When Ottawa saxophonist and composer Doug Martin stepped out before several hundred listeners in Havana, Cuba, in December, he realized he had to pick up his game. It was his second time playing the Havana Jazz Festival – but it was in much bigger halls than his first time in 2014.

Doug Martin (second from right) was impressed with the Cuban musicians he performed with at the Havana Jazz Festival: (l-r) Miguel de Armas jr,  Alain Ledrón,  Arturo Cruz - photo by Roberto Proveyer, 2016
Doug Martin (second from right) was impressed with the Cuban musicians he performed with at the Havana Jazz Festival: (l-r) Miguel de Armas jr, Alain Ledrón, Arturo Cruz - photo by Roberto Proveyer, 2016
“I thought, OK, I've got to take a step upward here because I don't usually get to play venues like that. So I had to come up to the mark and I think we did very well at that. I felt very relaxed and in the groove, in the zone.”

And he'll be using that experience in Ottawa this Friday, playing the same material in a show at the 80-seat Live! on Elgin hall.

In Havana, Martin teamed up with three Cuban musicians: bassist Arturo Cruz, drummer Alain Ledrón, and pianist Miguel de Armas jr., who is the son of Ottawa-based jazz pianist Miguel de Armas. Martin had played with de Armas jr. and Cruz in 2014 as well.

“I think we did two better shows this time than we did last time.”

They performed Martin's original music inspired by his first two trips to Cuba, which he released as a CD, Spirit of Survival, last summer. The pieces on that CD are a tribute to the Cuban people and their “admirable” optimistic approach to life in spite of hardship, but are not Afro-Cuban in style.

Martin said he was reminded again how good the Cuban musicians were, and in particular de Armas jr. “He's a marvelous player!”

All three quickly picked up on Martin's music. “It's all my original music, right, and they'd never seen it before or played it before. We had a couple of rehearsals and it came off very well. I wouldn't say absolutely perfectly 100%, but who cares!"

They played in two halls in the Vedado section of Havana: the Sala Abelardo Estorino and the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, and the audience reception at both was enthusiastic, with lots of applause for solos and songs, Martin said.

“The first one at the Casa de la Cultura, that's an outdoor venue with a great big stage and there's got to be 400 people there. That was the best of the two for sure. We just kicked butt that night!”

Doug Martin at the Spirit of Survival CD release show ©2016 Brett Delmage
Doug Martin at the Spirit of Survival CD release show ©2016 Brett Delmage
Martin arrived in Cuba on December 6, well before the festival, because he got a better deal on airfare. It was only two days after the state funeral for Fidel Castro, who had led Cuba for five decades.

He said he didn't notice any difference in the country or the people. “I talked to some people about the fact that Fidel [Castro] had died. Cubans don't like to talk a lot about politics. I think they feel uncomfortable about it. They don't want to be overheard.”

“The only way that I could explain that fact that it seemed the same to me, is that Raúl [Castro] has been running the show for the last eight years anyway and he still is. So Fidel died, but for the Cubans it doesn't mean anything different. It just means that the TV station is filled up with old footage of Fidel Castro. On their TVs that there was constant rerunning of his speeches. But as far as the people themselves are concerned there was no difference that I could tell.”

Conditions are still difficult for many ordinary Cubans, Martin said.

“There is a kind of rationing system that is still in place there, so you can't just go and buy anything you want like you can here. Rice is certainly always available and chicken. It varies somewhat, but there isn't a lot. You go to the stores, not just food stores but any kind of stores, and there's nothing there. The shelves are half-empty.”

“And they don't have a lot of money because there are two money systems in Cuba. The national money, the Cuban pesos as they're called, are what Cubans are paid in. And the Cuban peso is only worth 1/25 of what they call a convertible peso, which is what the tourists use. And their favourite phrase about the Cuban peso is that it's not worth toilet paper! So they have very little money. They can't go to restaurants.”

When he was there, he said, he took his friends out to restaurants. “It's cheap to eat, anyway, a quarter of what you'd pay here for the same meal. And so I can afford to buy dinner for a whole table-full of people. And they love that because they don't get to do it. They can't afford it, they can't go to any of these places. Even nightclubs are hard for them to go to.”

Martin expects Friday's show at Live! On Elgin to be relaxed, since he'll be accompanied by three longstanding musical friends: pianist Yves Laroche, drummer Tom Denison, and bassist Normand Glaude. Glaude also produced Martin's last two CDs in his studio.

The quartet will primarily play the tunes from Spirit of Survival, plus tunes from Martin's previous CD, Odyssey, other originals, and a few jazz standards. No new compositions, however: Martin said he's been very busy for the last 12 months, but expects to get back to composing soon.

    – Alayne McGregor

The Doug Martin Quartet, with Martin on alto and tenor saxophone, Yves Laroche on piano, Tom Denison on drums, and Normand Glaude on bass, will perform “Survival Music” at Live on Elgin, 2-220 Elgin Street, 2nd Floor (downtown at Lisgar Street, above Dunn's), on Friday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca: