Last April, in a review of a Marcus Strickland appearance at a Brooklyn jazz festival, Ben Ratliff said in the New York Times, “Never forget that New York is always full of impressive young jazz performers, and that it often takes them a while to become visible in Manhattan.”
While many scuffling New York players might find Ratliff’s observation understated to the point of cruelty, it does happen to apply to Ratliff’s subject. Only two years out of college-only “a while”-Marcus Strickland has started to turn heads in the most thriving but most competitive jazz scene on the planet. This progress began with his first album under his own name, At Last, which appeared on the Fresh Sound New Talent label in 2001, when Strickland was 22. It was an auspicious debut, not only for the energy and excitement of the leader’s work on tenor and soprano saxophones, but for the obvious talent of the other three young members of the band: pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Brandon Owens and drummer E.J. Strickland (Marcus’ twin brother).
Strickland’s new album, Brotherhood (also on Fresh Sound New Talent), employs the same personnel. It is even stronger, revealing growth on all fronts: in composition (Marcus wrote eight of the nine tracks; E.J. wrote the other), improvisation and ensemble cohesiveness. Strickland appears ready to assume the relatively rare position of a soprano saxophonist for whom tenor is a second instrument. He plays soprano on five tracks, and his work on pieces like “Splendor” is riveting. His improvisations come like a series of ascensions, releases of streaming ideas that accumulate until they plateau, gather themselves, then spout and spiral upward again to the next plateau. What is most immediately striking is his tone: liquid and luminous, yet forceful and exact. When asked what soprano players he likes, he does not hesitate: “Branford Marsalis. I really love Lucky Thompson also, and Steve Lacy. I like a warm sound. I have learned the most from players who approach the soprano as its own instrument rather than just an extension of the tenor.”
Brotherhood’s “Excerpt” demonstrates that he is also fully articulate (and more inclined to extremity) on tenor, and further demonstrates that, to a degree rare in our current era, Strickland’s quartet functions as a single ensemble entity. After the tight, quick opening, Marcus and Glasper hurl themselves at one another like two opposing football players at the line of scrimmage, while E. J. and Owens clatter and throb in agreement and contradiction.
Strickland’s sax playing possesses qualities of daring and restless urgency that are expected in the work of a gifted 24-year-old. But it also reflects an uncommon maturity in its measured pace and sense of proportion and emotional authenticity. He attributes his rapid development to his father. “He introduced me to this music. He saturated me and my brother with it. My father is a lawyer and a classical percussionist with impeccable chops and a connoisseur of many things-most of all music. He had all kinds of music playing, all the time, around the house: jazz, R&B, heavy metal, Jimi Hendrix. I’m sure my brother and I were overhearing music in the womb.”
The Strickland brothers grew up in Miami, Fla., left for New York right out of high school and matriculated at the New School University’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, from which both graduated with BFAs in 2001. Marcus studied with Reggie Workman, Billy Harper, Patience Higgins and George Garzone. “It was a very good springboard and networking place for us,” Marcus says. “New York has changed. I think school has replaced the streets in terms of networking.” He has already had opportunities to tour with Roy Haynes, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Lonnie Plaxico and David Weiss.
Strickland says, “I can’t wait to start touring more with my quartet. We’re just some young punks out there trying to learn more about this extremely complex music, which has so much history, so much depth to it. We’re trying to make a sound. And that’s a very sensitive thing, because a lot of people these days are what I call ‘conscious innovators.’ They’re so worried about being the next innovator that they forget the reason they started playing the music in the first place-which is simply that they enjoy playing it, they enjoy that melody, that rhythm. I think it really shows when someone is consciously and forcefully trying to innovate. Should that be the main purpose of playing this music, or should it be the pure enjoyment of it? I think that the people in my quartet have come to a collective agreement of where we stand on that question.”