Marc Cary has built an unshakable reputation as a pianist. His 2000 album Rhodes Ahead, Vol.1 is considered to be a classic work on the instrument. In this debut album of the FOCUS Trio, however, Cary returns to an acoustic setting. While the trio offers more freedom and space, Cary maintains his vision for the album, which is to "bring together East Indian, West African and Native American musical traditions in an all acoustic setting and blend it into African-American musical culture: jazz". Joined on this album by drummer Sameer Gupta and bassist David Ewell, the group brings a diverse musical background to the table.
Opening with a reworked version of the late Jackie McLean’s "Appointment in Ghana", Cary makes use of the compositional freedom McLean wrote with. The group plays the first 8 bars of melody, then breaks into improvisation, then returns for another 8 bars of melody, improvised, etc. Cary stretches into some dissonant lines during the improvised sections, but skillfully gathers everything back together before returning to the melody. Gupta adds some great drum commentary, often mimicking Cary’s rhythms.
Cary also gives us two African-flavored original compositions in "Walk With Me" and "A Long Walk Home". "Walk With Me" has a pulsating, driving rhythm fueled by Ewell’s vigorous bass line and Gupta’s handy cymbal work. Ewell adds variation to the groove with some repetitive, hard-plucked interludes. In "A Long Walk Home", again it’s Ewell’s brooding bass line that gives the piece its pensive, troubled air. Gupta is also over-dubbed playing tablas. With this infectious groove set, Cary’s solos match the mood perfectly, always moving and changing, and at times very dissonant. The intensity of the piece builds in spurts, never straying far from the heavy beat. The resolutions are easy to point out though, like scattered epiphanies one might have. If you do need to take a long walk, this would be a good song to listen to while you’re out.
Gupta also makes some notable compositional contributions to the album with "Taiwa" and "Elephant’s Eye", which he jointly composed with Cary. "Taiwa" is a saddening, heartfelt ballad paying homage to the young South African pianist Moses Taiwa Molelekwa who was murdered along with his wife in 2001. Cary’s floating melody feels somewhat detached from Gupta’s soft swing. He uses a more scalar approach in his solo here, as well as accenting certain chords to give the phrases a more lyrical quality. "Elephant’s Eye" is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, intensive post-bop tune with a dark flare. Between Ewell’s bass line and Cary’s left hand, the tune has the same brooding, ominous as several of the other tracks. The fast tempo keeps things from becoming too stagnant. Cary’s key work is almost frantic, giving the piece a wild edge. Not easy listening by any means, but a great composition.If Cary’s past success is any clue, this album will likely be critically acclaimed from all corners of the jazz world, as it should be. With three members of three different cultural backgrounds, from Gupta’s Indian ancestry to Ewell’s Chinese roots to Cary’s Native and African American heritage, the group carries on the musical tradition of Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Paul Chambers. This is the tradition of inclusion, of bringing in new and old elements to create something truly unique. This was proposed Cary’s goal for this album and he has succeeded by far.