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Becoming Quintet: Five One-Track Minds

The debut album by a group of promising Michigan State alums has a singular focus

Becoming Quintet
Becoming Quintet (L to R): Luther Allison, Eric Wortzman, Liany Mateo, Markus Howell, and Zach Adleman (photo: Anna Yatskevich)

Their unsullied positivity and demonstrable zeal are inherent in the name of their band, Becoming Quintet. “We’re all young, we’re all trying to become something. We’re going through the rites of passage and paying our dues as jazz musicians, constantly growing and evolving,” upright bassist Liany Mateo says about their choice of appellation.

The band members—Mateo, trumpeter Eric Wortzman, saxophonist/flutist Markus Howell, pianist Luther Allison, and drummer Zach Adleman—met as students at Michigan State University. Each studied with Michael Dease, associate professor of jazz trombone at Michigan State and a Grammy-winning recording artist for Posi-Tone Records. Dease brought the five musicians to the attention of Marc Free, the label’s founder and resident producer. Free took the young players—they’re all still in their twenties—under his wing and produced their debut album, One-Track Mind. That title too was carefully considered.

“We’ve got our minds set on something and we’re going for it,” says Howell, who wrote the title track. “One of my friends was messing with me because we were having a conversation and my mind was completely somewhere else. It was like, ‘Man, you’ve got that one-track mind.’ So I wrote a tune called ‘One-Track Mind.’”

That the five emerging artists who constitute the Becoming Quintet found a common vision speaks to their determination and unified spirit. Each band member contributes original material to the 11-track album, and there are covers of tunes by trombonist (and fellow Posi-Tone artist) Steve Davis and Dease. Professor Dease—as his mentees call him, never Michael—saw in them “a hunger for playing, a balance of open-mindedness and resilience in the tradition. In times like today when it’s the trend to prioritize innovation before investigation, this crew embraces their roots and brings their multiculturalism forward in their songs,” he says. “It’s a take on modern jazz that keeps the dance in the music, and I dig that about them.”

Each of the five came to Michigan State from elsewhere in the country, impressed by the school’s jazz program and what they saw as the serious commitment of the students. Mateo, from Jersey City, N.J., began playing bass at 13. At 16 she met bassist Rodney Whitaker, who’s also a professor at Michigan State, at a jazz camp. He invited Mateo to check out the school. “I said, ‘Where is Michigan?’” Mateo says with a laugh. “I’d never thought about Michigan.” Upon visiting, she was immediately impressed. “I knew this was where I was going to go.” There she met the other four and, under the tutelage of Dease, they began to play their original tunes together.

Having honed their sound over a period of nearly two years, incorporating elements of numerous genres from postbop to blues to Brazilian to gospel, they recorded One-Track Mind in a single, very long day at a studio in Brooklyn. That diversity of influences and approaches works in their favor. No two songs on One-Track Mind sound alike, yet there’s a consistent vibe in their collective vision throughout. “Everyone has such a different voice and such a different experience that we can bring that to the table,” Mateo says.

“It’s a huge melting pot of music,” Howell adds. “We blend well together. We tried some different spices and out came a nice soup. It’s five young cats trying to express themselves in the most honest way we can and I think it works well. With some bands it doesn’t; it can backfire. Eric is really influenced by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center sound, Kenny Garrett and the ’90s young-lion sound. Zach is also influenced by Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride and Liany is a diehard Paul Chambers fan. Luther is influenced by gospel and R&B; one of his teachers is Donald Brown, who he really looks up to. My core saxophonists are Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Johnny Hodges and I’m deeply rooted in church and African-American spirituals, R&B music.”

Dease can’t say enough about the Becoming Quintet. “They take their musical environment, mentors, choices, and long-term goals seriously,” he says. “They have the talent, oodles of it, but that’s the easy part. They’ve memorized complex charts, made long rehearsals, and are just easy to make music with. I’ve brought them with me to recording sessions and Smalls in New York City, and most recently to a festival in Mexico. They care about teaching too, which is important. They want to give back through the music, not just be takers.”

The musicians in the quintet plan to continue working together and a group relocation to New York is being arranged. They also have their sights set on individual careers—Howell has already cut a solo album that Posi-Tone will release later this year. Says Mateo, “We’re here and we’re excited and ready to get somewhere in the music. Our attitude is, let’s get at it!”

Originally Published