Marcus Strickland is a saxophonist whose seventh album, Triumph of the Heavy Vol. 1 & 2, comes out tomorrow. His first two albums, 2001’s At Last and 2002’s Brotherhood, were released on Fresh Sound; 2009’s Of Song, a collection of standards, was on Criss Cross. But the bulk of his discography—2006’s Twi-Life (a double-disc set documenting two very different bands), 2007’s Open Reel Deck, 2009’s Idiosyncrasies and now Triumph of the Heavy—has been on his own Strick Muzik label.
Strickland’s music is self-contained in another important way. He’s a twin, and his brother E.J. is his drummer—or, at any rate, the two men are musical partners. They work separately, of course; E.J. also drums for Ravi Coltrane, while Marcus was a member of Roy Haynes‘s band for five years and has also worked steadily with Jeff “Tain” Watts‘s group and Dave Douglas‘s Keystone.
Triumph of the Heavy is divided into a live disc and a studio disc. The studio recordings feature a quartet: Marcus on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones and clarinets, David Bryant on piano, Ben Williams on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums. The live disc, recorded in May 2010 at Firehouse 12, features everyone but Bryant, and Marcus limits himself to soprano and tenor saxophones.
The group’s music has a strong sense of swing, but a powerful, polyrhythmic groove emerges quite often, too. This is something Strickland has explored on earlier albums in more depth—the group heard on the second disc of Twi-Life featured guitarist Lage Lund and electric bassist Brad Jones alongside the brothers, while Open Reel Deck swapped those two out for Mike Moreno and Carlos Henderson, respectively, while adding trumpet from Keyon Harrold and spoken-word segments from a poet going simply by Malachi. Even in an all-acoustic format, though, the saxophonist and his brother bring the funk. Idiosyncrasies, while recorded with the Strickland-Strickland-Williams trio, included versions of songs by Björk, Andre 3000 and Stevie Wonder, and E.J. Strickland breaks the music on Triumph of the Heavy‘s “Mudbone” down to a taut, almost Meters-esque shuffle. This same discipline is heard in Marcus Strickland’s playing. Unlike many contemporary players, his lines never seem to wander. They have a starting point and a resolution, and a coherence in between that displays a stark unwillingness to waste his breath or the audience’s time. In this, and given his extremely humanistic, almost crying tone, especially on the soprano (an instrument I almost always loathe, but not in his hands) and the clarinet, he’s strongly, and pleasingly, reminiscent of Eric Dolphy.
Here’s video of the band performing “Prime” live at Firehouse 12, split into two parts:
The interview which follows is condensed from a longer version that will appear in the upcoming print edition of Burning Ambulance.
This is your second two-CD set to feature different instrumentation on each disc. What attracts you to that format? Do you think being a twin causes you to embrace dualistic concepts?
Not really; I think mostly what brings those things on is, it may be a period of time where my output is greater than the amount of releases that I want to make, so I’ll put the releases together so I can immediately get to the next thing. I’d definitely rather do that than release both of them separately, because by the time I get to the second release I’ll be on to the third one. [laughs]
Why do you choose to self-release your music?
I feel it’s a necessity right now because those few labels that I want to be on don’t seem to have much interest in signing me. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not somebody that’s going to wait around and see if they’re going to do it or not. I want to release the music and get to the next thing. And it’s easier to do that these days, also. So it’s—if you have the drive to do it and you have the resources to do it, I say why not? You’ll make more of a percentage of the sale. So it’s a very good learning process, too. You really learn the ins and outs of the music industry. And it’s—yeah, it’s definitely not like it was years ago. I think a lot of people are still trying to hold on to that. “Yeah, I’m gonna come to New York, I’m gonna get signed, and I’m gonna become a star!” No. It doesn’t work that way. So most of us are gonna have to do most of the work ourselves, and someway, somehow produce the product ourselves. That’s the new template now. But it’s not that hard to do it these days because of sheer technology. So yeah, I put out the music myself. Every now and then, I might do a record with a label. But until I find the right fit, I’m just gonna keep on putting the music out myself.
What do you see as the link between this particular live set and the studio material on the other disc?
I think the link is probably just the progression from my trio back to the quartet. I think it’s a very good documentation of that. And I think it’s very—it’s a pretty interesting way to document music, to have totally different processes going on. One being a process whereby the group has been playing together for a long while and playing the material for a long while, live in front of an audience. It’s such a different energy than when you’re in the studio and can be extra meticulous and do more than one take. [laughs] Having that safety net kinda changes the energy. But both are just as exciting as each other. It’s just a different kind of energy. That’s one thing I really found fun about this project, was to have both of those processes on the same release.
You seem to be as attracted if not more to groove as opposed to swing. Can you talk about that a little?
Yeah, sure. Lately I’ve been hearing, when I hear a tune in my head, it has a sensibility toward beats, ’cause that’s one of my hobbies, I love to make beats on the side. I don’t consider myself good enough to be a producer or anything, but I make a lot of beats all the time. I find it fascinating. It’s really inspired a lot of the music that’s been coming out lately, so the bass lines, that’s one of the things that’s very specific about it, is the bass line has a part, rather than just walking the harmonic progressions, he has an actual part. Most of my songs have that going on. And somewhere in there, there might be some swing. But I’m definitely just going with what I’m hearing, and I like to compose for my era and what’s going on now, and there’s a lot of beats all over the place. We hear it all the time. So that definitely creeps into the music. And the thing that’s fascinating about it is, everybody in the ensemble can swing just as hard as they groove. It’s unusual to find somebody that can do both, ’cause it definitely takes a different sensibility for each. I’ve heard so many people play bebop over, like, a hip-hop beat and it just doesn’t work. You have to have a different sensibility. You have to understand the elements of funk and what makes it work, just like you have to respect the elements of swing in order to make it groove properly. So I really do take advantage of the fact that all of us are open to both of those sensibilities. I think that’s a very strong thing about us—that we can dance and we can think.
Is your current band what you consider your primary set of collaborators, and what does each member bring to the ensemble?
Oh yeah, the quartet is my current band that I’m touring with now, and we’ve got the trio which is basically the same guys without piano. Ben Williams is a tremendous bass player, he really brings the element of spontaneity and groove to the ensemble. I really have a lot of bass-heavy lines, a lot of intricate bass lines, and he always seems to add his own personality to it and make it groove even harder than what I imagined at first. So I really appreciate his role in the ensemble. And then we’ve got E.J. Strickland, who’s been a collaborator with me since the womb [laughs], and he’s just somebody extremely close to me who also happens to be one of the most incredible drummers I’ve ever played with. And I’m not even being biased, it’s just he’s just incredible. He really understands how to shape the music—one advantage he might have is that he hears the music while it’s being created ’cause we live together [laughs]. He’s an amazing musician with a lot of sensitivity and he also brings a lot of energy to the group. And David Bryant, that’s the latest addition to the group, playing piano. After playing trio for a while I got very aware of the piano’s role. I began to hear different ways to use the piano other than just playing chords. So the piano parts are a little more intricate than before, now that I’ve returned to quartet. And he definitely embraced that with a lot of grace and he has just a great imagination. All these guys are very spontaneous. That’s something I really look for in people I hire—people who add something other than what’s on the paper. So yeah, I really appreciate the current ensemble that I have. It fits like a glove, man, I’m very comfortable every time I play with them and I’d like to keep it that way.