Strickland was making the comments during our conversation at the end of October, shortly after he returned from his most recent European tour. Strickland’s point was jazz artists need to view themselves as being part of a much broader musical landscape. He believes that artists who are serious about their craft will become in his words "experts in music."
Through taking a closer look at other genres of music, Strickland says far reaching benefits will be realized. Artists will learn how to incorporate other instruments and vocal styles into their music. Moreover, he says, "There are very specific intentions behind other genres of music." Those intentions may be to convey a story, express an ideology or particular sentiment. It is through listening to different styles of music that artists will be able to remain current with their music rather than retrospective.
Strickland’s own approach to music goes far beyond merely staying curren--he is an innovator. One of his more recent projects, the Twi-Life Ensemble, is an extension of that innovation. "I really feel liberated by starting the Twi-Life group because it represents the adventurous side of my brain. I feel like a little kid. There are so many things that I want to do with it and I can’t wait for the next record. It will contain rock grooves, ska grooves and Caribbean influences. There’s a lot of stuff going on there, things that I wouldn’t otherwise get (a chance to do)," he says.
Strickland draws upon the cultural diversity of New York City where he now lives and the ethnic influences in Miami where he grew up. He cites the example of a song from his current double CD Quartets Twi-Life, "(The song) "Brooklyn Street Fair" was written after I went through the Atlantic Antic Festival (held) on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. While you are walking down the street, you can hear Caribbean music or Islamic music or Islamic chanting. You hear all kinds of things. It reminds me of Miami. You will hear (various styles of music). I am used to hearing so many different things at the same time and the groove on "Brooklyn Street Fair" really expresses that. It is constantly shifting through different grooves." We share a joke and laugh as he refers to "Brooklyn Street Fair" as a confusing song and I suggest we call it a sophisticated composition. He thanks me.
During his more youthful days in Miami, some of the genres that affected his life included Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music. He also provided a humorous imitation of his grandfather complete with deep southern drawl to make sure I understand that the deep south has also put its stamp upon his music. "It’s a big melting pot. Like most people who grew up there, (it helped me) have a more open mind. I am very proud to be from Miami. I think it has really seeped into my music," Strickland says.
The longer you listen to Strickland speak, you become keenly aware that he is the jazz incarnation of icons from other genres like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie who used their music as social commentary on events of the day. Today, we might point to some of Strickland’s jazz contemporaries such as Chris Washburne and Stanton Moore. While Strickland’s music does not yet have the same overtones, it is not difficult to imagine that it might someday.
He speaks with ease about the historical significance of songs such as "Haile Selassie" found on disc two from this double set.
Strickland is also drawn to artists past and present whose music or lives made strong statements. "Recently I have been getting into Sela’s (Kuti) music. Sela (Kuti) was a Nigerian (now deceased). He was very prominent during the seventies and pivotal in the politics of Nigeria. He created this Afro beat music that was incredible. The lyrics are very powerful. He sang and played saxophone," Strickland explains.
"Oumou Sangaré’s music is very political as well. Her music is geared towards supporting women’s rights. The music is very passionate and the musicians are impeccable. I have been listening to lots of her music," he says.
"I have always been intrigued by Indian music because it grabs you. It has a drone throughout the whole song. It changes your disposition," Strickland says. Recently his interest in Indian music led Strickland to take pan drum lessons. "It is just mind boggling how masterful Indian percussionists can be," he says.
Contemporary North American elements can also be found in Strickland’s music. In recent years, he spent time learning how to program beats and admits to those influences in some of his music. His introduction to the guitar playing of Lage Lund who appears on his current album also changed his perception of how to utilize the guitar in jazz music.
The same enthusiasm that Strickland demonstrates towards creating new charts carries over to his approach in live performances. While speaking about the interaction between an audience and his musicians he says, "You can see on their (audience’s) faces that something is being done here that the previous audience didn’t see and maybe the next audience won’t see. That is the whole thing about jazz it is never the same. Even the way you play the melody does not sound the same each night. You are really striving to improve each time that you play."
Whereas many composers start with a melody or lyric, Strickland’s approach to his compositions is different. "A lot of times I come up with the harmony and bassline first. I build it (the song) from the bottom up. I just go with what I am feeling at the time I am writing the composition. After I write the harmony and the bassline, I try my best to sing the melody over it. I have a lot of harmony going on and I don’t want the melody to sound like that. I will try to sing the melody over it rather than play it. I have more technique on my saxophone than I do my vocal skills so placing this handicap on it forces me to be a little bit more lyrical. I find the songs become much more memorable than if it had a bop side to it," he says.
Strickland enjoys the flexibility of playing both the tenor and soprano saxophones. "I really like the idea of having both of those instruments at my disposal. It gives me a lot of options. There are so many things that you can do with the saxophone," he says.
It is often said that the saxophone comes closest to imitating the human voice. Strickland echoes those sentiments, "I find that the tenor sounds like a man and the soprano can sound like a boy. Many times, I find the tenor represents a mature person. When I am in the high register of the tenor it sounds like he is crying, feeling pain or anger. It feels like the emotional output of the tenor is a little more advanced than the soprano. The soprano feels like a less mature person who hasn’t experienced that many things."
Continuing to discuss the horns he says, "The tenor and the soprano are an octave away. At some point, their ranges cross. The high register of the tenor sounds like the regular range of the soprano. If I have a composition that has a melody within that cross section of the soprano and tenor I then have to make a decision on which one I am going to play."
Regardless of which of his saxophones Strickland is playing it is safe to say that he is one of the truly innovative people on the jazz music scene today. If you have not yet listened to his music, you may want to check out his website.