“THAT’S THE THING,” says drummer E.J. Strickland, “I don’t play any differently when I’m backing him versus when I’m leading.”
The “him” he is referring to would be his twin brother, saxophonist Marcus Strickland. Although it isn’t much of a surprise that E.J. would feel at ease sublimating the concept of the leader with his twin brother at his side, E.J.’s all-for-one ethic has been shaped largely by his tenure in the Ravi Coltrane Quartet, which—unusually for jazz—has maintained a consistent lineup since 2002. For E.J., surrender to the music is paramount, and he expects bandleaders to feel the same. “I never feel like any one person is backing another person,” he says. “A group is a group.”
Unsurprisingly, the music on E.J.’s first album as a leader, In This Day, hardly sounds “drummer-centric.” E.J. does sometimes compose from the drums up, and is especially drawn these days to the complex, interlocking ensemble-rhythm patterns of traditional music from Ghana. But he tends to model his phrases after a horn. And, much like his key influences—Elvin Jones and Tony Williams among them—E.J. approaches the drum kit from an orchestral perspective. But he also goes a step further than his forbearers in the way that his technical proficiency serves his sense of subtlety and finesse. E.J.’s drumming sounds less like our standard notion of percussion and more like a mist that hovers in the music; when exposed to the light, it reveals a world of delicate inter-relationships and microcosmic possibilities.
In This Day is being released by Strick Muzik, Marcus’s label, in tandem with Idiosyncrasies, Marcus’s fourth venture as a bandleader. Both twins play on each other’s records and in each other’s bands, which both appear, fittingly enough, on the same night to commemorate the two releases. Between the two albums, the Stricklands, who turned 30 this year, highlight some exciting new developments in the forward momentum of jazz. It may take years for the various visions being conceived by their generation of players to come to full bloom, but E.J. and Marcus Strickland clearly stand at the cusp of something fresh. Their vision of what jazz can become offers a much-needed alternative to the tradition-vs.-innovation mind-set.
It’s telling, for example, that although Marcus Strickland’s trio devotes half of Idiosyncrasies to covers, the fact that he’s searching for something still burns through. For source material, Marcus honed-in on songs that were near and dear to him by Stevie Wonder, Andre 3000 and Bjork, artists known for relying heavily on production and layering. He then pared them down to their “bare essentials.”
“The first thing that comes to my mind is the bass line,” he explains. “If you listen to caption James Jamerson and the way those classic songs would come alive when he came up with a bass line, he would put motion into these songs that were otherwise just a lead sheet. My style comes out of that kind of thinking.”
Space, Marcus explains, serves an essential purpose on Idiosyncrasies.
“There’s no piano behind me to propel the solo,” says Marcus, “so there’s a vacuum. The most common thing people do is try and fill the vacuum, but what we’re trying to do is use the vacuum to our advantage.”
It is nonetheless clear that the Stricklands have a knack for distilling music of complexity into something that’s easy for any listener to grasp. Marcus feels that jazz musicians can sometimes “miss the point of this whole music thing, which is to reach people other than ourselves…I’m trying to make memorable jazz tunes."
But don’t get the wrong idea. Both he and E.J. approach their music with an extraordinary cerebral intensity that recalls the thrilling rush of the post-bop era. And much like the musicians of that time, the Stricklands know how to harness their chops rather than just show off. They’ve also managed to modernize post-bop sensibilities without pandering to the syrupy R&B and hip-hop clichés that have snagged some of their predecessors. With their impeccable sense of balance, they also show that true cooperation is possible even in a style of music distinguished by its hierarchical structure and sharp philosophical divisions.
> E.J. Strickland Quintet & Marcus Strickland Trio
Aug. 21, Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (betw. Astor Pl. & E. 4th St.), 212-539-8777; 8:30, $20