The Ascent of JLCO’s Marcus Printup

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“I express my emotions better musically than socially most of the time,” Marcus Printup said.

(Photo: Adam McCullough)

“It’s so easy just to play with her,” he said. “I think the harp fits my brand of trumpet. Her lyricism—even if it’s just one note—it sings. I want my sound to sing.”

Given the particulars of harp technique, Riza, already an accomplished instrumentalist, nonetheless had to adjust her game to meet the chromatic demands of Marcus’ brand of jazz. She did so, appearing on his SteepleChase albums Bird Of Paradise (2007), Ballads All Night (2010), A Time For Love (2011) and Desire (2013), to which she contributed a powerful pair of tunes, “Along The Way” and “Rebirth.” All of which constituted preparation for the couple’s latest album, a duo effort titled Gentle Rain (SteepleChase).

“Of all the records I’ve done, this one stands out,” Marcus said as he sat back and Riza elaborated at their dining room table.

The choice of tunes, she said, came in part “from wanting to describe parts of our relationship.” And the track list includes rough analogs to that relationship’s progression. The title tune—a Luiz Bonfá piece on which the Printups’ sonorous blend is heard to brilliant effect—grew out of Riza’s advocacy of bossa nova early in their courtship. Initially resistant to the idiom’s easygoing swing, Marcus quickly yielded to his wife’s embrace of it.

“I was the one who said, ‘Have you checked out these artists?’” Riza recalled. “With the Brazilian undertones, this represents the beginning of our relationship, the tenderness.”

The evolution of the relationship is captured in the unfolding of a moment, courtesy of the harmonically rich “When He Embraced Me With His Eyes,” a Riza original. By tactically deploying suspended chords and modulations, the tune, inspired by an actual moment shortly after they married, documents the stages of a bonding that can take place while peering into the windows of a loved one’s soul.

“It’s a really deep thing to connect with your partner’s eyes,” she said.

But the album’s deepest moments—ones that brought a tear to Riza’s eye as she gazed at Marcus—might be on the tender “Madison.” The title refers to the name of the child they might have had, had she not miscarried. Opening with Marcus playing solo, the piece closes with Riza doing the same—an acknowledgment, he said, that such an experience is ultimately “a woman’s journey.” Riza explained: “We were in the process of grieving, letting go.”

The Printups have channeled their grief into a joint educational project, I Have a Song Inside My Heart. Using companion literature and visual aids along with sound, the program is about “finding your song through the music of jazz,” said Riza, who worked in childhood education for two years in Georgia and seven at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The project is used in schools in the United States and Japan.

Though prerecorded material is available for use in schools, Marcus led a live band through the program’s paces on a February night on a third-floor stage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. At the event, booked by the Apollo with the participation of radio station WBGO, the band—Marcus, Regina Carter on violin, Mika Nishimura on keyboards, Kevin Smith on bass and Henry Conerway III on drums—was fully engaged in the process of integrating the educational and musical aspects of the performance.

As Marcus took his place, Riza was an out-front presence—moving on and off the stage as she interacted with a room full of children eager to respond to her entreaties. At one point, she encouraged them to describe the emotions suggested by the instrumentalists, who, even as they swung hard, purposefully evoked a variety of anthropomorphic sounds. At another, she urged the children to scat in call-and-response mode. Beyond helping the kids develop their power of expression, the exercise might have unearthed a budding talent or two.

Call-and-response scat also was employed by Marcus on a tune of his, “Soul Vamp,” at a very different kind of event: a noonday concert, four days after the Apollo program, in the atrium of an office building near Newark Penn Station in New Jersey. Produced by WBGO, the concert, part of a monthly series, found Printup leading a quartet of top students and graduates from The Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music and Indiana University before a mixed crowd of aficionados and casual fans. Selling CDs on the side was Riza.

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