The emphasis in Marc Cary’s description of the musical journey he and his Focus Trio have embarked upon is clearly on its spiritual quality. The liner notes to Four Directions, the band’s new album (out October 8 via Motema Music) begin by quoting the Duwamish Chief Seattle’s prayer to the Great Spirits of Light and Love, the Life-Giving Spirit and the Spirit of Creation as represented in the four direction, East, North, West and South. The album is a spiritual quest that finds voice in creative performance. As Cary puts it, the album is about “being aware of the four winds and the sun rising and setting, and the cycle keeps you grounded. My being able to communicate with people on the bandstand comes from a practice—it’s a sort of meditation, a conscious meditation.”
Four Directions is the trio’s first studio effort since Focus, their 2006 debut album. They defined as their mission then “to bring indigenous rhythms together with American jazz to create new palettes of sound,” and despite some changes here and there in personnel and instrumentation, that remains their mission today. Between the two studio albums, the group has continued to develop their aesthetic in live performance and have released two live albums. They have achieved the kind of organic rapport that makes the kind of communication Cary is looking for second nature. In effect, the time was right for the burnished product—ergo Four Directions.
Not only does Cary play piano, he also works with a couple of different synthesizers, a Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and organ, always in search of the right brush to paint the particular sonic landscape. Whether he is in acoustic mode as in the dynamic “Outside My Window” or trading solos between synth and Rhodes in “Todi Blues,” an original composition based on the Indian raga, he places himself at the intersection between world rhythms and jazz. He is joined by Sameer Gupta on drums and percussion and Burniss Earl Travis II on acoustic bass. Rashaan Carter takes over bass duties on three tracks, and they both play—Travis switching to electric bass—on one, “Indigenous.”
Of the 10 compositions on the album, seven are Cary originals, and one is the combined effort of the whole crew. “Boom” and “Ready or Not” are tightly woven acoustic numbers driven by Gupta, but “Boom” also has some impressive work from Cary on piano. “Waltz Betty Waltz” is a swinger dedicated to singer Betty Carter, one of his mentors, which is a nice touch, since Cary’s last album, For the Love of Abbey, was a solo piano tribute to the singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln, another of his creative influences.
There is nothing like a little equal time. Terreon Gully’s “Tanktified” has Cary and Gupta working in tandem, reading each other seamlessly—they seem to manage that on every one of these tracks, actually.
Four Directions is a fine piece of work. One can only hope it doesn’t take another seven years for the next Focus studio album.