Shaun Martin Finally Takes the Lead With “7 Summers”
A lot can happen to a person in seven years. It’s a long enough period of time to ensure that one will inevitably experience some significant personal growth. This was the timetable for keyboardist Shaun Martin’s aptly titled debut album 7 Summers. Over his career, the Grammy-winning funk wizard has been busy supporting artists like Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin, and Snarky Puppy, but on the new album we finally get to hear Martin as a leader. It gives us a new, clearer perspective both on the man’s overpowering talent on the instrument and his personal journey through fear, love, and rejoice over the past seven years.
7 Summers has a diverse palette, reflecting Martin’s work in jazz, hip-hop, gospel, and even some classical. While the album is stylistically varied, the uniquely soulful playing of the Dallas native and his mostly North Texas-based band anchor the overall sound. The personnel choices seem to take a “collective” approach with many contributors such as Nikki Ross, Claudia Melton, Adrian Hulet, Mark Letierri, and Geno Young. Each of these guests brings a distinctive new flavor to the mix, giving the album an additional sense of range.
The songs on the album are grouped into stylistic sections that seem to follow Martin’s musical and personal path. After “Introduction,” in which Martin details the album’s back-story over a heady but bumping groove that leaves our expectations open, we are met with three instrumental tracks that showcase his impressive musicianship. The first is the self-explanatory “One Big Party,” in which we are reminded (for those who haven’t seen this video) that although Martin has dead serious chops, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and intends his music to be fun. The second-line infused track succeeds in bringing the funk with its soulful horn melody, robust percussion, and burning solos. The assorted banter at the end leads into “The Yellow Jacket,” a track that bears some traits of the Snarky Puppy songwriting style while Martin shows flashes of Keith Jarrett with his light touch and pop sensibilities. With a spry drum fill comes “Lotus,” which starts as a seemingly standard bossa nova-inflected composition and continues as such until just before the three-minute mark where Martin’s keys breakdown takes us to church over the pulsing rhythm section. The song climaxes with drum virtuoso Robert “Sput” Searight’s bombastic solo before fading down again, allowing Martin to treat us with a clever quote of Yasiin Bey’s “Umi Says.”
The second group of tracks marks a change in style and the addition of vocals. The almost cinematic quality of “Have Your Chance at Love,” is a pretty jarring transition from “Lotus,” but once we settle into Nikki Ross’ soaring vocal interplay with Martin and the song’s rubato style, the song’s beauty shines through, even if it’s a little cheesy and out of place. “Love, Don’t Let Me Down” has a darker vibe but no less of the romance. Claudia Melton’s dense vocal harmonies ooze out of the speakers in the most pleasing way possible. Perhaps the most out-of-place song on the album is “Long Gone,” a pop-focused composition that is one of the rare moments where perhaps the seven-year span created a lapse in the album’s continuity. The playing on the track is solid and Adrian Hulet’s vocals are warm and heartfelt, but one can’t help but wonder how the song fits in the context of the album.
7 Summers closes with an assorted mix of songs that synthesize what Shaun Martin is about. Ranging from the straight ahead jazz of “Torrent” to the jubilant 6/8 stomp “Madiba” to the uplifting soul on “All In A Day’s Work,” and ending with the classically-tinged “Closing Credits (Requiem For Carolyn),” this last group of tracks underscore Martin’s bountiful musical influences and life experiences as he made the album.
In “All In A Day’s Work,” Geno Young sings, “Say what you want, I gotta do this every day / Chasin’ dreams ain’t never been no 9 to 5 / I’m gon’ keep rollin’ ‘til the wheels fall off, it’s the only thing that makes me feel alive.” These words seem to speak to Martin’s experience over the past seven years. Most musicians probably dream of one day putting out a solo album but it’s often not as easy as it seems. Those like Martin, though, who truly care about their craft, will persevere and do whatever it takes to make it happen. 7 Summers has given us a more expansive depiction of Shaun Martin’s colossal musical talents and also a lens into his world as a human being. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take another seven years for his next release.