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Marc Cary

On Ellington and beyond, by Eugene Holley, Jr.

As we celebrate Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday, 57 year-old pianist/keyboardist Marc Cary’s three-decade career exemplifies the “beyond category” credo that Duke lived by. Marc’s sideman cred includes work with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Art Taylor, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and singers Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. His dozen-plus recordings as a leader that melds jazz and Indian music include his 1999 and 2023 releases, Trillium and Marc Cary Quartet Live at Zebulon’s 2003, and his Fender Rhodes/go-go grooved Indigenous Peoples albums include N.G.G.R. Please and Rhodes Ahead, Vols. 1 & 2.

This month, Marc performs at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s final installment of their Ellington at 125 series with pianist James Hurt, with both pianists playing Duke selections in alternating solo and duo and possibly four-hand settings. For Marc, this concert joins him with an equally iconoclastic fellow piano traveler whom also worked with Abbey Lincoln.

“James Hurt and I have played in all kinds of situations, whether it's with the rhythm section, or just the two of us,” Marc says. “I like to work with him, because he's so dynamic. He's so awesome. He pushes me. I really love his approach to the piano and harmony, his understanding of rhythm and the history of the piano. it's hard to play with another pianist. You gotta know how to play parts, and he's a great part player, he's a great contributor, and our styles complement each other. That's why I chose him as my partner in this [Duke tribute].”

Marc’s debt to Duke extends back to his high school days in Washington, D.C., where he attended the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the same school that’s boasts an impressive alumni that includes trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and comedian Dave Chappelle. “Ellington means everything to me,” Marc declares. “He inspired me to go deeper into big band music and deeper into my Native American [heritage], because he dealt with all of those issues mainly through the music, but he also talked a lot about the history and the meaning of the blues, and things like that and where it came from.”

Marc’s connection to Duke goes beyond the educational – it’s familial: Duke’s baritone saxophonist Harry Carney is first cousin to Marc’s grandfather, Otis Gamble, who lived in Rhode Island. “He played in Cootie’s band for years,” Marc proudly says of Otis, “and when Cootie got with Duke, he recommended that my grandfather join Duke’s band, but he turned him down because my mom was about to be born. So he [led] a pickup band that played with most of the acts coming through Providence.”

Marc was born in New York City, and grew up in Providence and Washington. While in D.C., Marc played in the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra, and was also falling under the spell of go-go music: D.C.’s local percussion-based, musical genre that boasts artists and groups like Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk and Rare Essence. “I started playing music, because I started a go-go band,” Marc reminisces. “It was Chuck Brown that made it possible for me to even imagine jazz and go-go together. I literally use this template. I learned a lot of standards from Chuck, and I started to become more proficient at the piano.”

Marc’s interest in Indian music was fueled by his early exposure to it in his home, and through the musicians he studied and respected. “I grew up in a home with about 25,000 records. My parents were avid collectors and worked on the radio and all that stuff,” Marc says. “So I was privy to people like Alice Coltrane very early. I was fascinated with her record Transfiguration, Lonnie Smith, and Les McCann’s Layers.

“Dizzy Gillespie was one of my mentors. He traveled to India and understood how to pull from that sound. So all the people that I was really influenced by were studying Indian classical music and so I did too. And then I found Indian musicians, like Samir Gupta, who were willing to try something new.”

Marc’s next project includes a new recording with poet, musician and author Sharrif Simmons, who recorded on Marc’s 2019 Cosmic Indigenous album, and is the newest member of The Last Poets. Marc is indeed putting Duke’s motto of making music beyond category into practice. “I get the feeling that Ellington would at least be excited to see someone celebrating him, 125 years from his birth.”

Marc Cary and James Hurt play Ellington at Dizzy’s Club, May 4 at 7 p.m. and Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 5.

KAVITA SHAH

CELEBRATES A VISIONS OF STORIES

New York born Kavita Shah is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and French. Music, singing and other languages were really common for her as a baby. Kavita’s mother would speak often to her in Gujarati, while her father and she would sing songs in Gujariti, Hindi, English and one in French. Kavita studied Spanish in school, but what really made it a more fulfilling practice was being able to travel to Ecuador to spend time with a family there when she was 16, making the language a more lived experience. Having that exposure has provided an opportunity to develop “a sonic palette for sound,” she says.

From the age of 10 to 18, Kavita sang with the Professional Young Peoples Chorus of New York City, where she was exposed to music and sang in more than 20 languages. “Often music was the first way to have an introduction to another place, another culture,” Kavita says. The Chorus “really valued authenticity, so if we were singing Brahms, we would have someone come in and really work with us on perfecting our German and getting the right pronunciation.”

Kavita studied college level Spanish, and was into AP classes and literature. She majored in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, but she was not interested in the existing theoretical European classical music classes that were available. She was more interested in spanish literature, especially Latin American literature. Since it was a very small department, Kavita was able to take advantage of a more intimate learning experience, as she was able to get to know her professors and teachers and go to their houses.

Kavita got into Brazilian music in high school and learned a lot about the music and Spanish and Portuguese through the music. “Because of my major, I had to study Portuguese,” she says. “But the moment I went to Portuguese, I kind of abandoned the whole Latin American world. It was like a fish to water. Something’s very special to me with Portuguese. Singing in Portuguese feels very natural to me. It’s like finding a piece of myself.” Kavita had a formative life experience when she lived in northeastern Brazil and Bahia when she was 20. First, she was immersed in the language. Second, she was in a city that was predominantly Black.

Kavita Shah’s freshman release was Visions (Inner Circle Music, 2014), which was co-produced by guitarist Lionel Loueke. It was an excellent introductory document of the varying soundscapes Kavita was presenting at that time. She included compositions by Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, MIA and Stevie Wonder, and she featured an introduction to her most recent release by recording her interpretation of “Sodade,” which was made popular by the phenomenal vocalist Cesaria Evora. Visions featured many exceptionally talented musicians, including bassist Linda May Han Oh, kora player Ycouba Sissoko and saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson.

Kavita’s most recent recording is Cape Verdean Blues (Folkalist Records, 2023). This release “was like going out on the side and doing something different and doing something that was research based on one place,” she says. This release featured master acoustic guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Bau (Évora's longtime musical director) and vocalist Fantcha, whom Kavita met when she recorded Visions. “Fantcha was also a sort of right-hand person to Cesaria Evora,” Kavita says. “Fatcha and Cesaria were incredibly close. She’s the person who knew Cesaria best. She was kind of like an unofficial daughter to her.” The title was to recognize Horace Silver, who was of Cape Verdean heritage, the Cape Verdean community along the Northeast and to acknowledge Kavita’s connection to jazz.

The Mezzrow sets were “a kind of like homecoming – transitioning back to my next project, which is a project of original Jazz with my quintet that will come out next year,” says Kavita. She looks at this gig “as a time to check in and go back to some of the repertoire from Vision, take a second to honor the 10 years of my professional career, revisiting some of those songs and also playing some new compositions and new songs that will be on the new album.” Kavita also wanted to note that the new release “will be a sequel to Visions. It’s actually like India, Africa and Brazil all in the same pod again. It will be like coming back home and to home base.”

Photo Credit: Joe Wuerfel

Jeff Hamilton

Swinging The Band By Ken Dryden

Jeff Hamilton was focused on being a jazz drummer from an early age. Jeff says, “I was playing to Count Basie and Oscar Peterson Trio records, memorizing all the music and thinking if someday I get to do this, I’m going to be ready.”

Jeff enrolled at Indiana University as a percussion major, under the tutelage of John von Ohlen. Jeff says, “He was a major influence and mentor. He said, ‘Don’t read music when you’re on the bandstand, you’ve got to get all the way inside the arrangement, make everybody comfortable and make them want to play.’ So I had the book memorized and it made it a lot easier.”

Jeff was encouraged by the bandleaders who hired him. “I set goals of working with Woody Herman’s band, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and the Basie band. So I learned their music. When I met Ray, I felt like I knew his playing and so much about him – you go in prepared so you aren’t surprised by a lot of things when you play with these people. If you go in with the thought, ‘This is my chair and I’m going to play so they can’t think of anybody else. I want to own this chair.’ When I joined the LA4, Ray Brown stopped the first rehearsal and told me, ‘We know what Shelly Manne did in this band, we hired you for you. Now what are you going to bring to the music?’ He made me think more about what my voice was and what I had to offer.

“He and Bud Shank and Laurindo Almeida were encouraging in letting me develop that in that group. I learned from Woody Herman as a leader to let the musicians grow and develop, don’t be a dictator, and make things go down a path that you think they should go and let the musicians find their way.”

Jeff also learned that there is more to being in a band than being a good musician, explaining, “You’ve got to get along with people and keep your mouth shut. That’s one thing I knew about Oscar Peterson before I joined him. I was with him from 1990 to 1995, and there was a time and place to let him speak his peace, whether you agreed with him or not. We got along famously. For Oscar, it was as much about the dinner after the concert as the concert. We’d know the restaurant where we were going to eat, but couldn’t tell you the name of the venue where we were playing. When you’re at the dinner, wearing tuxedos after the gig and he orders a $250 bottle of Bordeaux that’s thirty years old, don’t order a cheeseburger and french fries.”

Jeff reunited with his old friend John Clayton for a big band recording,The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: And So It Goes, for RMI Records last year. “Russ Miller is a good friend who designed my drums. He’s got a beautiful studio soundstage,” where Russ engineered the recording. “John and I have never been too far apart from each other since we met at Indiana University. We’re best friends and both live in L.A. John had arranged many things lately that were so fun to play. We went to Europe for three weeks in the fall of 2023 and Akiko was a guest artist of ours on that tour. We thought we needed to record this music, so we recorded John’s recent arrangements.”

Jeff chooses music depending on the personnel for the recording session or booking. “In my piano trio with Tamir Hendelman and Jon Hamar, we all contribute pieces: it’s three equal parts clicking at once. If one person brings in an arrangement, the other two get out a knife and cut a page or two and suggest something else or another chord change or melody line, so everybody is involved.”

It is the same way in his organ trio with Akiko Tsuruga and guitarist Steve Kovalcheck. Jeff says, “We suggest material. Akiko plays bass, melody and chordal support, so we give her leeway to what she is comfortable with, but not take her away from what she needs to do. It’s almost like the trio’s a quartet – she’s half of the quartet. We are getting ready to record this trio in May, we’ve got a west coast tour, then we’re going into the studio. The idea is to play the new music until you’re sick of it, then you’re ready to record.”

The Akiko/Hamilton/Kolvalcheck Trio, with Akiko Tsuruga, Jeff Hamilton and Steve Kovalcheck, will perform two shows at Dizzy’s Club on May 13 at 7 and 9 p.m..

Christian McGhee

A Young Man Already Making a Name By Don Jay Smith

The award-winning film composer and multi-instrumentalist Christian X.M. McGhee leads his band The Xtet plus a 10-piece string orchestra for two shows at Dizzy’s Club, within Jazz at Lincoln Center, 10 Columbus Circle, on Monday, May 20 at 7 and 9 p.m.. You may not be familiar with Christian because he just graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and is just beginning his career. You will be!

This show will be the world premiere of his debut album A Winged Resilience (BMI). The music combines his love for film scoring with his passion for improvisation as it brings together styles ranging from standards to free improvisation, groove and funk to classic film compositions, and it always swings!

As Christian explains, “A Winged Resilience combines my background in film scoring and my love for improvisation. I’m trying to strike a balance with a music that is jazzy, intricate, and spiced with complex forms, but also has lyrics that tell a story.”

It’s clear that Christian enjoys writing for and working with talented vocalists. With him at Dizzy’s will be Tyreek McDole, winner of the 2023 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, recent Juilliard graduate and rising star Georgia Heers, Olivia Chindamo, Master’s recipient from The Juilliard School where she received the Joseph W. Polisi prize for “Artist as Citizen,” and the powerful jazz singer, Imani Rousselle.

“I love singers,” says Christian. “That’s probably why there are vocals throughout A Winged Resilience. While I have been fortunate to already work with many great musicians, I would love to work with someone like Cécile McLorin Salvant who not only is a great vocalist, but also draws on the whole history of singing.”

Christian has indeed played with many great artists and renowned groups. The list includes the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Cynthia Erivo, the 2017 Grammy Band, Barry Harris, Gideon King & City Blog, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Keon Harrold, and Jahari Stampley to name a few.

Moreover, he has performed at a number of well-known jazz festivals including Monterey, Montreal, Newport, Rochester, Washington, D.C., SF Jazz and Exit Zero because he is much in demand as a drummer.

When asked about his drumming, he explains that he “started playing drums when he was two years old,” Then he added some perspective on his attendance at the Manhattan School of Music where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “It was the drums that got me in the door,” he says. “I studied with John Riley and Kendrick Scott, both fabulous drummers.”

Clearly his influence behind the set combines old school big band with a more modern style. As he elaborates, “I would say that I have been influenced by Jeff Hamilton or John Riley. I love pushing a big band. But I am also captivated by the modern style drummer like Brian Blade. I guess I would say that I blend the old with the new.”

As for his composition work, he already has an impressive roster of clients including Adobe, PBS, Butter Music & Sound, Weiden+Kennedy and Delta. When you hear A Winged Resilience, you will know that he is both an impressive drummer and a talented composer.

“I was fortunate to study composition with the Grammy Award-winning composer Jim McNeely, and A Winged Resilience draws a lot on Linda May Han Oh, which whom I work. She is a bassist who has won a great many awards including Grammys, several Bassist of the Year Awards, the APRA Award for Best New Jazz Work, and the prestigious Herb Alpert Award in the Arts.”

For the CD release celebration, the Xtet will feature four vocalists, a string ensemble, five musicians, and a conductor. The vocals will be handled by Tyreek McDole, Olivia Chindamo, Imani Rousselle, and Georgia Heers. The jazz musicians will include Santosh Sharma on tenor sax, Brad Kang on guitar, Esteban Castro on piano, Rafael Enciso on bass, and, of course, Christian on drums. Shaleah Feinstein will be the principal violinist as well as strings contractor, and the whole evening will be conducted by Matt Wong, award-winning pianist, composer, and arranger.

Tickets are available through the Dizzy’s Club website: jazz.org/dizzys/. The shows will also be livestreamed. After experiencing Christian’s compositions and enjoying his drumming, I think you will agree that Christian has a very bright future! He is definitely a young man making a name for himself.

The Xtet featuring Christian X.M. McGhee plays at Dizzy’s Club, 10 Columbus Cir., May 20 at 7 and 9 p.m.

STEPHANE WREMBEL

THE TOWN HALL / MAY 4

To say that Stephane Wrembel is a virtuoso doesn't begin to describe the rich and nuanced guitar playing that he’s famous for, or the brilliance on display in his steady stream of musical compositions. Growing up in France, surrounded by the colorful Gypsy Jazz guitar music made famous by Django Reinhardt, Stephane has devoted his career to the perpetuation of that music. He has also added his own original voice to the mix, enriching the genre. A composer, performer and educator, Stephane has released seventeen albums, including his most recent, Triptych. Stephane also produces Django a GoGo, an annual music festival. At his Town Hall concert, Django Reinhardt's grandson Simba Baumgartner will perform, as will Angelo Debarre and his world-famous Gypsy jazz trio. At the Maplewood concerts, Stephane performs new compositions that merge the Gypsy style with New Orleans jazz. Check out djangoagogo.com for a more complete breakdown of event details and performer listings. JZ

Photo Credit: Lawrence Sumulong

WALLACE RONEY JR

BRUSH CULTURE / MAY 6