In pianist’s hands, the tradition evolves

Boston Globe, March 2, 2007

NEW YORK—On the middle floor of a Harlem brownstone that once was home to Langston Hughes, the pianist Marc Cary holes up in a studio crowded with computers, keyboards, partly depleted bottles of red wine, and other flotsam of the creative process.

In the next room, his collaborator in business and music, Shon “Chance” Miller, a hip-hop artist and producer, lurks in similar fashion. Motema Music, the indie label on which Cary records, has its office in a space upstairs. And on the parlor floor, in the one fully renovated room, a concert piano stands proudly beneath a bank of stage lights.

Folks trundle up and down the narrow staircase and maneuver past drywall and over ripped-up carpet. Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, may have lived here, but the house is no elegant Harlem dowager. When the artists leased the building last year, they found it in a state unbecoming to the memory of its illustrious resident.

“It was in such disrepair and disrespect,” Cary says. Now, he says, they’re bringing the energy back, and he is starting to feel the presence of the luminaries who once met here. “Sometimes when you sit here – quietly – you can see something out of the corner of your eye. There’s a certain joy in here that’s come back to life.”

At once idiosyncratic and in the tradition, the vibe in the house aptly encapsulates the spirit of Cary’s music, an eclectic portfolio that is grounded in jazz but overflows into hip-hop, soul, house, Indian music, spoken poetry, and much else depending on which of his various projects and musical accomplices he’s dealing with.

One of Cary’s working groups for the last five years has been the Focus Trio, an acoustic, straight-ahead collaboration with two San Francisco-based musicians, bassist David Ewell and drummer and percussionist Sameer Gupta. On Tuesday Cary brings this group to Scullers, in somewhat belated support of last summer’s “Focus,” the trio’s debut release.

“Focus” is one of those criminally under-the-radar jazz records. It finds Cary in a rarefied entente with Gupta and Ewell, who are steeped in both jazz and the music of their heritage, respectively Indian and Chinese. Gupta switches between drum set and tablas. Cary’s compositions meld the influences in elegant, intuitive fashion, with the complex rhythms and patient development of raga, yet the unabashed lyricism of fine R&B.

“It’s a very dynamic record rhythmically,” Cary says. “I’m dealing with a lot of different odd-meter phrasings, I’ve got some songs in 7, in 5, and some different rhythms layered, a lot of polyrhythm. But the melodies are beautiful, man.”

The boundary-pushing musician acclaimed by his peers yet little known to the public is a jazz archetype: It may be a tiresome cliche, but it’s also a frustrating reality. Cary, who recently turned 40, fits the bill. His credentials include stints with Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Roy Hargrove, and with young bloods junior to him but also better known, such as vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

Cary takes this situation with self-esteem intact. “Even though I am a top-shelf item, I’m not acknowledged as that,” he says. “But I don’t necessarily like people talking about the fact that I’m not talked about. I don’t want them to feel, `Oh, poor Marc.’ Because I’m doing what I gotta do.”

Taking his lumps, in fact, is a Cary specialty. It’s not exactly that life dealt him lemons – he grew up in a musical family, with a great-grandmother, Mae York Smith, who played piano for silent movies and offered him guidance until she died at 103 – but he is still the product of some remarkable tough-love experiences.

One of these came at age 15, when he was, as he puts it, “a wild kid” growing up in Washington, D.C., immersed in go-go, the local pop music, and behaving badly. His parents placed him in a 12-step program where he encountered people with daunting problems, but also remarkable abilities.

“There were people coming off the street with open abscesses on their arms, 20-year veterans of cocaine and heroin addiction, and they were brilliant people but they were killing themselves,” he says. “And I realized, I came here to learn who I was.”

One man, he said, became his mentor. He was a musician who could take apart a Fender Rhodes and reassemble it perfectly. Cary once witnessed the man listen to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and write down the score as it was playing.

“He saw my talent and he encouraged me,” Cary says. “I hung around him the whole year I was in the program. And I emerged from there with the ability to audition for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was full steam ahead from there. Things just emerged and people embraced me.”

He credits Calvin Jones, a famed D.C. bandleader who drilled him like an obstreperous football coach; saxophonist Antoine Roney, who put him up when he came to New York, 21 and broke, and kicked him out of the house every morning; veteran drummer Art Taylor, who brought him into his band after an unexpected audition.

Now an uptown jazz lifer himself, Cary could have succumbed to nostalgia or neotraditionalism. Instead, he says, the opposite happened.

“Once I got so involved with the jazz scene to the extent that was the only thing I was doing, I started to feel funny,” he says. “I realized that I write pop songs, I write R&B, that’s where my head is. Those are the rhythms that I remember and that I feel. I started to incorporate that sound with what I learned by going head first into the jazz idiom. That gave me my identity.”

In a sense, it also gave Cary his freedom – to explore genres and work across creative boundaries, but also to continue to make jazz like “Focus,” pure without purism, obviating jazz distinctions that are sclerotic and premature.

“Jazz is such a new music, and it’s still in its development process,” he says. “A lot of the development seems to have already happened in most people’s minds, but I see so much more, so many more possibilities.”