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St. Louis Bandleader Ryan Marquez Leads 20 Friends To Musical “Unity” On New Album

Ryan Marquez has explored different flavors of soul jazz with his various bands. His new album is a jazz-pop effort that celebrates St. Louis musicians.
Ryan Marquez
Ryan Marquez has explored different flavors of soul jazz with his various bands. His new album is a jazz-pop effort that celebrates St. Louis musicians.

Ryan Marquez is a man with many musical projects.

The St. Louis-based keyboardist and songwriter has explored different flavors of soul jazz and funky pop with his groups the People’s Key, the Belief Cycle and Fresh Heir. He takes more of a straight-ahead jazz approach with his eponymous trio.

For his latest album, he called in veterans of his bands and other local musicians he’s worked with, or whose work he just admired.

Twenty collaborators contributed to “Saint Unity,” Marquez’s second album under his own name. It’s a celebration of the St. Louis music scene and an upbeat conduit for Marquez’s resolutely positive outlook on life.

“We’re a big family,” Marquez said of his peers in the local music world, “and the cool thing is we’ve spent decades really just supporting each other’s projects, or being in each other’s bands, or growing together. Now we’re in a place where everybody’s got a really good handle on their artistic voice. It’s really cool to see all my friends really coming into their own as an artist.”

Drummer Tim Moore and bassist Theo Harden are the album’s rhythm section, and Marquez plays piano and an assortment of keyboards. They are joined on different songs by guitarists Drew Mantia, Will Buchanan, Matt Rowland and Adam Hansbrough; horn players Scooter Brown Jr., Lamar Harris, Matt McKeever, Ben Reece, Kendrick Smith and Dawn Weber; and percussionist Duane “Jingo” Williams.

Paige Alyssa, Erin Bode, Janet Evra, Anita Jackson and Chrissy Renick take turns on vocals. Carl Nappa, Lenny Mink and Marquez produced the record.

Marquez, 35, moved to St. Louis from Kansas City to pursue music studies at Webster University. He fell in love with the city’s musical heritage as well as its circle of younger musicians putting their own stamp on rock, blues and jazz.

The cover art for "Saint Unity" displays the many collaborators who played on the album.
Ryan Marquez
The cover art for "Saint Unity" displays the many collaborators who played on the album.

The material on “Saint Unity” is a mix of the bandleader’s originals and songs by pop and rock artists including the Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt and Foo Fighters.

“I just wanted to make a record that really was about unity, and was about love, and is really just a celebration of the time that I’ve spent here and the community that I’ve built and been a part of,” Marquez said. “And it’s really just a lot of love.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin spoke with Marquez about the album and his collaborators.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: How did you wind up working with Anita Jackson on this record? I see she co-wrote the lyrics to “Serenity.”

Ryan Marquez: I had heard about her and I had friends who worked with her, but around 2018 or so I finally made it to one of her shows at the Dark Room. And once I saw her perform, my eyes lit up and my heart exploded and I was like: Oh my gosh, Anita Walker is a queen. A queen of voice and a queen of soul, and a queen of storytelling.

And she really has a special gift in the way that she connects with her audiences. I was totally blown away and captivated by her artistry. And so, like a little kid, after her gig was over I went up to her bandstand with my own CD and introduced myself.

She took that CD, and I saw her not too long after that and she said she’d been listening to the CD and loved it, and identified “Serenity” as her favorite song. At the time it was just an instrumental song. That got my creative juices flowing and I thought, I could hear some words to this.

Goodwin: Let’s talk about another song in terms of the match between song and collaborator.

Marquez: There’s a song on the record called “When You Love Somebody,” and it’s probably the most difficult song on the record in terms of just playing it, but also, it was a difficult process to write that song. I was coming out of the end of a long relationship I had been in. Sometimes I would maybe write one line and I’d be in a puddle of tears and say, OK, that’s enough for today. And then I’d pick it up two or three or four weeks later, and write one more line.

Chrissy Renick is one of my closest girlfriends, so she was a safe space for me to just talk about my feelings as I was processing the end of this relationship. She has this beautiful, crystal-clear voice that’s so articulate and so special — the way she can hit these different runs and her sense of harmony. She’s such a technician of the voice but also has this really special spirit that comes through on everything that she does.

I heard her voice so clear as I was writing this. For over a year I’d be like: Chrissy, I’m writing this song, and you have to sing it. I can’t hear anybody else doing it.

Goodwin: And Kendrick Smith plays saxophone on that one.

Marquez: I saw him last with Anita Jackson at the Music at the Intersection festival, and I swear he was on another planet and flames were coming out of the bottom of his sax. I thought he was going to lift up off the stage and fly around the auditorium, because he was just lighting it up.

I told him: You get your ideas expressed through whatever song. You make whatever notes work. A lot of people when they’re improvising they’re running through patterns that they’ve worked on. Kendrick’s truly a trailblazer in terms of ideas and vernacular. He’s just a really great artist here in our community.

Goodwin: That’s the longest track on the album. Did you have to create a little space to just let things cook?

Marquez: Yeah, we did have to create a little bit more space because there’s just a lot of energy. There’s the jazz artist in me but then there’s also the pop producer in me. So I try to find that happy medium. Let’s be artistic and let’s get as out there as possible, but not so far out there that we lose people from what we’re trying to convey.

It is a jazz record, but it’s also a pop record. Drew Mantia played on “Fountain of Youth,” and he said it’s “accessibly out there.”

Goodwin: That’s an invitation. Come on out here.

Marquez: Yeah, it’s like, we won’t lose you. We won’t push you off the deep end.

Goodwin: This is a journey, but there’s room for you too and you can make it.

Marquez: Exactly.

Ryan Marquez Trio plays an outdoor, socially distanced show co-produced by the Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis.
File photo/David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Ryan Marquez, far right, played a socially distanced show with his jazz trio at Kranzberg Arts Foundation's Open Air music series last year.

Goodwin: And that’s something you can get on tape sometimes, with the right artists and the right material.

Marquez: I especially think we captured that on "Fountain of Youth."

Goodwin: The album doesn’t sound overly produced. It has a lot of energy.

Marquez: We wanted to maintain the spirit of jazz, where we felt like there was that raw energy, special moments that weren’t planned or written into the chart. It was a really cool experience. Everybody who came into the studio or sent their parts in through the mail really brought their A game.

I think it was a testament to the fact we had an excellent producer in Carl Nappa. To me, he’s the kingpin of our community in terms of production and engineering. He’s got a lifetime’s worth of experience working at the highest level.

I was really blessed to be able to activate a large group of people and say, I’m making this project and I need you to contribute to the spirit and the symbolism of unity and as a torchbearer for this new movement of sounds and energy that’s birthed off of the Mississippi River.

Goodwin: Do you hear a musical movement happening right now in St. Louis?

Marquez: One hundred percent. In 50 years we’re going to look back at this time and see that this is the inception of that next great movement of music.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.