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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Helping hands: Greg Ward and Marcus Strickland

Posted by on 08.01.12 at 12:30 PM

Greg Ward
  • Greg Ward
This week I preview two very different concerts presided over by Chicago percussionist Makaya McCraven. The performances will be of totally different material, but one thing they share (aside from McCraven, of course) is the presence of saxophonists Greg Ward and Marcus Strickland, two of the finest young reedists in New York today.

Ward, as any regular reader of this paper should know, is a Chicago native who established himself as an inspired, first-rate improviser in groups led by drummer Mike Reed (Loose Assembly and People, Places & Things); he's also a key voice in locally based African-style pop group Occidental Brothers Dance Band International. Unfortunately for us he moved to New York in late 2009—though he's back often enough it sometimes feels like he never left. A couple years ago he made his recorded debut as a leader with his electric jazz band, Fitted Shards, but I remain convinced that neither that album nor the band's live shows do a good job showing off Ward's outsize talents.

Not long after he moved to New York, I heard a stunning trio performance—with Ward, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Damion Reid—that had been recorded live for the WGBO jazz show The Checkout. Here was a much better showcase of Ward's talents: he tore through his sturdy, angular original tunes with ferocious energy and rhythmic buoyancy. Hearing that session had me eager for the trio's first commercial recording, but when Greg Ward's Phonic Juggernaut (Thirsty Ear) came out last October, I was disappointed. Ward's playing is terrific and focused, and the tunes are uniformly strong—save for a confusing cover of Andrew Bird's "Sectionate City"—but the drumming and the production sank the record for me. It sounds as if Reid's drums were recorded in a blimp hangar, and his playing is so busy most of the time that it either ruptures Sanders's grooves or overshadows them—occasionally he seems to be working out a drum 'n' bass routine, which ended up on the wrong album somehow. Over time I've gotten used to both the sound quality and the overactive drumming—I'm not necessarily knocking Reid, who's a ridiculously talented musician—and I'm glad I did, because Ward sounds fantastic. Below you can check out a piece from the album.

Marcus Strickland
  • Marcus Strickland
Based on his recordings at least, Marcus Strickland is more inside the postbop tradition than Ward, but he's a monster at working the changes. On last year's terrific Triumph of the Heavy Volume 1 & 2 (Strick Muzik) he cleverly documents two phases of his own band. Disc two captures a particularly strong live performance with a trio featuring his brother E.J. Strickland on drums and Ben Williams on bass, playing a repertoire with which they were all intimate; the first disc is a studio effort with the same trio joined by pianist David Bryant, tackling an all-new book of Strickland originals. On one disc the band is practically operating on an subconscious level, having totally internalized the material, while on the other their engagement is heightened because they're still learning the challenging tunes. The live disc is unmistakably taut, with a tightly coiled funk beneath its fluid surfaces; the studio outing feels a bit gentler, though part of that is due to Bryant's comping softening the edges. In both cases Strickland is superb, unleashing one forceful solo after another. Below you can hear "Bolt Bus Jitter" from the quartet disc.

Greg Ward photo: Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net

Marcus Strickland photo: Jati Lindsay

Today's playlist:

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounters (Orange Mountain Music)
Ellery Eskelin, New York Trio (Prime Source)
Albatrosh, Yonkers (Rune Grammofon)
Lou Donaldson, Lou Takes Off (Blue Note)
Jean-Luc Fafchamps, Morton Feldman: Triadic Memories 2010 Version (Sub Rosa)

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