From the beginning of his 30-plus-year career, pianist/keyboardist Marc Cary has had an uncanny knack for sounding like the future. This holds true on Life Lessons, even as a significant part of the album meditates on Cary’s past—the juxtaposition of which makes it all the more intriguing.
Admittedly, much of this comes from Cary’s fluency on electronic keyboards. The layers of synth on “Phase 2,” combined with Diego Joaquin Ramirez’s thumping drums, might as well emanate from an underground dance club. Still, the Fender Rhodes is not the newfangled contraption Cary makes it sound like on his mellow, fraught “It’s Not a Good Day to Die,” and the Moog bass Dan Chmielinski plays on that track is all but a museum piece. Yet at all times they sound fresh and advanced.
“It’s Not a Good Day to Die” has been in Cary’s book for 20 years, written in memory of Amadou Diallo’s 1999 death. Elsewhere, he revisits the music of his late mentor Abbey Lincoln (“And It’s Supposed to Be Love,” “Learning How to Listen”) and friend Roy Hargrove (“Trust”). Yet even “Learning,” a gospel-tinged ballad that’s as “classic jazz” as it gets, seems to skirt the edges, with Cary’s lustrous piano chords betraying a kind of urgency and solos by himself and Chmielinski (here on more traditional upright bass) ever on the lookout for new, if subtle, groove possibilities. Then there’s “It’s Tricky,” a jaw-dropping stew of Monk, Waller, and swing-meets-fractal-math rhythms that makes one hope his colleagues Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer are taking notes.
While it has all this, the album doesn’t emphasize technical flash. Cary is full of emotional profundity, as on “Dreamlike” and the solemn “God Is Love.” That he can also simultaneously look backward and forward makes Life Lessons a thing to behold.