Before & After: Marc Cary

photo by Whitmore John

Emerging from the Washington D.C. go-go scene, pianist, composer and bandleader Marc Cary cut his teeth with Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Abby Lincoln, Arthur Taylor and other veterans. He’s since established his own identity as a leader mixing straight ahead sounds with East Indian, West African and hip-hop flavors. Cary sat for this JazzTimes B&A session following his set at the 2010 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival.



1 Abdullah Ibrahim

“Green Kalahari” (from Bombella, WDR). Ibrahim, piano. Recorded in 2008.

Before: I’ve never heard this before, but it’s a very familiar sound. Whoever this is, is a very thoughtful person. They care about sound. It reminds me of some people I like. The tension in the beginning reminds me of Moses Molelekwa. Geri Allen also comes to mind. I can hear years of classical training and an understanding of dynamics. It reminds me of something from the Romantic period. I have a great appreciation for anyone who wants to play the instrument and is good at it. This is somebody who respects the instrument and respects music.

After: See, South Africa. It’s something about the sound. Hotep Galeta, Moses Molelekwa, Abdullah, Bheki Mseleku, they all have that same sound. And Geri has a touch of that too on her solo stuff. I like most of Abdullah’s stuff. I love his solo records. I used to see him at Sweet Basil. He’s kind of mystical with a very strong energy that radiated from him. I would see Kirk Lightsy and Walter Davis Jr. at those sets. I’d see Cecil Taylor in there. So Abdullah has a sound that I relate to.

2 Vijay Iyer

“Galang [Trio Riot Version] (from Historicity, ACT). Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2008-9.

Before: Is this Vijay? I love his stuff and I like Vijay [laughs]. You know it’s funny; once I hear someone I can store their sound in my memory. There’s an imprint that happens in my mind. He has a very specific touch. It’s a kind of bell tone. And I could tell that he’s coming from a different influence. For example, the beat that he chose to come in on is not based off swing. It’s based on understanding a meter. He has a unique sound. Plus, I just saw him about 6 weeks ago in Europe. I sat and watched one of his whole sets and he played this [laughs]. I like it.

After: That’s the other thing. Marcus gave it away. It reminded me of Max Roach at first. It’s the intention behind the rhythm. You know, that just sounds like something Marcus would do. I love this trio. I’d love to have that record.

3 Duke Ellington

“REM Blues” (from Money Jungle, Blue Note). Ellington, piano; Charles Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums. Recorded in 1962.

Before: [sings along] Duke. Money Jungle. I know the song and the solos and everything. This record inspired me when I made my first trio record. I love this, the looseness of it and the trust. You can hear the chances they were taking. Seemed like Duke just dug right through it. Nothing affected him. He’s vast and he heard the possibilities of the piano. I love his stride playing. I love those old black and white movies where you can see him digging in. I love the journey he took. He was continuously searching.

Your favorite Ellington record?

“Tulip or Turnip” with Ray Nance (sings the lyric). My dad had the 78 of that. He had thousands of records but it took me a long time to get the approval to go through them. But I would do it anyway. I was blessed to have access to his collection, and to his stereo. He had a tube stereo and it took about 10 minutes to warm the thing up. And I had to turn it off in time so that it would cool down before he got home.

4. Ahmad Jamal

“I Hear a Rhapsody” (from A Quiet Time, Dreyfus). Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Kenny Washington, drums. Recorded in 2009.

Before: Reminds me of Shirley Horn for a minute. Chris Anderson? It’s very tasty. I love it. It’s not John Hicks, is it? Yeah, it’s beautiful, very lyrical. I was expecting a vocalist to come in. This pianist knows the song. It’s a cross between Errol Garner and Shirley Horn, with that touch. It’s not a bebop pianist, at least not in this performance.  The touch is very watery, liquid, open.

After: It makes a lot sense now. He covers so much territory, man. Is this his new record? I love Ahmad Jamal. I like the way he deals with his band. He conducts the band with cues (demonstrates visual cues), and the band is focused on him. It’s dramatic to see him. He came to my show at the APAP convention last year. That’s the first time I really talked to him.  It made me really play.

5. Esperanza Spalding

“Precious” (from Esperanza, Heads Up). Spalding, vocals, bass; Leo Genovese, piano; Otis Brown, drums and background vocals. Released 2008.

Before: That’s Terreon Gully on drums. That’s not Terreon? Is this Esperanza? It’s the bass. When I put the voice and the bass together, it’s the same energy. And I know the quality of her voice. That made me very joyful when you played that. She’s an incredible bass player. I’ve never played with her but I’ve watched her play with Joe Lovano and I became a fan. I love her presence and the sound that she gets and the command of the instrument and her confidence. I’m glad to see her career is moving forward.

6. Jean-Michel Pilc

“PBH Factor” (from True Story, Dreyfus). Pilc, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Billy Hart, drums. Recorded in 2009.

Before: Marcus Roberts? It feels like they’re going for the blues. It reminds me of a pop song. That touch on the piano is something I would hear in theater or church. I have no idea who it is. Wait a minute. It also reminds me of Don Pullen, something he would do. It gets broader and broader as it goes. It’s crazy. It sounds either like an African cat or something inspired by cats like Abdullah with a taste of Jarrett. The sound of it reminds me of something form the 80s or 70s.

After: Oh, so Billy Hart is what gave me the 70s vibe, the drums. I don’t know this guy. All respect to piano players. It’s good music.

7. Brother Thelonious Quintet

“Brother Thelonious” (from Brother Thelonious Quintet, North Coast Brewing Company). Helen Sung, piano; Alan Hampton, bass; James Alsanders, drums; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet. Recorded in 2009.

Before: It sounds like a Christian McBride arrangement. That’s not Eric Reed, is it? The pianist is playing his ass off. It’s somebody out of Ahmad’s generation–certain licks, and the pocket. That tenor is not Ron Blake, is it? I like the different sections, how they got to the swing. I also like the melody and the way they put the odd meter bar in there. It switched the direction of the beat. It sounds very clean, which is the sound that is happening now. I like it. I’d like to listen to this traveling down from NY to D.C.

After:  Man, I just met Helen again. Yeah, I like her. Nice, beautiful. Wayne Escoffery? I like him too. Helen’s touch is hot. The rhythmic approach to how she played her lines was very round and a little angular. I like to hear that some times.

8. Betty Carter

“Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” (from Now It’s My Turn, Roulette). Carter, vocal; John Hicks, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. Recorded in 1976.

Betty. Come on, man [laughs]. First of all, I’ll bet they had another arrangement of this before they went and did this. We’d play a song like “I Should Care” as a ballad for three weeks, then one night she’d say “I Should Care” up-tempo and she’d count it off. Or she’d say do it in 5/4. Whatever song she chose, she knew everything about that song. She knew how long she could stretch this word and how short she had to compress that one to make the whole phrase work. She’d sing way behind the beat. You’d be [thinking] oh my god, and Betty could make it all work. Her timing was impeccable.

What direct feedback did she give you?

She’d tell me to go for it, then she’d stand over there and you could see the look on her face. She’d go to the mic and say, “I feel like I’m up here baby-sitting.” You have to believe in yourself because that’s embarrassing. You can’t even bring your ego to the stage. Everyone I know who brought their ego to the stage with Betty was smashed. She would not let your ego survive. If you’re open to everything on Betty’s stage, you’ll have a really good time. But there were people in the band that she really had problems with and she’d let them have it every chance she had, on the bandstand and off.

Like who?

A great drummer and a good friend of mine, Troy Davis. She’d give it to Troy every night. She’d tell him he didn’t know where 1 was. Betty said if you don’t know where 1 is, you can’t play with her because everything she did was about the 1: just before the 1, just after the 1, right on the 1. She also taught me about traveling, of being a musician on the road. She was a trouper.  She would ride with us in coach. It taught me about a certain cohesiveness you have to have. Abbey [Lincoln] would ride in first class and we’d be in 2nd class and she would come back and tell us how terrible first class was. She’d complain that they took the silverware out of first class and she had to use plastic cups—oh, and how you all doing back here? Betty wasn’t like that. They both understood the business. I learned the etiquette of being a jazz musician from Betty. From Abbey, I learned you have to own what’s yours.

9. Robert Glasper

“Downtime” (from Double Booked, Blue Note). Glasper, piano; Vicente Archer, bass; Chris Dave, drums. Released in 2009.

My man, Robert Glasper. He has a certain touch on the piano. Every time I hear Robert I think of Bob James; that touch, the glisses. Robert also got all my credit for work I did on Q-Tip’s record. Somehow the credits got messed up. They gave Robert credit for the Norah Jones song I produced and the Raphael Saadiq song I produced. So I’ve been listening to a lot of Robert to see how they could get the two of us confused [chuckles]. I got paid but that’s different from having your name live forever and getting credit for the work you did. Q-Tip didn’t tell anybody when he got nominated for a Grammy. I’m not mad at anybody, I’m just saying it’s unfortunate that clerical errors happen at the expense of somebody else. If Q-Tip wants more piano lessons, he’ll correct it [laughter]. No, he’s a good friend of mine. He’s a great musician too and he’s inspired by musicians. Things happen. The record is done.

10. Walter Davis Jr.

“Smake It” (from Davis Cup, Blue Note). Davis, piano; Donald Byrd, trumpet; Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Sam Jones, bass; Art Taylor, drums. Recorded in 1959.

Sounds like A.T. on drums. Donald Byrd. That’s Walter Davis right there. That’s who I learned from. Yeah, that’s my sound. I love this stuff. First of all, Walter Davis Jr. is my mentor. I met him when he was with Dizzy and I was in the Dizzy Gillespie Youth Orchestra at Blues Alley. From there I met and played and recorded with Arthur Taylor. I was up under Walter heavy. He said: “I told A.T. to get you so you have to come over and learn all this music.” And he was very serious. So I went over to Walter Davis’s house and he could play all the solos from every record he knew. And he understood the language, these phrases that meant things. He’d sit back and listen to the sonic comedy in the phrases and the brilliance became comical. Somebody would play something and Walter would laugh. So that was my introduction to that language. Walter would practice all the songs he knew every day. I talked to him every day. I recorded those phone conversations. Once he told me: “You have to bring your keyboard over to my house and get yourself a piano, because you have to work on your touch.” That’s when I sold all my gear and bought a piano. He was so in tune to everything.

Why is he so overlooked?

Politics is one reason. He was a bodyguard with the Nation of Islam, so I think his affiliation with his beliefs at that time had to do with how mainstream he became. Also, that was an in-between period. He was at the end of a movement. Things were changing in the industry and bebop was becoming a thing of the past. Not for the cats, but for the industry. It could also be some of the choices he made too. He went to Europe with A.T. and Johnny Griffin and he cut himself on a stage monitor. He had diabetes and he never stopped bleeding. He never healed and he basically bled to death.

Name two or three records that changed your life.

Money Jungle, Kind of Blue, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers Bustin’ Loose.And Chick Corea’s “Spain.” It got me a scholarship into UDC, and that changed my life.

photo by Larry Appelbaum

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