Perhaps it’s no coincidence that In This Day has songs with titles like “Find Myself,” “Wrong Turn” and “Abandoned Discovery.” No matter. E. J. has found himself now.
Whatever they may say, E. J. and Marcus aren’t that far apart musically. Who did Marcus call upon to play those Philly Joe Jones–meets–?uestlove beats on Idiosyncrasies? His brother. And who plays E. J.’s longing melodies on In This Day? Marcus, of course. (Well, for the most part. The gifted alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw is also featured on In This Day.)
But the duo is nevertheless a complementary one: Something happens when the Stricklands play together that is greater than the sum of the parts. Jazz, at its best, is a fascinating conversation between musicians who know each other well enough to finish each other’s thoughts. Think of John Coltrane’s “classic” quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, or Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.
It takes years for the even the best jazz musicians to develop such rapport. The Stricklands, who grew up in Florida, have it in abundance. But when the brothers improvise, their playing is telepathic. Why wouldn’t it be? They have been playing together constantly since they were in junior high school; they have been listening to music together longer. Marcus said their father, a drummer–turned–criminal defense attorney, played his music for his sons before they were born: “When we were both in the womb, he would put my mom’s tummy right up to the speakers and play all kinds of music—not just jazz but the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers. He was just pumping it into the womb,” Marcus said.
To hear Marcus and E. J. talk about their early years is almost like listening to their musical interaction. They took up instruments when they were 12 and immediately began playing jazz together.
“It was sonic pollution,” Marcus laughed. “We would play for a long time—the same song. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Strickland.
“Our dad would come in the room and go …” The saxophonist waved his finger at his throat and laughed some more. E. J. joined him.
“Yeah, it was sad at first,” E. J. agreed. “But as time went on, we got better and better and better. When most people practice, they are practicing in isolation. But when you practice with someone else, you learn music in a different way. …”
“A more interactive way,” Marcus said.
“You naturally learn to respond to another musician,” E. J. continued.
The Stricklands came to New York to attend the New School. They went out to jam sessions every night ,where they played with stars like Wynton Marsalis. Soon they went off on the road separately with some of their idols, like the younger Mr. Coltrane and Mr. Haynes. When E. J. and Marcus reunited, they had new ingredients for their musical dialogue.
Marcus latched on to what he describes as the “scientific” rhythms his brother gleaned from Ravi Coltrane.
“You will hear the solar system in that music,” he said. “You will hear mathematic equations. At the same time, you will hear R&B influences. I’m glad I got a peep into that music through my brother.”
E. J. couldn’t quite verbalize what happened when Marcus got back from playing with Mr. Haynes, one of the last surviving Jazz greats to have the disticntion of having recorded with both Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. He fumbled a bit and then gave up. “He just got better,” E. J. said.
So when will he and his brother stop emphasizing their relatively minor artistic differences and form a Strickland brothers band? They already play in each other’s separate bands. It seems a little odd to go on like this. “I think it would also stunt our growth,” Marcus said.
“First and foremost, Marcus and I want to find our own identities,” E. J. said. “That’s really important.”
You can’t fault the twins for trying to keep a little distance between each other. What does it matter as long as they keep playing together? That sounds like their plan. “My brother and I have developed a very good relationship, a very healthy relationship,” E. J. said. “I think part of that comes from being identical twins. I’m dating someone who has a fraternal twin. They hate each other!”