Marcus Strickland

Triumph of the Heavy

Musician, composer, producer, label executive and visionary, Marcus Strickland is a powerhouse, on and off of his instrument. And on his seventh album as a leader, he’s more confident than ever.

Triumph of the Heavy Vol. 1 & 2 is jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s fourth release from his Strick Muzik record label. The double album features two of Strickland’s ensembles: his long standing trio of drummer and twin brother, E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams, and his quartet which features the afore mentioned musicians, along with the fairly recent addition of rising star pianist David Bryant. Scheduled for release this August, Triumph is Strickland’s second double-album; a necessity of format if you’re trying to keep up with the musical multifariousness that has become his signature.

Strickland, who has led trio, quartet, and quintet bands, produces hip-hop beats, and has an affinity for singer/songwriters, attributes his versatility to the partnership between his creativity and the boundlessness he has established on the business side. “I’m always doing many things at the same time; making beats at the same time I’m writing jazz music. And also I have my own record label, which kind of allows me to record whenever I want to. So I don’t really have to go about it in a systematic way, as most artists have to do when they’re on a label. I can be as spontaneous as I want to, with that freedom in place.”

Having created a brand for himself partly out of necessity, in a climate where major labels are shrinking, that freedom has produced four vastly different projects from Strickland, with four different bands and highly developed concepts. He’s covered huge territory from Jacques Brel to Outkast, acoustic to electric, with spoken word artists and hip-hop production in between. A prolific writer, he is undoubtedly going to have tremendous impact on future generations from a compositional standpoint. On Triumph Vol. 1, Strickland brings it back to his roots of the classic quartet, with what Strickland calls “a fresh approach to the piano’s role in the group” and a whole new set of originals. “David [Bryant] is like the first person since Robert Glasper that I played with and felt like ‘Wow this cat knows the art of comping.’ It’s such a lost art these days. Comping is so important. So on top of the fact that he’s an extremely incredible musician, he’s got the sensitivity that I’m looking for.”

In true Marcus Strickland fashion, he is also reaching beyond just musical versatility, introducing yet another set of skills, playing alto saxophone on almost half of Vol. 1. “I’ve always yearned to play alto again because I started on alto when I was eleven years old, and by the time I got into high school and it was time to get a professional instrument, tenor was my main love because everybody I listened to was on tenor, so that’s when I switched to tenor. But I always wanted an alto. I have really been concerned lately with just the instrument itself. The whole story behind the saxophone is just incredible. The inventor of it, the many things going on sonically when the saxophone produces sound…it’s just incredible. The pure execution on the instrument, that’s what I got more into. So, I really started shedding on that; classical etudes, my own etudes, really getting into the sound, the harmonics, overtones and stuff like that. But you know, recently I got a saxophone endorsement, and one of the first things I asked them was to give me an alto. And soon as I got it, I just started shedding it.”

Vol. 2 captures Strickland’s trio live at Firehouse 12, a studio in New Haven, CT. “It may be that the only thing more powerful than a strong triangle of musicians is one that has performed for an extended period of time,” says Strickland of his seasoned trio. “I was like man, I’m about to go back to quartet, but I wanted to capture the trio after touring so long. It’s just a strong triangle. That’s a strong sound there; just the bass, drums and the saxophone. It’s just a very significant sound. So I really wanted to capture that, but in a different light. On Idiosyncrasies (the all-trio album released on the Strick Muzik label in 2009), we did a lot of covers and on this one I did mostly originals that I wrote as we started touring and everything. I started coming up with different vehicles so I wanted to get those down. And to get it down in front of a live audience, that was great.”

Few of today’s jazz musicians have had clearer visions for themselves as artists than Strickland. At 31 years old, Strickland’s career has already spanned a decade, gaining him leaps of perspective. “I’ve recorded three records outside of Strick Muzik so that makes a total of seven so I think this is a point where who you are as an artist really gets tested. Because you now have a body of work. It’s not just one hit album that you’re trying to make. It’s like, ‘OK I’ve had several records that have been very successful, what am I going to do next?’ When you get to a point where you have a body of work in your past, it can either take away ideas from you, like ‘Oh I’ve already done that, I don’t know what to do next.’ Or, it can give you more confidence than you’ve ever had before because I know that this is gonna be great. I know that I’m capable of putting out some great music that’s very relevant and very important. And that’s exactly how I felt when going into the studio.”

For Strickland, his substantial recording catalog is the result of his professed growing process which includes the need to document each phase of his course. “I have to make it into a product in order to really get past it, and I really want to get past it because I’m always yearning for the next step, the next plateau.”

Named “Rising Star, Tenor Saxophone” in Downbeat’s 2010 Critic’s Poll, “Rising Star, Soprano Saxophone” in DownBeat’s 2008 Critics’ Poll and “Best New Artist” in the JazzTimes 2006 Readers’ Poll, Strickland has long commanded the attention of both fans and critics. He released his first album, At Last (Fresh Sound) in 2001, and placed third in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition the following year. He has been an integral part of bands of heavy hitters like Roy Haynes and Jeff “Tain” Watts, and has a long resume of features, recording with Robert Glasper, Charles Tolliver, and countless others including Dave Douglas, another long-time employer. With the release of album number seven, the “next plateau” may bring about endeavors characteristic of the symbolic number. Strickland’s experience and savvy from a business perspective makes him a sagacious ally for the future of jazz recording artists. “I think I want to step back a little bit after [this release] and look into trying to do some things for other people that, you know, many major record labels are not really interested in. I really wanna take my time and think that through and get a very good plan for it.”

Inspired by his girlfriend’s epiphany about the substantive quality of jazz versus some of the dictates of popular radio, Triumph of the Heavy is appropriately titled; a testament to Strickland’s musical caliber, robust tone, and his rightful place as a titan of our time. Whichever way you spin it, Marcus Strickland comes out on top. “I’m always taking chances, but I’m no longer afraid to do it,” asserts Strickland. “I know I’m gonna be good on the other side.” ♦

Marcus Strickland’s performs at the 92nd Street Y in NYC on August 9, as part of an album release event.

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Angelika Beener