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E.J. Strickland & Marcus Strickland: Double Album Release Party at Joe's Pub, NYC

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E.J. Strickland Quintet & Marcus Strickland Trio
Joe's Pub
New York, New York
August 21, 2009

At a recent Christian McBride show, the bassist professed good-humored jealousy over the Strickland family "getting all the gigs," then invited saxophonist Marcus to sit in. Having witnessed the performances of twin brothers Marcus and E.J. (drums) with their respective groups at Joe's Pub, it is no surprise that from even a busy musician's perspective the Strickland family would seem to have a monopoly on gigs.

Both Marcus and E.J. were celebrating the release of solo albums—E.J.'s In This Day (SMK, 2009) and Marcus' Idiosyncrasies (Strick Music, 2008)—and fans were given a rare opportunity to hear both bands play abbreviated sets in the same night. Album release parties always have a little extra something, and this one proved no exception as the numerous musicians, which included Robert Glasper and Jeff "Tain" Watts along with various label personnel in attendance, spurred the players to unaccustomed heights.

E.J.'s sextet began the proceedings with a fairly straight-ahead set highlighted by the dual saxophone magic of Marcus and Miguel Zenon. Unusual for a jazz show these days, there was only one pause in the music, as each tune segued into the next. It was after the first pause that the show really kicked into gear.

The title song of In This Day was an uplifting, understated ballad. After Marcus introduced the theme, bassist Ben Williams took an impeccable solo, finding a groove where there was none and playing with an economy rarely seen in a player as young as he. After pianist Luis Perdomo's solo turn, Marcus returned to the theme before exploring new and lofty vistas with his soprano saxophone. Both E.J. and Marcus are quite stoic on stage, but here Marcus let go and clenched his face as his intensely focused solo built to its climax.

Next, percussionist Samuel Torres joined the ensemble as Marcus and Zenon dueled on a Latin-tinged piece. Marcus and Zenon have completely different styles, and it was a delight to hear each one play off the other while taking the music in unexpected directions. Torres, as well, contributed excitement with his congas, freeing up E.J.play around the time. Their double attack added layers to the music not unlike the textures produced by the Allman Brothers' percussion section, driving the soloists to match the rhythmic energy being put forth.

While the playing during E.J.'s set was superb, the compositions would not qualify as "groundbreaking: the players, moreover, stayed in the pocket. Marcus' trio, however, was a different beast altogether. Saxophone, upright bass and drums no longer jumps out as instrumentation that gives rise to innovative music, but the trio of Marcus, Williams and E.J. nevertheless played a kickin' set of music from Idiosyncrasies that had everyone in the audience visibly grooving.

"The Child" made use of a sample of an African child's voice paired with some heavy clarinet. The trio then entered with some dirty, nasty street funk that saw each band member add a layer to the music. Such musical construction would be a theme for this set. Save for the ballad "She's Alive" and the straight-ahead "Cuspy's Delight" (written for "Tain" Watts), the trio played as one but retained distinct, readily identifiable voices. The listener could choose to focus on any of the instruments—sax, bass or drums—to the exclusion of the others. At various times throughout the show, one of the instruments would lay out, but instead of detracting from the music the temporary absence served simply to eliminate a layer of sound and highlight the other parts.

Williams was a revelation throughout. While his playing during E.J.'s set was workmanlike, here he showed off his virtuoso and versatile talents, playing as funky an upright bass as can be played. Although Marcus and E.J. seemed to be flying on their respective instruments, Williams held down the beat, a constant reminder to his bandmates of where they were coming from. And when given solo space, Williams took full advantage of the opportunity, drawing some of the loudest applause of the evening.

Marcus as well as E.J. were always probing in their solos, ceaselessly looking for something new or better than what had gone before. Marcus alternated between soprano and tenor sax to great effect, sometimes using both during a single song. And while his style combines elements of many great sax players before him, his playing came across as unique and fresh. E.J.'s overt drumming style pushed his brother to the edge of the music, the huge sound of the drum kit often making it seem as though there were multiple drummers—much as in the previous set.

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