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Marc Cary at Cafe Stritch

Marc Cary views jazz as a constant 'flow'—perpetually changing,
while never forgetting its history

Intro | Essential Picks | Marc Cary | Youth Jazz Ensembles

Marc Cary Focus Trio Photograph by Rebecca Meek

Jazz informs almost every American genre, but keyboard savant Marc Cary flips this formula. He employs modern techniques learned over a multi-decade career to advance the sound of this revered style of music.

"Jazz is a timeline for me," says Cary, who definitely falls into Winter Fest's more progressive category. "I like to bring things that are current, because that's what they did back then. The most current thing is always dance. That's why I try so many different things, so I hear not only the differences, but the similarities of what makes people move."

Backed by percussionist Terreon Gully and bassist Tarus Mateen, Cary is expanding jazz as the head of his world-class Focus Trio.

"We use electricity so we can do whatever we want to do," Cary explains. "Jazz is just like electricity, you tap into it, but you have to bring something to it. The history of jazz is just what they tapped into at that point. So, I believe the energy of jazz is a flow, it's a current, and it gives you an understanding, but it doesn't keep you there."

On their newest album, Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2, the trio display a great sonic versatility—epitomized by the range of Cary's keyboard, that world-famous workhorse, the Fender Rhodes.

During "Astral Flight," the record's fifth track, a groundwork of drum 'n' bass melds with its shimmering rhythm, as Indian tablas gallop alongside a psychedelic synth solo and a delicate keyboard melody. This blend of electric and acoustic instruments opens up a bounty of new possibilities, giving the trio a dynamic range of new tools to sculpt their vision of jazz—a vision Cary began realizing as a troubled teenager in Washington D.C.

"Music gave me peace of mind from the turmoil I had created for myself," he says reflecting on his adolescence. "I grew up in the early '80s, things were jumping. You had crack, you had all kinds of stuff. I grew up around the sight of heroin. It was a lot of depression in the community, but there were a lot of positive aspects that I was really attracted to as well."

Cary eventually joined the High Integrity Band that specialized in go-go music, a D.C.-bred blend of funk, improvised jamming and call-and-response lyrics.

"Once I chose music, all of a sudden I became attracted to older people who had information that they really wanted to share, and I became willing to take it," he says. "I wound up places, I never would have even imagined. I'm coming from go-go, and I'm being influenced by jazz musicians that are telling me, 'You got something,' so my ears and the opportunities kinda grew together."

These opportunities would take Cary to New York, where he has since collaborated with artists ranging from A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip to the iconic jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln, to whom he dedicated his first solo piano recording, "For the Love of Abbey."

"If you focus, you turn a light on and you give off an energy," he says. "When people know that's available, then you're in the pool, but if you don't put the energy out there, it ain't happening. Somehow, with the help of the key people who I think needed to touch my life, I was able to be where I needed to be, and be ready."

After New York, Cary traveled the world seeking new sources of musical wisdom.

"When I went to Morocco, I got to go sit with these masters," he recalls. "I mean, these cats are from the hills in the desert. They didn't speak English. So, you would be taught sonically during these open rehearsals. When you got it right, the crowd was like, 'Wooo!' and some lady would just come up to you and smack you on the back." He laughed fondly at the memory.

"I've had experiences like that all around the world. Music is my passport."

With a discography that stretches back 20 years, Cary has earned his reputation as a modern master of this treasured genre. A loose halo of long dreadlocks frame his placid, deep eyes that radiate with a persistent curiosity.

"I've never been a part of a major label," he says, "So, my body of work is a direct representation of what I believe in, what I am and what I explore. I'm doing music because I love it."

Supported by like minds, and secure in his place at the vanguard of jazz, Cary's explorations are far from finished. "It is beautiful to try to codify something, but it becomes a museum piece at that point," he says. "Jazz is a living music, it lives with us."

Marc Cary Focus Trio

Cafe Stritch

Sat, Mar 7, 8:30pm

Intro | Essential Picks | Marc Cary | Youth Jazz Ensembles