“Jean and I grew up in church but at the same time, we love Aretha Franklin. We love ’90s hip hop, we love ’90s R&B, we love straight-ahead jazz and gospel.”
During a performance by the Baylor Project, an audience is likely to hear a jazz standard, a drum solo that sounds more graceful than flashy, an original piece based on a hymn and a bit of fire that evokes the John Coltrane Quartet. This far-flung mix of styles often describes a band that tries to appeal to listeners of different styles. But the Baylor Project isn’t simply trying to cross over. This cross-section of music defines who they are.
“When you think about the music — jazz, gospel, R&B, blues —it all comes from the same place, which is the church, the African American community,” says drummer Marcus Baylor, who leads the group with vocalist/wife Jean. “With that being said, it’s like all those elements are a part of us. Jean and I grew up in church but at the same time, we love Aretha Franklin. We love ’90s hip hop, we love ’90s R&B, we love straight-ahead jazz and gospel.” In addition to their admiration for the music, both Baylors have extensive experience playing the music as well.
Before Marcus Baylor graduated from the New School in New York, he had already toured with jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson. Upon completing school, where fellow students included pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, he went on to play with saxophonist Kenny Garrett, followed by ten years with the Yellowjackets. Jean Baylor discovered jazz as a vocal performance major at Temple University, but began her musical career in the R&B duo Zhané, which had a ’90s hit with “Hey Mr. DJ.” After jazz bassist Buster Williams — who instructed Marcus’ at the New School — heard Jean sing at a jazz camp, he encouraged her to move in that direction. Through an extended engagement at Smoke Jazz Club in New York, the Baylor Project solidified their wide-ranging approach.
The group, which now includes pianist Terry Brewer, saxophonist Keith Loftis and bassist Yasushi Nakamura, released their debut album The Journey in 2017. The title came once the recording was completed, with multiple meanings. “We wanted to call it The Journey because this is our first project as the Baylor Project and it’s a collaboration of our individual and collective influences,” says Jean, adding “It’s like the journey to the present, how I became where I am now. How he became where he is now.”
The Journey was released in 2017 on the couple’s own Be A Light imprint. At a time when independent labels often struggle for recognition, the album not only generated buzz, it received two Grammy nominations. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the nominations came in two different genres, Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance. “Man, we feel really blessed by that,” Marcus says. “To be up against Childish Gambino [in R&B] and Cécile [McLorin Salvant, in Jazz]. They’re really great artists. I feel like music is heading in a good direction and I hope our story continues to inspire others.”
The drummer adds that their blend of various styles comes naturally to the group. ”More so than anything, when we create, we have to mentally take down the boundaries and just say, ‘what music do we like and what music do we love?’ And I think with that, everything else just follows through,” he says.
Along with their Saturday night performance, Marcus and Jean Baylor will host a free Jazz Youth Workshop and Seminar at the African American Music Institute in Homewood at 11 a.m. More info on this event can be obtained at 202-841-5753 or Suzanne@ KenteArts.org.
Mike Shanley is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.