Pianist Marc Cary certainly has done much to stand out among his contemporaries. As a member of the late Abbey Lincoln’s band for a dozen years, he developed a sense of relatable lyricism and blues that’s a far cry from his peers. As a leader, he’s utilized his early influences, be it hip-hop or go-go, to push jazz artists to look for something more. Perhaps his most satisfying outlet is within his Focus Trio, in which Cary is able to stretch his daring arranging and voyeuristic composition style to plateaus that can only be achieved within the chemistry of himself, drummer Sameer Gupta and, now, bassist Rashaan Carter and bassist Burniss Earl Travis who is featured on all songs except track 7. After one listen of their debut Focus (2006) and their eponymous Live album (2009), it’s is clear that Cary is a virtuoso, able to find new sounds and maintain that smoky nightclub feel made famous in the haunts of his Harlem home. Following up his hotly acclaimed solo release, For the Love of Abbey, Cary has reunited with Focus on Four Directions.
With seven of the 10 tracks written by Cary, Four Directions (Motema Records) is an increasingly rare example of an improvisation-based recording with instant accessibility. No matter how many strides are made in the so-called jazz community in the 21st century, a great deal of artists continue to attempt to impress one another with their chops rather than giving the fans something that they can hold onto. What Cary, Gupta and Carter manage to do on this album is succumb to the biggest ego of all – the song. Combining acoustic and electric instruments is nothing new; however, Cary still managed to discover unmarked territory.
“Todi Blues” – An exercise in Indian Classical used in a progressive manner. Cary’s synthesizer floats atop Gupta’s radical tabla playing like a leaf caught in a hazy breeze. Right from the get-go, Cary lets the listener know that if you think you’re going to get what you did on the previous Focus Trio recordings, think again. Burniss plays electric bass on this song while Rashaan doubles on acoustic.
“Waltz Betty Waltz” – Gupta’s swing is devastating on this, well, waltz, while Cary and Burniss drive this brooding melody deep into the heart of the listener. Cary’s soloing has always been a lovely surprise underneath his imaginative arranging prowess and this is one of the most satisfying examples of that.
“He Who Hops Around” – This track is a shining example of the trio’s ability to improvise within the structure of a song while allowing the song to live. Cary’s two note refrain throughout the whole of the tune is unrelenting and groove heavy. Travis follows right along with Cary to give the track a knock that’s a hat nod to his hip-hop influences.
“Open Baby” – Features both Carter and Travis and another reason that Cary and Focus shouldn’t be relegated to being called a mere “jazz trio.” This number plays on a number of different textures, thanks largely to Cary’s multiple electric keyboards. One synth sounds like an ethereal Jeff Beck solo, while Fender Rhodes teeter totters between the atmospheric canvassing of late 1960’s Chick Corea an early 1970’s Stevie Wonder.
“Tanktified” – Written by drummer Terreon Gully. It’s appropriate that “Tank” is the root word of this title, as this is easily the heaviest recording of the album, made so by Gupta and Travis’ unique partnership, not to mention another menacing lyric courtesy of Cary’s soloing. Gupta’s treatment of snare and hi-hat give this song a tinge of funkiness that makes the dark nature of the song intoxicating.
“Boom” – Travis’ walking bass line continues the ominous undertone of the album. With that foundation at the bottom, Cary and Gupta let loose to explore with visceral respective soloing amongst themselves. This is not a song for the thinking man, but rather a man repressed and given license to express himself, unfiltered and true.
“Ready or Not” – As already mentioned, Cary’s lyricism is sharp and incomparable, setting the mood of each record with the corresponding titles; something that’s never been an easy task, even for the best of composers. The intro evokes a weariness that one should only feel when walking down a corridor that leads somewhere potentially frightening. Soon, there’s a burst of energy via rapid runs from Cary and Carter that baffles the listener, challenging them to keep up.
“Spectrum” – This reading of a John McLaughlin composition is as faithful as it gets to recapturing the furor and density of Tony Williams’ Lifetime band. Cary’s electric piano is as heavy and pounding as anything that the legendary guitarist could cook up, and Travis’ thumping, deft bass was a perfect counterpart to that approach. Gupta may have been possessed by the late Williams on this track, scarcely remaining in just one pocket.
“Indigenous” – Featuring both bassists. The rolling groove of Cary’s melody that sets this track off another instantly memorable hook. Gupta and Travis recognized this, playing as straight forward as they could in an effort to give the song life. Travis’ solo midway through is less of a detour from the theme of the song, but more of a scenic route back to the main land.
“Outside My Window” – Co-written by Burniss Earl Travis and Sameer Gupta. On the surface it may appear that this is open improve for the trio who just played nine thoughtfully arranged cuts, but if you look closer, it’s a illustration of the world-at-large happening around them. While things seem to be chaotic at times, everything moves in harmony. All three players make their own individual statement on this track, but together it tells a much grander story…and that’s the fourth direction.
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)