Marc Cary Focus Trio – Four Directions (2013)

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Calling this CD Four Directions is helpful, because there are so many directions the music on Marc Cary’s his latest album, I’ve lost count. And in this case, that’s a good thing.

As a pianist, composer, bandleader, Cary has been steadily building up a lot of well-earned cred in jazz circles, primarily through his forward-looking Focus Trio. Thing is, Cary, Rashaan Carter (bass) and Sameer Gupta (drums, percussion) have up to now made only one studio record together, back in ’06. Two live albums from 2008 and 2009 performances (the latter summarized here) followed but they were hardly bridge records as they presented the group as the multi-faceted, dynamic combo in a live situation as they had shown to be on the debut. Now, though, it’s back to the studio, and Four Directions documents the progression of Cary’s invention since that early burst of activity.

Coming fast on the heels of his solo piano tribute to his former employer the recently deceased Abbey Lincoln (For The Love of Abbey), Cary seemed anxious to get back to his main project, and the vigor he invests into Directions shows. Again disregarding the artificial boundaries set up between acoustic jazz and electric jazz, Cary in front of a synthesizer, Fender Rhodes, or plain ol’ piano is inventive all the same.

When Cary taps technology — old and new — he brings old fashioned ingenuity to it. For the Focus Trio LIve 2009 disc I noted that the threesome “subtly integrates strokes of south Asian, eastern Asian, African, electric fusion and even Native American music into the program.” They do all that already for the new disc’s opening track “Todi Blues,” save for Native American music, which itself is saved for “Indigenous.” On the former, Cary leverages a Rhodes and synth as artistic tools, not crutches, as his rhythm section creates a dense mass of jungle rhythm, partly influenced by the go-go music of Cary’s native Washington DC. The latter cut uses a synth only for a backwash, otherwise it’s all acoustic with Cary making satisfying statements on piano and Gupta is propulsively driving funky rhythms underneath. Textural layers both organic and not shape “Open Baby.” The simple, four chord repeating figure is delivered with a shimmering Rhodes and a fuzzy drone. As Carter mans an acoustic bass, Burniss Earl Travis II solos on an effects-laden electric, and the doubling up on the low end is done in such a way to leave placid, wide open spaces in the sonic makeup of the song.

“Tanktified” is drawn from Stefon Harris & Blackout’s Urbanus release, a record and band Cary was a part of. The former brandished a hip-hop flavor with Cary on Rhodes; this time, he attacks it with piano and finds more wrinkles in the melody. Moreover, it oscillates between 7/8 and 17/16, and Gupta handles the transitions with ease and make them as funky as the original. The other cover comes from John McLaughlin’s notable contribution to Tony Williams’ Lifetime, “Spectrum.” Cary’s Rhodes traces those thematic guitar lines and uncovers the jazz core of this rock fusion classic. Travis makes it better still with a powerful bass solo, this time on stand-up.

Even within the traditional trio, Cary & Company find fresh ways to express themselves. Dedicated to Cary’s mentor Betty Carter, “Waltz Betty Waltz” is a funky acoustic waltz sparked by Travis’ active bass; listen to how he creates a perfect low end harmonic complement to Cary. “He Who Hops Around” is grounded on an insistent two note syncopated harmony and Gupta’s rhythms are locked right into it. Cary and Gupta just jam around Travis’ pervasive bass line on the malleable “Boom” and “Outside My Window” has a long windup, but once it gets going, it’s off to the races, the McCoy Tyner Way.

A lack of coherency usually dooms albums that go off in so many directions at once as Four Directions does, but I rather like the diversity of mood, styles and character. Since Cary’s trio does something interesting on every track, such things as abrupt changes in approach hardly matter. What matters is that the Marc Cary Focus Trio is back, and in a big way.

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Four Directions will go on sale October 8, by Motéma Music. Visit Marc Cary’s website for more info.

photo by Rebecca Meek

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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