One of the Strickland brothers opened the door to the Fort Greene flat that he shares with his twin brother to usher a reporter in. It was E. J., right? Nope, it was Marcus. He chuckled at the mistake. It must happen all the time. “They ought to put name tags on us,” he said.
The Strickland brothers, identical jazz-playing siblings, don’t make it easy for a visitor to tell them apart. There was a time when Marcus, a prodigious tenor and soprano saxophonist, wore his hair longer than E. J., an extraordinarily talented drummer. That helped a lot. Now Marcus and E. J. both keep it close-cropped. Worse, they have matching goatees.
When the twins play jazz together, it often seems as if they are speaking in the same voice. They fielded The Observer’s queries in a similar fashion. Marcus, the most articulate and gregarious of the two, did most of the talking. E. J., shy and soft-spoken, was happy to let his brother to be the frontman, laughing and nodding his head vigorously when Marcus explained how the 30-year-old duo might look like mirror images, but have their own artistic personalities.
“I think we have as many differences as people who aren’t flesh and blood,” Marcus said. “We have very different musical tastes. We are into different things at different times. We came from the same family and the same origins. We learned music in the same house. But we have played with so many different groups as sidemen, we’ve developed very different approaches to jazz.”
This will be evident on Aug. 21 when Marcus and E. J. unveil music from their new CDs on Aug. 21 at Joe’s Pub. Marcus, who recently left legendary bebop drummer Roy Haynes’ band after five years, doesn’t just want to play for “saxophone geeks.” He wants hip-hop, electronic and rock listeners, too.
He reaches out to them on Idiosyncrasies, his sixth record as a leader, covering songs by Björk, Stevie Wonder, Swedish indie folk singer Jose Gonzales and Andre 3000 of OutKast. Marcus doesn’t play these pieces with a look-what-I’m doing-with-this-second-rate-material smirk that you sometimes get from jazz artists when they perform recognizable tunes like these. He reconfigures “She’s Alive,” Andre 3000’s ode to single mothers from A Love Below/Speakerboxxx with the rigor that John Coltrane applied to Broadway favorite “My Favorite Things.”
“We slow it down and make it into a jazz ballad,” Marcus said. “It’s a very beautiful song. It shows you that rappers are musicians, too. It also shows you that not all jazz musicians are living in a vacuum. There are some of us who accept what is going on and actually embrace it.”
E. J., on the other hand, is fascinated by ancient ethnic grooves with which most OutKast fans may be only hazily familiar. He describes his album, In This Day, as “kind of a jazz group meets a percussion section from Cuba or Ghana.” But the beats aren’t the revelation on this record. Like his brother, E. J. has had his share of high-profile gigs. He is currently a member of Ravi Coltrane’s splendid quartet. (Mr. Coltrane also produced In This Day.) It would be astonishing if you didn’t want to get up and shake something while listening to this record.
No, E. J.’s tunes are the surprise. He has obviously absorbed a lot of post-Coltrane jazz from the mid-’70s, which was heavy on pentatonic scales, Third World rhythms and afrocentricity. But E. J. writes gorgeous counter lines for his horn players, and he keeps his soloists on their toes and rewards his listeners by constantly reshuffling the underlying grooves.
And this is E. J.’s first record. What took the quiet Strickland so long?
“My main priority when I hit the scene wasn’t really to be a bandleader right off of the jump,” E. J. explained vaguely. “I didn’t really have everything mapped out in terms of what I wanted my group to sound like or what kind of things I wanted to do. I just realized I wasn’t there yet. My brother was there already. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go.”
E. J.’s personal struggles surely had something to do with this, too. In a recent interview on WBGO, he revealed he and his brothers share a hereditary disease that afflicts their immune system. The drummer said he sometimes feel great pain in his legs, arms and back when he performs.
“For some reason, it’s coming after me more than him,” E. J. lamented to radio listeners. “It might be because I play the drums and use my limbs more than him.”
(He wouldn’t talk about the condition with The Observer.)