Triumph of the Heavy, Volume 1 & 2
Here’s a gutsy move: In an age of diminishing CD sales, and at a time when mainstream U.S. culture seems more fixated than ever on the lightweight, Marcus Strickland has released a two-CD set with the daunting title Triumph of the Heavy. The good new is that there’s nonetheless plenty of “light,” in the best sense—ebullient creativity, inspired flights of imaginative fancy—on offer.
Volume 1 features Strickland leading a quartet, something he hasn’t done for several years. Pianist David Bryant plays with a full, orchestral approach; he adds both sonic depth and rhythmic impetus to the ensemble sound. The interplay between Bryant and drummer E.J. Strickland is especially arresting, with both men exploiting their instruments’ melodic, timbral and rhythmic capacities to the fullest.
Several of the compositions here are structured almost like suites; they segue through movements that limn divergent, sometimes apparently oppositional musical and emotional landscapes. The method recalls Mingus, and Strickland’s imaginative vision is similarly adventurous, if not as caustic or emotionally tumultuous. Layered rhythms, occasional stop-time breaks, free improvisation and lithe swinging passages follow and merge with one another; solos are interspersed and tossed among the participants with such smoothness that even when one voice is dominant, the ensemble feel is maintained. Bassist Ben Williams’ attack ranges from an almost pounding intensity to quick-fingered, dexterous playfulness; Strickland’s lustrous tone on tenor, soprano and alto sax (that last a relative rarity for him) provides a bracing contrast. He nudges, rather than forces, lines into new and unexpected shapes with both definitiveness and a subtlety that accentuates the ease of the overall musical interplay going on—nothing sounds imposed, no one rides over or cuts into anyone else. This is serious play, imbued with the kind of tough-won joyfulness that bespeaks maturity—musical, personal, emotional—along with undiminished delight.
Volume 2 was recorded live at Firehouse 12, a studio/performance space in New Haven, Conn., in 2010. The trio—Strickland on reeds, twin brother E.J. on drums, Williams on bass—is the same as on 2009’s Idiosyncracies; the set includes some numbers—“Portrait of Tracy,” “Cuspy’s Delight”—that were also featured on that disc. The opening track, “Mudbone,” was named for Richard Pryor’s philosopher-homie, but it’s more of an outward-bound improvisation, toughened by bebop-flavored angularity, than a soulful strut. Befitting a live gig, everyone stretches out a bit more here than on Volume 1, and there’s a loose, free-flowing feel to most of the playing. Strickland treats silence almost like an accompanist, using it as both a rhythmic impetus and a counterpoint to his radiant-toned lines and occasional free sonic outbursts. His knack of departing from established themes and melodies to expand into less-structured realms of timbral and harmonic exploration, and then return safely home, melds so-called “mainstream” ideas with boundary-challenging boldness in a way that also recalls Wayne Shorter at his height.
E.J.’s patterns both swing and tell stories of their own; they’re dynamic, propulsive and intricately textured. Williams ranges from quiescent murmurs to blunt imprecations; his dialogues with both Stricklands are exercises in aggressive intimacy, as each responds to, prods and furthers the others’ ideas. Marcus Strickland has said that he and E.J. found their “lost triplet” in Williams, such is the closeness with which they anticipate and play off one another, often emerging simultaneously into new realms of discovery.