Jazz pianist, keyboardist, producer and composer Marc Cary holds tight to his roots in Washington, D.C.’s go-go music scene, but they represent only one more element to fuse with the many other musical forms he explores. Cary’s interests run from Indian classical to Malian music to hip-hop. He started his career working with Betty Carter, a legendary vocalist famous for drawing soul and sincerity out of her bands, and went on to work with Roy Hargrove, Dizzy Gillespie, Erykah Badu, Shirley Horn, Stefon Harris, Q-Tip and – most influential of all – Abbey Lincoln.
Cary’s latest album, For the Love of Abbey, is his first solo piano record and possibly his most intimate. Covering 10 of Lincoln’s songs, and offering three original tunes in tribute to her, Cary conjures a shimmering, timeless aura that bespeaks the spiritual and artistic lessons that the late singer conferred upon him.
“I went to Abbey’s house and watched her play the piano and sing these songs,” Cary remembers. “She could play any song but she was a very minimal player. Maybe the melody note and a couple other notes. That was how she would hear it, and I always had to think about it like that when I played.” On the solo disc, the challenge was to apply her focus on peaceful, unadorned melody within a lush habitat of pianistic harmony.
Marc Cary was born in New York City in 1967, but moved to D.C. as a young child. Growing up in a neglected city during the 1970s and ’80s, it was easy to run into trouble – but music remained a steadying force. At 14 he joined the High Integrity Band, a group that practiced the native D.C. art form of go-go, a dance music blending funk, hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean drumming and traditional call-and-response elements. With the help of a city-run public arts program, Let ’Em Play, he learned jazz piano from some of D.C.’s most esteemed musicians and performed professionally during summers.
For high school Cary attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and played in the Dizzy Gillespie Youth Orchestra, based at the storied D.C. jazz club Blues Alley. When Cary took a standout solo during a performance of “A Night in Tunisia,” it caught the ear of Gillespie himself, and from then on the trumpet legend let Cary sit in whenever his band came through D.C.
A fledgling Cary soon came under the wing of that group’s pianist, Walter Davis, Jr., who encouraged him to move to New York City. And after two years of studying at the University of the District of Columbia under the tutelage of renowned trombonist and educator Calvin Jones, Cary did relocate in 1988. Within months of arriving in the jazz capital, he was playing in bands led by Arthur Taylor, Mickey Bass and Betty Carter, all major figures from jazz’s mid-century heyday.
At the same time, he quickly befriended and started working with Q-Tip, the famed emcee from A Tribe Called Quest; members of the Wu Tang Clan; and other prominent hip-hop musicians. (Cary produced and played keyboards on much of The Renaissance, Q-Tip’s Grammy-nominated solo album.) His catholic interests and longtime interest in dance music – stemming from his love for go-go and the music of the African Diaspora – eventually led Cary to reach past even hip-hop; he started collaborating with world-renowned house musicians like Louie Vega and Joe Claussell, both of whom traded remixes with Cary of each other’s songs.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, Cary stayed on the road with Carter for two and a half years, becoming one of the vocalist’s longest-serving pianists. In 1991, he left to join trumpet phenom Roy Hargrove’s band. Cary remembers that that group’s music was viewed as representing “a monumental leap for the young bands in jazz. We made an impact right after Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. It was coming from a more urban perspective, but still swinging.”
He went on to perform with the Abraham Burton Quartet, then rejoined Betty Carter, and finally ended up alongside Abbey Lincoln. “Going from Betty to Abbey was like going from the street to the theater,” Cary says. With Lincoln, “you had to have that same skill as you needed with Betty, but it was supposed to allow you to not have to do any of the kinds of things Betty always demanded.” From Lincoln he learned the power of simplicity, focus and soul-baring musical poetry.
In 1995, Cary released his debut, Cary On, a striking record that introduced his songwriting talents with grooving originals like “The Vibe” and “So Gracefully.” The album featured an all-star cast including Hargrove and saxophonist Ron Blake. He followed it with 1997’s Listen, then The Antidote in 1998 – both strong displays of Cary’s developing skills as a broad-minded pianist and bandleader. Trillium, released in 1999, found Cary working with longtime collaborators Nasheet Waits on drums and Tarus Mateen on bass (the rhythm section tht would soon become the foundation of Jason Moran’s award-winning Bandwagon trio). On Trillium, the only official document of the Cary-Mateen-Waits trio, they pummel past the blues, playing with joy, conviction and heavy-stepping strength over originals and covers of tunes by Miles Davis and Duke Pearson.
All the while, Cary had been working on a pair of electronic music projects. In 1998, he released a limited-edition LP, titled Indigenous Music, on Claussell’s Ibadan label. The record finds Cary pairing his production skills with live percussion and horns, all in servoce of electric refractions of West African and Caribbean grooves. He followed that album with a project called Rhodes Ahead: Vol. 1, on which he welds his interest in ambient music with his dance roots, doing it all through the lens of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. It was a revolutionary record, and it contributed directly to Cary winning BET’s first-ever Best New Jazz Artist award the following year.
Also in 1999, Cary released his first record with Indigenous People, a new project building on the Indigenous Music album and uniting his love for go-go, hip-hop, Native American, jazz, house and West African music. On Captured: Live in Brazil, the band’s extended improvisations never get in the way of an infectious dance sensibility. Indigenous People toured extensively internationally and went on to release two more strong, danceable albums: Unite in 2001 and N.G.G.R. Please in 2003.
By the mid-2000s, Cary had developed a new jazz trio with an intimate rapport. He called it the Focus Trio, and it featured David Ewell on bass and Samir Gupta on drums and tablas. With this group Cary found a new way to juxtapose his improvisational calmness and equipoise with a pulsing urgency and a sense of searching.
He has kept that curiosity and quest for peace at the forefront of his work with the trio, which released exploratory live albums in 2008 and 2009. And the same spirit has permeated his other projects, from For the Love of Abbey to Cosmic Indigenous. The latest incarnation of the Indigenous People ensemble, Cosmic Indigenous blends Indian classical, go-go and Malian music to form an infectious, danceable, electronically throbbing whole. As a sideman, Cary continues to tour with Stefon Harris, Cindy Blackman, Will Calhoun and other preeminent jazz musicians.
In pondering his future in the music, he reflects: “I used to ride motorcycles. There’s a point where you are at the mercy of the bike – you jump over something, you’re in the air, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But you enjoy the whole thing without anticipating. You just react to it. I will have accomplished my goal as a musician, to this point, if I can reach that.