“You write like an abstract painter,” a fan told Marc Cary after his Focus Trio’s Saturday night set at Bohemian Caverns. She had a point. Cary’s compositions and arrangements were unconventional and oblong, an idiosyncratic style that extended to his angular keyboard playing and his instrumentation (two synthesizers as well as the club’s Yamaha grand piano for Cary, Indian tablas in addition to Sameer Gupta’s drum kit, whose cymbals were draped in rags). Simultaneously, though, Cary (a native Washingtonian who now resides in New York) and his band — which featured D.C. tenor saxophonist Brian Settles in addition to Gupta and bassist Tarus Mateen — could not have played an earthier, more soulful set.
There was no question, for example, about the abstraction in the nearly 20-minute take on Jackie McLean’s “Minor March.” It largely consisted of an emphatic vamp led by Settles, most of it just one note, with Mateen and Gupta following in breakneck swing; the McLean melody came in dashed-off form on Cary’s piano, easily mistaken for a passing whim. That swing, though, kept the tune grounded and tough, with Settles and Cary prodding each other to give it more oomph with each new phrase. Cary, especially, packed a soulful punch — his solo was fraught with blues licks and long, joyful gospel lines.
If anything, “King Tut’s Strut” was even more strident. As written by South African pianist Hotep Idris Galeta, the tune — although it does indeed strut — has an ethereal, meditative beauty; Focus, however, turned it into funk so violent it could have been the soundtrack to a street brawl. Riding on a clanging bass riff from Mateen, Cary pounded out the chords on synth (voiced as a Fender Rhodes) and piano, eventually switching to Moog curlicues, while Settles played energetic accents on alto sax and Gupta ground out furious beats. Nobody, assuredly, was meditating.
There were certain moments in the set that were more ethereal. Settles always played with a calm demeanor and closed eyes that suggested a trance; Cary, when playing his own ballad “So Gracefully” (which has all the makings of a standard), found otherworldly dissonances in the piano keys. These didn’t last, though: Cary’s musings dissolved into a raw, frenetic jam from Settles, whose intensity belied his tranquil expression. Ether and abstraction, they suggest, are only a means to an earthly, gutsy end.
West is a freelance writer.