Marc Cary Delivers Depth and Gravitas and Redemptive Fun at a Harlem Jazz Shrine
Pianist Marc Cary and his Focus Trio – Rashaan Carter on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums.- played their opening set at Minton’s uptown last night like a suite. It was as if they felt the cold and the snow flurries outside – not to mention the tension and grief this city’s endured in the last couple of weeks – and decided to welcome everyone and warm them up with a healthy dose of hot pepper. But they eschewed jalapeno jump for a lingering, resonant bhut jolokia burn. That Indian pepper reference is deliberate, and makes sense since Cary draws so deeply on Indian classical music, plunging in and savoring its otherworldly qualities to a greater degree than most western musicians.
Gupta’s relentless, restless energy, implied clave and wry repartee maintained a livewire energy as Cary mined the low registers for pitchblende atmosphere, with long, pedaled choral phrases, suspenseful modalities, minimalistic, rhythmic motives and the occasional droll phrase or two on an old analog synth perched above the piano keys. Although he got more animated and threw in rippling, bluesy riffage and runs toward the end of the set, most of it was lowlit, dark and mystical.
The rhythm section got to expand throughout a catchy number inspired by a transcontinental flight sitting next to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, who used his time on the plane to write a brand new tune. Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from Cary’s latest album Four Directions, became a platform for brooding, Satie-esque resonance. Cary hit a peak by reinventing his mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away as a bitterly ambered mood piece – it was there that he chilled out on the synth, adding only some eerily echoey blues phrases that brought the song toward a corporate idiom, but in an out-of-focus and sardonic way. No doubt Lincoln would have loved that.
Meanwhile, it fell to Carter to hold the center as he added subtle colors when he wasn’t underpinning the songs with a muscularly slinky pulse to match Gupta’s clenched-teeth, tersely rapidfire volleys. Cary’s next NYC gig is at the Cell Theatre, 338 W 23rd St (8th & 9th Aves) on Jan 10.
A word about the vemue: Cary told the crowd that of all the false starts that various owners have taken in the Minton’s space over the past couple of decades, this version of the club is the best yet. He’s right. It’s a cross between the Vanguard and a swanky soul food emporium like Sylvia’s: plush ambience, inobtrusive but attentive service, expertly tricked-out sonics channeling the ghosts of history. Bebop was invented on this very same stage (or at least a significant piece of it) back in the late 30s, when the Ellington band held their famous cutting contests here. This incarnation of the club seems to draw a late crowd, and party people: it’s a Harlem jazz shrine that ought to be a must-see destination for anyone who cares about the music.