If Marcus Strickland's blossoming artistry were judged on his sound alone, he would still merit the attention of the jazz community. That he is also a thoughtful composer and galvanizing force for a crack quartet of spirited young musicians are all the more reason to watch his every move.
Strickland possesses a gorgeous, soft tone on tenor that holds true even during his most complex linear explorations. He is influenced by Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, but while his playing can reach the same intensity as those legends, he works around the structure of a composition in a much smoother fashion. It's a precise sound mirrored by the playing of his group with brother E.J. Strickland on drums, Robert Glasper on piano and Brandon Owens on bass. These guys don't play as much as they glide. On tracks like the disarmingly beautiful "The Ninth Life" and "Joy Song," Marcus spins off the melody and Robert Glasper"s piano heightens the harmonic intensity as they transform each song into an exhilarating journey. On the unforgettable waltz "Three For Her," it's a joy to hear the two trade melodic statements, particularly Glasper's hypnotic, understated refrain.
One of the great pleasures of At Last is hearing E.J. Strickland, an inspired drummer in the Tony Williams mold, steer the tempo and guide these superbly crafted songs into new and exciting directions. E.J. is a man in constant motion. On many occasions, I was so entranced by his complex polyrhythms and delicate cymbal work that I kept repeating tracks over and over. Just when Marcus or Robert Glasper are off and running on challenging tracks like "At Last" and "The Ninth Life," E.J. will spur them on with this soft splash from the cymbals that sounds as if he"s hitting an air brake. Like Kenny Clarke's "bombs" or Philly Joe's press rolls of the past, E.J. executes these splashes while in full motion, providing added momentum and pushing the soloists to greater heights.
Another striking aspect of At Last is how well conceived the compositions are. The changing tempos of songs like "The Ninth Life" shift from euphoria to melancholy with a natural grace that makes them feel as if they are one continuous emotion. There are surprises at every turn on songs like "When In Doubt" and "Joy Song." And whether tackling the hard-charging 60s Blue Note sound of "Gar-Zone" on tenor or the nocturnal beauty of "February 21" on soprano, Marcus Strickland"s solos are intelligently constructed and executed with passion.
I can't think of a song on At Last that won't stay in your head for days. Even the quartet's cover of Joe Henderson's "Serenity" has a more memorable quality than the original. But what's most exciting about At Last is that it marks the arrival of a remarkable young saxophonist and one of the best new quartets in jazz. The telepathy between these players is not to be missed.
Personnel: Marcus Strickland, tenor & soprano saxophone; E.J. Strickland, drums; Robert Glasper, piano; Brandon Owens, bass.