Marc Cary Focus Trio – Four Directions – Motéma MTM-130, 62:58 [10/8/13] ****:
(Marc Cary – piano, synth, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Wurlitzer, organ, MIDI, producer, arranger, mastering, mixing; Sameer Gupta – drums, tabla; Burniss Earl Travis II – acoustic bass (tracks 2-3, 5-6, 8, 10), electric bass (tracks 1, 4, 9); Rashaan Carter – acoustic bass (tracks 1, 4, 7, 9))
Pianist Marc Cary and his Focus Trio were previously heard on CD on a live release, Focus Trio: Live 2009, but have not issued a studio project since 2006. Cary has not stayed idle. Last year, Cary produced a solo piano tribute to mentor Abbey Lincoln, For the Love of Abbey; and during the same time, he contributed to records by David Murray, Will Calhoun and Charnett Moffett. The Focus Trio has been active on stage as well, refining their distinctive sound, which blends jazz, Indian ragas, electronic music, hip-hop influences, African songs, Caribbean and Brazilian grooves, and more. On Four Directions, which came out late in 2013, Cary returns to his trio format with longtime drummer Sameer Gupta; and two bassists (Burniss Earl Travis II and Rashaan Carter), who have both been involved with the Focus Trio at different times.
While this ten-track outing is new, Cary fans may identify some material, because the group has performed, polished and improvised much of this music in live settings. Rather than adhere to the typical studio-to-stage phase many artists engage in, Cary and his band shaped the tunes in front of audiences and then meticulously sorted through compositions to decide on the selections which were put on tape. As Cary enthusiastically remarks, “It was a hard choice to pick each of these songs. I actually have enough material for two albums from that session. So, the next album that will follow this one is hot, man! It’s a little bit more raw. That’ll probably come out in 2015.”
The sense of acoustic and electric, i.e., amped-up beats and earthy groove, enters right away on the keyboard-driven “Todi Blues,” which mixes South Indian music concepts with the metropolitan go-go rhythms which permeated the Washington, DC area where Cary was born and raised. The heady arrangement evokes Cary’s obscure 2000 recording Rhodes Ahead, Vol. 1, which was replete with programmed beats, Moog synthesizers, and club/dance funk. The title refers to the traditional Todi raga, which bubbles throughout the energized piece via Gupta’s drums and tabla, while Cary uses Fender Rhodes and synth to create a heavy-fusion feel. In a unique spin, Travis utilizes electric bass and Carter doubles on acoustic bass. This kind of urban-meets- indigenous impression can be heard throughout, which Cary explains (in an online promo video) comes partially from the pulse of his everyday life living in Harlem. Another nod to 1970s jazz-rock/fusion arises during an adaptation of John McLaughlin’s “Spectrum,” which was done by Tony Williams’ Lifetime. Cary is quite familiar with the composition, since he performed it with Cindy Blackman, Calhoun, and others. Cary gets forceful as he hammers on his electric piano keyboard, mirroring McLaughlin’s renowned guitar attack, as Travis supplies a throbbing, acoustic bass as a complement. Gupta makes full use of his drum kit, evoking the spirit of the late Williams, deftly slipping in and out of the pocket.
Cary’s wonderful acoustic piano is the highlight of several pieces. As he did earlier with Lincoln, Cary pays homage to another mentor with “Waltz Betty Waltz,” which is dedicated to Cary’s former employer, Betty Carter (she passed away in 1998). Cary notes Carter “used to love waltzes…I wanted to do something that was tasty and fitting for her.” The funky waltz (in, of course, 3/4 time) is ignited by Gupta’s uplifting swing and Travis’ vigorous acoustic bass, particularly notable when Travis fashions impeccable lower-edged harmonics which counter Cary’s phrases and lines. Cary has always been an imaginative soloist, and proves his prowess on this satisfying outlet. The only other cover tune, which some may recognize, is Terreon Gully’s “Tanktified,” which Cary recorded with Stefon Harris on Harris’ 2009 effort, Urbanus. Here, Cary trims the arrangement to acoustic piano, acoustic bass, and drums and also intriguingly shifts between a 7/8 time signature and 17/16 time. While Cary provides brash keyboard passages, Gupta’s percussive work is a treat, especially his use of snare and hi-hat, his shades of funk-soul, and his slightly shadowed coloration. The trio finishes with a democratic number, “Outside My Window,” co-written by Travis, Gupta and Cary. The fast-paced acoustics echo the tumultuous world outside Cary’s apartment, with at-times hectic harmonics. Each player makes a distinct auditory declaration even as they perform as one unit. The multi-coursed track, like the rest of Four Directions, tells a story which is both personal and universal.
TrackList: Todie Blues; Waltz Betty Waltz; He Who Hops Around; Open Baby; Tanktifed; Boom; Ready or Not; Spectrum; Indigenous; Outside My Window.
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