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With new album, pianist Marc Cary pays tribute to his mentor

Rebecca Meek

NEW YORK – A solo recording is a watershed event for a jazz musician, one that usually comes many years or even decades into one’s career. It marks a commercial risk, as record labels and concert bookers often hesitate to back a solo project. More than that, it represents creative and emotional risk, as the artist is exposed, alone with only the audience and the material he or she has selected to carry out onto the limb.

But the pianist Marc Cary, who has just released his first solo album, was by no means alone in its making. Titled “For the Love of Abbey,” the record draws on Cary’s 12 years in the late singer Abbey Lincoln’s band; more than just an homage, it’s as much a continuation, through her spectral presence, of her mentorship and their collaboration.

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“I’m very much with her on that album,” says Cary, 46, over coffee in Harlem. “It’s just — you know, the goosebumps. And you know they only come when something happens. The whole time I was in the studio it was almost like some energy was touching me. When I say she was there, she just kind of sang through me.”

Cary included on the record, which he presents at Scullers on Aug. 29, one Duke Ellington tune and one original, “For Moseka,” which honors Lincoln using the name she brought back from a trip to Africa. The rest of the album is all Lincoln, with strong, reflective takes on songs that many of her fans will recognize, including “Throw It Away,” “Another World,” and her haunting late-career masterpiece, “Down Here Below.”

An eclectic thinker who has worked with electronics, hip-hop, and Indian classical music in his Focus Trio and other projects, Cary did no such thing when approaching Lincoln’s songs. Just as she did, he focused on the lyric, attaching itself to rendering it honestly in the instrumental language of the piano.

“Those songs are profound,” Cary says. “The lyric is really the song. And the life that she put into the lyric was haunted. Every time I hit a chord I heard the lyric to the chord. I had to go inside that, figure out what these lyrics meant. What’s emotion of each of these words? How does it all connect? I had to go deeper into the lyric and the story.”

When Cary joined her band in 1994, Lincoln was in the midst of a career revival that saw her release several albums featuring powerful new songs of her own writing. A free spirit with an activist streak, she was also a consummate leader: quirky, authoritative, and wise. Cary, a Washington, D.C., native who came to Harlem in his early 20s, had already worked with drummer Arthur Taylor, Jr., and, for two years, Betty Carter.

He stayed with Lincoln for 12, with only one brief interruption, and ending only when her physical decline got the better of her work. He developed other projects at the same time, but playing and touring with Lincoln was the main gig.

“My career as a leader was slowly developing, but you don’t quit Abbey,” he says. “That’s not a position you quit. I was able to do quite a few things around her, and associated with her, and learning from her was like a person constantly studying.”

In staying as a sideman with respected elders the way that he did, Cary embodies the classic development of a jazz artist, through apprenticeship. That path is gradually fading, as those elder bandleaders exit the scene and universities and conservatories take over as the main sites where jazz is taught. This transformation, whether it is inevitable, and what it means for the music and the culture, are topics of endless debate.

One consequence, perhaps, is the relative scarcity nowadays of tribute projects like “For the Love of Abbey,” in which a musician devotes a recording to publicly thanking another for his or her influence and contribution to the music. That kind of intimate connection, Cary says, simply isn’t as common anymore.

“In those days, apprenticeship was a lot more prevalent,” he says. “It was more of the fabric of how things gets done.”

From his apprenticeship with Lincoln, Cary says, he got a constant and continuing education about not only playing, but what he calls the etiquette of being in a band, both on and off the stage. One day, he reminisces, he and the other players were being loud in an airport, cracking jokes.

“And Abbey says to us, ‘Stop entertaining those people for free.’ Which was her telling us that we’re always onstage. You’re always being observed. Just like that.”

Cary last saw Lincoln when she was in hospice, suffering from dementia, not long before her death in 2010. The people around her would play her music for her, he recalls, and she’d recognize it — “that’s Abbey!” — without connecting it to herself. When he visited, he says she called to him, “Marc! We got a gig tonight!” before fading back.

He remembers, too, the intensity Lincoln’s fans brought to her performances — even one incident that became a physical brawl when one fan got incensed at another’s whistling along during the show.

“And Abbey smiles and laughs a devilish kind of laugh,” Cary says.

“She has fans like that. So you’ve really got to be careful when you’re dealing with Abbey. And that’s why I wanted to present this thing the most profound and sincere way possible. There’s no other way to do it.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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