“People have to be careful when they call something new,” says saxophonist and composer Marcus Strickland. “I think about what’s around me instead of trying to create something new. Everything is inspired by something else. Ecclesiastes says: ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’”
Marcus may wax philosophical when he gets talking about his remarkable Blue Note/Revive debut Nihil Novi (a Latin phrase that translates to “nothing new”) but make no mistake, this is music for your heart and your feet as well your mind. Along with producer Meshell Ndegeocello, he draws upon a world of music from J Dilla’s beat making to Bartók’s Hungarian folk music. From Fela’s propulsive Afrobeat to Mingus’ freewheeling jazz truths. This is music of the people and for the people.
Since the turn of the century, the Miami-native has made indelible imprints on the modern jazz scene playing with such titans as Roy Haynes, Dave Douglas and Jeff “Tain” Waits and reinvigorating the genre with his own band Twi-Life. Beginning with his 2001 debut, At Last (Fresh Sounds/New Talent), he’s also been steadily building an impressive body of work. Last year Marcus appeared on Blue Note/Revive’s acclaimed statement of purpose, Supreme Sonacy Vol. 1, on which he and singer Christie Dashiell delivered a spellbinding makeover of Janet Jackson’s 1986 quiet-storm classic, “Let’s Wait Awhile.” The New York Times review singled out the track, writing that it “approaches the high bar for simmering R&B covers set by the Robert Glasper Experiment.”
Nihil Novi picks up some of the sonic cues from Supreme Sonacy, but with production help from Ndegeocello, Strickland paints an even more expansive musical canvas. The latest incarnation of Twi-Life is the centerpiece: trumpeter Keyon Harrold (known for his work with such R&B and hip-hop artists as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z and Common), bassist Kyle Miles, drummer Charles Haynes, organist Mitch Henry, and keyboardist Masayuki Hirano. Nihil Novi also includes appearances from singer Jean Baylor, bassists Pino Palladino and Ndegeocello, keyboardist James Francies, drummer Chris Dave, guitarist Chris Bruce, and pianist and fellow Blue Note artist Robert Glasper.
Consisting entirely of original songs, Nihil Novi was born of Strickland’s passion for DJ beat making, which has shaped both the way he composes and how he improvises. It also inspired him to recruit Ndegeocello as the album’s producer. “Because of all the layers and textures involved, I wanted someone who was very experienced at producing and creating this kind of music,” Marcus explains. “Meshell is genre-less; she doesn’t go by genres. She goes by who she is as a person. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not interested in affixing myself to a particular genre; I want to express who I am musically as a person.”
DJ culture may inform much of Nihil Novi but the music is so much more than jazz solos atop a hip-hop template. Marcus builds upon his samples – eventually doing away with the pre-recorded material – by adding layers of harmonies, melodies and rhythms. The hypnotic opener “Tic Toc” with its clipped rhythmic undertow and rolling bass line provides the perfect example. Strickland based its’ triplet rhythm on the cajón drum patterns on Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca’s song, “Maria Lando.” “When I ran the patterns in a high-pass filter, it sounded like a clock. So I made this beat called ‘Tic Toc.’ That beat expanded into a song,” he explains. Indeed, “Tic Toc” manifests its own uniqueness as Strickland and Harrold blow a recurring incantatory melody before a haunting vocal chorus gives tongue to the philosophical underpinnings of Nihil Novi.
Béla Bartók’s early-20th century “15 Hungarian Peasant Songs” inspired the rich harmonic palette and rhythmic feel of “Talking Loud.” Marked by rising and descending chords, fractured drumbeats, dreamy horn melodies, and Baylor’s angelic lead vocals and uplifting lyrics, the song sounds like a modern R&B-laden gospel mid-tempo ballad. While studying Bartók’s music, Strickland made a rarified connection to producer J Dilla. “A lot of Bartok’s phrasing had the same kind of swing that a lot of Dilla’s beats had in the sense of making the listener feel as if things were rushing forward,” he says. After sampling the Bartók original, he reversed it to get the gospel-like harmonic language before applying his own instrumentation.
Baylor’s transfixing vocals and insightful lyrics grace two other tracks on the album: “Alive” features a see-sawing bass clarinet and tenor saxophone motif, hypnotic keyboard textures, a clarion trumpet call, and a head-nod inducing backbeat. “Inevitable” is a sensual soul-jazz ballad which finds Baylor’s voice accentuated by dark bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and trumpet passages and starry-eyed keyboard washes by Glasper on piano.
The interlude “Mantra” finds Strickland’s bass clarinet amid a hazy twinkling miniature of rhythms and Harrold’s spoken-word commentary about being a black man in America. Inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Strickland also drew from hip-hop producer Madlib. “I like how Madlib uses weird instruments and textures between the bass and top melodies,” Strickland says. “He’ll use woodwind sections, an oboe or an accordion to make some kind of moving parts to glue pieces together.”
Influences ranging from J Dilla to McCoy Tyner inspire the evocative instrumental tracks at the heart of the album from the irrepressible beat and swaggering horns of “Cycle” to the insistent rhythms of “Drive” and the funk-fueled excursion “Celestelude.”
A window into Marcus the man comes midway through the gospel-tinged track “Truth” when he states “The thing that drives me the most is the pursuit of my truth, the most honest representation of who I am.” Marcus also stresses the importance of family with the moving interlude “Cherish Family,” on which his twin brother (and celebrated drummer) E.J. Strickland articulates lessons learned from their father Michael.
“Sissoko’s Voyage” is a nod to iconic Malian kora player Bazoumana Sissoko. Strickland and Harrold blow a declarative unison melody while the rhythm section gives the tune an ebullient yet lithe Malian charge. “There is this batch of beats I’ve called ‘Afrique’ in which a lot of the beats come from samples of him,” Strickland says. After years of playing in the Mingus Big Band, Strickland also offers “Mingus,” a tribute to the legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus.
Nihil Novi ends with the jubilant Afrobeat-powered “Mirrors” in which Marcus pays to tribute to the cultural exchanges between Fela Kuti and James Brown. Strickland and Harrold deftly embody the ricocheting influences between the two music icons with their sly dialogue. Eventually the song morphs into atmospheric hip-hop electronica, hinting at more invigorating music to come.