The Miami native has been highly in demand as a sideman to GRAMMY-nominated Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth Band, As Well As Russell Malone, Dafnis Prieto, Roxana Amed, Ignacio Berroa & Many More
Fifteen years after the release of Evolution/Revolution, his first album as a leader, keyboardist, composer, and arranger Martin Bejerano still insists that he is not a great Latin piano player. His growing legion of fans, however, would respectfully yet adamantly disagree. Yes, his straight-ahead jazz chops dazzle with renewed energy and his way with a ballad is more than just arresting. But there’s no denying that he has come to terms with the special obligation he has to represent his Cuban heritage through his performances.
“I’m not someone who is satisfied with doing just one kind of music,” Martin readily admits, pointing to the broad stylistic diversity represented by the 10 tracks that make up the beguiling program of #CubanAmerican, his fourth release as a leader. Significantly, he is joined by the same two rhythm section partners who have been with him since the inception of his trio in 2007 – an example of longevity that’s rare in jazz today. Havana-born drummer Ludwig Afonso has performed with an eclectic group of artists, from Spyro-Gyra to guitarist Richard Bona and pianist Hector Martignon, while Edward Pérez is a first call bassist in New York City who has immersed himself in jazz, Brazilian, Afro-Peruvian, and Latin jazz styles and has performed with Paquito D’Rivera and Lee Konitz, among other notables. On several tracks, the presence of Colombian percussion whiz Samuel Torres adds extra rhythmic fire.
Born in Miami to a North American mother and a Cuban father, Martin began to show some interest in the piano when he was six years of age, picking out some tunes played by his mother. But it was not love at first sound. He preferred to spend his idle time playing baseball with his friends and dreamed about playing the drums. His mother put her foot down and offered her son a deal. If Martin would agree to take piano lessons for a year, he could switch to drums if, at the end of the year, he remained uninterested in the instrument. Happily, his mother’s intuition proved to be infallible, and the career of a budding keyboard talent was launched.
Growing up, Martin’s interest in music was fostered by both parents. His mother was particularly influential. Her great love was big band music, and Martin was exposed to the sounds of swing-era icons. He played trumpet as a youngster and began to solo on the instrument in junior high school long before he had an opportunity to solo on piano. He was infatuated with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, who was then at the peak of his fame. He concedes that he was more drawn to horn players in high school than pianists. One that captured Martin’s attention was the hard bop saxophonist Charlie Rouse, noted for his collaboration with Thelonious Monk. Ironically, his knowledge of pianist Keith Jarrett came not through jazz sources but through his classical piano teacher. Martin admits that the first time he played a montuno – the repeated rhythmic pattern played on the piano in Afro-Cuban music – was in his high school jazz band.
By the age of 15, Martin was considered a professional, performing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Mexican American Bi-National Symphony. He graduated from the esteemed New World School of the Arts and received a full scholarship to attend Florida State University. Martin earned a master’s degree from the University of Miami and today heads the jazz piano department at the university’s Frost School of Music.
An early 2000s tenure in New York City led to innumerable opportunities to perform with a succession of A-list jazz artists, further enhancing Martin’s reputation. Notably, he was engaged to perform, tour, and record with the quartets of guitarist Russell Malone and drummer Roy Haynes. Both associations proved to be long-term and further burnished Martin’s reputation as an accomplished pianist at home in both mainstream and Afro-Cuban settings.
The songs on #CubanAmerican reflect the pianist’s inherent curiosity and unique way of building a repertoire. “Ay Cosita Linda” (Oh Pretty Thing) and “Mi Cafetal” (My Coffee Plantation) are tunes that, although wildly popular in Cuba 70 years ago, were not of Cuban origin. Rather, they were penned by Colombian composers and originally set to rhythms not inherently Cuban. Martin’s circuitous methodology here is ingenious as he gives these venerable tropical music hits new life, transforming them into something thoroughly contemporary and compelling. His composition “Yo No Bailo” (I Don’t Dance) is a poignant admission that first impressions can be deceiving. “Origin Story” modulates between dreamy soundscapes and seething Afro-Cuban percussive jams, propelled by a relentless bass tumbao (ostinato). Curiously, he originally intended the session to be totally acoustic, but after critically listening to the takes, he realized the program “didn’t hit hard enough.” The solution? The 47-year-old musician added synthesizer voicings of various complexities on six of the session’s tracks, creating orchestral depth and well-focused energy that serve the date well.
Throughout #CubanAmerican Martin’s playing is unwaveringly virtuosic and joyous, sumptuous, and impassioned. And, as he reminds us once again, “It’s not Cuban music and not American music. It’s Cuban American music.”