Marc Cary has become one of the foremost composers and pianists making music on the scene today from playing with artists ranging from Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Dizzy Gillespie to Erykah Badu, Stefon Harris, and Lauryn Hill as well as making his mark with a number of critically-acclaimed solo records. Between a slew of different projects we caught up with the DC-native to discuss his latest record ‘Four Directions,’ the first release from his Focus Trio in seven years. Check out what he had to say about making music with his crew—the inimitable combination of Sameer Gupta on drums and Rashaan Carter on bass—as well as how his Harlem community is affecting the way he makes music, and more.
Also be sure to add the album release party to you calendar—December 4th at the Jazz Standard.
Tell me about the origins of Four Directions and when it really started to materialize within the Focus Trio.
In short, we’ve been together for about 14 years now, so a lot of our developmental projects happen on the bandstand. We haven’t put out a studio record in seven years. We’ve been developing these songs for the last seven years, so there are many versions of each of them. So really the writing process has been going on for the last seven years on a slow burn as well. We wanted to bring to the table something that was really processed and already worked through. That was the purpose of waiting how long we did.
A lot of artists write the songs and record them and then go out and tour with them where that processing really happens. It’s interesting that you did it the reverse way. Did you have specific versions of the songs that you were looking to record or was it organic in the studio?
Because we have so many ways that we’re doing these songs, we came up with something almost brand new. We had hashed out a lot of the possibilities already live. So the record is really a culmination of all of the work we’ve done on these songs. Most of the songs on the record would pop up on stage in pairs of one or two at a time. It was a slow process of collecting which ones we wanted for the record.
We have a lot of music, man. We couldn’t even possibly put out all of the music that we’ve got. 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.
I recorded three albums, but only two of them have been released. One of them ended up being called Cosmic Indigenous, but it was really just a Focus Trio record with special guests. Since it didn’t fit strategically as the trio, the label wanted to call it something else, so we went with Cosmic Indigenous.
This core group of musicians in the Focus Trio has a special chemistry about it after all of these years. What makes the relationship special for you?
We talk quite a bit about music. We’re always trying to figure out something fresh. Our conversations are a lot less recreational. We don’t spend much recreational time together—it’s pretty much all focused on music. We’re always in a learning stage. We’re always working. Sometimes I wish that we were all in a social group together, but I really enjoy that level of intensity that we have.
That’s actually why I left DC when I did. At the time, I couldn’t find any musicians who wanted to rehearse and develop. I couldn’t find like-minded people. There are great musicians in DC, but I couldn’t find a community. I woke up today and I’ve been in bed for two hours, but I’ve been working on new music that entire time. That’s where I’m at. I’m checking out different rhythms, different harmonies, and all this different stuff.
On your EPK for Four Directions, you talk about an interesting idea that when you listen back to this music, you’re hearing you’re community—the guy who listens to hip-hop next door, the kids playing outside, the people at the bus stop. Can you talk a bit about how your community inspires the music?
It kind of goes back to my philosophy: New York is a place where you come to get stuff done. The people that come here are here because of the opportunity. They came here to get stuff done. It’s the place for that.
I really engross myself into every aspect of it, because it all affects me. I try to ignore calamity. I live in front of a bus stop, so you can imagine the noise pollution that there is. At one point I was starting to go crazy, so I was like, “If I don’t embrace what’s happening and figure out a way for it to be a part of what I’m doing, I’m going to actually go crazy.” I was thinking that I had to get away from all of that noise to concentrate, but when I got that time away, I wasn’t concentrating as hard as I thought I was. Once you finally get to that perfect place where nobody is bothering you, you can’t concentrate. So I began to actually actively listen to my environment and utilize that. So that’s what I was saying in the EPK.
I’m really conscious of this cat next door that has Tourette’s. The thing that soothes him the most is hip-hop, but the thing that he likes is only the hits. This cat plays all of the mixtapes, you know. He plays them over and over again. So I’m constantly flooded with these fundamentals that I grew up listening to. This shit is loud and piercing too. We battle with each other about the level of sound all the time. I’m trying to create and I’m hearing the same stuff over and over again. We came to some sort of an understanding, but I’m still affected by him.
I found out that I can’t change the environment around me; I can just give something back to it. That’s my motivation as a parent, as a musician, as a member of this community. I give back as much as I can.
Something else that has to influential in your music is the label that you work with. What makes Motéma an environment that you are able to create in?
I helped start Motéma from their humble beginnings. They were already in motion when I came on, but they only had two or three artists. So for me Motéma is like my baby too. Specifically being on Motéma is a treat for me. It’s not really about being on a label so much as the community of people that I’m with. I’ve been with them on their journey from humble beginnings to being noticed now. It’s a joy for me to see this happening. I would say for an artist nowadays, you would want a place that’s similar to a Motéma. They’re steadily growing, but it’s also getting much more focused. It’s a great place for me because I get to explore all of my ideas.
The work that goes into getting this music out is very specific. If an artist can’t do that for himself or find a team like this label, it’ll go to the wayside. There are too many independent artists out here today. You can’t do all of this by yourself. It’s better to align with some form of a label to get that structure that you need. Today we have the ability to do it all as an independent artist, but who has the skill to do that plus create? I can’t manage myself and create at the same time. I have an incredible team that understands how I create, how I go about doing things, and what I need to keep doing those things. You need people that actually like your music and what you’re doing.
I’m lucky that people are into what I’m doing, because we are in a business of mediocrity. Yet, I’m going for the purest, highest-quality form of music possible. That’s not necessarily popular right now. I’m not changing my stuff to accommodate what other people can’t do or don’t understand. I am trying to make it palatable enough so that people do want to know what it is though. The stuff that I put out is the type of stuff that I like to hear. This is stuff that I dance to; this is shit that I feel.
Make sure you’re at the Four Directions album release concert on Dec. 4th at the Jazz Standard f. Marc Cary Focus Trio with Sameer Gupta on drums and Rashaan Carter on bass.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)