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When Washington-bred pianist and composer Marc Cary won Best New Artist at the Billboard/BET on Jazz Awards this past June, many jazz fans were baffled. Much of the ceremony was puzzling—immortal but long-dead legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis competed against still-earthbound artists for top musician in their respective categories, for example—and Cary’s award in particular made the Billboard/BET folks look clueless. Not because Cary isn’t deserving, but because he has actually been on the scene for quite some time. In addition to already having several acclaimed solo albums under his belt, Cary has played for years as an accompanist, working with jazz divas Abbey Lincoln and the late Betty Carter.
Despite this belated recognition, and a reputation that has yet to match those of well-known pianist contemporaries like Brad Mehldau and Cyrus Chestnut, Cary is indeed a magnificent musician and a distinctive composer. Cary’s playing balances ear-tickling accessibility with jolting daring, and the orchestral scope of his improvisations recalls the work of Ahmad Jamal. As a composer, Cary scripts bracing, instantly recognizable grooves. His musical scope is as panoramic as his orchestral approach. Although he is steeped heavily in the blues and postmodern bebop, Cary is also a club kid who loves funk, house, and drum ‘n’ bass. On his two newest albums, Trillium and Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1, Cary explores his eclectic musical tastes in two distinct settings—post-Motown bop and retro-futurist electric funk. On both records, Cary deftly integrates his disparate influences into a unified and compelling musical aesthetic.
On Trillium, Cary enlists bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits—one of the best bass-and-drums duos since Rufus Reid and Akira Tana—for a highly democratic summit meeting that places a premium on collective improvisation and groove. Although Cary’s is the trio’s central voice, Mateen and Waits constantly improvise underneath his radiant solos with an almost telepathic affinity. Mateen’s bass boasts a deeply resonant sound so thick and woody that when he plucks the strings during a blistering solo, he sounds like someone chopping lumber. He also has a bluesy sensibility that provides a wonderful counterpoint to Cary’s brilliant melodies. Waits, the son of unsung drummer Freddie Waits, is a rhythmic dynamo; he steers the trio with open-ended playing that gives him plenty of room to drop scintillating passages of polyrhythmic mayhem. Together, the trio create an ecstatic synergy that is best described as “vibe music.”
The most effective demonstration of their sublime communion is the sensuous title track, written by all three musicians. Cary immediately draws your attention by plucking the strings inside his piano; he then unravels a melancholy but optimistic tune while Mateen develops a richly melodic bass line and Waits constantly shifts the rhythmic pulse through his precise tom fills. Cary’s solo, filled with dramatic exclamations, suspense, and graceful resolutions, is undeniably elegant despite its jaggedness. Although “Trillium” never swells into a grandiose climax, its smile-inducing melodies and enthralling rhythm keep you attuned to every note.
The trio’s turbulent retooling of Duke Pearson’s “Minor League” is equally thrilling and even more rhythmically forceful. Again, the musicians engage in hyperactive collective interplay, but this time Cary initiates the beat with an eight-note motif that sounds like a blueprint for a Chicago house tune. Both Mateen and Waits join in with variations of the motif while Cary’s simple melody becomes more menacing, hammered into the lower register, then suddenly pulled back into the middle and upper registers. As Cary’s probing solo proceeds, Waits pounds out a maelstrom of intersecting polyrhythms and crashing cymbals. On Mateen’s playful “Blues for Haseeb,” the group generates a similar exhilaration, especially in the middle of Waits’ thunderous solo, as the composition transforms from an aggressive, bluesy swagger to a hypnotic waltz that channels the spirit of mid-’60s Coltrane.
After Cary’s ruminative “New Prospective,” featuring flutist Yarbrough Charles Laws, Trillium’s sonic storm settles down with the pianist’s tranquil “Peace Maker,” the eye of the album’s rhythmic hurricane. With each track succeeding it, the trio slowly builds the rhythmic tension until it matches that of the first half of the album. The result is a frequently transcendent album that becomes more fascinating with each listening.
Cary’s music is equally mesmerizing on the trippy Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1, which finds him moving from acoustic to vintage electric keyboards (Rhodes electric piano, Moog Rogue, and Minimoog) and crafting soundscapes more appropriate for a sweaty dance floor than a smoky jazz club. Cary retains the melodic and improvisational acumen demonstrated in his acoustic work, but here he shifts his rhythmic paradigm from bebop to house-inflected drum ‘n’ bass. Other jazz musicians have made mildly interesting yet ultimately disappointing electric fusion albums because they approach improvisation with bebop-style headiness, but Cary’s music sounds as if it were made by someone who actually goes out dancing.
This time channeling the infectious sounds of ’70s fusion keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Josef Zawinul, and George Duke, Cary develops some intriguing and extremely contagious grooves. The wondrous “Transient Treasure Part I” equals “Trillium” in terms of melodic beauty and improvisational wit. Gliding atop Mateen’s funky electric-bass grooves and Terreon Gully’s dynamic drumming, Cary’s Rhodes piano beams out a gleaming melody that has a prayerful, Randy Weston-like resonance. Cary beautifully solos on the melody as Gully punctuates Mateen’s hypnotic groove with ricocheting breakbeats. As the song slowly winds down and segues into “Transient Treasure Part II,” the trio’s playing grows more introspective, all the while keeping the insistent rhythmic pulse utterly feet-friendly.
Throughout Rhodes Ahead, Cary’s gift for restrained melodies and diverse but always danceable rhythms shines. The percolating “Inside Your Self (You’ll Find Love)” is unadulterated deep house, complete with a thumping four-on-the-floor rhythmic undercurrent and churning Latin percussion. “Home Comin’” is the album’s most sensual offering, glimmering with Cary’s iridescent electric piano work. And the go-go-informed “Take Me Higher” gives props to Cary’s hometown. But despite the album’s eclecticism, musical cleverness, and emotional warmth, it will surely dismay some jazz purists, who will proclaim that Cary is squandering his talent. They will be wrong: The very same combination of intriguing improvisations, hook-laden melodies, and communal vibes that makes Trillium one of this year’s most rewarding jazz albums makes Rhodes Ahead one of the smartest and most engaging house records in ages. CP