There may not be a shortage of good jazz drummers living in New York City, but few are more prolific in today’s scene than E.J. Strickland. The Miami native arrived in New York City in 1997, studying at the prestigious New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Before graduation, he had already performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Abbey Lincoln, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, and Dianne Reeves, and after twenty-something recording credits as a sideman, Strickland stepped out as a leader with his 2009 release In This Day (Strick Muzik).
A strong debut with clear direction, Strickland not only showcases his immense talent as a drummer, but stuns his audience with strikingly compelling compositions. The album is produced by his long-time mentor and band mate of over ten years, Ravi Coltrane, and features saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Marcus Strickland, pianist Luis Perdomo, and bassist Hans Glawischnig. On the decision to have Coltrane produce his debut, Strickland says “he’s very creative, especially in the studio. He gets very excited and you know ideas and crazy things come out of his mind when he gets into the studio and I needed more of that. Like, I wanted to worry a little bit more about the playing and the execution of the music, and let him handle brainstorming. Plus he’s listening from the outside, and he’s somebody I trust. He’s like an older brother to me. And it worked out great. It worked out really great.”
Sipping lemon-flavored Pellegrino in Brooklyn, Strickland recently shared the genesis of his writing. Recalling nervously asking his high school band director if he could write a tune for the jazz combo class, he would get his first itch to write out of this experience, among another one very close to him.
“My brother had a private lesson teacher named Whit Sidener, and actually every time he would go for piano lessons I would go with him and I would learn some of the things Sidener was showing him on the piano, and it was very interesting to me. I was like well this can open some doors. Like maybe I can play differently if I know what’s going on around me. So I think that was maybe like freshman year in high school when I really started playing at the piano and I started trying to compose right away. Started writing songs, things like that.”
The first recording of one of his tunes comes from twin brother Marcus Strickland’s debut album At Last. “That’s the first tune that has been documented but I’d written others before that, that don’t really need to see the light of day [laughs].” His second recorded original tune “The Unsung Hero” would appear on Marcus’ follow-up album Brotherhood. “I think I wrote that when I was in high school. I think I may have been a senior in high school. I was finding a way to play it, and it was my opportunity right there.”
Having piqued my interest for a decade with his curiously melodic compositions, the soft-spoken Strickland offered me some insight on his process. “I guess a lot of it has to do with most of the time when I’m composing a song, I’m singing along with it. No matter how complex the harmony is or what rhythmic things are going on, I always sing the melody, and since I can’t sing a fast line or anything like that, I’m forced to deal with simple structures or simple figures that are very catchy or very melodic, things like that. And it’s good in a lot of ways. Only recently I’ve kinda gone into more complex lines, things like that. But for the most part I think it’s because I sing along with what I do.”
Songs like the a fore mentioned “The Unsung Hero” and more recent tunes like “In This Day” and “Eternal” are examples of Strickland’s gorgeous compositions that are as melodic as they are rhythmically robust with flowing lines, entrancing harmonies and soulful chord changes. In my talking to a lot of drummers who write, many revealed to me that their tunes are conceptualized at the piano. Strickland’s tunes, however, begin in the drum seat. “Every tune has a different way that it comes about but there are a lot of tunes that start out with the drum groove. I’ll find something that I’m really comfortable with, something that I really love to play, some kind of pattern or some kind of groove, or even just some sort of shape of drums that I really love and then I’ll go to the piano and try to associate some kind of melody or harmony that goes with that and then a tune arrives. Like there’s a tune that’s really reflective of that. “New Beginnings” and that song “In This Day”. That started out as a drum pattern. That one came from a drum groove, just like a pattern in 5/4 and then, you know, the next thing that came was the bass line and then after that it was the harmony on top of the bass line, and then with all of that going I had a loop going in my computer and then over that I was singing a melodic line over that.”
Strickland’s influences are various, and he has studied under some of jazz music’s most important drummers like Joe Chambers, Lewis Nash, and Jimmy Cobb. When asked about drummers who are influential from a compositional aspect, Strickland credits an all-important and unsung innovator. “James Black. He is awesome. Everything I’ve heard from James Black so far is just to me, a masterpiece. It’s truly his own thing, and doesn’t sound like anybody else. He’s definitely been a big influence. What drew my attention to him was an album called Whistle Stop by Ellis Marsalis, and most of the music on there I believe is his music, and I was like ‘wow, these are some bad compositions,’ I was like ‘who wrote these tunes?’ And it was James Black. And then I really started investigating him. He’s awesome.”
Strickland stands out not only as an extraordinarily gifted composer, but his seamless infusion of strong African elements in his drumming, is something to behold and is becoming one of his most distinctive trademarks. “One of my strongest influences is Elvin Jones. And you know, I’m not here to claim that I’m the first person to deal with that kind of thing because it’s been done like many times before, but it still interests me and I think there’s even more…there’s infinite things you can explore in that realm, and one thing that really struck me about Elvin is that it just sounded real earthy and real …it sounded very African when he played. Like an ensemble of djembes when he took a drum solo. So I checked out some interviews with Elvin and he talked about African rhythms, so I decided myself to explore that kind of thing. I listened to a lot of different African music from different regions, but one region that really got to me was the West African drumming. That really spoke to me, and I just kind of went into it full force. I’m not really trying to replicate what’s being done because you can’t really replicate that, but just let it come through naturally.”
It is precisely the natural delivery of the African aesthetic that makes it so utterly enjoyable to hear. Strickland’s organic approach to these roots along with his mastery of the technique and the flawlessness of the integration of traditions is refreshing to the soul and a musical anamnesis of Black music.♦
Strickland has plans to release a double CD that will feature his quintet, as well as the E.J. Strickland project; a more groove-oriented ensemble.