In January 2002, saxophonist James Martin, then a senior at Archbishop Rummel High School, landed his first regular gig: Sunday nights at the Maple Leaf Bar with a New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts classmate named Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
Though many music fans would later claim to have attended those formative Trombone Shorty gigs, Martin remembers some very lonely evenings.
“There were lots of nights when there was literally nobody there,” he recalled. Maple Leaf owner Hank Staples sometimes pulled the plug early, telling the young musicians, “Don’t worry about it.”
Fifteen years later, Martin returns Saturday to the Maple Leaf to celebrate the release of “Something’s Gotta Give,” his second album. He and his regular band — drummer Walter Lundy, guitarist and fellow NOCCA alumnus John Marcey and tuba player Devon Taylor — will be augmented by keyboardist Eduardo Tozzatto.
Martin’s 2012 debut, “Blue,” leaned heavily on the New Orleans songbook: Dr. John’s “Qualified,” James Booker’s “So Swell When You’re Well,” Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” the standards “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and “West End Blues.”
But six of the eight songs on “Something’s Gotta Give” are original compositions. He also covers Allen Toussaint's classic "Southern Nights" and the James Booker favorite "Too Much Blues."
Martin sings on several cuts, including the ballad “Another You.” Throughout the album, his tenor tone is bright and bold, his solos and melodic lines smartly rendered, on an agreeable mix of New Orleans funk and jazz.
“I wanted my first album to be more of a ‘New Orleans album,’ ” Martin said. “While the second album is definitely New Orleans music, I wanted to go in my own direction and do my own take on it.”
Hailing from a family whose roots trace back nearly to New Orleans’ founding, Martin grew up in Metairie and River Ridge. His first instrument as a child was the guitar.
But when he tried to join the Rummel jazz band as a sophomore, he discovered that membership in the marching band was a required prerequisite. And the marching band had no need for a guitarist.
He rejected a suggestion to take up the cymbals in favor of the “much cooler” tenor sax. His father had been a tenor saxophonist, clarinetist and drum major at De La Salle High School, so sax aptitude ran in the family.
As a senior, Martin took classes at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Trombone Shorty recruited him for the original Orleans Avenue. As an 18-year-old in summer 2002, Martin made his first trip to New York City to perform with Shorty at the Apollo Theater and Central Park.
Attending Loyola University on a full scholarship, he double-majored in jazz saxophone and music industry studies while still performing at night and touring.
After graduating in 2006, he turned down a scholarship to the University of New Orleans master’s program to hit the road full-time with Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Onstage, Martin and his sax were often up front alongside Shorty.
But after seven years together, they parted ways.
“He wanted to be up front by himself, with the horn section in the back,” Martin said. “I wasn’t happy about that. And young guys in their 20s don’t always say things the right way.”
More recently, Martin spent three years backing Shorty’s cousin Glen David Andrews; he’s also worked with veteran R&B bandleader Ernie Vincent.
Along the way, he performed in 48 states, all but North Dakota and Hawaii. Most of that touring was with Shorty.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to him. He definitely supported me when I was a member of his band and when I was a member of Glen’s band.
“But being in his group is a full-time job — those guys are on the road constantly. I’d get homesick, and I didn’t have time to focus on my own compositions and albums.”
His own music is now his primary focus, even as he also performs as a member of the Soul Brass Band and makes the occasional TV appearance. His own band has a weekly Friday night gig at the French Quarter martini bar RF’s.
His saxophone is still his primary calling card, but he’s increasingly committed to singing as well.
“I feel like it connects with people more. When you write lyrics, you’re going to have to sing them. Not a lot of other sax players do that. That forces me up to the microphone in a way.”
And up front is where he wants to be.
What: A CD release show for the saxophonist/singer's new 'Something's Gotta Give.'
When: 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28.
Where: Maple Leaf Bar, 8316 Oak St.
Tickets: At the door.
More info: www.jamesmartinmusic.com