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Peterson jazz pianist’s first passion

Jazz pianist Jim Martinez fronts the Jim Martinez Jazz Quartet at the Music in the Mountain's Fall Fest tonight at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. He also performs regularly solo and in a quartet.
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Blame it on the blues. That’s a good title for a song and as good a way as any to explain why Jim Martinez was motivated to test uncharted waters in jazz, although it meant giving up a promising career as a classical pianist.

Yes, you can blame it on the blues.

Why? When he was still in high school, the budding classicist was asked to play a blues number in a school jazz band, even though it was not his bag. But he agreed to give it a go, and what happened next turned him upside down.



“I knew Oscar Peterson had recorded ‘Blues In F,’ so I bought a Peterson album with the tune and transcribed it to get a handle on his licks. I figured if I was going to show off, I might as well go for broke,” said Martinez, who studied the classics for eight years.

That initial brush with Peterson made such an impression on Martinez that he knew he wanted to play like his newfound hero. The upshot? Hello, Oscar Peterson – so long, Bach.




Martinez went on to transcribe 75 or so of Peterson’s originals and his versions of standards, no small feat given the complexity of Peterson’s harmonies, phrasing, and the speed at which his fingers race across the keyboard. Transcriptions gave way to total memorization, which surprises even Martinez.

“I can’t even remember my own phone number,” he joked. “But somehow, when I listen to one of his performances, I record it in my mind.”

While Martinez at one time was pretty much committed to performing Peterson and little else, he’s spread his musical wings. His repertoire now includes his impressions of Fats Waller, Bill Evans and other piano greats. He also incorporates more of himself into everything he plays.

Nevada County audiences can hear Martinez tonight when he performs for a Music of the Mountains audience at Festival Hall at the county fairgrounds. He will be joined by his regular sidemen – drummer Guy Kowarsh and bassist Paul Klempau – and young tenor saxman Joe Berry, a student at Sierra College whom Martinez described as “the next Joe Lovano.”

Although Martinez admits his music will always show Peterson’s influence, he’s playing less of the Canadian’s library these days simply because he didn’t want to become known as solely a Peterson clone.

In searching for a new thrust, Martinez, a devout Christian, discovered that hymns could be laid down in jazz terms. The discovery has opened a whole new window for him.

“I’m playing churches all over America,” said Martinez. “It’s been exciting to play in place like the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. And next year, I’m scheduled to perform on a Tower of Power program that’s watched by 150 million television viewers. Christian music is very popular right now and I think I’m riding the crest of the wave.”

Not every working moment is spent before audiences in houses of worship, however. He’s a regular rat at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho; at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee and other assorted jazz jamborees. And he’s also a representative of Kurzweil Pianos and frequently stages clinics under the firm’s aegis.

Martinez has released five CDs: two devoted to jazz versions of church music; one with Hampton as guest artist; one that is pure Peterson; and one that’s pure Martinez, an album of ballads dedicated to his wife, Suzy. A third jazz praise album is due out momentarily, and a recording with Sacramento vocalist Vivian Lee is in the planning stage.

His greatest thrills to date? Recording sessions with former Peterson drummer Ed Thigpen and Hampton rank high. So does performing an impromptu concert this year exclusively for actor Clint Eastwood, who showed up at a Carmel church too late to hear Martinez’s scheduled show. And being asked by Peterson to read a letter he had written in praise of saxman Benny Golson during a tribute concert a few years ago also stirred Martinez’s adrenaline.

And what of the future?

“I want to keep right on doing what I’m doing as long as people keep coming to hear me play. I want to continue performing Peterson’s work because he’s cut way back on his concert schedule, and I believe someone needs to perpetuate his music,” Martinez said.

“And since 9/11, many Americans are returning to their Christian roots, which means I have a chance to reach new audiences with jazz praise music. I really can’t think of a better place to be in my career than where I am right now.”

KNOW & GO

WHAT: Music in the Mountains1 Fall Fest

WHEN: Tonight through Nov 16. Performances are 8 p.m. with the exception of Sunday1s 3 p.m. matinee.

WHERE: Festival Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

ADMISSION: $18 and $22 for adults and $9 and $11 for youth.

INFORMATION:

265-6124,

(800) 218-2188, http://www.musicinthemountains.org or the MIM box office at 350 Searls Ave., Nevada City.


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