Ottawa saxophonist and composer Doug Martin was deeply impressed with Cuba and its remarkable people on the two trips he's taken there – so much so that he's releasing a CD inspired by them.

Spirit of Survival CD cover
Spirit of Survival CD cover

Called Spirit of Survival, the CD will be officially released this Friday and Saturday night, when Martin's quartet performs at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata.

But Martin emphasizes that the music he's written for the CD is not Cuban in style. Like his previous CD, Odyssey [2011], it's based on his experiences rather than directly reflecting the music he heard there.

“I wrote music as I would write it, not as a Cuban would write it.”

The music was based on “my own feelings and my own impressions of places and people,” he said – inspired by everything from Cuba's troubled history, to locations in Havana, to his favourite Cuban liqueur. The front cover illustration is based on a photo Martin took of the Havana skyline.

After his first trip to Cuba in October, 2012, Martin wrote the CD's title track, “Spirit of Survival”, based on the people he met.

The song is “very happy and upbeat”, he said, because it reflects the attitudes of Cuban people, “their approach to life. They live in a situation which is less than ideal, of course, and in spite of that, they have this approach to life which I find a bit remarkable.”

“I've been very impressed with their attitude. I've talked to I don't know how many, hundreds of them on the street and stuff. I've made friends there as well, and they talk about what's bad about Cuba right now, but also while they're talking about it, they're laughing and smiling and making jokes. This is the way they approach their life. I find that admirable.”

Martin's Spanish is limited, and most of the people he's met in areas like central Havana don't speak much English. “So there's a lot of hand gestures and what-not that goes on, but inevitably I manage to get my point across and they to me as well.”

Martin was most recently in Cuba in December, 2014, when he was invited to perform three shows at the Havana Jazz Festival. Eighteen months later, he's still buoyed by the experience.

“I would say that my expectations were definitely exceeded! The kind of reception I got was not what I expected at all. I expected to be at best another pretty face.”

The festival published articles about his group twice in its daily newsletter, and a video clip of one of their shows was shown on Cuban TV. “People in the audience were extremely responsive and we got a lot of comments after every show about how good they thought it was – not just from Cubans but this festival gets people from Canada, and from other places in the world, too. And even from Canadians, they were, 'Oh wow, yeah. That was really good.' or 'That's great. How come I've never heard of you?' ”

Martin performed with three Cuban musicians, all of whom impressed him with their talent. The pianist was Miguel de Armas jr., the son of Ottawa-based Cuban pianist-composer Miguel de Armas; he brought in two of his friends on bass and drums.

It was the first time Martin had heard his music played by Cuban musicians.

“They definitely did their own take on it. They followed the melody lines and that sort of thing fairly closely, but when we got into the solos – OK, bye! It was very interesting and I think this is partially due to their age. They're quite young and they love to just go on, and on, and on with their solos. Which is not really the way I do things – I guess I've had too much experience with solos that go on and on and I fall asleep. There's only a limited amount that you can say. But these guys they went on and on, but they kept finding new phrases and stuff to develop. It was quite interesting. I never had the temptation to curl up and have a nap!"

They also played a lot faster: “the drummer would do the count-ins and we invariably played all of the stuff faster than I normally play it here.”

That didn't affect the eventual CD, though, Martin said. “I had a tendency to go back to my original concept of the tune, in terms of tempo and any other stylistic things.”

The overall caliber of the musicianship at the festival was very high, Martin said. “Wherever I went it was just remarkably good.”

He particularly liked one group called Sexto Sentido [which means Sixth Sense in Spanish], which consisted of four women vocalists-pianists, backed by a saxophonist and a musician on laptop who played music clips. “These four women just blew me away – they were so good. They did some of their own material, as well as, I guess, more traditional Cuban jazz things. Their harmonies were really, really good. They had all this choreography down on stage, too, and it was just immaculate.”

Doug Martin ©2014, Brett Delmage
Doug Martin ©2014, Brett Delmage
After he returned from the festival, Martin took several months to assimilate the experience – and then started writing the rest of the tunes for the CD. “I have to leave a bit of time for things to churn around in my head and start to gel. And then I start to get a feeling for what I want to write about. It takes a little bit of time for me to get a focus, I guess on what I want to do.”

The second song on the CD, a deep, flowing number, is a tribute to one of Martin's favourite Cuban exports: a liqueur called “Legendario”. “It's a very dark rum-based liqueur. I've been down there twice now, and I just bring back as many bottles as I can get! It's great stuff! You can't get it here. It's just beautiful – I've never tasted anything quite like it."

Several songs were inspired by Havana. “On The Malecón” is about a roadway that runs from Old Havana along the coast for about 10km – where young Cubans go to socialize at night. “That's where the guys and the girls are all hanging out and doing what adolescents do. So the tune was written to have strutting sort of swing feel to it.”

“Coco À Go Go” is about Coco taxis – a popular form of transport in Havana – and the sorry state of the roads there.

“They're a little three-wheeled motorcycle and they have a fiberglass shell over the back end of it which looks a bit like a coconut – that's where they get the name from. They're taxis so you can hire them to take you all over the city. It's quite a wild ride. It will seat two, and they have a handle back there which you have to hang onto all the time because the roads are really bad, and they're driving over all these potholes, and they're swerving trying to miss potholes. It's like a ride at the Exhibition – it's crazy!”

“I wrote this piece to be stopping and starting, and hitting bumps. It's supposed to be kind of bumpy, crazy. It's also in 7/4, which is an odd time signature, and it doesn't flow very well. You go 1234123, 1234123, and it's like hitting a wall every seven beats.”

“Santería” is inspired by a religion which originated in Cuba, which is a syncretic mixture of Catholicism and older native religions. Martin said he wrote the song, which features Ottawa guitarist Lucas Haneman, to create the impression of a Santería ceremony.

“The ceremony starts out being low-key, but gradually increases in intensity until all the dancing breaks out and everybody goes crazy. In the solo sections of the tune, I tried to build that way. If you listen to Lucas, he's got the first solo there. It starts out low-key but by the end of it it's just burning!”

On a more serious note, the melancholy “Tainos´ Lament” is about the massacre of the Tainos, a tribe native to Cuba, by the Spanish in the 16th century. According to an appalled account by a Spanish missionary priest who was accompanying the troops, Martin said, the Spanish slaughtered Tainos after they had been invited to dinner by them.

Martin will bring this music back to Cuba in December, when he performs again at the Havana Jazz Festival. He said he hoped to play with the same Cuban musicians as before, but if not, now had enough contacts in Cuba to find other musicians.

His 2014 festival appearance coincided with President Barack Obama's announcement of the gradual resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. “Not much happened that day, anyway, with the people on the street. There was no celebrations or anything.”

But it inspired him to think about the long-term effects of the U.S. coming to Cuba, and the song which closes the album, “An Uncertain Future”.

“As it is now, there are no McDonald's, there's no Burger Kings. There's none of that stuff there. And even though many of the people are very poor, they have a very distinctive culture. Will they lose that?”

“I think many people are wondering just what's going to happen here, and how long it's going to take. Are the Americans just going to take over, pick off where they left decades ago? Or is Raúl Castro, is he going to stand up to them and say, no, you can do this and you can do this, but you can't do that and you can't do that and you can't do that?”

“How is he going to make every attempt to preserve Cuban culture and the distinctiveness of it? To me, that was an uncertain future.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Doug Martin Quartet, with Martin on alto and tenor saxophone, Ian Card on piano, Tom Denison on drums, and Normand Glaude and Tom McMahon on bass, will release Spirit of Survival in shows at the Options Jazz Lounge of the Brookstreet Hotel on Friday, July 8, and Saturday, July 9. The music starts at 8 p.m. each night. There is no cover charge and reservations are not taken.

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