenport, sax player Todd Williams (who later recorded with Wynton Marsalis), guitarist Mark Peterson, bassist Chris Thomas and drummer David Berger, Martin attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York to continue his classical studies.

But jazz kept calling, and after a year at Florida State, Martin moved to New Orleans in 1990 to study with pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo). Within a year, he was playing professionally with guitarist Mark Whitfield, and was invited to become the pianist for the late jazz vocal legend, Betty Carter. After a year with Carter, Martin then worked with trumpeter Roy Hargrove before taking Brad Mehldau’s spot in Joshua Redman’s band.

In 1997, Martin decided to start his own group, and recorded his debut release as a leader, “The Answer.” But he soon joined up to work with Reeves, and also spent time during the last decade working with the Lincoln Center Jazz orchestra as well as with trumpeter Chris Botti. Martin also released two more CDs as a leader – “Something Unexpected” and “In the P.M.”

“I’ve been lucky to play, tour and record with so many great musicians,” says Martin. “And when I was on the road, I’d think about various ideas for concert series. But nothing really came together in terms of trying to do that myself until I moved back to St. Louis from New Orleans after Katrina.”

Martin had stayed on in New Orleans since he first moved there to study with Ellis Marsalis. He married and raised a family in the Big Easy with his wife, Kelly. But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated their home and neighborhood, prompting Martin’s move back to University City, where he has lived since.

Katrina’s destruction also pushed Martin to produce a musical event that would benefit New Orleans. It was called “Big River,” and featured a host of musicians with Big Easy roots performing at the Sheldon Concert Hall in December 2005. It was such a success that subsequent “Big River” fundraiser concerts were held in other cities such as Chicago. According to Martin, the memories of that show at the Sheldon were the genesis for his new concert series.

“Four years later, I still have musicians who played that Big River concert at the Sheldon tell me what an amazing audience was there that night, and how much energy the crowd gave them,” states Martin. “It was an amazing experience, and thinking back, I really see the genesis of what I’m trying to do with this concert series coming out of that Big River experience.”

For Martin, the logical choice for someone to work with for the debut of the series was Reeves, someone he admires tremendously as an artist.

“Working with Dianne is like a dream gig in a lot of ways,” explains Martin. “I really love working with jazz vocalists, and after working with other singers I just appreciate Dianne even more. She has impeccable intonation, great stylistic range and a vocal musicality that’s unbelievable. And she really has the mentality of a musician and a “we’re in this together” attitude when we’re on stage.”

The only other time Martin and Reeves played a duo concert was five years ago in Aspen, Colo. – and it was not a planned performance according to Martin.

“The bass player and drummer were stuck in a van in a snowstorm and couldn’t make it to the venue,” recalls Martin. “So Dianne and I had to play as a duo. We ended up having a great time, and we even talked about trying it again sometime. So when I decided to start this series with a duo concert, I knew I had to call Dianne first. When I asked her, she just said, ‘I’m in.’ So that was that!”

At this point, the rest of the series remains unscheduled – at least for public consumption. And that’s by design. Martin emphasizes that he really does want to make his series different from other concert series in quite a few ways.

“I really don’t want this to be like a typical subscription series,” states Martin. “We’ll announce the details about the next show at the concert with Dianne. I want to create a series that people will enjoy coming to and that will present really great musicians – some of whom the audience may not be that familiar with – in settings they usually don’t perform in. We want to create a sense of trust in the audience that whatever we do, it will be interesting and worthwhile.”

Martin also wants to differentiate the concert series in other ways; from helping the audience avoid convenience fees at ticket outlets to trying to create a less formal feel for the concerts. “I’m selling tickets on my website (www.petermartinmusic.com) as a way for people to get them without a convenience charge. And we’re also trying to bring a more relaxed, club feel to the concert setting. I think that‘s an approach that underscores the spontaneous feel of the music we’re trying to create as well.”

Martin pauses, and then adds a final thought.

“In the end, I guess I’m doing this for selfish reasons, too. I loved playing music in New Orleans because of the way the community embraced the music and the musicians. And I see a glimmer of that happening in St. Louis, and want to help that feeling grow here. St. Louis has great musicians and an audience with a high musical IQ. So what I’m trying to do is to work to build that mindset and mentality here. In away, I think this series is something I hope can be a culmination of what I’ve dreamed of doing professionally over the years. And I’m excited about it!”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who writes frequently on music.

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