Marcus Strickland and the Sum of All Parts

To saxophonist and composer Marcus Strickland, the terms and descriptions that most people use to differentiate between musical styles are obstacles to creativity that deserve to be swept into history’s dustbin. “I’m no longer really thinking in terms of genres,” he says. “I think genres are obsolete, actually. A lot of people try to have these hard definitions — ‘jazz has got to have this and pop has to have that’ — but the more they do that, the more foolish they seem.”

These assertions are more than just theoretical. On the recently released Blue Note album People of the Sun, Strickland and the core members of his Twi-Life band — keyboardist Mitch Henry, bassist Kyle Miles and drummer Charles Haynes — touch on jazz, hip-hop, R&B, funk and more on a collection of vibrant, imaginative music whose eclecticism mirrors the way many of us consume music these days — on streaming services, where a universe of sound is just a click away. “My records are basically a playlist, and playlists aren’t just one genre, one mood,” Strickland says. “Rather, it’s like being a deejay and making sure the crowd gets all kinds of different flavors and different ways to move their body.”

For example, he continues, “You might want to have something that appeals to the head nodders — the hip-hop people. And other times you might want to have the movement be a little more toward the hip area, so you could put more African rhythms in there. The groove between the bass and the drums determines a lot of what’s going on, stemming from the blues. And that’s what I use as a guideline rather than genres.”

Twi-Life’s live sets, which crackle with kinetic energy, exemplify this approach, and so do People of the Sun highlights such as “On My Mind.” The track knits together disparate elements shaped to support three very different voices: soul futurist Bilal, underground hip-hop legend Pharoahe Monch and orator Greg Tate, who frames the piece with timeless meditations on the nature of love.

An author, educator and founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, circa the mid-1980s, Tate has been working toward breaking down musical barriers for decades, and he recognizes Strickland as a kindred spirit. “At one point, people put the burden on Wynton Marsalis for a reluctance to combinate the genres,” he says. “So it has taken a while for Marcus’ generation to really maximize the way they can contour and contextualize and realign the music along a modern hip-hop and R&B axis sonically. But it’s totally encouraging to see jazz musicians wanting to stay in the studio as long as it takes to get these things together. It’s not the typical jazz session, where you track for one or two or three days and then mix what’s there. It’s a whole other thing.”

Indeed, Strickland considers People of the Sun, on which he also plays bass clarinet and contributes drum programming, to be the latest step in his own personal aural evolution. But even as he’s constantly seeking the fresh and the new, he’s careful not to forget the lessons he learned growing up alongside another musical boundary-pusher, drummer E.J. Strickland, his identical twin (see sidebar). According to Marcus, “It’s kind of like I’m digging back into my musical origins by making the records I am right now — records that don’t pay that much attention to genres and that pay more attention to who I am musically.”

In his hometown of Miami, Strickland was introduced to a slew of different sounds. “I grew up around a lot of Cubans and Haitians,” he recalls. “I heard Haitian and Cuban music all the time, and when I write, my songs tend to have very rhythmically involved stuff going on. So I’m very appreciative of the many cultures that clashed in my environment.”

Perhaps an even larger musical influence was his father, Michael Strickland, a lawyer by trade, but one with an inspirational specialty. “He was an incredible classical percussionist,” Strickland says of Michael’s time with the Fort Lauderdale Symphony Orchestra, “and he loved jazz and all types of music. When my mother was pregnant, he would put her stomach up to the speakers and play all kinds of things — Parliament and Coltrane, and then some Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder.”

His mom, Vanessa Strickland, was an appreciator of music rather than a player. But Strickland believes her background in math — she taught algebra before becoming a principal — boosted his music, too. “When you think in numbers,” he says, “it really helps things like compositions.”

Marcus Strickland: “It’s kind of like I’m digging back into my musical origins by making the records I am right now — records that don’t pay that much attention to genres and that pay more attention to who I am musically.” Photo: Petra Richterova

Not that he advocates turning songs into complex equations. “I think a lot of what’s been alienating some jazz artists from audiences is that they kind of take the rhythm out of their music and make things a little bit more heady instead of body-oriented,” he says. “A lot of times I feel that, with certain jazz musicians, they’re preaching to the choir, to people who play instruments or have an intellectual way of connecting with the music. But if you go back in time and check out Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and even Coltrane, you can see that what they did was very rhythmical. I feel that the more poppin’ it is, the more dance-oriented, the more connection we can have with people outside of ourselves.”

He honed this philosophy after moving from Florida to New York City in order to attend the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. “School was a vehicle to get to New York and network for me and many of my colleagues: Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno, Casey Benjamin, Georgia Anne Muldrow,” he says. “We loved all kinds of music, we listened to all kinds of music, and music wasn’t only appreciated in a classroom. It wasn’t seen as something in a Petri dish. We lived music all the time.”

His education was furthered by the five years he spent playing in a combo led by drummer extraordinaire Roy Haynes. “A lot of times when we got on the bandstand at sound check, I would know exactly what song he was playing,” Strickland remembers. “That taught me a lot about how melodic drums can be and also how important rhythmic phrasing is through melody. And when we were learning songs, he would say something like, ‘I want you to listen to the phrasing of Sarah Vaughan, because that’s the way I’m hearing it.’ So I would check that out and see how the melody connected with the rhythm section. I learned a great deal from that, and also that age is just a number. He didn’t even pay attention to how old he was and just focused on really being in the moment.”

Marcus Strickland: “If you go back in time and check out Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and even Coltrane, you can see that what they did was very rhythmical. I feel that the more poppin’ it is, the more dance-oriented, the more connection we can have with people outside of ourselves.” Photo: Petra Richterova

In 2002, when he was in his early 20s, Strickland turned heads in the jazz scene by finishing third in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone competition. But by then he’d already completed his debut album, 2001’s At Last, and five years later he issued Twi-Life, which he views as a personal milestone. “I combined all my beat-making and all my other musical influences into one singular expression,” he explains. “I was still keeping things kind of separate back then. Twi-Life is a double record, and half of it was my acoustic quartet and the other half was my Twi-Life quartet. But now, when I release a Twi-Life record, it’s the whole me. I’m no longer separating things. There’s no need to do it. It’s just who I am.”

The 2016 Twi-Life release Nihil Novi advanced this notion thanks in part to the assistance of singer, songwriter and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who produced it. “That really brought the production side into my arsenal of musical endeavors,” Strickland says. “Working with Meshell, I got to see how all that stuff works on pre-production, post-production and how she uses the studio as yet another instrument for making music.”

For People of the Sun, Strickland took the production reins himself, with a goal of blending more of a live element with his newly polished studio skills. But he also embraced experimentation, as on “Marvelous,” a showstopping mid-tempo scorcher with impassioned singing by guest vocalist Akie Bermiss. “I wanted to treat the horns as if they were sampled — as if the horn lines I wrote were cut off a record and put deeply into the mix, way in the background volume-wise,” he says.

That Strickland would not only embrace the sound of sampling but choose to pay homage to it indicates an open-mindedness that Tate finds bracing. “Many horn players, no matter how advanced their aesthetic, tend to have a whole notion about the purity of their sound,” he says. “They spend tens of thousands of hours developing it and refining it and claiming it. So you find that a lot of them don’t want a certain amount of reverb or texturing or coloring put on their sound if they can help it. But there’s an art and a science to that kind of mix. That’s why classic hip-hop records sound as great as classic Blue Note records in their own way.”

Strickland seconds this observation. He bubbles over with enthusiasm when talking about favorite hip-hop and modern soul albums, including Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 1 and D’Angelo’s Voodoo, both of which feature the efforts of the late, great J Dilla. “Society loves to look at hip-hop and be snooty,” Strickland says, “but these are amazing musicians. I regard them just as highly as jazz musicians, classical musicians, any kind of musicians. To me, they’re just musicians.”

These days, Strickland is equally enthralled by voices, like the one singer Jermaine Holmes brings to “Aim High,” a tune whose irresistibly dirty groove is thickened by bass clarinet. “I’m really in touch with melodies — having an actual song that somebody can sing when they go home or that will haunt them in their sleep, rather than playing something that’s incredibly intricate just for the sake of it,” he says.

This down-to-earth quality is captured perfectly by “Black Love,” a cut with a visual corollary. “Every now and then, I’ll post this picture of my dad with a pat-down Afro and corduroy bellbottoms and my mom with a perfectly round blow-out Afro and a velvet mini-skirt — and they both have platform shoes.” He laughs before adding, “That’s how you can tell it’s from the ’70s: Both males and females have platforms on. And when I post the photo, somebody in the comments section will usually put ‘#blacklove.’ So I wrote about how the idea of black love made me feel. And then, to add the last flavor, I interviewed people close to me and asked them about what black love means to them. I caught them off-guard. I didn’t want them to prepare an answer. I wanted it to be like a conversation in real time, and I was a fly on the wall.”

The results fit no category, but to Tate, Strickland’s recordings have plenty of precedents. “It all seems very natural,” he says, “because you’re dealing with blues improvisation and black spoken vernacular and all these traditions that have kind of converged, from the church to the fields to the schoolyards to the streets.”

These settings are linked, as Strickland understands. “This is a cultural happening, and it’s from my people. Greg Tate talks about it. Miles Davis talked about it. Max Roach talked about it. Musicians as early as Duke Ellington and even Jelly Roll Morton talked about it — not subscribing to the limitations that genre has accumulated over the years. So what we’re doing is just ignoring what rules are applied to genre and paying more attention to who we are as individuals and also who we are culturally.”

He’s not the only person traveling along this path, he stresses. “I love listening to Marquis Hill. I love listening to Theo Croker and Braxton Cook and Ben Williams and so many others. And what all of us are playing is black American music. We’re not thinking about jazz or any of these genre names that don’t really have anything to do with what’s going on.”

Jazz purists fearful that change will dilute the music they love are missing the point, Strickland argues. “Sometimes when we create something, it’s not looked upon as high art at first,” he says. “Later on, it is. But the main thing is that we’re always grinding against the status quo, and that’s the thing that gives what we do an edge and makes it very likable to youth. We all want to have our say, and that’s what’s going on right now. I think great things are happening, and people will catch on. And by the time that happens, we’ll be on to the next thing.” – Michael Roberts

Photos by Petra Richterova

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