42 Shades of Martin Lesch
Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Martin Lesch leans over a baby grand piano, lost in the moment and oblivious to an impromptu conga line that snakes joyously through the Jazz Corner on a sold-out Sunday evening. He eventually eyes the gyrating celebration, and a smile briefly creases his face; then he’s back to attacking the keys and pacing the popular Deas Guys sextet down the homestretch of a Motown-heavy set of familiar favorites that apparently always sparks cheers and dancing abandon.
Lesch is back at it the next night, this time fronting the Martin Lesch Band as it rolls through a selection of Delta blues, Ray Charles classics and R&B standards that reflect a deep affection for seminal American music. The stellar band features the same rhythm section from Deas Guys, drummer Chris Russell and bassist Clarence Williams, in addition to Danny Dennison on horns and soulful vocalist Whitley Deputy, who enthralls the audience, then gives way as each instrumentalist steps forward for learned and tastefully extended solos.
The venerable Jazz Corner remains Lesch’s home court for a third consecutive evening, this time joined on Tuesday by club owner and horn player Bob Masteller in a quintet that journeys even deeper into the sometimes neglected great early American songbook. The ensemble’s fusion of early Louie Armstrong-era classics, ragtime, Dixieland and vintage New Orleans stride tunes reveal the roots of modern jazz with precision, love and historical accuracy.
Many musicians would be content, or maybe just too tired, after three straight nights of three-hour sets to do anything but hoist a glass or two and head for home. But it’s not unusual for Lesch to then hop in his car, an already packed keyboard rig at the ready, and head for another island nightspot to sit in with area rock bands.
“Jazz is obviously my primary focus, but I really do love to play it all,” said Lesch, no jazz elitist and a linchpin of such legendary local rock outfits as Trophy Wife and Spare Parts that reunite from time to time when the stars align just so. He recently joined fast-rising Cranford and Sons, adding earthy Hammond organ chords to the band’s Americana approach, and he’s usually the sole accompanist when Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Angie Aparo sets up shop for shows on Hilton Head.
But what could be the most remarkable aspect of Lesch’s prolific and highly regarded talent—fellow musicians toss out terms like “world class” without hesitation—is that he’s probably lucky to be playing at all.
“I came down with carpal tunnel (syndrome) in 1997 before I first came down here from New York to record, and I couldn’t really play for a long time,” he said. “It was depressing. First it hit my right hand, and it was so bad it was difficult to sleep because of the pain… I couldn’t play for more than five or ten minutes at a time when my career was just starting to take off with my rock band and session work.”
And it hasn’t really gone away, a painful and unpredictably recurring malady that takes on a particularly nightmarish potential when one earns a living playing keyboards. Yet Lesch perseveres with a positive approach that blends appropriate exercise, patience, acceptance and a dogged refusal to let it cripple his love of music. He even finds a positive side to the situation.
“I thrive on practicing all the time,” he said, “and when I couldn’t use my right hand, I had no choice but to concentrate on using just my left; that really helped me with stride music.”
A New Orleans-born style of music that migrated north to Harlem in the 1920s, stride demands a pulsing and highly rhythmic left hand that alternates bass notes and four-beat chords while the right handles syncopated melody lines in often flamboyant fashion. It blends blues and ragtime and led to boogie-woogie, honky-tonk and what is now considered modern jazz.
“I think of it as the pizza of jazz…you just have to like it,” Lesch said with an easy laugh. “It’s up tempo and fun; it’s melodic and it’s still dangerous and has all that character. If you don’t like Fats Waller, well, you’re just not going to ever get it.”
Lesch is surely a stride master himself, but beyond brief mentions of pianists Waller and Oscar Peterson he’s surprisingly straightforward about his real musical hero: horn legend Louie Armstrong. “To me, he invented jazz and everybody else stands on his shoulders,” Lesch said. “The structure and timing of today’s jazz all comes from him.
He didn’t even sing early in his career, yet he still invented scat. The only other person who might have changed things in a similar way to him is maybe Miles Davis.”
Lesch studied music theory at Berklee College of Music and the University of Buffalo, then joined a touring rock band before deciding it was time for change. Disenchanted and in lingering pain, he came to Hilton Head to record his first album, entitled Bambino in tribute to his beloved New York Yankees, and soon found like-minded musicians to tour in support of his New Orleans-style debut. But life on the road has its obvious drawbacks, and Lesch soon realized, “I just wanted to sit down and play the piano instead of driving all the time.”
He soon hooked up with bassist Joe Vicars and drummer Jack Friel, forming the nucleus of Trophy Wife and Spare Parts, with respective lead guitarists John Wilkins and Craig Coyne, and settled into a gentler island lifestyle that focused on local gigs with steady leisure visits to the Jazz Corner. That’s where he met Kelli, the club’s general manager and now his wife of eight years, and launched initial onstage stints with owner Masteller who shares his love of traditional jazz
Still, the road beckons as his two-year tenure with singer Reggie Deas and company requires regular weekend trips to Pawley’s Island and often beyond. Yet Lesch seems happy and content at age 42, relaxing in a spacious if spartan studio off New Orleans Road where he continues to work constantly on his craft, surrounded by an arsenal of cherished vintage keyboards.
His carpal tunnel is mostly in check. “I adopted a philosophy where I refuse to let it control me,” he said, and he cites Buddhism as an integral force in his life. “It’s all about living in the moment and getting lost in what’s going on around you.
“That’s why I never stop practicing. When you discover something new, it’s like the sun coming out on a brand new day. I don’t chase anything except to become a better player. It may sound cliché, but it really is about the art, and you cash in on so many different levels.”
Lesch pauses, strikes a few chords on his Hammond M-3, and assesses his ongoing journey and future as a musician who has overcome physical adversity and become an integral part of the scene minus marquee status or blaring headlines.
“I’m just happy to say I’ve been able to support myself as a musician and I’ve done alright. I know my ability might fade, and there may be a time when I can’t play a million notes or do all this work. So you can’t take anything for granted, and all my ambitions are about just getting better.”