From left: Robert Glasper, Marcus Strickland, John Sullivan, E.J. Strickland
When Vanessa Strickland was pregnant with her now 24-year-old identical twins Marcus and E.J. (Enoch Jamal), her husband introduced them to the likes of John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder by playing LPs and putting her stomach up to the stereo speaker. By the time the twins were teens, Marcus was playing the sax, E.J. was playing the drums and their mother was enjoying live jazz concerts at home while cooking dinner.
Perhaps it was the very early influence of their father a public defender, classical percussionist and music aficionado that contributed to the exceptionally mature performance observed by Willard Jenkins, artistic director for jazz at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center (TPAC). He first saw the two young brothers play in 2001 in Aspen, Colorado where Jenkins was producing a program for the Thelonious Monk Institutes Jazz Ed series on BET cable.
Now the twin brothers are something of a jazz sensation. Theyve attracted the attention of reviewers, listeners and other musicians in New York City and are currently headlining the TPACs new Jazz in Progress series featuring emerging young talents on the contemporary jazz scene.
Linda Herring, executive director of TPAC, says that she wanted a new program that would address the question of how the new generation is defining jazz in the 21st century. It is a compliment the centers Lost Jazz Shrines series, a tribute to jazz of the past. The Strickland Brothers are just phenomenal, she said. They do a great job of bridging the gap between young and old jazz.
The second of the Jazz in Progress programs three events with the Strickland Brothers Ensemble, all titled Sibling Harmony, will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, February 9 at the TPAC on Chambers Street.
Other members of the Strickland Brothers Ensemble include pianist Robert Glasper and bassist John Sullivan. The special guests at the upcoming performance will be jazz/neo-soul vocalist Lizz Wright and Tom Harrell, a trumpeter and composer. The event will also feature an interactive discussion about the creative process in music and conclude with a jam session of young jazz artists.
When the opportunity came to produce this brand new series, the Strickland brothers came to mind immediately, said Jenkins, who adds that hes kept track of their music careers since he first saw them three years ago. It was a no-brainer. Not only do we have two prominent musicians but also they are twin brothers and they play different instruments.
Jenkins, whose career as a producer and presenter has revolved around promoting jazz music as a fine art form, is the MC for the TPAC series. He says hes observed a growing interest in jazz among young people, noting a high number of young attendees to a recent Jazz education conference held in the city.
When Jenkins first saw the Stricklands he said he knew right away that they were players to look out for.
I can often spot and separate the young musicians from the more experienced but with the Strickland Brothers it was obvious that they have a certain maturity.
The brothers came to New York City from Florida in 1997 to attend the New School Universitys Jazz and Contemporary Music Program and graduated in 2001. Now they live together in Prospect Heights and each plays several nights a week around the city with different groups. Together theyve played with Roy Haynes, Wynton Marsalis, Russell Malone, Winard Harper, Jeff Tain Watts, Ravi Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard and Nnenna Freelon.
The Stricklands are mild-mannered and modest, but also have a certain sense of humor about living the lives of young musicians and dont think much about being twins.
All you have to do to be twins is be born, says E.J., who is two minutes older. The brothers say that their musical relationship is complimentary rather than competitive, made easier by the fact that they play different instruments.
Marcus says his decision to play the sax came when he was about 11-years-old and their middle-school band director starting bringing out instruments. It just looked cool and looked like the most complicated, he said. He started on the alto and received a soprano sax for Christmas when he was 13. By high school, he was also playing the tenor.
I wouldnt look right holding a sax, said E.J., noting that each musician tends to have a distinct personality related to the instrument they play. Saxophonists talk shop a lot, he said, adding that sax players are easy-going people and compares them to explorers who are always searching for something new.
Drummers have an important role and must be sensitive to people and empathetic, said Marcus, who has recorded two CDs with his quartet. The first is titled At Last and the most recent, Brotherhood, on the Fresh Sounds New Talent label, features eight of his original compositions and a ninth piece composed by E.J. titled The Unsung Hero. In addition to reaching out to young people through the Jazz in Progress series, Marcus also participates in a jazz education program led and created by Hans Schuman called Jazz Reach, which exposes students of all ages to jazz.
Right now Marcus says he has composed about one and a half records of music that havent been recorded yet and is working hard to manage his group.
I just want to be a jazz recording artist on the road with my own band and to make a mark in this great music, he said. His brother has a similar attitude. I want to be able to say Ive done something good for this music that Ive done something to continue the jazz legacy, said E.J.