With its repertoire dedicated to standards popularized by greats like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Antonio Jobim, Duke Ellington, and Louis Amstrong, you might say that Pasadena, California jazz group Martini Five-0 is stuck in the past. "That's alright with us," says band leader and drummer David Walker, "we consider it an honor to perform these classics from The Great American Songbook, and we have a great time doing it."
Martini Five-0 grew out of jam sessions between Walker and English bassist Sam Norman. “Sam had just arrived from England a couple weeks before we first met at the Los Angeles Music Academy. I had been inspired by Diana Krall and her unbelievable band of musicians. I was looking for an opportunity of my own to do something fresh with standards. The word around campus was that Sam had a lot of experience playing bebop overseas, so I invited him to play."
Says Walker, "Our first jam session took place in one of the school's drum practice rooms, which was somewhat smaller than your average walk-in closet. In order to fit his massive upright bass in the tiny space, Sam had to set-up right behind me. It was kind of ironic - here we were trying to get to know each other, both musically and personally, yet I was stuck staring at the wall while he was stuck staring at the back of my head. Nonetheless, we burned through Rhythm Changes at breakneck speed for about 30 minutes (if I recall correctly, Sam had to perform it for a class the next day and was thus attempting to drill it irrevocably into his soul). Next, we briefly tried our luck with 'Straight, No Chaser.'" Says Walker, "Sam and I are still performing together - both with Martini Five-0 and on other people's projects - I guess I must have passed the audition!"
Shortly after their first jam, the duo decided to try booking a gig. Says Walker, "Sam and I got a wild hair, so I called in a favor at a club in Orange County - Don the Beachcomber. We had only been playing together for a couple weeks and had nothing to give the venue - no demo, no picture...I'm not even sure if we'd decided on a name yet. I honestly didn't think there was much of a chance of getting a gig sight unseen. But they booked us...as a trio!" "That was a bit of a problem," explains Walker. "I guess we hadn't really counted on getting the gig, so we hadn't bothered securing a guitarist beforehand."
Norman suggested that they enlist one of their instructors at the music academy - highly regarded jazz guitarist Brad Rabuchin, who has released two solo records (described as "world music meets jazz") in addition to having played for Ray Charles, Louie Bellson, Diane Schuur, Bonnie Rait, Stevie Wonder, and Willie Nelson, among others. "I told Sam that it was a crazy idea," says Walker. "I loved the prospect of Brad applying his technically stunning, quasi-psychedelic musings to the repertoire of standards we were working on. But I just didn't think Brad would agree to do it. Sam thought it was worth a shot, so with a fair amount of trepidation, I made the call. As it turned out, Sam was right."
The instrumental trio began performing regularly at Happa Restaurant, in Gardena and Elements Restaurant, at the Doubletree Hotel in Monrovia.. "Back then, we were experimenting with different genres. In addition to standards, we were messing around with exotica, Hawaiian tunes, surf music...one gig even ended up being an All Beatles Night."
But the group was also trying out various singers from time to time, including up-and-coming LA singer/songwriter Jessica Byrd. "Eventually, it became crystal clear that Jessica was the right choice for us," recalls Walker. "As we continued working with her, our repertoire also began to take shape. A somewhat folksy, singer/songwriter type might not seem the natural choice for standards," concedes Walker. "But Jessica has an undeniable instinct for interpreting songs from the Great American Songbook in a way that is fresh and vivacious yet still captures the timeless spirit that made them classics. Audiences love her."