The story continues. Yesterday saxophonist Marcus Strickland's new, double-disc record Triumph Of The Heavy, Volumes 1 & 2 went on sale, and the narrative of this record begins where the story of his prior one, Idiosyncrasies (2009), left off. On that CD, Strickland dives head first into the tricky balancing act of leading a sax trio, with bassist Ben Williams and drummer E.J. Strickland, his twin brother. He made it even more challenging by not falling back on tried-and-true standards, mostly coming up with originals, and even where he did play someone else's music, the songs weren't play-by-the-numbers standards, and mostly weren't even jazz tunes. The record put Strickland on a higher plane, an accomplishment I thought merited a spot on the 2009 Best of Mainstream and Modern Jazz list.
On Triumph Of The Heavy, Volumes 1 & 2, Strickland continues down the path of expanding his art, building upon the ambitious template he established on that prior record: direct, radiant saxophone playing set to songs and arrangements whose melodies are no-nonsense and well-defined, with forward-looking rhythms that absorb some of the more modern music fully into jazz. All while using space and placing his band mates in prominent roles. In these ways, Strickland is the present-day equivalent to Sonny Rollins (with apologies to the still living, still thriving Rollins).
Yes, the story continues, but first with Volume 2 instead of Volume 1, because this disc is a smoldering live date Strickland performed with his Idiosyncrasies trio. By this time, the three had been performing together as a threesome for some time, so it's possible to hear the growth in the bond among them since that studio date. The last two songs are even pulled from Idiosyncrasies, first a funky take on Jaco Pastorious' Portrait Of Tracy," and then Strickland's own rubbery composition Cuspy's Delight," where Marcus' tenor gets a little more ambitious here than on the original. The rest of the selections appear to be new originals Strickland is introducing in this live setting, like Prime," performed in the video below. His soprano sax gets some spotlight, as on Surreal," which fits the title of the song as it describes Marcus' performance during the solo, and E.J. is just killing it on his kit behind him. Mudbone" is underpinned but some hip-hop/jazz rhythm and spidery bass playing from Williams that pops.
Volume 1 takes us to a new chapter of sorts. It's a studio set, and also a return to Strickland's quartet format, with the addition of pianist David Bryant to the trio. This isn't a step back to the earlier albums, however, because Strickland goes back to this configuration informed with the ideas he formulated and integrated into his music during the time as a trio. And Bryant is a willing and sympathetic participant to this fresher conception: his playing leaves the voids that afford everyone else breathing space and he's also fits into the groove nicely. Breathe" in fact seems to be the name of the game on this disc, as Strickland opens up the melodies and lets everyone groove...not in the boring, cyclical sense, but by taking some basic shards of music and build a construction that blurs the distinctions between the composed and the improvisational. From the dynamic, bustling Lilt," to the urgent 'Lectronic" (which, coincidentally or not, sounds sort of like an acoustic adaptation of an electronic song), finds the balance between the past of jazz and the future.
But there's more to Volume 1 than just taking the trio ideas and adding a piano. Strickland adds an alto sax to his repertoire, making this a highly unusual occasion where a leader is playing tenor, alto and soprano at various times on an album. All three saxophones, as well as a clarinet and bass clarinet are all dubbed together for Virgo," to create a sleek, modern unplugged groove for him to jam over. Za Rahula" displays the art of playing a dark, beautiful melody in an unhurried fashion. A Temptress' Gait" is another display of the unique funk foundation of Williams and E.J., who through these trick rhythms never let go of the swing. With Bryant now in the mix, it seems to make that swing even more evident.
With all the tactical nods to current music forms dotting the sonic landscape on this album, Marcus Strickland's aim for this album is very much opposed to the goal for most music made today: I wanted to associate the title of my next recording with weight, because I wanted to express that music with substance, a strong sound and which takes risks can triumph, it can move people," he explains. By taking pieces of the here and now and attaching it to the more substantive precepts of jazz from the past, Triumph Of The Heavy, Volumes 1 & 2 attempts to reach out to a wider audience without making any compromises. I don't know how many ears this album will actually persuade, but on an artistic level, it's already a triumph.