Marlin McKay’s “The Look” Deserves a Listen

MarlinMcKay_CDCoverBY George Halas

Marlin McKay has performed at three of the last four Fox Jazz Festivals. He has more than earned his growing number of fans in the Fox Cities with his extraordinary playing, whether it be paying homage to a hard bop legend like Horace Silver or presenting his own compositions. McKay has relished in nation and international acclaim, having placed first runner up in the 2009 National Trumpet Competition Jazz Division and has also participated in prestigious Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency program.

Just released, “The Look” is McKay’s second album on the Nostalgic Records label, following “Deep in the Cosmos,” and features Grammy-nominated vibraphonist, Stefon Harris, organist Bobby Floyd of Dr. John and the Count Basie Orchestra, Anthony Wonsey, Dezron Douglas, and current Head Hunter saxophonist Rob Dixon.

Trumpeter Joe Tondu was involved with Fox Jazz Fest for many years and is a McKay admirer.

“Marlin’s unforced blowing style and affinity for graceful melodies reflects the influence of his two favorite trumpeters, Nicholas Payton and Tom Harrell,” Tondu said. “His love of Hard Bop makes him a natural choice to present jazz to listeners and aficionados both young and seasoned.

Pianist Mike Kubicki has played with McKay in two of his FJF appearances.

“Marlin and I met almost 10 years ago. A drummer that I was playing with, Mikel Avery, recommended him,” Kubicki said. “We established an instant rapport based on our shared interest in and respect for the hard bop tradition.”

“He strives for excellence – in his arranging, his composing, his improvising, and in the show that he presents. He’s a passionate, hard-working professional. Others are noticing, because Marlin has been playing with a number of jazz legends these days.”

As far as McKay’s most outstanding attributes as a player, Kubicki said, “He never tries to overplay. He goes for quality over quantity. His tone is warm and relaxed.”

“As a composer,” he continued, his composing is sophisticated, a modern mix of rich jazz harmony and rhythms. His tunes are very original sounding, yet they are friendly and navigable to the improviser. The movements make sense, but they are not predictable. And his melodies are memorable. I love playing his originals.”

Not surprisingly, Kubicki likes “The Look.”

marlin-mckay-promo-photo“I love it, but I’m biased because the niche is right up my alley – modern hard-bop, at least that’s what I’d call it,” he said. “He assembled world class musicians from New York City and elsewhere. The musicianship on this recording is on par with anything you’d see from a premier jazz label like Blue Note.”

“His composing and improvising gets stronger year after year.” he added. “What I like about his recordings is that he definitely has a sound, a signature concept – much like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and others did. Each record is different, but they had a compositional identity. And Marlin has developed one – a good one.”

Douglas, Wallace and Wonsey set a strong uptempo groove and Dixon has the opening cut, “If We Must Die,” moving before McKay takes over and plays melodically in a manner that recalls basketball coach John Wooden’s famous quote, “be quick but don’t hurry.” Wonsey adds some fine work on the keys.

The tempo slows on “Lawns” where McKay’s playing is both smooth and exquisite. That style and feel continue on “Rhyne For Lemon Vine,” where additional percussive sounds and Harris’ vibe contributions result in a very engaging sound.

McKay and Wonsey get the funky “Peas in A Pod” off and running to a finger-snapping, toe-tapping rhythm and McKay keeps the fun going. “Mikhael” follows with slow, deep harmonies with each player waiting patiently to contribute something special, a trend that continues on “Far and Away;” as the tune develops, McKay’s outstanding technique comes into sharper focus and Dixon provides some fine interplay.

Harris and McKay have an easy-to-listen to but unpredictable exchange to set the tone for “Easy To Love,” highlighted by Floyd’s Hammond B3 solo. The title tune closes out with a flourish as Harris once again creates an ambience that showcases another engaging McKay melody. A solo by Harris is another highlight.

Overall, the album is both consistently interesting and maintains a signature sound generated by a very good playing. It gets better with additional listens.

Kubicki and Tondu agree that McKay’s persona is part of the appeal.

“Marlin is a warm, authentic, passionate performer of and ambassador for this music,” Kubicki said. “I’m fortunate to call him my musical collaborator and close friend.”

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