Shaun Martin has had a pretty good run playing music. He's played with some of the biggest artists in the world of R&B and gospel music, including Chaka Khan and Kirk Franklin. He's also a Grammy-winning musician — not once, but four times over. One thing he hasn't done though: release his own album. But that's something the pianist and producer is about to change, and he's making sure his friends in Dallas are a part of it.
Martin is just getting back from a European tour with Franklin, and he'll be here just long enough to celebrate the release of Seven Summers, a bit of a departure from his music background in the direction of jazz and hip-hop. The album comes out today and he'll play a release show at The Prophet Bar tomorrow. Then he's heading back on the road, going right back to Europe but this time with Snarky Puppy.
He won three Grammys for best gospel album with Franklin. Last year he won his fourth Grammy with Snarky Puppy for best R&B song and attended the ceremony for the first time. Martin always received invitations, but never expected to win. He remembers getting news of his first win via text message while in church. He was pleasantly surprised, but preferred to be at church that day just the same.
Martin started his album seven years ago, which is where the title comes from. (He also made a point to release it in the appropriate season.) Not surprisingly, he's been too busy working on other peoples’ projects and kept shelving it. Snarky Puppy, for instance, stay busy enough to play a couple hundred shows a year. "It's a wicked schedule," Martin admits. So he had to make the time for himself and, spurred on by the positive response to some of his originals at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, he started refocusing on finishing the album last year once he realized how much time had lapsed.
“It’s a very well-thought-out record,” Martin says, with a laugh. Listening to it now, the mental progression is what strikes him. The songs represent things that had a major impact on his life. A whole section of the album is about love. “Have Your Chance at Love” captures the time when one relationship had ended and he had just met the woman who is now his wife. Martin was scared of being hurt again, but knew he had met someone worth taking a chance on. Once he had taken that chance, he wrote “Love, Don’t Let Me Down.”
Other songs have been directly influenced by his world travels. Martin arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa the day Nelson Mandela died. He had just checked into his hotel room. “Every station had this breaking news thing,” Martin remembers. “But it took forever to say what the breaking news was.”
Having no idea what to expect once the news finally came out, he was worried. But what took place was a massive celebration. “You couldn’t even walk across the street because the streets were just full of people who were celebrating his life,” says Martin. This had a profound effect on him. “That’s the life I want to live. I don’t want people to mourn me when I die. I want them to celebrate the fact that I lived on this earth.” The marching, shouting and dancing from that day inspired the melody for the song “Madiba,” which is Mandela’s nickname.
Seven Summers is a departure from gospel music, which is what Martin mainly produces. The album is a fusion of jazz, classical, R&B and hip-hop. Martin was once part of Erykah Badu’s touring band and also helped write and produce tracks for her Mama’s Gun album. “We’d sit in New York for days and write songs,” he remembers. Badu also collaborated with J Dilla during this time and it had an enormous influence on him. “I’m a J Dilla fan,” he says. “Dilla’s my guy. I wanted to pay homage to that era.”
The album is a love letter to the hip-hop that has inspired him, people like D’Angelo, Q-Tip and the Roots. But Martin puts a jazz spin on it and works mostly with musicians from North Texas. Any time he gets a platform, he tries to share it with his peers from Dallas. “If you give talented people a chance there’s no stopping them,” says Martin.
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But he sees talented people in Dallas who never had a chance and are now frustrated. Ultimately, he hopes to give back by starting a fine arts academy or after-school program. “I learned how to play the piano in Oak Cliff,” Martin explains. He learned classical, jazz, theory and musical history. But he realizes how lucky he was. “There aren’t that many resources for that," he says.
For all his world travels and all his awards, Martin isn't the type of person to lose touch with his roots. He even keeps all of his awards at his parents' house. “I grew up with these people,” he says of Dallas. “We went to high school together, we all went to Williams Chicken together.” He feels that the camaraderie is something you can hear on the album. “There is so much to be told about Dallas,” he says. “There's a huge population of talent.”
SHAUN MARTIN's album release party featuring RC & The Gritz takes place at 8 p.m., Wednesday, July 8, at The Prophet Bar, 2548 Elm St., $10.