To celebrate his first solo album, singer-saxophonist James Martin made a unique display of filial piety. “I released the album in coordination with my ancestor Francois Martin’s marriage to Marguerite Denes in the St. Louis Cathedral, 250 years prior to the date,” he explains.
In a city where family ties stretch back centuries, you’d be hard pressed to find a musician with deeper New Orleans roots than Martin, who counts a streetcar driver and a comrade of Andrew Jackson among his forebears. The 250th wedding anniversary served as both commemoration and deadline, one landmark in Martin’s larger plan.
When we sit down at the I Club a month after the release of Blue, he sounds a little tired from a bushel of Thanksgiving weekend gigs but secure in his direction. It’s early, the house lights are up in the venue, three tourists sit at the bar, and the television shows the Saints getting off on the wrong foot against the Falcons. I ask about more recent historical influences, specifically the presence of several classic New Orleans R&B tracks on his debut.
“I love it. I always did,” Martin says. “I always grew up hearing those songs. Also, as a songwriter, it’s pretty hard not to dig Allen Toussaint.” Along with versions of the Dr. John/Jesse Hill-penned “Qualified” and James Booker’s “So Swell When You’re Well,” the album features a new take on “Certain Girl,” the Toussaint number made famous by Ernie K-Doe. On backup vocals, playing the role of Benny Spellman (“What’s her name?”), is James Andrews, older brother of Martin’s former bandmate, Trombone Shorty. Martin expects the question; he gets it a lot.
“Troy’s always been a peer, a mentor, a friend,” he says. “But when you’ve been playing together so long and growing as a musician and as a person you may eventually realize at a point, this just doesn’t fit me.” While he admits to “What if?” moments, Martin seems wholly adjusted to the task of constructing his own juggernaut: “There’s still a journey I have to go through, that I’ve been going through. This is what’s life’s about. I’m gonna fight, and play my ass off onstage.”
A week later, the French Quarter at midnight is littered with drunken Santas, shrapnel from a holiday pub crawl. Inside the Hermes Bar at Antoine’s, Martin begins his second set with “Treme Song,” the television show theme. The bar’s windows are open to St. Peter Street and visitors continue to fill the tables, drawn in by his quartet’s energy and the absence of a cover charge. High school football championship games were won and lost at the Superdome earlier today, and now a group of parents in sky blue T-shirts take seats and order martinis. It turns out their team fell today to Archbishop Rummel, Martin’s alma mater, and when the waiter relays the news, Martin offers a joking apology and a cheer for the Raiders. As he carves through the room on the next song, blowing and dipping his knees, he pauses for a breath and tells them, “Next year.”
The crooner angle comes easy to Martin, his looks and voice well suited to the Harry Connick Jr. role of rakish yet sensitive night owl. On Blue, he tilts “Louisiana 1927” toward these strengths, reimagining a great but nearly overused song while taking care to include “West End Blues” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (James Andrews on vocals) as proof of the trad end of his spectrum. On the originals “Another You” and “O Discordia,” Martin shows a grandiose rock sensibility, suggesting other doors for his talent.
At Hermes, though, his skill on saxophone almost overwhelms the setting, if not his very capable band, which includes guitarist John Marcey, himself another NOCCA-trained killer. Martin plays with an easy fluidity yet such bristling force, unreserved if very much within himself, that the room barely feels big enough. The audience loves him and you hope they know how lucky they are to wander in from the sticky streets and amateur contests to find a young lion intent on creative and professional stardom.
Well acquainted with the distance an ambitious New Orleans horn man can travel, Martin is unfazed by the challenges of the grind. Still as he says “a young player,” he gigs regularly with Ernie Vincent, Flow Tribe and Glen David Andrews, siphoning influences and ideas while earning a living and fashioning this new path.
Martin doesn’t blink when faced with that Toussaint-ian query, “What is success?”
“To be the best saxophone player in the city,” he says. “I realized, at one point, I have this talent and if I nurture it a little bit more, I could do anything. I’ve been pushing to see how far I can go.”