As far as drummer/composer/bandleaders go, it seem that E.J. Strickland has developed a dynamic, sustainable balance between his different creative pursuits. While leading and releasing projects under different umbrellas, as well as writing new music and working as a sideman, Strickland still finds time to explore new sonic territory. His latest project, The E.J. Strickland 4tet, which Strickland is also calling ”Pads N Loops,” explores territory that crosses into the realm of hip hop, featuring (for this upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery) Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Immanuel Wilkins on alto and soprano saxophones, Eric Wheeler on bass, and guest MC JSWISS. We caught up with Strickland by phone; he had just returned home to Brooklyn after a tour that brought him and his group to Germany, France, and The Netherlands.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making some time to chat during the holiday season! This is usually a pretty busy time for musicians; what does this time of year tend to look/feel like for you?
EJ Strickland: In the holiday season, most of the time it actually slows down for me. The busy times for me are usually spring, summer, and fall. It slows down around the holiday season but then picks up again in January. I’m closer to home this time of year, depending on the year.
TJG: So this seems like the perfect time to be trying something new at The Jazz Gallery.
EJS: Exactly. I’ve been writing a bunch of new music for this new group, The E.J. Strickland 4tet aka “Pads N Loops.” I wrote this music around this fall, August into September, I was writing a lot. We debuted in Brooklyn, and this performance at the Gallery will be our second performance of the year. It’s a slightly new sound for me, working with my own loops, challenging to write for but very fun.
TJG: Tell me about the pads. Tell me about the loops.
EJS: Pads N Loops. I’ve got two saxophones, bass, drums, and a guest MC. A lot of times, you know, most of my groups have chordal instruments, and this is my first time doing a group without chordal instruments. The pads of a chordal player have been replaced by how I’ve been writing for this group: We’re making our own kind of pads with our sound. As far as loops are concerned, it’s part of a concept. The group creates looping periods in the music, which borrows from hip hop, where loops come around every now and again in songs. I took that concept and put it into jazz music, you know, which is why I call it Pads N Loops.
TJG: How have you chosen to translate that loops concept into a jazz setting?
EJS: I’ve translated it in part by having Marcus on bass clarinet, because in my group he uses it both as a melodic and harmonic instrument, and also as an accompaniment instrument. A lot of the loops that you’ll hear in this music have to do with counter-basslines, superimposed on the main bassline. These loops come around any time during one of the tunes, and sometimes the horn backgrounds–those more ‘jazzlike’ concepts–I’ve turned those into loops too. Eight, sixteen bars, whatever you may have on a given song. There’s a lot of looping going on. It’s part of the sound of the group.
TJG: When I read ‘Pads N Loops,’ I said “Okay, I’m expecting samples, electronics, triggers.” Have you delved into that territory, and do you draw influence from that world?
EJS: I do have an electric group, Transient Beings, not so much computers or anything, just more electric sounds. I originally called this group “Acoustic Pads N Loops,” but it was over-explanatory [laughs].
TJG: I read that you grew up in a musical household. When you were little, and throughout your career, you’ve always been checking out different stuff. Does the concept of sampling resonate with you? Has it informed your practice and voice?
EJS: Definitely. Listening to how hip-hop artists use samples and loops, where they place them, has definitely influenced the way that I think about music. Even the way that I play the drums, sometimes, depending on the tune, the nature of the music, I’ll borrow from that, adding texture to the drums, taking it away, orchestrating, it’s part of my voice along with many other influences.
TJG: It seems like you’ve been playing with Immanuel and Eric a lot these days.
EJS: Immanuel and Eric have both been working in my quintet a bit, and we’ve been working in other groups together too. The first band I debuted this group with was Ben Williams on bass, Jaleel Shaw, Marcus, and myself, plus JSWISS. I couldn’t get Ben and Jaleel for this gig, so I got Immanuel and Eric.
TJG: Have you all played together as a single group yet? Anything you’re particularly excited to see what happens?
EJS: Nope. As a matter of fact, we’re going to rehearse before the gig. I know it’s going to be great, because I really enjoy playing with both of them very much. I’m excited to see how this particular group interacts with each other and adjusts to the new music I’ve written. With everything else I’ve written, I’ve seen how different people approach the music. This will be my first time seeing how other musicians I haven’t worked with make this music sound. They’re definitely going to bring their own flavor.
TJG: You must know Marcus’ sound inside and out now.
EJS: Yes, but this is my first time working with my brother on the bass clarinet. This is my first time writing for bass clarinet, and it’s proven to be an interesting and exciting experience. Coming up with things for bass clarinet to address and a way to fit it into the sound, it really makes the sound of the group. I’m used to working with my brother, but with that added aspect to his arsenal, it’s almost a rediscovery.
TJG: Tell me a little about JSWISS.
EJS: JSWISS is an incredible MC who I met through Michael Leonhart, a great trumpet player and arranger. We did a couple of gigs this past year at The Jazz Standard with Michael Leonhart Orchestra: We were doing jazz from the ‘60s and hiphop from the ‘90s. We did Tribe Called Quest, stuff from Eric B. And Rakim, and JSWISS delivered powerful performances on all of these arrangements.
I really like playing with him. I like his phrasing, his delivery, his rhythm. He’s a really nice guy, really just one of the cats, he blends right in. When I put this group together, I thought of him first and foremost, as well as the bass clarinet, and what it would sound like to have a group without chords. The first gig that we did, when I was writing music up to that point, there was one song I wrote called “Getting By,” I naturally felt the song in 5/2. I was worried, you know: If I give it to JSWISS, will he be able to feel it? He ate it up. He was rhythmically in tune and on top of it, it did not stop his flow whatsoever. It’s a beautiful moment when you’re worried about trying something new, then it works and it’s great, a true discovery whenever it happens.
E.J. Strickland’s Pads & Loops plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, December 19, 2019. The group features Mr. Strickland on drums, Immanuel Wilkins on alto & soprano saxophones, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone & bass clarinet, Eric Wheeler on bass, and guest MC JSWISS. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.