The arrival of Four Directions marks the second studio record for the Marc Cary Focus Trio, and the welcoming of touring-member Rashaan Carter in his first recording with the group. For the trio, collective interplay seems to be the most important theme of the group: Cary succeeds in creating space for musical ideas to exist equally, leveling the normal piano trio format into an even playing field for equal musical conversation. We sat down with bandmates Sameer Gupta, Burniss Earl Travis, and Rashaan to get inside the complex ensemble interplay of the Marc Cary’s Focus Trio.
Sameer Gupta: I met Marc in San Francisco in 2001-2002 where I was living and working as a jazz musician, and starting to explore Indian Classical Music. I showed him my song “Taiwa” and he really connected with that song, and encouraged me to publish it. I had been playing his songs on my Jazz radio show in college, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to work with him. It was Marc who encouraged me to move to NY, and he made a point of speaking to my parents and reassuring them that Marc would watch out for me. That was the old school way that many cats came to NY, through the support of their peers and fellow artists. In 2006 I moved to Harlem.
Burniss Earl Travis: I meet Marc at The New School my first year in NYC on a session Stefon Harris called with Jamire [Williams], myself and Marc. Really it was an audition cause the next day Stefon’s manager sent me an email for gigs. Marc had come in vibey and all cool with sunglasses on….it was a great vibe to meet. Since then we have been playing together for the last almost nine years since I have been in NYC, in Stefon’s band with Will Calhoun, Terreon Gully, etc…
Rashaan Carter: I first met Marc as a child. My father is a saxophonist in the Washington D.C. area, so he worked with Marc when he was still living there. As I grew older and more serious about the music, what Marc was doing was always present to me. I grew up exposed to and loving jazz from day one but also couldn’t shake the influence of the music of my peers. I loved hip-hop and R&B, and growing up in the Washington area, Go-Go music. I would check Marc out with Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln but also in his own groups. I could appreciate that he was incorporating aspects of the contemporary music and technology I was interested in with the musicality and intensity of jazz.
I first worked with Marc in Wallace Roney’s band and later in Cindy Blackman’s group. From there, he started to call me to fill in with the trio and we also worked together in Sameer’s band, Namaskar. As Burniss became busier and couldn’t make all the gigs, I’d play with the trio more and eventually was asked to share bass duties with Burniss on the record.
Can you talk about the origins of Four Directions and when your involvement began to materialize ?
Sameer: Four Directions is our first studio album since our debut record (in between we released 2 live albums “live 2008” and “live 2009”) the album reflects our energy, subtlety and spirited interplay as an ensemble. The album also brings to light the influences of GoGo, Raga Music, Modern and Classic Jazz, into one seamless blend. This album’s origins are simple, play the music of our people, our ancestors, and the future.
Rashaan: I think Four Directions is representative of the trio’s concept. I was doing Focus Trio gigs here and there, but was regularly playing with Marc and Sameer in Namaskar so we were developing a vibe together musically. The record captures that cohesiveness. Marc really utilizes the compositions as a starting point to explore and expand upon. By the time we got into the studio it was just a matter of working out some of the new music with the rhythmic and harmonic concepts we developed working together. The tunes with Burniss and I were really special. Burniss is my longtime friend and I really respect him as a musician and individual. It takes a certain type of sensitivity to play alongside another bassist and Burniss made it easy.
You all perform many artists. Can you talk about what this experience was like in particular, compared to other groups/ bands you perform with?
Sameer: I work with Marc and Rashaan in my project “Namaskar” which addresses the Golden-Era of 50s Bollywood with a strong modern instrumental jazz and improve-driven mentality. That project is a five piece group and most of the songs are influenced by Indian Classical Music. Through Marc’s own growing interest in Indian Raga Music, the Focus Trio has built an appreciation for the expressive melodic power of Indian Classical Music, while developing their own interpretation of this ancient form.
Burniss: To be in this community of beautiful musicians and vibes that I am blessed to say I have dwelled in and still wonder how to commit myself deeply to. So much music being produced and presented in different ways has made me appreciate these musicians, the energy we cultivate, and I am honored to have been a part and to call them my brothers
Rashaan: I think the intimacy of playing together as a trio is what really makes this special. The dialogue takes on a different dimension when it’s only among three people. There’s more space to introduce and respond to ideas. I think we are all dedicated to pushing the boundaries of the music and one another, something I really appreciate about Marc and Sameer. Also, Marc treats the trio as a collective so there’s space for us all to contribute. As we’ve developed the music further, I’ve been able to explore some of the more electronic sounds I’m interested in, working with the electric bass, effects, and loops, something you may not always see in other groups I work with.
This core group of musicians in the Focus Trio has a special chemistry . And can you talk about your experience performing with the group.
Rashaan: I think what makes the chemistry special is that we all bring fresh perspectives to our collective sound. We are all coming from similar conceptions and influences, but everyone has a special thing to add. Marc looks for people thinking along those lines and encourages that sort of conversation. Music is a conversation. Conversations can be difficult when no one is on the same page but boring when everyone has the same thing to say. Things get interesting when we all agree but have new words and ideas to complement one another. I think that’s what makes the Focus Trio special; we’re all in agreement but have varying perspectives to add.
Burniss: Our friendship, our struggles, and our victories are expressed openly amongst us in music and our fellowship. We are real with one another with ease and trust….music is the sum of our equation.
Sameer: The rapport we have on stage is so intensely musical, with split second changes and calls that make us have to cultivate a type of ESP. This synchronization carries off the stage as well, but usually we just end up making each other laugh until we are in physical pain. That chemistry in a band is extremely hard to find, and the audience can pick up on that when we play.
Can you talk about a 1 or two songs on the record that were special to you?
Sameer: Personally I really like “Ready or Not,” I feel like the band’s Interplay is remarkable on that track. I also love the ballad on the album (I think we called it “Open Baby”), which captures a truly sublime mood.
Rashaan: “Open Baby” was pretty special just because of the way it came together. We knew we would try something with everyone; Myself, Marc, Sameer, and Burniss. That’s all that was planned. They pressed record, Marc started to play, and we all found spaces within the music. In my opinion that moment represents the record well. Four separate directions collectively exploring textures and sounds.
What do you have coming up, any new projects on the horizon?
Sameer: Namaskar’s new record is in the works, and Marc has always been a pivotal member of that group, and for the new album I’m planning to bring in more of my NY musical family from both the jazz and raga sides of the fence. Also the brilliant young Carnatic (South Indian Classcal) violinist Arun Ramamurthy has a new album close to dropping which features Marc on 3 tracks! The group is called Arun Ramamurth Trio and is a really amazing project.
Rashaan: I’m continuing to play a wide range of music and expanding my musical palette. I have a great time working as a sideman, exploring new music or new ways to approach music. That keeps me on my feet and helps keep things exciting. I’m also in the process of pulling all these ideas and sounds together into something representative of my own musical vision. That should come together in 2014.
Interview by Meghan Stabile @meghan_stabile
Words by Kaley Puckett