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Marc Cary on the Fender Rhodes, Influence, and Individualism

Jason Stillman
Contributing Writer
jasonstillman@gmail.com / @jasonstillman

The Marc Cary Trio hit le club l'Astral at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 3 as part of the 36th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The band drove up to Montreal that day after playing their regular Thursday session in Harlem, which ended at 3:30 a.m. early Friday morning. Although the group must have been feeling wiped, they showed no signs of fatigue and delivered two hard-driving, energetic sets of music. "I love this instrument", remarked Cary, giving his Fender Rhodes a little shove,"even if it doesn't work sometimes", referring to some technical difficulties he was having with his instrument. He must have adapted to the situation quickly however because there didn't really seem to be anything wrong with the sound. "The original Fender Rhodes' were built using surplus World War II Airplane parts… Part of what I love about this instrument is that Harold Rhodes used materials of destruction to create something that could bring us together rather than tear us apart".

The trio, which consisted of Cary (Fender Rhodes and Moog), Rashaan Carter (electric bass), and Sameer Gupta (tablas and drum set), presented their idiosyncratic style that fuses jazz with various North African, West African and Indian rhythms. The program was comprised primarily of Cary originals, however, he also paid tribute to some influential musicians by including works by Harold Mabern and Hermeto Pasquale. Cary was promoting his most recent release, Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2 (Motema) and, earlier that day, I sat down with him to discuss the second installment of his tribute to the Fender Rhodes. The conversation touched on a number of issues including the importance of Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1, Cary's musical approach (both as a contributor and as a leader), commercialism and genre in jazz, and some of the valuable lessons Cary has learned through his mentors.

JS: Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1 came out in 1999. Has your musical direction or musical approach changed since then? How would you compare your work in 1999 with the work you are producing now? And can you identify ways in which you have changed or grown as a musician since its release?

MC: I quote Freddie Hubbard who said that it takes 15 years to get your own sound, from the point that you start to focus being unique or trying to offer something to the music. He said it takes 15 years. At the point we did Rhodes Ahead Vol. 1, as a leader… that was year five… my first record came out in '95. So, I do believe that the evolution of my trajectory – I'm a little off from my original trajectory but I feel like I've covered a lot of territory as far as what my concepts are. For my first record, I knew that I wanted to tell a story… by the time I got to Rhodes Ahead, that was a very political move and it was also something very dear to my heart, from before I put out my first jazz record. I grew up on the Fender Rhodes… that was the instrument that was available to me when I first started—Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer and Moogs... and I grew up playing in go-go bands… For me, the acoustic music is more where I see vast growth and exploration [in my development] and electronic music… I haven't really been able to get to… I mean, I've developed a lot that I haven't released so between Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, there's a lot of albums in there that haven't come out yet. But I really do think that Vol. 2 is a continuation (almost like a new story in a way) but the theme is still the same— it's about the Fender Rhodes—but it's like a new story.

JS: When you say it was sort of a political move [to record] Vol. 1 do you mean going from acoustic to electric music within the jazz genre?

MC: In the jazz… yeah… in the jazz community, shall I say the jazz police? It was almost like shooting your foot off in a way… for some cats to approach that. Now, me being on independent labels gave me a lot of freedom to do that. A lot of my peers wanted to express themselves the way they wanted to but, at that time, there was a big move that was about the "young lions" and it was about really trying to sell records… fast. Almost trying to make jazz a pop kind of a thing and they thought that the appeal would be to present young musicians that never had done nothing before that, put them on a platform and say "this is the new cat". You see what they realized is that that's not how it's done—even though they're still doing that kind of stuff—the elders have to say you're the cat. There's a rite of passage. And, once you take that out of the picture, it becomes corporate. So, really I was just kind of trying not to involve myself into that corporate mindset and create music that I felt close to. When I say political, the music was from my heart but, at the time, the political [musical] climate was about playing jazz, bop, bebop—whatever they're calling it—but it was about the young lions playing acoustic music. I'm Native American, I'm black, I'm African, I'm African American, I'm all kinds of stuff… Scottish. I got all kinds of stuff in me and I'm aware of all of my roots, as much as I can be, [as much as] my parents have shared with me and so, I don't leave nothing out. I'm not a genre.. I'm not classifiable like that.

JS: Is that why you have referred to Vol. 1 as being a turning point in your career?

MC: Oh yeah. Yeah, those are the fundamental reasons. Also, it was recognized as a turning point for music in general and especially for jazz music but, at that time, Harold Rhodes had… matter of fact, when I recorded the record, Harold was still living but he had passed before that record was put out and so, the tribute to the Fender Rhodes was pretty much… it was timing. It wasn't like a ploy, I really love the Fender Rhodes and that's why I did that tribute to it.

JS: How were you drawn to the Fender Rhodes? You said that you came to it when you were quite young but your first piano lessons were on Rhodes or…?

MC: No, my first piano lessons were on piano but my father had friends, that he played chess with, and one of them left his Fender Rhodes there—for whatever reason—and that's when I started my first band. I wasn't even playing keys then I was playing drums… So, I had drums, we had a Fender Rhodes… and we started doing the battles of the bands at a young age… I started my first band when I was 12… then I went to trumpet because I found a better drummer. My grandfather was a trumpet player—he was the first cousin of Cootie Williams—so I had his trumpet… and then I found a better trumpet player. That's when I went to the Fender Rhodes.

JS: Is that how you entered the jazz world as well?

MC: Oh yeah, I mean… I grew up in the 70s…born in '67… so I've heard all of that music… that's my culture. I'm not from 1920, 1950… as much as I appreciate and play that music, what I connect with from my experience is music that has the Fender Rhodes in it... organ music, clavinets and Moogs and pianos… the whole spectrum.

JS: In addition to being a leader, you are also a highly sought-after sideman…

MC: No, I'm not a sideman.

JS: You're not anymore?

MC: I never was a sideman. I've always been a contributor. Yeah, I've never been a sideman. Sidemen are great. They're the most incredible musicians because they don't belong to anything… they're available and people can pick them up and they can do anything. I'm not that kind of musician. I'm the kind of musician… I involve myself in the music. I spend time with… I've been in groups. I've developed sound over the years, for years with people. I was in Roy Hargrove's band for five years… with Betty Carter for three years, with Abbey Lincoln for 12. I've played with many people but not as a sideman. There's a big difference.

JS: Could you talk about your tenure with Abbey Lincoln? Can I say that?

MC: Yeah, that's beautiful… Yeah, but I was truly a collaborator with her. We wrote music together, we… I bring a sound to a band. That's why people want me to be a part of their stuff.

JS: Did these experiences inform the way you lead your own groups?

MC: Oh, definitely man… all of them… it's just like… For me, when I grew up, I didn't judge my parents but I looked at the things that worked and the things that didn't work. The things they knew about me and the things they didn't and the reasons. So, I studied them and I learned how I would approach [life]. So… I might be the 2.0 version of what they did… but I learned from them. I learned from each one of those leaders that I was collaborating with. How they treated their ensembles, how they carried themselves… the etiquette of being a leader or being a musician, of being a jazz musician… because there's a lot of stigma that goes along with it—just as much as people celebrate it, at the same time, they look at us in a lot of different ways… so there's an etiquette to presenting yourself. Betty Carter told me that, "you're always on stage so don't entertain for free". Carry yourself in a manner and when you get to the stage, now you're entertaining. We used to be in the airport laughing… waiting two or three hours… the guys start laughing she said, "don't entertain for free"… because you're entertainment… I've learned a lot [from my mentors] and I share that with my guys.

JS: Harold Mabern composed one of the tracks on Vol. 2. How important is it to you to include the work from the history of jazz and reveal your influences?

MC: It's extremely important… Part of it is because it's a big mystery: improvisation and these different parts that socially are in the music we play. There's a lot of stuff that people don't know about. Most people listen to it in a linear way, from the start to the end, so they don't really understand the cycles that are going on, the spherical movement that's happening [or] the evolution of cycle. Most people don't understand what a 12-bar blues is. They kind of feel it but they wouldn't necessarily know what happened during that cycle and then what continued through the next one, what was brought back from the first one in the fourth cycle. Some people are listeners like that. So, in order to give people insight into how to interact with [my music]… people want to interact with it. Most people say bad things about things that they don't understand. Like, "that's stupid" or "that's ugly". They use these kinds of descriptive words because they themselves don't understand it. And so, any insight I can give people into my methods and the meaning of things… helps.

JS: Is it a way for you to sort of pay tribute to these artists as well?

MC: Big time. Yeah… I pay tribute to my mentors on every one of my records… If it's not a direct composition of theirs, it's something that's directly influenced by their energy… the intent that they had when they did something. When I listen to people play, I listen to their intentions as much as what they play. Sometimes what comes out is not necessarily what they intended to do and the power of the music that we play is… like a telephone… Telephones work on a frequency… that band is a consistent band so you can talk and it just sends sound but, every time we hit a note, whatever you're thinking is transferred through that sound. That's why people feel your music, especially instrumental music. It's what your thinking at the time you play that note that's transferred and I find that a very important part of what I do—just trying to be in the right frame of mind… in the right spirit… By studying the masters, people like McCoy and cats, you feel a certain thing… and I had to ask: is it spiritual? Is it… what is it? You know what I mean? I think it's definitely a spiritual thing, the connection between the person, the music, and the receiver of the music. I say spiritual… not in a religious sense but spiritual in a sense that we don't necessarily understand how it works.

JS: There's something bigger beyond the notes…

MC: Yeah, there's something bigger…

JS: Something bigger than a Harold Mabern lick or something like this… more like an attitude?

MC: It's an attitude… yeah man, it's hard to explain but… I listen for their intentions. What are they thinking? What are they saying? That's just me though…

Further information on Marc Cary including tour dates and recording updates can be found at Cary's website.

Jason Stillman is a Montreal jazz saxophonist and a Doctoral student in Jazz Performance at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.