Sometimes, as Marc Cary so astutely points out at the end of this interview, we presume too much for our musical heroes. We listen and then, it seems, we just know
they're so good, we assume numerous fans feel the same way, providing at least enough artistic and economic support to sustain careers and keep that creative vision growing vigorously. This hypothesis may appear supported by a somewhat steady flow of recordings and sideman appearances, although they never seem to tour through your town. Presume nothing.
If, as in the case of Marc Cary, our protagonist released a record in 1999 so fully out ahead of the jazztronica and live drum'n'bass tip, you (that's me ) presume he'd be discussed, or at least listed in a listening guide published by the leading jazz magazine trumpeting the arrival of the genre. In addition, you hear that same record, called Rhodes Ahead as one of the greatest examples ever of employing and exploiting the specific sound spectrum, versatility, headphone-enhanced, headtrip-inducing allure of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. So, you presume he'd receive widespread recognition, or perhaps even some recompense or endorsement from the Rhodes folks for doing them proud. Hell, if just one person could compose the tune and perform the keyboard and drum tracks (not drum-machine tracks, the drum set tracks) on "Take Me Higher," Rhodes Ahead 's most extremely accessible, super-radio-friendly gem, you presume he'd be known as some kind of one-man jam machine and that the tune got played on the radio. Presume nothing.
The same year, he released an acoustic record (called Trillium ), incorporating elements of trad-jazz, funk, Go-Go music, and blistering bop, full of seductive Milesian breath and space. The core trio included the soon-to-be-ubiquitous and lauded rhythm section of Nasheet Waits on drums and Tarus Mateen on bass, so you presume he'd catch plaudits comparable those heaped so luxuriantly upon the successive release on which they ( his rhythm section, you assumed) appeared (Jason Moran's Facing Left ). You certainly do not presume that his label at the time, a fair-sized independent, would reject said release, forcing him to go with a smaller indie.
Speaking of "the Go-Go," as Cary calls it, you presume that he'd get some play for successfully and seamlessly combining elements of an American regional (Washington, DC, to be exact) appropriation of Latin, African and Cuban rhythms, aka Go-Go rhythms, with jazz. Furthermore, as in the case of our hero, if at the tender age of 25, he had recorded and toured accompanying Ms. Abbey Lincoln and Ms. Betty Carter, displaying all the deep, savvy authority, tenderness, empathy and musically loving restraint of jazz piano's elder-statesmen, you'd presume-pardon me, the rant stops here. Concluding sentence: Marc Cary deserves a much wider audience.
Let's leave it there and intro this interview paraphrasing Stefon Harris' at the recent Blackout gig I attended: "Ladies and gentlemen, on keyboards and piano, an enormous talent, so much so I can't sum it up in words. I'd just like to say that Marc Cary brings something special to the bandstand, something musically, that I have been trying to get next to for a long, long time." Hey now, so have I.
All About Jazz: So Marc. I love your music and am so glad I tracked you down here! Let's get some basic bio info.
Marc Cary: I'm 37 now. I was born in New York City and grew up in Washington, DC. Through Washington I was basically able to cultivate myself and be cultivated by a lot of great people. I had many great influences. My early life growing up was a little turbulent based on many things. It was a turbulent growing up but every bit of it was needed to kinda get me to where I'm at now. I think that if I didn't go through some of that stuff early that I'd be doin' it now, you know? At some point that 's all got to come out (laughs).
AAJ: So you started playing real young, right?
MC: Well, I started playing the piano when I was sixteen. I've had a band since I was twelve. In DC every neighborhood has at least ten bands. You got Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest and you have neighborhoods within that. In Northeast you got the Northeast Groovers , Rez and the Boys, Pumplanders, Bucey Brothers...
AAJ: What, in one neighborhood?
MC: These are Go-Go bands...or let's say Go-Go based bands. Because that's what's happenin' in DC. It's like Cubain Cuba it's exclusive and you can get the raw cats playin' the raw stuff. There's probably 1000 bands in Cuba. In DC, in that small area there's 100 to 150 bands...that work! That's a big industry down there. Anyway, my point is that I grew up with music, with instruments. It wasn't turntables and samplers and shit. I started my first band when I was twelve and that band stayed together until I was seventeen. It was called 'High Integrity Band and Show.' We graduated from cans and buckets to instruments. We won a lot of competitions. I was playing drums in that band .
AAJ: I was going to ask you about that.
MC: I found a better drummer-this cat named Ricky, so I went to the trumpet.
AAJ: What (laughs)?
MC: Yeah. My grandfather played trumpet so I always had one in my house. Pretty much every instrument was in my house. My mother had remarried and the man that she married was also into music, but he was a lawyer. He had just a wealth of records. I was in his records and I'd get whipped for it because there'd be scratches and I'd leave the turntable on. Remember the tube turntables? He had one of those. So he taught me how to deal with the stuff. My mother would play Duke Ellington, Cab, Eddie Palmierei. All kinds of stuff... records from Peru, Senegalese music and Native American stuff.
By the time I was 15 I went into a program, to kind of...it was a social program, to get people straight, basically. My parents felt like I was too much of a burden on myself, my siblings and them because I was into all types of shit that it wasn't healthy for a young person to be into...like gangs and stuff like that.
There, I met a man named Daniel Witt. I was playing drums and trumpet when I went in, but I was always curious about the piano because we had one in the house and I'd play around on it. He played the piano and he was incredible. He was the kind of person- he could walk into a room and tell you the electrical schematics of what's going on and write it down. The resistance and the Ohms and the wattage-everything. And he could do the same thing with music-he could hear a piece of music and write it out without even touching the piano. I was totally fascinated by this guy, and he took me under his wing. There was a Fender Rhodes there and I just played it continuously.
AAJ: Yeah, man. You play the Fender Rhodes alright!
MC: Well, that's what I learned to play on. There was a Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer there. I learned enough to go back...let me explain. By this time I'd been expelled from high school in the 9th grade and I didn't go back the next year. So the whole thing was to get me into shape to go back to school. I insisted on going back, not to get my GED. Daniel Witt got me prepared enough to audition for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts . I was accepted into the school after being out for two years. So I'm two years ahead of...well make that behind and ahead of, my classmates. When I went there man, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
This is after a year and a half of being in a program to supposedly rehabilitate myself, but what I used it for was to meet myself. I met myself there ..I didn't have my parents...I had nobody. I was the youngest person in this program... in the history of the program up to that point. People were like, "Man, what are you in here for?" It took me a while to realize what I was in there for. It was to learn who I am. The name of the program was RAP Incorporated Regional Addiction Prevention. It's a self-help program-basically the doors are open...it's not a gated program. I could have left but I wouldn't have been able to come back. I stayed man. I graduated and did my thing. I played at the White House. Just comin' outta there, I played the piano at the White House with the Navy Band. That's how intense I was . After a year and a half of the program, really only about six months after getting to the piano. That one year, I worked so hard I got it to a point where no one could tell when I had started playing. I started playing at sixteen and played at the White House before I was seventeen... "Satin Doll" man.
AAJ: Duke! You do that beautiful Duke thing on The Antidote.
MC: Melancholia. When I heard Duke play that on The Queen's Suite , I was like, "That's how I want to play." Duke was from DC too, so I when I went to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts I was just immersed. I had John Malachi (ed. note- accompanist to Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams, among others) as one of my coaches and teachers, a phenomenal accompanist as well as pianist. He had an incredible reach. He could actually reach the interval of a 13th in the left hand! These incredible wide intervals in the closed voices.
There was a guy there, Mr. Shad. He had fingers...each one was like a thumb. His fingers could barely fit between the keys, but he could play stride ! He was one of my teachers, so big and large. Just HUGE like an oaf kind of guy. He tuned the pianos. Anyway, he took a serious interest in me and taught me how to play "Tenderly" and a bunch of other standards.
I had so many people along the way that just appreciated the fact that I wanted to do something with my life. The guy across the street-his name was Keith Jensen. It started from when I rode motorcycles. Anything they could do for me they did. This is a white family...we were the only black family on this block at this point. When his sons got tired of their motorcycles, Keith would see me putting together motorcycles and he'd just give me an old one. He'd say, "You ride that." I was going to become a motocross racer. I can still ride. I like to ride dirt bikes, not street bikes. When I decided I wanted to play piano, he gave me my first one- a Wurlitzer. He had a man staying with him for a while, a blind pianist named Vernon. Vernon played every standard. He played all the George Shearing style stuff. He heard me play, so every day I'd sit and watch him play and then I'd play. He'd say, "It's getting' better. Your touch is nice.. I like your touch." As my ideas started to grow he'd say , "Your ears are getting' big." So of course, he could hear all the new things in my development. So I had people like this who were inspirational, who were key in my development process.
AAJ: It sounds like a fairytale. It's almost like, is it the people or is it you? Are they reaching out or are you the one doing the attracting?
MC: Exactly. You attract it. You really do. It's like I tell my kids. If you put your energy into something or focus into it, that focus is a light. It shines and people that are looking for the light will be attracted to it. When you focus there's an energy there's a glow and things come to you. You attract things or you go to them yourself. You find yourself right there. If you didn't have that energy you could be very close to an inspiring person but never find that common bond. As soon as that person knows you're into something they're into then there's that bond to grow from. Just like us... sitting here.
So basically, by the time I got out of the program, played at the White House and got into Duke Ellington, I was like the Duke Ellington School mascot in a way. Whenever there was a performance I was one of the star people. My ideas and goals put me in a situation where people wanted me to represent the school. I played with Meshell Ndegeocello there, the great bassist. We played all the way through high school together. We never played in a band outside of school but...actually we played together on Roy's record ( Rh Factor ).We're on the same two tracks.
AAJ: She just keeps pullin' great players out of DC. Like Raymond Angry.
MC: Raymond . That's a young man that was attracted to my success, or what looked like success, you know, an he would come around, and to this day Raymond and I are good friends. I was kind of like, not someone to look up to but like, an example, or a model. Like if I do X, Y and Z then maybe I can be in that zone.
AAJ: It's interesting because, personally, I see you as out in front on a lot of things, not only as a player, but in trends in the music.
MC: I kind of pioneered a couple things, you know- if you look at dates and the timeline. I was in Roy's band (Roy Hargrove) for a long time and he has been talking about this Rh Factor concept from '91. But because he's on a major label, they assigned him this classification as jazz trumpeter.
AAJ: Straight ahead.
MC: That is just so limiting . We're not in the '40s, you know what I mean. The straight-ahead lifestyle is not now. It's great that we can do this music to the level that it's acceptable but it's nothin' like what these cats were doin'. It's different. It's got all the roots and the foundation but we could never do what they did because that time period had everything in it. It's like a capsule. There were clubs, the environment was that, the culture was feeding off of this. Now, when you say jazz, people have got to go way back and then come forward. In a way, it's like saying, "You ignore what you came up with, what your generation and your culture grew up with ... Earth, Wind and Fire, the Go-Go, the Hip-hop...forget about all that! Concentrate on doin' these standards and we're going to try to keep this thing alive using you. In a way it's kind of boring, but the industry has changed a little bit. Now, a cat like Roy is able to that record, but that's way after like, I started doin' this. I can only attribute that to the fact that I had the freedom to do it. If I was signed to a major label as a jazz pianist doing a trio and stuff... then what?
AAJ: But that's how you started.
MC: Enja records. Cary On. Even then, I had the GoGo stuff in it. Even that record people were like ,(he scratches his chin) "Oh, Okay." "Throw it Away", on Listen is a great example of mixing Go-Go and jazz. Listen and The Antidote were on Arabesque and Trillium is on Jazzateria .
AAJ: Antidote was a really nice record. The two percussion players on there really airs it out.
MC: That's some Randy Weston stuff. Randy does that. I have several records with just percussion, but I'd like to get into even more layered stuff.
AAJ:Well, getting back to the timeline...
MC: Yeah. By the way, I grew up militant. My mother was part of the American Indian Movement, AIM. That's where I got the name of the group, "Indigenous People."
AAJ: Pardon me? You're part Native American?
MC: Yeah, I'm Wampanoag, man. We're right from Chappaquiddick Island . My mother's a tribal chief of the Wampanoag people. A spiritual chief. We do the Pow- Wow every year here.
AAJ: So that song, from the Antidote ?
MC: "Chappaquiddick Woman"..that's my mother. Her name is Penny Williams. Penny Gamble-Williams. She kind of pulled the community back together. They were still doing things, but as community it wasn't as tight-knit before her efforts. She went to federal court to try to get them recognized. We have plots of land up there that have been in our family for years. Clarence-William Ponce, my great grandfather, was a Wampanoag man who was a marathon runner and swimmer. My great grandmother is a York. I got a lotta stuff in me and I'm aware of it, which is the important part. That's why I put together Indigenous People . That whole thing was to celebrate my Native American Wampanoag Indian Nation roots and to give some kind of light to that. We all have different things in us. I have just as much African blood mixed with Indian blood, not to mention Irish and Cape Verdean, There's a hell of a blend and thankfully, my mom traced it. I gotta keep the ball rollin' too with that.
AAJ: People, do not confuse "Indigenous People" with the band "Indigenous," right?
MC: Right. I know who they are. They're a Native American Blues band from South Dakota. They're heavy, man.
AAJ: So let me get it straight , now. Back at Duke Ellington, you're a working musician while you're attending?
MC: Totally. To add to that I never went back home after I entered the program. At sixteen I was payin' my own rent.
MC: I was on my own, which I must say was part of the fabric that enabled me at 23 to start a family, which I think is a little early, but I'm glad I did it. That age number seems young, but in my mind I was developed far past that. I wasn't really aware of what it took to start a family but I was aware and excited about getting married because I loved my wife. She traveled, we did everything together. We've been married fourteen years. All that's relative to the music too, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, I graduated at the age of nineteen from Duke Ellington. One of the slick things that happened there occurred when I was playing solo piano at a benefit. Don Cherry played with Nana Vasconcelos. Nana had a Berimbau and a mouth bow and Don had a Dousongoni , a guitar the Griots play, with six strings on a young branch that's pliable, and that goes into a big gourd that sits on your lap, with a strap that holds it on, and he's got the trumpet. By the way, I also played with David Cherry , Donald's son, who played melodica and keys. I played Fender Rhodes and moog. My mother sings and does Native American chants, plays percussion and cello. So we did a concert together, the three of us. That's when I really realized I could do other things with my abilities in terms of sound. I could just get into a sound thing.
Anyway, at this Don Cherry gig a group called the "Front-Line Jazz Ensemble" heard me play Fender Rhodes by myself. As a group they came up to me and said, "Man, we like the way you play. Do you want to come play with us?" This was an "official" jazz band! At the same time, I kind of outgrew the Go-Go band. My talent and abilities were growing beyond what was acceptable in a Go-Go band. Holding the chords, makin' the hits and into the pocket was acceptable. None of that solo shit! They didn't want that...to them that was showin' off. Man, that ain't Go-Go!
So my goal, the way I got to Indigenous was to merge improvisation with Go-Go and make that viable. The rhythm of Go-Go has a clave, it's percussion oriented, it's African oriented and there's form to it. So, when I realized that, the validity of that, I said, "Ok, I want to put original music on that, not covers, that's also improvisation driven."
So, we worked five nights a week with Front line Jazz Ensemble...trombone, bass, Frankie Addison, the leader of the group, played alto and tenor, his brother Tony played drums, and Judd Levy on guitar. We were a hot group. We played hard-bop on a lot of standards, for dances. Many great musicians were down there who appreciated us like Nat Turner, who is a great blues singer, Mary Jefferson, and Geri Allen. We were springing off of the Harper Brothers thing too, because they were out of DC and had some success. I learned a lot of my foundation there, with this band. I was able to stretch out and take long solos and learn how to play. They were really the proving ground, so that when I moved to New York, I was ready. I knew all the standards, the popular standards and the cats' standards too, and I fit right in. Cats noticed, like, "Yo, this kid is sharp." I had some different shit, too you know.
My biggest growth period as a musician was from age 16 to 21. If I didn't do that then I wouldn't be where I am now. I couldn't have achieved that growth. I was putting in twelve hours a day. Yarbrough Charles Laws, who plays flute and percussion in my band- we grew up together. We played in rival bands. He's from Northwest and I'm from Northeast. He drove a half-hour out of his way each day to make sure I got to school after being up in the studio all night. He was that kind of a friend.
AAJ: When did you go to New York?
MC: On my 21st birthday, which was '88. In '89 I hooked up with Betty Carter.
AAJ: One year.
MC: Eight months. Meanwhile I'd hooked up with Wallace Roney and Cindy Blackman. They gave me the incentive. Wallace's brother Antoine was telling me, "You gotta come to New York!" He gave me every reason to come that I had not to come. Part of my reason to come to New York was to reunite with my father, because we had lost contact from the time I was one. Antoine gave me a place to stay and a job. I wound up taking Ron Sutton's job, who still plays saxophone in my band. He was leaving New York and he worked at Columbia Hospital. So I took his job, doing the mail there, got my bank account and an apartment in two weeks and bam. I played with Beaver Harris' band with Vincent Herring, when Vincent first got on the scene. I played with Willie Williams, then I met Arthur Taylor. He was the drummer on Giant Steps , with Coltrane, and all of Donald Byrd's records. He played with Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, just everybody.
Betty Carter gave me my first shot at touring. The day I did the audition she asked if I had my passport and the cats in the band were looking at me like, "You got it." She said we were going on tour for six weeks. I had never been on tour and we're on tour for six weeks of one-niters. We're going from Norway to Germany over to Amsterdam to Greece and Spain. This is serious! We were on trains in Yugoslavia during the train strike, just before the war in '89. Coming from Yugoslavia into Italy we were stuck in a shutdown-a strike. We got into the train car and held a box. Over the course of ten hours there must have been thousands of people coming into that station . People were looking into our box like, "We want them seats!" Me and Tarus Mateen and Greg Hutchinson went and got a hotel for the band. There was only one room left and we were going sleep on the floor and let Betty have the bed. When we got back Betty said, "I am not going to a hotel. We are staying on this train. If you want to get off the train..well, you got your damn money." So we went back to the hotel, got our deposit and sure enough, the strike was over! We got to the gig just in time to perform. Betty was a soldier. She would ride with us in coach and carry her bags. She would sit up all the way through. She was incredible man.
So I went from Betty to Roy Hargrove. That was a bunch of touring. That band was one of the most working bands in our generation and still is. I did The Vibe , Of Kindred Souls , the Family Record and Rh Factor. Roy and I have been buildin' music for a long time. Most of the stuff on Rh Factor was basically a product of us getting together. I gave Roy his studio, basically. He still has the first computer I gave him which was one of those 6100s. I gave him Studiovision and he had an M1. We used to write and we still do. We're still close to this day, so...
AAJ: How much of Rh Factor are you on?
MC: About eight cuts, although you'd never know by looking at the credits. Clavinet on three, Rhodes on three, Wurlitzer on two, Piano on one, and moog as well. There's two keyboard players on most of the tracks I did.
AAJ: When did you do your own thing?
MC: Right after I left Roy. I left his band in '94. '95 was Cary On .
AAJ: Why did you have to leave?
MC: Well, the opportunity came after I left. I think I was looking in the wrong places. I was looking to be on RCA at that point. I mean, I'm the pianist in Roy's band, he's on RCA, why couldn't I be on RCA? But they didn't see me as that. They saw me as a sideman and not a viable ...you know. To this day I haven't really found a label that's really ready to go and make the step. They all seem to appreciate, in a certain way, that I keep coming out with records and that all of them can be identified with my sound. Now the label thing is getting funny. Most labels I talk to look at my records as being artistic, not necessarily a commercial thing. If you look at the way I get radio play... Trillium got the most radio play. That's the most commercial I've been. All of my jazz records have been accepted and gone through the whole engine and gotten some radio play, but I didn't have the major backing behind me to do tour support, which in turn gets you a great booking agent. Those considerations were thought about when they decided not to choose me (laughs).
AAJ: How does the agent crack the label nut?
MC: That process is almost like a lottery.
AAJ: How does someone representing you know every club owner to book you in every city?
MC: They don't, the agents do. Well, break it down. Get a great musician who is also a unique musician. The writing is innovative. The label puts you in a different bracket. The label puts some money behind you. The booking agent already has the resources, but is more willing to take the artist on because they have communication and a relationship with the label. So the agent , let's say, can get him a gig in Europe, but the label can reserve the travel arrangements and get paid when the gig's over. I've never really had a booking agent, except recently, with Joel Criss, who got me to Brazil with Indigenous. We did that live record in Brazil .
These agents have a roster of all the greatest cats. I've tried to focus on someone who didn't have so much of a roster because they were more inclined to take me on. They lose steam because it takes money to make these things work, whether it's the artists' money or coming from somewhere else, like a label. It's weird, as you know. You have money behind you, and people actually want to give you shit ! When you don't have money, or an endorsement, let's say, they want me to buy their product.
AAJ: Like those celebrities at the Oscars need those gift bags right? Alright. Who's the personnel on your debut?
MC: Dwayne Burno on bass, Deon Parsons on drums, Yarbrough on flute, with Roy Hargrove (trumpet) and Ron Blake (sax), and Charlene Fitzpatrick on a vocal song. I was 26. That was a tight group and a great record. I was a sideman in Arthur Taylor's band at the time and playing with Abraham Burton.
AAJ: How'd you get Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits for Trillium ?
MC: Initially, Trillium was done for Arabesque but they didn't want it. They told me that it was, well, "Garbarge!" They told me we were "meandering" on that record, and, "What the hell is the bassist doing?" They wanted me to get another bassist. I said, "You know what? I don't like you're attitude about what I just did. I just gave birth to something. What're you saying? You don't like the eyes on the baby or the legs are not long enough?" So....
AAJ: (laughs) I brought it up because it seems like Tarus and Nasheet are just playing with everybody now. Where did you hook up with those guys?
MC: Tarus got me in Betty Carter's band. I forgot to mention that I almost gave up on New York after seven months. I started moving my stuff back to DC. He said, "Come back to New York, Betty Carter wants you to audition." I met Tarus in New York, but he's from Bakersfield, California.
AAJ: They're both with Moran now.
MC: Put it like this. Jason Moran calls his band 'The Bandwagon' but he was on the bandwagon when he got them cats. That was my rhythm section, but I couldn't get a gig with them after he grabbed 'em. They became very inaccessible. I considered 'em out on loan, but...
AAJ: So do you have a working band now?
MC: Camille Gainer on drums and her fiancé Dave Jones...he's a great bassist. I use Tarus and Dave. Tarus whenever he's available. And Yarborough Charles Laws on flute and percussion, with, Ron Sutton, Jr. on sax. My band is 'Indigenous People' . For a trio gig I would use Camille and instead of Dave, who plays electric, I'd probably get an acoustic player.
AAJ: So with that first thing, did you accomplish what you set out to do?
MC: Well, aside from the Ellington and Sonny Clarke compositions on it, I wanted to start some new standards, and a sound that my peers would appreciate, to establish myself as a leader and a composer. That record was produced by Russ Musto, who took a big chance. We spent money out of our own pockets and leased it to Enja. We had two days booked in the studio but we a had a flood the second day. So the whole record got done in six hours. I literally didn't get the chance to explore totally what I was looking for, but what we ended up with was hot.
AAJ: So, man, I am a big fan of the Fender Rhodes and the way you play that instrument.
MC: There's a difference between that and a keyboard totally. The Rhodes is an acoustic instrument that can be amplified. The mechanism is a key to the hammer to the tine-that makes it an acoustic instrument. Then, with just the keyboards-that's just the sounds. Sculpting sound is another art.
AAJ: The way you strike the keys and let the chord sustain and the stuff you play over it is so fantastic, and what sounds good seems specific to the nature of the Rhodes. There should be more Rhodes records, and you made one of the best ever with Rhodes Ahead.
MC: I'm really proud of it. The approach to it was so light. It wasn't like we set out to do the ultimate Rhodes thing.
AAJ: Cool. I was kinda hopin' you had another one of those in you.
MC: I do. I have some things for the Rhodes that are crazy man. Tracks 2 and 3 of that record, Transient Treasure I and II , were recorded live, a live take with a trio with Terreon Gully on drums and Tarus on bass. Those two tracks are the real essence of the record. There's no tracking, no moog overdubs on them. The Rhodes and the moog go hand in hand. To call it Rhodes Ahead was giving acknowledgement to the music that can be made with the instrument. I was very conscious on all the different tracks of the coloring I used, portraying the Rhodes in a different light on each track. I did all the research and the technical notes on the history of the Rhodes that are inside.
AAJ: Well, they should be giving you cash for what you did for them, not vice-versa.
MC: The stuff I have done with Rhodes would have preceded the last one I put out, but I wanted to try to tap another thing or explore another side, before I went back to that.
AAJ: That's Native Go-Go Rhythms Please or NGGR please. What are you playing on there exactly, because there's some guy named 'Gogo Polo' playing some killer drums!
MC: Yeah. I'm playing keyboards, drums and percussion at different times on there, certain tracks. I'm rapping on the second track. By the way, I also played a lot of drums on Rhodes Ahead .
AAJ: Oh, yes. I have to check the credits to determine whether it's you or Terreon, most of the time. What pseudonym are you using on the new one when on vocals?
MC: Well, we called it "Solo Polo." See, you know what happens, what gets funny? With people like Roy Hargrove or Nicholas Payton who play a lot of instruments well, when you start saying it's all you, like, "I played this and that and this and I wrote it all and produced it"-people get kind of like, done with it. Also, my resources are limited production-wise, so it's hard to lock people into a day when they'll come over and do it for you. I end up doing a lot of stuff myself. It may be done with the intention of someone else coming it, but I'll listen and say, "That's exactly what I want right there." So the tracks will stay on.
AAJ: What do you want to get across with Native Go-Go Rhythms Please ?
MC: This record came out in January. So, I did an interview a month or so ago in North Carolina and the interviewer said, "This one record sums up my whole program, all the genres of black music." This record touches on so many different styles. The foundation is rooted in Go-Go, I'm dealing with rock, going over the top, lounge, poetry, a spiritual vibe, and a certain political twist.
I don't consider myself a political person or an activist in any way, although I grew up steeped in it The songs relate to how I wish things would really be or see thing as being . I did this record not to feature Marc Cary, but to feature composition and the overall story. Native Go-Go Rhythms, Please or NGGR Please , is a dual statement. The reason why I did that is that it's kind of a spin on my own people. People are complaining about this and that and they're not taking any initiative to activate themselves or motivate themselves to do what they have to do. Our environment is a little, to say the least, oppressive and depressive. That doesn't mean the individuals in our society have to be depressed and oppressed. We have a certain freedom here where we can transcend that. Maybe things will happen like getting pulled over by the police and getting harassed or other things that may be inevitable in this environment, but as spiritual and human beings, we can transcend that by letting it go. Get your foot off the clutch and go. Stop complaining and thinking you're going to get a change from somewhere else. The change comes from within. That's what the essence of the record is about. That's why I said , "NGGR, please." But the rhythms- I'm saying I want this Go-Go rhythm to be identified, realized and uplifting. You don't have to go to Cuba to find something that has a clave that's steeped in African tradition, and that's what Latin music is steeped in, the African tradition. If you go to Senegal, you hear the same music you hear in Cuba, it's just a different language-they have the same tradition. The clave-the two:three and the three:two. Also with the perspective of doing it from within, "Activate Yourself" is another one of the titles. "No More War"- of course, that's big picture now but it's also meant regarding the war within my people. The model is already set up and we're killing each other. Outside forces have to do nothing. All they have to do is come in and try to look like they're trying to keep the peace. "Got it" says respect thyself , love thyself and "you got it" because you do. The intention of the music is to definitely project those thoughts. "No More War" uses guitar specifically for the sound of shit goin' down -the moog and horns on top of that- the sound without the lyric brings that forward. This was a very conscious record from the making of it to what the lyrics and the music are actually saying.
AAJ: So, tell us about this new Stefon record and project, Blackout .
MC: Well, he pulled it off. That's an incredible musician.
AAJ: Again, I love what you do with the Rhodes and how it mixes with the vibes so I'm listening for that.
MC: I told him I should play Rhodes on this record. Don't get me wrong. Piano is beautiful. I love the piano. I'd like to think I play the piano better than I play the Rhodes, but the piano I play in a certain way because of the sound of it. While I said the Rhodes is an acoustic instrument, it's also electric, so the sustain quality and so many other effects you can achieve with it the bell tones and the overtones of the tines differentiate what you can do with it.
AAJ: I think it's a killer record and band. What have you got planned?
MC: So far, we have this east coast tour and then a June leg on the West Coast. That's all for right now.
AAJ: Really? You guys have got to go out longer than that.
MC: We're number 12 on Billboard as of last week. This guy is a phenomenal musician and a scholar, so we'll see. Sometimes it seems like the timing of when I do my stuff and release it has never been timely for the industry. I hope this breaks that cycle.
AAJ: Let's switch gears a bit. A lot of what's written about you talks about the rhythmic aspects of your playing.
MC: That's drums, man. I'm very rhythmic because I understand time. Music is metric and if you understand the metric part you can be creative with it. I understand how to break down a beat because I understand what the instrument is- it's a percussive instrument. A lot of people look at it as some syrupy instrument.
AAJ: But it's harmony too.
MC: Of course it's harmony but it's percussion. It's attacking. It's a hammer hitting a string.
AAJ: Well, you and Stefon are both playing percussive instruments in this band, but you have a lot of other harmony happening.
MC: Well, yeah. It's a harmonic, melodic, percussive instrument. Even though you can tune a drum, and it can be considered melodic, one can only go so far with that.
AAJ: So in terms of the harmonic, who are your influences?
MC: It's so vast, man. Edie Palmieri, McCoy, Duke, Walter Davis, Jr., Bud Powell, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Herbie, and Chick were some of the people accessible to me in the library of music my father had. I rotated these cats constantly and checked out what is was I really liked about them, including compositionally. I tried to translate that into something particular to me. Each of the things I liked about them, I identified as something I'd like to do and re-identified it within myself, basically.
Composition-wise, I can't really relate my stuff directly to anybody-the songs just come to me, in a way. I think I'm kind of a conduit. There's no direct sources, but you can hear the influences of all those people.
One of the most influential people to me just by what he was able to accomplish was Herbie. He was an example of someone who had done some of the things I wanted to do and obviously, who grew up listening to other music besides Miles and all the cats he went on to work with, and exposed himself to more things. Culturally, I identify myself with Don Pullen, because he dealt with his native roots too. So, in terms of modeling myself after someone, there's a little bit of Don Pullen and Herbie, and then the sophistication of Ellington, in a way, are the things I'd like to be identified as part of my character.
Improvisation-wise, I'm very influenced by musicians other than piano-like Miles. See, I like the breath-I like using air. You rarely hear me doing a run-on sentence. You hear pianists with lots of facility, but I find myself breathing for guys who go on and on. If they keep going, I can't listen to it.
AAJ: I notice that in your playing. And it makes the chops displays all that more effective.
MC: Exactly! Because I choose. It's got a lot to do with what's going on rhythmically for me. I work so much off of rhythm, that if the rhythm ain't right I'd rather play solo. I can play drums so I can feel when shit ain't right. I can never say, "This is what I'm going to do no matter what happens." I'm very moment-to-moment with my stuff. There are times when I'm able to do amazing things if the rhythm is right. In fact, that's been one of my obstacles - I haven't been able to bypass that - I can't do it. It's not innate in me to say, "F the rhythm section- I'm just gonna go!" You can hear cats doin' that and you get a certain feeling from that like, "Wow! He's incredible-but incredible over what?" I mean the thought process when you're playing with more than one person is so intertwined.
I hate to use the word jazz but let's say we're talking about the same thing. That art form itself, you almost have to be like, some supercomputer. You're making so many conscious decisions... and subconscious. Music is time, so whether you're counting to yourself or feeling the duration of time -you dig - you're still dealing with it. When you're dealing with improvisation you're composing on the spot. You're trying to make that improvisation sound like a composition, sound full, like a conscious stream of thought. You're not necessarily thinking about each note that you play, although if you break it down you really are. The other thing is, you can't really enjoy what you're doing and do all of that at the same time. That's where the practicing comes in. There's a certain thing called repetition and you develop things you can access-randomly access- but all of that is relative to the keys you play in or choose not to play in. If you're going to make any kind of traditional sense and also be innovative you have be definitely reaching from the tradition, while looking ahead while being totally in the moment. You're dealing with time in a heavy way. Then each note is vibrating in rhythm-so many cycles per second. So, when you're choosing a note you're choosing a rhythm. If you break it down, it really becomes phenomenal that it actually can happen the way it does. That's why they say this is one of the greatest musics because not only are you doing that, you are doing it in conjunction with four or five other people. So it's five computers running simultaneously.
AAJ: And that's just in 4:4 right?
MC: Yeah! (laughs). Terreon's got a great tune in 17:16. Short-long, short- long, short-long, short-short-long. Short-long, short- long, short-long , short-short-long. Like an ethnic feel. You try to improvise over that. That's not innate. 4:4 is innate.
AAJ: So if you gave a talk at a music school, I assume you'd talk more about rhythm than chord substitutions.
MC: Substitutions are rhythmic. Look-when you substitute something you are looking for a sound but that sound is a rhythm because it's only projected by a rhythm. I look at color as rhythm. Color has a harmonic to it. It has a pitch. Dwayne Addel is a great friend and guru of mine - a phenomenal pianist who plays stride like Art Tatum, but faster, and a phenomenal scientist, a mathematical genius. I can't even go halfway into it, but he can explain this stuff. He should write a book on it.
AAJ: So, to the future. Here we are and you could go in so many directions, man. For instance I'm sure you could do your own thing from start to finish, say in electronica mode.
MC: I've already released some dance records with Ibadan and Joe Clausell, and Spiritual Life records. House music.
I have my own studio in New York, on 119th Street. My son and daughter are incredible. My son runs Pro-tools, Reason, Logic and composes- and he's eleven years old! When I put him on my lap and tried to teach him, he didn't want that. So, when he started to climb up on the piano later, I began telling him to get away from it. The next thing you know, he was sneaking time on it and learning how to play. The more I'd get excited the more he wasn't into it. So, he wound up learning a lot on his own... amazing.