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09.09.2016
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THE SAXSMITH… MARCUS STRICKLAND

THE SAXSMITH: MARCUS STRICKLAND

by TAoN

Photos by Deneka Penniston

© Deneka Peniston 2015

Miami grown Marcus Strickland does not fit into a box.  In fact, the saxophonist / beatmaker known to some as “Strick” personifies a box outside of the box.  Better yet, he is a conductor of a sonic power source being drained from a massive boom box into the concrete.

Marcus Strickland Quintet Bohemian Caverns D.C. Jazz Festival 6/8/2012 www.timothyforbes.com
Marcus Strickland Quintet Bohemian Caverns D.C. Jazz Festival 6/8/2012 www.timothyforbes.com

Inspired by the cascade of colors and sounds that make up the immigrant-studded, Afro-Latin-Caribbean mash-up found in the kaleidoscope of the Miami music machine, Strickland concocts his own tribal language translated with spikes and ridges, reminiscent of James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire’s rhythm section while reflecting an Afro-beat cadence of Tony Allen and Fela Anikalapo Kuti.  With the help of his band Twilife, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jean Baylor, and Keyon Harrold, Nihil Novi summons an ancestral ceremony of sounds brought together by an invitation of purpose designed to help us remember and refine our selves through humanity.

Adorned in a Moroccan Djellaba, (a hooded garment comparable to the swag of the Dark Sith from Star Wars), Strickland creates an extension of his music with a necromantic styled album cover art.  Just like the Djellaba, Strickland’s Nihil Novi stands for “nothing new” – a versatile multi-climate textured piece of work that is perfect for hot weather, cold weather and windy weather.

© Deneka Peniston 2015
photo by Deneka Penistion

As the spring launched into full swing, and traces of summer were evident, TAoN spoke with Strickland on the evening before a performance in New York City.  According to Strickland, he finds it necessary to shed with one of his students prior to a show.

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Twin Hype…Marcus and brother EJ Strickland on the drums

TAoN

Hate to be cliché, but what inspired you to play the sax of all the instruments?

STRICKLAND

Me and my brother were eleven years old and we were trying to pick electives for an extra-curricular class.  The choices were Drama; nah too shy for that. Singing; nah can’t sing and too shy for that.  But when we came across instrumental music, I think for both of us, it really clicked.  The teacher, whose name was Steve Kirkland, who also played the saxophone began introducing all of the instruments.  Like, this is the tuba, this is the trombone, this is the trumpet, this is the clarinet, and I think the last instrument he brought out was the saxophone.  I was immediately in love because he was explaining, “this instrument is a brass wind, this is a woodwind,” and when he got to the saxophone, I was like, first of all it’s phallic looking! It looked so weird, and it was brasswind and woodwind at the same time.  It was so different than any of the others and I thought, that’s my instrument!  It’s the rebel!  I started out playing alto sax, and Steve Kirkland introduced me to “Now’s The Time”, a Charlie Parker tune.  That was the first tune that I learned.  I started transcribing the solo and after that I began listening to Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis.  They all played tenor.  By high school, I was nagging my dad to get me a tenor sax.  As a Christmas present, he got me a white lacquered tenor saxophone.

TAoN

As a saxophonist, where did the beatmaker aspect of your style originate from?

STRICKLAND

Yeah well it’s weird.  First of all, my Dad is a drummer.  He’s a lawyer now, but back in the day, he was a serious, classically trained percussionist.  He passed on a lot of his skills on to my brother, E.J. Strickland, who’s also a drummer.  E.J.’s up here with me in New York and we play all the time.  I’ve always been fascinated with the drums and also the saxophone.  I think that made me a more rhythmical player than most saxophone players.  It must be something to it because for a while, I was getting hired by all of these drummers!  I was in Roy Haynes’ band, I was in Will Calhoun’s  and Jeff K. Watts’ band, and recently I’ve been working with drum pads with Chris Dave.  All these cats are serious drummers!  So, I’ve always been really attracted to rhythm and how I can mesh with the rhythm section rather than just playing on top of it.   I love very interactive players like Brandford Marsalis, John Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins who really get in there and play with the rhythm section and deal.

TAoN

Hip Hop has obviously affected your musical style and inflections.  When did you notice that metamorphosis begin to take place?

STRICKLAND

I think when I moved to New York and started checking out Slum Village and J. Dilla.  I was always a deep fan of A Tribe Called Quest, because they were the most exposed at the time.  But you know with J. Dilla and all those cats… it took me a while to understand that the reason I loved Tribe and all these Q-Tip beats and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate  is mostly because they were all working with this incredible producer by the name of J. Dilla who was Jay Dee at the time!  I really started checking out Dilla’s music and the work he did with Slum.  I think Slum was the foundation of his work.  All the Detroit cats were popping out classics left and right!  I mean, a whole vault of all kinds of beats and like fifteen versions of “Fantastic!”  I was really into that in my early college years and I thought – I want to try that!  That’s probably the best way to admire somebody – to do what they do, so I bought the software program Reason, a MAC G5, an external hard drive, a MIDI controller, and started to make these beats.   Actually, the first few were not good at all. I was just getting acquainted with it, and learned right away that it’s a very involved sorta thing.  You gotta become a mad scientist.  I just numbered the tracks and I think I’m at like number 750 or something.  It wasn’t until I got to number M Loop 590 that I had the confidence to show them to some friends.  That was a batch of beats that was influenced and sampled from African and Peruvian musicians and very indigenous people.  I would take samples from them and that would influence how I made the beat.  That’s when it felt like I was developing my own style within programming.  That batch of beats is called “Afrique: Volume One.” A lot of beats that are on Nihil Novi comes from that batch of beats.

TAoN

Your arrival in New York was a pivotal moment in your creative journey.  How did Revive Music intercept your vision quest?

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photo by Deneka Peniston

STRICKLAND

Well, Meghan Stabile (Revive Music) was a part of the thing ever since I moved to New York.  I was in New York since 97’, and when she came here in the 2000’s she came with this force.  All of those Berkelee cats came here and just had this energy and wanted to spread love, spread music and be a community.  Immediately, everybody wanted to be a part of that.  It’s amazing what she’s done with this whole Revive thing.  Immediately I knew who she was, but things really started taking off with her when I started sending beats to Raydar Ellis who is a very good friend of hers. He’s a DJ/rapper that teaches at Berkelee.  So, he saw that I had a vault of beats and he began going through them and picking out stuff that he wanted to lay over.  Meghan heard them too!  Soon after that, there was some kind of beat contest.  Miguel Atwood Ferguson was doing a Charlie Parker Festival performance and was looking for beats to be arranged for the orchestra.  So I chopped up some Charlie Parker beats and happened to win the contest.  That was like the real inception of my capabilities.  Prior to that, she just heard me play saxophone.  That’s when I was thinking that I wanted to combine all of this stuff, because it was the complete me.

TAoN

Your music pays a spiritual and ancestral homage to African culture and roots.  Can you elaborate on this vibration?

STRICKLAND

I think a lot of what we’re creating here in America has to do with our ancestry, and we don’t even fucking know it.  We got James Brown and we got Fela. That’s why I made that track “Mirrors” because it’s like a reflection of where we came from. I think those guys were very similar in the way that they reached the people through the music.  Both of them were activists, and they carried out their activism through the music.  I mean Fela was a little bit rougher. Man, in 1977 he put out Zombie! Whoa! (laughs)

TAoN

Yeah, I hear you. They understood the danger of progression.  I think that’s what inspires society about the vanguard.  You’re taking a chance.  You have a ton of profound dialogue in the music driven by social purpose.  Is that what led to working with Meshell Ndegeocello?

STRICKLAND

Meshell definitely has an incredible diction, and that comes through in the music.   I grew up with all of her music.  Between Bitter, Comfort Woman, The World Made Me the Man of My Dreams, the list goes on and on.  She’s incredible.  I can tell she reads a lot and thinks about words in a different way than most people.  Definitely an influence on me in that respect.  For example, the track “Mantra”, she said “we need another track. Gimmie another track.”  So I went into my vault, pulled out a very early beat of mine with a nice bassline.  I took out the bass line and replaced with it a bass clarinet.  At the time we were going through “Black Lives Matter” and I put a lot of footage of what was going on during that time including the protests and news coverage talking about human beings and basic rights.  I put that footage under the track and spoke on it a little bit, but it wasn’t that compelling.  So, you know Meshell is mysterious person.  She’ll be working on all kinds of stuff and I’d have no idea what the she was doing!  What she did was call Keyon Harrold, who’s from Ferguson out of the blue saying… “Hey, I just wanted to speak to you for a little bit, and I wanna record you, if you don’t mind?” From that recording she got a very candid capture from a black man speaking on being a black man.  That’s how she rolls. Every now and then she would call me and say, “Marcus, I need you to record some words about what drives you.  I need you to record some words about what your truth is.”

(Click here to watch “The Making of Nihil Novi” video!)

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Meshell Ndegeocello and Marcus Strickland on Nihil Novi collaboration

TAoN

Family and social culture is an important ingredient in your recipe.  How did racism and growing up in Florida effect your musical interpretations?

STRICKLAND

Well, it was in my face from the tender age of five.  I had an incident with a white friend of mine, and my parents sat me down and said “We’re gonna have to tell you about a little thing called racism.”  So, they broke it all down to what every black family had to go through. The innocence of childhood is lost so early.  I grew up seeing all types of changes.  First of all, the drug trafficking in Miami was serious.  All of that stuff was some real shit.  The Haitian refugees were trying to get in Miami like the Cuban Refugees were, but the Haitians were getting turned back.  Cubans are used to dictatorship, so they tend to think Republican.  Although it’s a port and there are different ethnicities there, it was very apparent to me how the most oppressed were the darker ones.  The dark Cubans. The dark Americans.  I tried to understand why.  It’s just there.  It was always there.  I have friends of mine that were shot by cops and friends of mine that were pulled over because of the color of their skin.  Fortunately, I never experienced any run-ins with the law until I arrived here in New York.  I’m like, hmmmm, I just got pulled over and I wasn’t doing anything.   I was very aware of racism and how systematic it was.  Even though Florida is a Republican state, it didn’t affect me until I got to New York.  We think that “Black Lives Matter” is something new.  It’s nothing new dude.

TAoN

Let’s elaborate on the name of your band.  Why Twilife?

STRICKLAND

I think it was 2005 when I put together my first Twilife band. I think I put the band together out of frustration.   I wanted to really explore what I could do with live music, with improvised music, with hip hop, backbeat grooves and mix them all up into one sound instead of keeping things separate in their lanes.  I was playing with Roy Haynes at the time, who was a disciple of the Bebop era.  Haynes played with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coltrane, Chic Corea, Pat Methany, everybody.  I think one of the turning points was when I was on a gig with Roy and we got into the limousine and the driver was blasting Missy Elliot.  Roy Haynes who was probably 85 at the time, was singing every word.  I think that was the turning point for me.  Stop staying in these lanes.  Do what the hell you want to do.  Represent who you are and what era you came up in.  I grew up listening to the Marsalis’ but I also heard Gloria Estefan, Lester Torres, Haitian music, soca, 2 Live Crew, and 95 South. That stuff was bustling through the streets too.  So I tried to put all of that stuff in my music.  I created a world for myself.  There’s this other world that you’re free and you play nothing but what you want.  That’s why I created Twilife.  It’s like day and night. It’s basically a mixture of two different lives.  Like, I invented my own language.

TAoN

I totally understand creating and reinventing your own language. Some people think TAoN is some type of alien language, when in fact it’s an acronym for The Art of Noise.  Do you feel that Nihil Novi has a similar temperature to your recent work Idiosyncracies?

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STRICKLAND

With Idiosyncracies, I think I first started exploring the importance of melodies.  I started covering these songs that had impeccable melody.  I began writing in that way too, with a very strong melody and very strong bass lines, because I was dealing with a trio.  There’s nothing but bass. So the bass kind of became a melodic and harmonic instrument at the same time in a trio.  If you’re playing a Bjork song or an Andre 3000 song, and all you have is bass, sax and drums, that’ll really make the bare bones of a song.  It really changed my concept as a composer and a player at the same time.

TAoN

Your earlier work, such as The Heavy: Volumes 1 and 2 bled straight jazz.  Can you describe the distinctions between your albums and your approaches?

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STRICKLAND

A lot of our culture is very divided.  You know, we weren’t the one’s who named it (jazz).  We have all these separate things going on.  Separate genres so to speak.  But those things don’t really apply any more.  If I want to swing, I can swing.  If I want to lay down a horn line over a hip hop groove, I can do that too.  Because it’s all a part of me, it’s not just one thing.  There are a lot of jazz purists that say you’re selling out because of this and that, but then I’ll lay some swing on them and I’m like, well… now what is it?

It’s Nihil Novi.  Marcus Strickland and Twilife manage to capture an incandescence that sublimates both light and darkness.  At times it feels like I’m traveling through a Spike Lee movie, attentive to the highs and lows as well as the ebb and flows of a Stanley Turrentine and Terrance Blanchard collaboration.  One minute it feels like you’re dancing at the Zanzibar or the Shrine, the next – you’re immersed in the score of the sequel to Mo’ Betta Blues.  Not to mention, Jean Baylor’s voice comes alive, notably on songs such as “Inevitable” and “Alive”.  Her soft angelic vocals are an awesome compliment to the album’s cohesion and understated boldness.

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The Blue Note and Revive collaborations are constantly reminding us of an embarked mission designed to commune, shed and teach.  Moments before this interview ended, Strickland’s student arrives for his lesson.

This lesson not only signified the cycle of required nourishment and paying it forward, but the interruption identified with the call to responsibility that makes the art you create more powerful by intervention.  Conclusive tracks like “The Chant” and “Tic Toc” are articulated potions that sum up an experience, sharing a vestige of ancestry and motion that ignites the dimmest spark of our musical intonations.  Fill in the blanks and listen. –

For more info visit Marcusstrickland.com
 by ASK
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