The Baylor Project’s Storefront Church Jazz


The Baylor Project’s latest recording is titled The Evening: Live At Apparatus.

(Photo: Deneka Peniston)

Hundreds of chrysanthemums filled the dim-lit room at Apparatus, a Midtown Manhattan design studio where The Baylor Project performed for three nights last May. In this etheric setting, the duo of Marcus and Jean Baylor played from their wide repertoire for a rapt audience largely unfamiliar with their distinctive brand of gospel-inspired jazz. On a whim, they decided to record the event. The pursuant album, The Evening: Live At Apparatus (Be A Light/Motown), would earn them their fifth and sixth Grammy nominations.

“We’d been talking about doing a live album for the year prior to releasing it,” recalled lead singer Jean Baylor in a phone call between DownBeat and the husband-and-wife team. “We hadn’t quite figured out the type of concert, but Marcus kept going with the feeling of a storefront church. We both grew up in church — our fathers are pastors. Some of our influences are different musically, though. I grew up in a Baptist church with mostly hymns, and Marcus grew up in a Pentecostal church where it was very high spirited, with longer services and shout- ing music. So, he thought about bringing the energy of that storefront space to a live concert.”

“The spirit of a sanctified church,” interjected Marcus, the Project’s drummer.

“A storefront — it’s different from a usual church,” added Jean.

Anyone who’s heard the Baylors live might sense that difference, even if they can’t articulate it. It’s the reason that the Baylors’ audiences — including those more used to the still of a design studio — feel moved to clap or call or sing along to their high-amplitude sets of mostly original songs. You don’t listen to the Baylors’ music so much as respond to it.

Since stepping out as an official duo 10 years ago (they’d started playing together in 2000 and married in 2002), their profile in the jazz world has risen swiftly and garnered them some rare distinctions. Each of their four recordings to date has been nominated for at least one Grammy award, for a total of six. They’re the first jazz act ever signed to a partnership with Motown Records. They’ve been nominated for two NAACP Image Awards and, as of this writing, have taken home one. Most impressively, they’ve achieved these honors through their own label, Be A Light, which debuted just six whirlwind years ago.

In some ways, it’s misleading to describe The Baylor Project as a duo, given that the roster of collaborators on each date is as large and thrilling as their sound. Their 2017 debut, The Journey, included almost 20 prominent side musicians, among them harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Dezron Douglas and their regular saxophonist Keith Loftis. Their 2021 release, Generations, featured an orchestra of diverse musicians almost three dozen strong, with guest spots for singers Dianne Reeves and Jazzmeia Horn, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, drummer Jamison Ross and pianist Sullivan Fortner. Even on the live album, five side players joined the Baylors onstage, three of them horns to round out the rhythm section.

Of course, during the pandemic, such large-scale undertakings weren’t possible. So, the couple used a simple quartet on the original “Sit On Down,” a de facto PSA urging people to stay home during the first COVID-19 lockdown. The remotely recorded single, something of a social media phenomenon, was Grammy-nominated for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for 2020.

Quick as their rise seems now, the pair spent decades earning their bona fides, mostly on separate, though intersecting, paths. Marcus, a New School jazz alum, held down the drum chair in the Yellowjackets from 2000 to 2010. And Jean, a graduate of Temple University’s vocal jazz program, sold more than a million records as one half of the popular neo-soul vocal duo Zhané in the 1990s before moving on to a solo career.

Given the breadth of their musical experience, the smoothly syncretic sound of The Baylor Project comes as a surprise. There’s no bouncing from style to style just because they can, stretching to reach as many listeners as possible. Rather, the two pull from the improvisatory vocabularies of gospel, R&B and the blues to write intentional songs that appeal as much to the spirit as the ear.

This intention is freely apparent when Marcus plays an extemporaneous solo, alone onstage or before the mic. Two of these long-form solos have made it onto their records: “Voice Of The Drum (Interlude)” on The Journey and “Call Of The Drum” on The Evening — the latter tapped for Best Improvised Jazz Solo Performance this year. What stands out about these breakout solo compositions isn’t virtuosity, though they do have that. It’s how meditative they are, and how subtly they prepare the body for the deep listening that follows in the set, whether live or recorded.

“For me, one part of [this type of soloing] is about standing on the shoulders of those that came before us, you know, like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach,” Marcus said. “But then there’s being able to tell a story, and that’s really what it is ... . My family taught me to play music where the inspiration is from my love and my relationship with God.”

For the Baylors, this inspiration arises in real time and space — when they’re onstage and interacting with an audience spontaneously, leaving room for serendipity to happen. Jean recalled an exchange with Buster Williams, earlier in her career, in which he explained how this experience is, in fact, a defining characteristic of jazz.

“He said jazz is about creating problems for yourself and then figuring out how to solve them — a little stressful,” she quipped. Stressful, yes — but also generative.

“I feel like really understanding the roots of this music, where it comes from, born out of the African American community,” Marcus continued. “That spontaneous feeling, like in a sanctified church, was always there, with the hardwood floors and the stomping. This is what happened at Apparatus — the spirit of that. When you listen to the old Cannonball Adderley albums or Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, you can close your eyes and visualize what that feeling was back then. My personal goal is to try to capture those moments, and at the same time to push the music forward.”

As the Baylors’ duo career gathers momentum, pushing the music forward involves ever more audience contact. This year, so far, such contact includes the Blue Note Cruise in January; the Grammy and NAACP awards in February, plus a residency in Marcus’ hometown of St. Louis; then more dates in the U.S. and internationally, including their first tour of Europe this spring.

“This is going to be a busy year,” Marcus observed. “But the way that we create music and [come up with] our next endeavor is based on us traveling, really being around people. Jean and I are both producers, so we can always go into the studio and create. But our albums are really made offline.”

They admit the demands of their expanding career can be exhausting, and perhaps some relaxation during their “offline” moments would be nice.

“That did not work out [this year],” Jean said with an easy laugh. “But, although we’d very much like to take some time, we’re just trying to stay ready for whatever opportunities may come up. Because such is life as an artist.” DB

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