Marcus Strickland has performed with notables Tom Harrell, Wynton Marsalis, Winard Harper, Mark Whitfield, Roy Haynes, Donald Edwards and the Lonnie Plaxico Group. But, he has found a special cohesive magnetism with his own quartet, which includes his identical twin brother, drummer E.J. Strickland, pianist Robert Glasper, and bassist Brandon Owens. "At Last," Strickland’s maiden voyage as a leader, is a creative exploration that offers spectacular results for the listener and an insight into thoughtful, high-energy compositions from both Marcus and E.J.Strickland and pianist, Robert Glasper.
JazzReview: You just completed a two-week tour in Germany with the Lonnie Plaxico Group. How did that go?
Marcus Strickland: It was great. We covered all areas of Germany and a few cities in Switzerland, and Vienna too. It was one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had thus far, mainly because we had extremely attentive audiences. As musicians, we play much better when we are paid attention to. It felt very intimate there and the club owners were so human, inviting us for drinks and treating us so good. I wish I could have those experiences every time I played. There’s a wide variety of difference in the audiences too. They are all really appreciative, but I noticed in Switzerland they were more careful, taking time to hold their applause until after the song. The audiences in Germany applauded after every solo.
JazzReview: You’ve been playing with Lonnie off and on for a time now, but you also cut your teeth with the big bands like the Mingus Big Band, Carnegie Hall Big Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Milt Jackson Big Band and Reggie Workman’s African American Legacy Band. What lessons have they taught you?
Marcus Strickland: The directors of the big band, like Jon Faddis for example, have so much information and have checked out so many aspects of the music. Not a moment went by that I wasn’t learning something either by their actions or what they said. I appreciated been part of them. I’ve had very few gigs with these bands, but they all were like pearls of wisdom.
JazzReview: How did that all come about, playing with all those big bands?
Marcus Strickland: Basically, I met quite a few of the leaders while I was in high school before I came to New York I met Faddis and Wynton through clinics and workshops I attended in Florida. I came up to them and asked them many questions. That’s what inspired me to go to New York. They said, ‘Call me when you get there,’ and so I did. Just the fact that they responded just like they said they would, gave me a sense that they do care about the music and young talent.
JazzReview: Do you have a preference over big bands or smaller groups?
Marcus Strickland: I definitely prefer a smaller group mainly because it is much easier to get a cohesive sound. However, if I were in one of those big bands for years, I know I would appreciate it, but it is the greatest thing to play with a small group. You just breathe together.
JazzReview: I saw you play with Tom Harrell at the Blue Note this past December. Your melodic duets with Harrell gave me the feeling of the Mulligan/Chet duets from the Pacific Jazz era of the 50’s. You were filling in for Jimmy Greene right?
Marcus Strickland: Right. Tom is one of the most sensitive and creative musicians I’ve worked with. His personality is like that also. I really enjoy his music. His music isn’t about complexity, it’s really about sound and feeling. It is very pure I would say. I was glad to have the opportunity to play with him and be part of that. I’ve heard Harrell’s group with Jimmy Greene in it. Jimmy is an amazing player.
JazzReview: Your new CD as a leader At Last contains 6 original songs by you and your quartet which highlight the personality of each musician.
Marcus Strickland: I really think it’s a phenomenon what our particular group gets with one another. It takes years to get as cohesive as we have in such a short time. The first time we played with this configuration, we really listened to one another and played as a unit. It is not a matter of ego when we play, it is the music and how we make it sound good. Besides our playing, we write in ways that compliment each other. When I play with someone I haven’t been around for that long, it takes me awhile to get used to it, so it might make the music suffer a bit. But with these guys, it was so instant it almost made me feel handicapped to play with someone else.
JazzReview: Care to tell me about your quartet members, how you formed?
Marcus Strickland: My brother and I are from Florida. Robert is from Houston and Brandon is from Los Angeles. We all met in New York with similar purposes, in a similar part of our lives. We are all about the same age. Robert actually came to me. He heard about me before I heard about him. This cat is extremely funny and wholesome. When I played with him it was the icing on the cake. He basically came up and introduced himself. He heard me at the IAJE convention and reminded me that we jammed together at the convention one night. We realized we had to put something together soon. Brandon came in a year after I got to New York, around 1998. I heard about Brandon from some friends who had been in the All American Grammy Band. That’s a band with all high school students in it. They audition for the band and play at the annual Grammy Awards, at the post parties afterward. When Brandon came to town we called a session, and when we played together I realized that was the sound I was looking for.
JazzReview: Your identical twin brother, E.J., is the drummer in your quartet. It must be something for the audience to see the two of you playing on stage together.
Marcus Strickland: Yes, I would imagine that it is. It is an incredible story about us. We came into music at the same time and stuck to it. There is a lot of superstition about how twins can communicate with one another without saying a word. I don’t think that’s true, but musically I think it is true. We communicate so well, not just because he’s my brother, but also because he is an incredible musician.
JazzReview: What inspired you to become a jazz musician?
Marcus Strickland: E.J. and I were extremely inspired by our dad. He had a lot of knowledge of the music. He used to be a jazz drummer, played R&B, and was also a classical percussionist. He’s a lawyer now, but comes to New York whenever he can just to see us play. He’ll also check out other musicians and go to the clubs. He’s a big jazz fan. He conveyed his love of jazz to us when we were starting to play. It really helped us and excited us. Mom was turned onto jazz just like we were, by our dad. I think that support is an important element in your growth as musician.
JazzReview: Where do you get your influences and how do the notes come to you when writing your own compositions.
Marcus Strickland: I feel that most of my music does not yet come from real life experiences, simply because I haven’t experienced much yet. As a young musician, most of my experience comes from what I’ve heard and what I know to be good music. I like to compose in the same style as Wayne Shorter, which is a very melodic approach to the music. My base lines and harmonies come out of a melodic line rather than a harmonic sense. Do you understand what I mean? It is hard to explain.
JazzReview: Trane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis influenced you. I see that your new CD contains Iris by Shorter and Serenity by Henderson. How do you find your own sound using these legendary influences?
Marcus Strickland: Basically I take their vigor towards the music. I try to approach the music with the same intensity. All these guys have such a deep reasoning behind why they play what they play, yet it comes out extremely expressive and natural. I allow myself to be influenced without imitation.
JazzReview: Would you categorize your style as neo-bop?
Marcus Strickland: I could categorize it that way neo tradition neo bop. I haven’t really thought about it. You know the industry, they like to put you in a box. That is something I can’t escape, so I play the music and let people think what they want. I just want them to check out the music. Hopefully it moves them.
JazzReview: You’ve been living in New York since 1997. Has this expanded your opportunities and recognition?
Marcus Strickland: Oh definitely! This is exactly the reason I moved here. New York is an amalgamation of many cultures and music. Most of the musicians I want to play with live here. Music has developed here. I can see myself staying here a long time just to absorb as much as I can. This city has also made me develop as a person. It’s a tough place to live and it opens your eyes to many things you wouldn’t normally see in say, Nebraska or Florida. (laughs) It is the port to the world and I’m glad I can experience living here.
JazzReview: Would you like to tour Europe with your own quartet?
Marcus Strickland: Definitely. I have things in the works right now. Its going to be a while until my name gets to a place where I’m lucrative to promoters there, but I think they will love us. And, as a group, we will grow the more places we go and the more we play.
JazzReview: Do you have a game plan in place for say the next two years? Are you working on a new CD?
Marcus Strickland: We’ll probably do another CD soon. I’m talking to several people and I have a lot of music I’d like to record. I’ve been really getting focused on what I need to do to get my music out here. It is a learning experience just talking to others about the industry and what needs to be done. I’ve especially learned a whole lot from Lonnie Plaxico. He is the example of what a leader should be. He sacrifices himself for the group and what he says and his actions are the same. He is a man of his word and principle. That is what I want to be as a leader.
JazzReview: Thank you Marcus for this informative interview. We wish you every success with your latest CD and continued achievement with your highly enjoyable music.