Doug Martin takes Canadian jazz to The Havana Jazz Festival

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

This week, Ottawa saxophonist Doug Martin is having an adventure at the Havana Jazz Festival – one that may provide inspiration for a new album.

He has been invited to perform three shows in theatres in the Cuban capital, as part of the festival. But he’ll be playing with musicians he’s never even met before.

“The only one whose name I know is Miguel de Armas, jr ,” Martin told shortly before he departed for Havana last week.
Yes, the son of Ottawa-based Cuban pianist Miguel de Armas, who began playing here in the spring of 2012, and has quickly made a splash in the Ottawa and Montreal jazz scenes.

“When I finally realized I wasn’t going to be taking any musicians from here, and that I wanted to use Cuban musicians, I approached Miguel and asked if his son would be willing to play for me. And so the son, Miguel junior, is picking the other two musicians and I’m not sure who they are.”
The band will be de Armas jr. on piano, plus bass and drums, and possibly one or more conga players. They’ll be playing primarily Martin’s compositions, plus a few standards. He’s looking forward to hearing an Afro-Cuban take on his music, which is mainstream modern jazz.

“I’m sure they’ll have their own ideas, their own style, their own way of doing things. A lot of my tunes have never had a conga player in them, so it will be interesting to hear what that turns out to be.”

He’s already sent his charts to Cuba and was hoping to rehearse for a few days before the group’s first show at on Wednesday, December 17, at the Jardines del Teatro Mella theatre. They will also perform on Friday at Café Miramar, and on Saturday at Pabellón Cuba.

But he expected a fair amount of improvisation – not only in the music, but also in the arrangements. “Definitely it’s going to be one minute to the next. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It will be an adventure for sure.”

The adventure first started in October, 2012, when Martin visited Cuba, and brought a few copies of his most recent CD, Odyssey, with him. “I never thought anything would happen, but just by chance I happened to meet a guy who had a jazz show on Radio Taino in Havana. And I gave him a couple CDs and he checked them out and he really liked them, so they started playing them on the radio down there.”

“And then I conceived the idea a little later on maybe if they liked my music there I could parlay this into playing at their jazz festival. So I managed to get a copy of it to the jazz festival people there at the Ministry of Culture and then they invited me to come down and play.”

Martin said he was excited to get the invitation. “After a couple moments of disbelief [laughs], I was elated to say the least. I’d been working on it for a while, like maybe six months trying to get it. Things are hard to do in Cuba, especially if you’re emailing and whatnot, because their computers keep breaking down. So it took forever for this to happen and so when it finally did, I thought ‘Ahhhh… finally, at last!’ ”

This is the 30th year of the Havana Jazz Festival, which was founded when Bobby Carcasses, and other Cuban jazz musicians presented the first jazz concert at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza in downtown Havana. For many years it has featured major Cuban jazz musicians like Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, as well as renowned Americans like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Haden. But what it doesn’t have is a website or an on-line listing of who’s actually playing there each year.

Martin said he was going to be in Cuba for 10 days and wanted to hear as many festival concerts as possible, but “I have no idea who else is playing there”.

The festival also can’t afford to cover Martin’s expenses or the wages of his musicians, so he started a crowd-funding campaign on in September. He was happy with the response ($2640 of his $5000 goal). It will cover most of his expenses and “my paying the Cuban musicians which I certainly plan to do – and pay them handsomely by their standards. And a lot of people were very generous in helping me out, so I was pleased all around.”

In his funding pitch, Martin said “It is an honour to be invited to this prestigious festival since not many non-Cuban musicians get to perform there. And it will be an honour to represent Canada as well, to show people who know little about us that Canada has much more to offer the world than hockey & bad weather.”

Martin’s last CD, Odyssey, was inspired by a trip across Europe he took in 2007. Any chance that this trip will inspire his next CD?
“I think there’s a good possibility of that, yes. I’ve already been working on a couple of tunes, but the experience itself is going to be the inspiration. It’s when I come back that’s when the creative sparks will fly, I hope.”

And what else will he bring back besides the memories and musical inspiration? Probably some rum and cigars.

– Alayne McGregor; photo ©Brett Delmage, 2014